Motherhood And Career Disruption

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I am preparing to apply for a highly competitive research fellowship, and one of the sections of the application is entitled “Career Disruption”. So this week I have paused to scrutinise my CV critically and without fear, and to contemplate how becoming a mother is reflected in my application and how motherhood has affected my career. The feminist in me desperately wants to believe that a woman, a mother, can be completely equal to a man, or a childless person. The realist in me is quietly beginning to think this is not exactly the case. I write with more questions than answers and I hope you will all excuse my rambling. I would also love to hear from you about what you think, and how it’s worked, or not worked for you. Because I am truly passionate about being able to combine parenthood and a career, but roadblocks like this highlight the struggle this will entail.

You see, I have leaned towards leaning out since having my first baby. First of all, there are those glaring absences in my CV. Any lay person could tell me all the reasons why I’ve only been to one conference and published one paper over the past five years. Duh! Let’s start with maternity leave for 7 months, during which time sleep was non-existent, much of my time was spend breastfeeding and then pureeing vegetables. Then there is the part-time work, during which I juggled raising a toddler and running a clinical trial. Just seeing my 300+ participant trial through to its completion was enough of a challenge, without the added pressure of writing papers. Conferences? Long gone are the days when I could fly off at the drop of a hat, or a click of the mouse; any conference travel now is carefully debated for weeks – is it a child-friendly country? Will we have to cross time zones?

So I begin to address my career disruption by writing “Despite taking a total of fourteen months maternity leave and converting to a part-time PhD for three years, I have managed to…” But why the Despite? Do I have to excuse my shortcomings? Will they give me a sympathy vote? Or do my deficiencies clearly indicate that my life circumstances are not conducive to competitive research activities, that I am the lesser candidate because of the realities of my personal life? That if I am not publishing frequently and presenting at numerous conferences that I am of lesser calibre than my counterparts? And what of the parents who do manage to keep up this hectic academic life, with all its travel and late-night and weekend writing bouts, how do I compare to them? (Not very well, obviously). Does becoming a parent necessarily mean that you are less competitive, less worthy because of your other commitments, and ergo, are all successful academics childless?

Clearly this is not so, although my current role models, as much as I admire and respect them, do not juggle parenthood and academic life the way I do. One is childless. The other, bless his heart, told me that when he did his PhD, he locked himself in his study for 12 hours a day writing, while his wife brought him his meals and cared for their children.

I refuse to believe that one can only be successful if childless or lucky enough to have a stay-at-home spouse. I value my husband’s career aspirations along with mine, and we are trying very hard to “make it” simultaneously. But, if we have few examples to follow, few trail-blazing couples to show us the way, how will we make it? We do not want to compromise on quality time with our young children any more than we currently are (they go to daycare four days a week). We share childcare and domestic duties as equally as we can, and heaven knows there are SO many domestic duties. At the end of every day, I am tired. I feel as though I have two careers – being a mother and being an academic – ok, let’s make that three, because I am also still a practising GP. And yet I chose all of this – even parenthood. And I am so so lucky to be able to do all three, don’t get me wrong – I just wish it wasn’t quite so hard to be perfect at any one of them, let alone all three. I overheard myself say to a colleague that I wasn’t going to take on a new activity because it would be “another thing that I suck at”. Yes, those words came out of my mouth.

So, as I battle on, trying to pad out my CV (it’s actually much fuller than I ever thought… I do say yes to stuff that I can do from home, I mainly “lean out” of the stuff that needs me to be somewhere after hours or travel), I am also contemplating what my CV really should look like.

My skills include:

Dealing with toddler tantrums while planning the week’s meals on my iPad, responding to my four-year-old’s repeated requests for ice-cream with a firm “No” and NOT LOSING IT. Ie. I can multitask AND have enormous control over my emotions. (Sometimes).
Being able to re-arrange schedules, dropoffs, pickups, within 90 seconds after getting the phone call about a sick child. A complex algorithm of how long the expected recovery will be, who is working from home on which day, and the criteria for exclusion from daycare, is automatically computed in my neuronal networks, yes, within 90 seconds.

And a realistic, no bs description of career disruption:

I have had not one, but two children. One did not sleep for almost twelve months. The other did not sleep for six. I breastfed both, until 12 months and 8 1/2 months respectively. Both have food allergies. One has a heart condition. I have spent many a day “off” ferrying them to specialist appointments, caring for them while sick at home, and many nights comforting them. Yes I have not published many papers over the past five years. But for many months, getting through the day was my only priority. I have managed to balance raising my beautiful children with a decent amount of academic work. I just don’t work the hours I used to – I am a lot more efficient with my time. I have learned to appreciate the value of a good nights’ sleep. I am also more passionate about my career than ever before. I have a daughter and I want to be a role model for her. I want my son to learn that women can have careers and still be present in the home. I have learned a lot about work-life balance and this is still a work in progress. I have determination (I have sleep-trained two children…) and grit (I didn’t quit the PhD even when my eyeballs were hanging out of my head with fatigue. Things are better now). I am a mother. You should know what that means – I’ve survived the toughest test of all.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you experienced a major career disruption? Did you find your way back? Have you leaned out, or leaned in?

