My experience of lockdown and maternity as a female academic

Dr Teresa Thurston shares her experience as a relatively new PI of looking after a new-born, homeschooling and keeping in touch with her lab during lockdown.

The pressure of the pandemic has been felt particularly hard by parents juggling work and childcare, often with fewer hours available for work. In some households, the burden of care work continues to fall disproportionately on women and this may be true for academia as well; journal editors have noted that early evidence suggests fewer paper submissions from women than men whilst under quarantine.

Every one of us has been hit by lockdown and many people are struggling to juggle work with kids at home. It has been more than 50 days since my family of five begun isolation. My husband came down with a fever and cough and went to bed and I picked up the kids for the last time. After telling our afterschool nanny not to come over, panic hit. I had no idea how I was going to cope. I was still recovering from delivering a 5Kg baby who was just four weeks old and now I was solely responsible for three kids and a sick husband. This was not going to be any ordinary maternity leave.

As I’m sure any parent will tell you, it really is hard to concentrate on anything beyond a mundane task when the kids are at home; they talk constantly, need never-ending help and eat at least seven meals a day. They also don’t understand why they can’t press all the buttons on my computer. This is why, as a relatively new PI with a lab to keep in touch with, I had planned to keep my 4-year old in his preschool and my 2-year old at nursery three days a week. During my previous maternity leave, I kept in contact with my PhD student through email and the odd face to face meeting and together we published a paper and he wrote his thesis. I imagined, something similar this time. I even planned to write a grant application with a collaborator, making progress on the days when the older two were at school/nursery and the baby slept.

At this point, I hear you ask, why on earth I hoped to write a grant application when on maternity leave? The reality is that now is the right time to write the application in terms of my career. I am two years into a five-year BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, and I don’t have a guaranteed position beyond this.  With a paper out in early 2020 I strongly felt that now was the time to apply and if successful, I wouldn’t need to cost in my salary. But then COVID19 came.

After my husband got better and was back at work (from home), he set aside an hour and a half a day, over lunch, for me to work. I easily filled this limited time trying to be there for my lab as the pandemic unfolded. Emotionally, I was in this strange state of play where I felt like he should be doing 50% of the childcare but also understanding that I am on maternity leave, which technically means I’m not supposed to be working. My experience is that whilst it is just about possible to guide a lab through their various projects with intermittent input during a “normal” maternity leave, you can’t just ignore your students and switch off entirely. So, what about a COVID19-maternity? It is certainly different. It’s harder.

With the lab closed, I need to think much more about what my team are doing. I need to work out alternatives for the BSc and MRes projects that were carefully planned prior to my leave but are now impossible to conduct. I need to guide my PhD students in their literature searches and actually read what they are working on! Most importantly, I want to have regular contact with the team, so that I can ask how they feel and try and keep them reassured during this difficult time. I want to do this. We all want to do this. But doing it with a husband who is now working 12-hour days, a young baby, sleepless nights and with children who seem to poo when I’m on video calls, isn’t always easy. Luckily my team are great and have been very understanding but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel constantly guilty. So, is this the maternity leave I expected? No. In most ways (world status aside) its better; I’m spending lots of time with my kids and I don’t have to juggle a full-time job whilst doing that. Instead, I just worry about whether my students and colleagues are OK.

On a personal level in terms of my own career, I’ve actually no idea what being on maternity leave during COVID19 means for my funding. People talk of extensions, but for me, I don’t know if I’ll get this because technically, I’m not supposed to be working more than my 10 KIT (keeping in touch) days. I currently expect the COVID19-maternity double whammy to be more career disruptive than just the impact of one or the other alone. My students are receiving less attention than they deserve, I am not reading shed loads of papers and I am not writing a grant application. I am also not particularly good at home schooling, but I have re-discovered my love of Lego and Brio train track. Like many others, I am in survival mode.

Dr Teresa Thurston (@ThurstonLab) is a research fellow and heads the Thurston Lab at the MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection.

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