Return of the Mummy: The trials and triumphs of a life post-maternity leave by Jennifer Z. Paxton

There are frequent conversations focused on the impact that having children can have on a woman’s career progression, especially in academia. That is not what this blog post is about. On the other hand, there is also much positive discussion claiming that women can ‘have it all’ and that children should not, and are not, a barrier to women ‘making it’ in their career. This is also not what this blog post is about. Instead, this post is about me and my own personal battles with motherhood, my career and my own sometimes destructive mind. Some of this may be applicable to others and some of it may not, but I hope at the very least that it helps to open the doors of communication for anyone who ever felt like I did and to let them know that things can, and do, get better.

As I write this I have a 3-year-old daughter at home who I can quite confidently say has definitely brought me more joy than I ever thought possible. I feel extremely lucky to be her mummy (or ‘mum’….she’s a big girl now, y’know!). I’m happy in my job, I am progressing in my career and feel like I have established some kind of work-life balance that works for me and my family. I’d say I’m pretty content overall.

I didn’t always feel like this though. No, I’ve had dark, dark times – the ramifications of which will stay with me forever. You see, the real issue that nobody really talks about is what happens once you go back to work after leave. The guilt that ensues due to parenting demands and then the anger that often comes with it, especially as you begin to navigate your ‘new normal’, is huge.  I’m sure that this is not unique to scientific or most academic careers, but for me, trying to strike a balance in my life between my career that I had strived so hard and long for, and the consequences of having a baby led to a huge imbalance and a very difficult time for me and my new family.

As I mentioned before, many discussions focus on the effect that maternity leave can have on your career: can you really leave your post for 6-12 months and not expect a decline in productivity? Not really, no, and that’s no surprise. This was something that I could accept and actually made peace with quite early on, probably even during my pregnancy. I thought I was ready for it and could afford to take the time out. Then there was the period of 10 months maternity leave where as much as I tried to forget about work, it was always in the back of my mind, niggling away like some forgotten dream that I had abandoned. “Things will get better when I got back to work”, I told myself, just hoping that everything would pick up where it left off.

But nobody warned me about what would happen when I returned to work and a stressful, busy and sometimes all-consuming career, and had to juggle both work and family life simultaneously… as well as battle with some pretty difficult feelings and new, often strained, relationships at work and at home.

As you can probably tell by now, I found the transition back to work much harder to adjust to than the leave itself, and I felt like I was failing at every opportunity, both at home and at work. It has taken me many, many months to re-establish myself in a healthy balance and I can honestly say that as bad as things got (more about that later… ), it’s made me a much better scientist, teacher, and most importantly, wife and mum.

So, in an attempt to smooth the rocky road for anyone else in my position, here are the things I wish I had known when I went back to work after my maternity leave. Strap in folks, it’s a bumpy ride.

  1. You will feel completely torn in two – I guess this first point one is pretty obvious but it is worth mentioning. I was actually really looking forward to my return to work. I felt like I needed to get back, to re-establish myself, to focus on tasks that required more brain power than singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. But no matter how much I longed to have a bit of my adult, pre-baby life back, and a role that does not just include ‘mummy’, those first days (and weeks, and months… ) were difficult. Not just difficult, but confusing and testing and really quite dark. I think this is where the intense feelings of guilt started for me and a real decline in my own mental health… but again, more about that later (see point 3).

  2. You will be tired – Yes, tired – oh so tired! Unless you have a child that is an expert sleeper and sleeping comfortably from 7pm-7am each night, there will be days where you are just so exhausted you just can’t think straight. I remember feeling like I was dragging myself through treacle just to focus on one task! This isn’t just for the first few weeks either, as now, I am still getting woken up in the night by a wee person who won’t sleep in her own bed, or who decides that 5.30am is a sensible time to play. For full disclosure I should also mention that at just 4 weeks into my return to work I was also unexpectedly rushed to hospital for major surgery that didn’t go to plan, and so tiredness following that and a return to full physical health also took a lot of time and delayed my eventual return to the workplace even further, but that is a whole other blog post!

  3. Your mental health is fragile – This is really the main purpose of this blog and I suppose, for me, this was something I really wasn’t expecting so late in my motherhood journey. Post-natal depression is now a well-known condition and thankfully, taken seriously amongst the medical profession and society for the most part. Post-natal checks with the Heath Visitor always checked in on how I was doing as a new mum but gradually those visits reduce and the check ins stop. I went back to work when my daughter was 10 months old and so depression, from a post-natal perspective, was just not on my radar.  However, coming back to work, even on my part-time basis, and trying to wrestle the control of my own projects and responsibilities back was tough. It was really tough. And here came the guilt, the niggling guilt that started small but eventually took over into every conversation or decision I was making.

