I love blogging, and twitter, and emailing, and even the occasional Facebook check. I’ve always accepted that much of my life is open to the public, and I think hard before I tweet or post about anything too personal. I try to keep my public-facing persona professional and science-focused most of the time (with the occasional whinge about work-life balance or expression of delight regarding the rare Cornish sun) and actually even enjoy managing my online profile*. That is why this particular dilemma has caught me off guard.

I recently (i.e. six weeks ago) had a baby. A perfect, all-consuming bundle of delight. This did not come as a surprise. In fact, I had over nine months to prepare for this particular wrench in the works. I submitted all of the manuscripts I’d been working on – except one; sorry coauthors! – and finished painting rooms in the house and putting up wallpaper. I tried to get ahead as much as I could, preparing for this great conference I am co-organizing on emerging plant pests and pathogens (see you there?), wrapping up experiments, and helping my group so they could get along without me for a few weeks**. I felt more than ready when she came along 12 days late.

The one thing I hadn’t prepared myself for was the decision regarding whether or not I was going to make her presence part of my public-facing persona. Suddenly even Facebook, which I restrict to only friends and family, felt too public to reveal anything about this new aspect of my life. I really enjoy online discussion of women in science issues and the difficulties in balancing work and family life, but suddenly felt uncomfortable with the idea that the discussion would be specifically about me and my experiences.

And then there was the decision about the auto-reply on my emails. I am running really far behind on emails. I mean really far – 4+ weeks behind in some important cases***. I knew this would happen to some extent, but I wasn’t prepared to employ an auto-reply in part because I generally hate them (I’m so happy for you that you are off gallivanting in Timbuktu, thanks for sharing) but more importantly because I didn’t like the idea of everyone who wrote to me knowing that I was away on maternity leave. This just felt too private to share. And surely I would be able to get back to most people within a reasonable enough timeframe, right? (Answer: wrong)

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to equilibrate and think about how to move forward (and now that I am getting much much better at typing with one hand) I’ve decided it’s time to begin sharing. I still will not add an auto-reply to my email and I will probably not post pictures of the F1 any time soon, if at all. But I am finally ready, and indeed excited, to become part of the #maternityleavescience crew. So far I am happy to say that my productivity has dropped – but not perished. The work I am able to do, I am finding that I can do with more focus and even with renewed insight (baby brain, schmaybe brain). I am thoroughly enjoying bearing witness to the amazing role of basic human instinct and to watching a new human being discover the world. I am also enjoying the challenge of rebalancing my life and reprioritizing what I need to do (NSF full proposal, here I come!) And I also look forward to sharing this new adventure – but not too much.

*Probably not something I should admit – nearly as bad as admitting you like to stare at yourself in the mirror. Honestly, I don’t.

**Turns out they do this very well. Almost too well. #askingforafriend

***If you haven’t heard from me, please accept my sincere apologies!

8 thoughts on “To share or not to share

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Irene! It feels good to be open about this now, and I look forward to swapping stories with others in the field. It really makes a huge difference to have such a supportive community.

  1. I appreciate the debate about sharing our personal lives in our professional world, but I am glad that some women chose to do so. Early in my career there was a letter in Science published by a woman basically saying that life as a professional scientist and life as a mother were incompatible. At the time, I remember thinking ‘well shit, I’m fucked’ because I had two beautiful kids that I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) give back. And then I wondered why it had never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a professional scientist and a mum. A few weeks later there was a letter signed by a number of women who argued that their lives were object evidence that it is simply not true that women can’t be mothers and successful scientists. I still have a copy of that letter, on which I highlighted the names of a number of signatories who I had had contact with, even in the slightest of ways, during my undergraduate and graduate career. There was Barbara Schaal, my undergraduate advisor, who kept a playpen in her office. There were postdocs who I had worked side-by-side with as a graduate student. There were women who I didn’t know personally, but I saw attend meetings and give plenary talks with still-nursing babies in tow. I don’t remember having a single conversation about motherhood and careers with any of these women. But clearly the fact that they “shared” their stories simply by living their lives in front of me allowed me to make the choices that I have made. I love being a scientist, and I love being a mum. Both of those elements are what make up the heart of me (oh, yeah, AJ fits in there as well). And so I have chosen to be open with my life for my students. Because you never know who is going to be watching.

    So congratulations! And here is to the wonderful adventure in front of you.

    1. Thanks Trish! I agree that the more open the discussion the more others realise it’s possible – but I also think it’s important to be honest about the fact that there are “costs” associated with becoming a parent. When Angela McLean gave a talk at our women in science workshop a few years back she emphasised the importance of recognising science as a long game. This really stuck with me, and has helped me immensely to fight the guilt of not getting things done at the moment. I hate dropping balls… but I can always pick them back up!

      1. You are absolutely right. I have been thinking a lot about failure recently, both in my personal and professional life. I went to a workshop that featured José Antonio Bowen, the author of Teaching Naked. He talked about how we need to give our students freedom to fail, because that is how we learn. And certainly the tech world thrives on failures. But here in academia, somehow, we don’t share our experiences of failure. It is sort of like the Facebook world, where all your friends share their perfect families, jobs, etc… So I am also trying to out myself constantly, particularly to young women who I think experience failure in a particularly negative way, about my failures, both big and small (lots of balls dropped!) But also to share how I learned from those failures to move forward in a positive way. After all, I owe my career to one gigantic and devastating failure – being denied tenure in my first academic job. So yes, I totally agree that science is a long game and we should all forgive ourselves for not always being on the top of every game.

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