    I felt guilty that I’d been on away maternity leave and had not been at work, making progress and in control of my own projects. I then felt guilty for feeling like I shouldn’t have been on maternity leave at all, as if I resented my daughter for coming along (which I didn’t). I felt guilty for not being around for my research students and then guilty for putting them above my own family. I felt guilty for only being in work part-time and then guilty for not being with my daughter full-time. I felt guilty about everything and not just guilty, but inadequate. Like I wasn’t doing enough of either role to be doing it well and, in fact, was just failing at everything. I did manage to get back on the right path after a full diagnosis of anxiety and depression but this took a lot for me to accept. “I’m fine”, I kept telling myself, but eventually, after too many horrible days and too many scary and now unimaginable thoughts, I got medical help.

    I managed to overcome this terrible period in my life while working full time and not taking any sick leave. This was actually contrary to medical advice at the time, which strongly encouraged me to take some time away from work but I knew deep down, that being away from work was what had caused this imbalance and for my recovery, I needed to feel wanted, useful and confident in myself and my own abilities.

    It wasn’t easy; there were good days and bad days. There were days I would finish a meeting and after acting ‘normal’ all the way through I’d then need to hide in the toilet for half an hour to calm down (yes, really) and there were days where things would go well.

    I realised during this time how much I needed praise and reassurance from others to make me feel like I was doing a good enough job and how damaging that was for my own mental health. I began to realise that I couldn’t go through life needing praise from others to succeed, especially in academia, as criticism and reviews are part and parcel of the job. For every grant application success or paper acceptance there are 5 more rejections landing in your inbox. Does a rejected paper make you a bad scientist? No. Does a grant application rejection mean your ideas are bad?  No. I had believed the opposite though and was really at the depths of despair with my career and my own self-worth. Gradually, though, I began to believe in myself. My confidence grew, I stopped letting others belittle me in public and eventually, I wasn’t acting the part any more – I was just being me. A me I was comfortable with and to tell the truth, if I look back to where I was, very proud of indeed.

  4. You’ll feel like an imposter (and perhaps consider quitting altogether) In hindsight, I should have been more prepared for the old imposter syndrome to appear; it’s something I have struggled with before throughout my PhD and PostDoc but here, it just took over completely and nobody and nothing could help me believe I was worthy of anything. I (wrongly) questioned my own ability to be back at work. Worse still, I questioned if I was the right person to be doing the job (I was). I stupidly listened to colleagues who told me I was looking tired (I was), who kept asking if I was missing my baby (I was) and who wouldn’t communicate with me about my own projects (not cool). As I have since discovered, there was probably some element of them wishing I’d never returned at all, but now I can see that it was their insecurities and not my inadequacies that fuelled that fire. At the time though, I couldn’t see a way forward and seriously considered leaving my job altogether.

    My stubbornness prevailed though and thankfully, a chance conversation with a colleague shocked me into the realisation of what a dark place I had ended up and to this day, I have him to thank for sending me on my road to recovery and the continuing support to re-evaluate my position in the workplace and see my contributions to the wider team. To think I was so close to leaving a job that I love and that I’m good at, just from viewing the world through grey-tinted spectacles is a scary thought, but it’s a good reminder to me to be thankful for the job I have and never to take it for granted again.

  5. Your colleagues will view you differently – As much as I didn’t want this to be true, eventually I realised that I was viewed differently by those around me. In good workplaces, returning mothers can be supported and find it a real pleasure to be part of a team that values family and the importance of work life balance, especially where you have chosen to work part-time or have a phased return. In other cases, people may be viewed as the ‘part-timer’, and therefore ‘less committed’ member of the team. I experienced both these attitudes from different colleagues and found this a very difficult transition, again contributing to my guilt, my feelings of inadequacy and my overall decline in mental health.  I always felt on the outside and found it difficult to assert myself in the wider workplace.

    One tip I would share is to try to communicate as much as you can with those that you work closely to stay up-to-date on workplace matters. Don’t apologise for the time you have away from work, but instead, for example, suggest that staff meetings are held on days you are in work or that major events/communications are disseminated via e-mail to you if you are not present. Knowing what is going on, even if you are not physically in the building 5 days a week, will help you to feel like you are part of the team again. I also think it is important to say that you will view colleagues differently too. You may have less time for the dawdlers or those who like to indulge in idle chit-chat/moaning and that’s fine. Don’t apologize for prioritizing the things that are important to you and your career and don’t be bullied into engaging in practices that do you (and actually nobody… ) no good.

  6. You will become very efficient– It’s not all doom and gloom and, I must say, this was one of the biggest positives about returning to work as a mum. Once the horrendous period of depression, anxiety and self-loathing passed, I found a real rhythm to my work days that I am still enjoying today. I worked smarter, not harder, just differently, in an attempt to balance the major responsibilities of both my job and my family (which I managed to achieve eventually). No longer did I have the luxury or being available to work on into the evenings and I never felt justified in enjoying a long, lingering cup of coffee in the afternoon or a non-work-related chat with a colleague as perhaps I once did. I needed to leave to pick up my daughter from nursery or to get home before bedtime and so for the hours I was at work I was completely focused and got things done. I worked so much more efficiently with the help of some very simple tricks that I still use today.

    One of the best things I started to use was a to-do list, written on a large pad of paper on my desk. Pretty obvious you may think?… but I used to keep ALL my tasks in my head and let me tell you, it got very overwhelming pretty quickly. I think I had always resisted writing my to-do list down as I thought it would: 1) take me far too long and take time away from all the things I needed to get through and 2) would actually end up sending me into a blind panic. But one day, when things had reached a pretty low point, I tried it and I will continue to do this for as long as I am working. Physically crossing off an item on my list, however small, with a satisfying line through the task itself is incredibly rewarding and for me, it really helps me to see the progress I make on a daily basis. As the pad sits on my desk, as soon as a task comes into my inbox that I need to deal with, it goes on the list and it doesn’t need to take up any more time in my head, or my worries, until it is time to deal with it. Like I said, it’s a simple thing but for me, it has been transformative. So much so, in fact, that when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced and I knew I’d be working from home for the foreseeable future, it was the first thing that I picked up to take home with me.

  7. You will learn when good is good enough – My perfectionist nature has always been my strength, or so I thought, until it became my downfall. Sure, when I had time, I could afford to pour everything I had into my teaching, my research grant applications, my papers, endlessly tweaking them for hours on end to get them ‘perfect’ and to be ‘the best’. Until the next day, of course, when I would invest more energy into improving them again. Looking back, this was wasted energy. Now, I don’t have the time, energy or brain power to devote to making endless edits to documents or spending hours composing the perfect email. I have a daughter needing collection from nursery, I have a family that I want to spend quality time with. So, I learned to lower my expectations. Sometimes just being good is good enough. Conserve your energy for the big things – the papers, the grants, the new lectures – those things that really matter. But for everything else, every administrative form, every e-mail, every task that has the potential to suck away the hours of your day – just do a good job, you don’t always need to be perfect. Get the task done and cross it off your list.

So that’s my story and I hope that my honestly and candidness will help others who may be feeling similar to this. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I wouldn’t change what happened to me. As I said before, as bad as it got, the renewed energy, prioritisation and confidence I have gained from surviving that horrendous time in my life is a big positive. I’m proud of my work and I’m proud of my family and I hope that when my wee girl grows up, she’ll be proud of my decisions and my career too.

Since returning to work full time I’ve pushed forward with the things I wanted to do but never thought possible before.

I’ve won research grants that I would never have had the confidence to write before, I’ve expanded my public engagement work by writing an anatomy book (Anatomicum) with more to come, I’ve received Teaching Award nominations and recently got promoted to Senior Lecturer – a position that two years ago seemed a million miles away from my grasp. Work is important, but family comes first, and I’m proud of myself for finally recognising this. I feel very lucky to have had the support to allow me to recover and to find a balance that works for me. I really hope that anyone reading this can find that too.

Jennifer Paxton

Jennifer Paxton has a background in anatomy and bioengineering and received her PhD in Tissue Engineering in 2009. After spending 4 years as a PostDoc, she moved to the University of Edinburgh as a Lecturer in Anatomy and Principal Investigator of her own research group. Here, she leads a team investigating methods to engineer musculoskeletal tissues in the lab for replacement after disease or injury as well as teaching anatomy to medical and science students. She also loves public engagement and has published several public interest anatomy books. Jennifer lives in Edinburgh with her husband and young daughter.