15 thoughts on “Motherhood And Career Disruption”

  • Dr. Carolyn, one of the reasons I started to follow you, was when I read your article about a stay at home mom vs a working mom. It really touched me, my comment here makes me feel unimportant for the reason that I don’t have a career or a higher education, nonetheless I was so touched by your writing. One because I was pregnant with my second child when I read that article and the other because I had been in the workforce for ten years ever since my first son was two months old and I totally related to the working mom. The guilty working mom I should say, the one mom that felt tears coming to her eyes every time she talked about not being able to spend the first years with her baby for financial reasons.
    The one mom who’s biggest dream was to be the stay at home and be part of that babys life for at least the first years of his or her life. I would be so jealous of moms that coud do that and I wonder how they could afford to do so. I also wondered how professionals like you, were able to manage their personal life that seemed so perfect and thought, well money is part of the equation, they have money so they can pay for quality daycare or you know other luxuries, I thought!
    Then after following your posts I realized that professionals have it as hard or harder than the common individual, but here comes the real life changer for me.
    After staying home for six months know with my second baby, a girl. After eleven years of discarding the idea of having a second baby for the reason mentioned earlier of not being able to stay home with a baby.
    Here is my new perspective on stay at home moms, my long aspired dream is now a reality. My husband and I decided that we can do with less so that I can stay with our baby, but here comes reality check.
    First I felt totally dependent on my husband it took me a while to get over that feeling, I had been independent for the past twenty years. Now it’s that feeling of not being appreciated as a wife or mother like nobody gives you that feeling of accomplishments I used to have when I worked.
    It can get tedious and overwhelming to be home with a demanding baby and between running around my eldests school schedule.
    So, my respect to all the stay at home moms, and I have only been doing this for six months. On the other hand the emotional satisfaction of being able to do this is priceless.
    The big question here is can women really be able to juggle their career and motherhood?
    From your writing, I noticed you don’t talk a lot about being a wife and that is also equally demanding, relationship quality time.
    Honestly, I think you are doing a great job and if my opinion on the matter counts.
    I would say from my experience, is that we can’t have it all, at least not at the same time and everything comes with a price tag and no guarantees in life, no guarantee that we will be successful parents is the scariest.
    Having a successful career is probably more likely depending on how much we strive to do so.

    To finalize I think one of the biggest sacrifices is to be able to spend the most time possible with our kids for at least the kindergarten age. These are the fundamental years for creating a solid base on our kids life, whether this means putting off any personal or career goals. My imput is that there can always be time to follow up on a career, goal or hobby. Once you have kids you can never go back and fix what you did wrong or what you have missed out on and if this helps they grow so fast that this thought is what gets me thru my stay at home days.
    The thought that tomorrow is a promise and before I know it my baby will be more independent and this will be like a dream or (nightmare) ;)
    I can say this because my eleven year old is growing so fast that I some times wish he were a baby again.
    I hope my comment gives helps or gives you more to think about, I also believe a lot of this affects every women differently according to personality. There is definitely the over thinker like me, or the more relaxed mother that some how manages to have some piece of mind with just ignoring situations easily.

  • Hi Lorena. Thank you very much for sharing all of that. I hear everything you are saying. I do not think it is easy for anyone at all. That is a big reason for the post on working and stay-at-home mums. (Also, I know the realities of staying at home with babies very well.) Then there is the question of whether or not women should pursue a career. Lots of people have different ideas about this, to be sure. Some, like you, feel it is important to be home until kindergarten. But from what I hear, it doesn’t get “easier” once they get to school! However, as you say, the fundamentals must be laid early. Which is why I am still experiencing a “career disruption” despite being “full time” working and studying. I have changed my working life considerably to suit my young family’s needs. I “lean out” while still being in the workforce. All this leads to a kind of ongoing career disruption – which does not bother me until times like this when my life is under scrutiny and I have to live up to others’ expectations (not mine! I never put pressure on myself to write extra papers…) Lastly, I know some women took offence to the fact that I talk about a career and being a professional. I do not in any way think that not pursuing a career or putting it on hold to have children is any less admirable than being a working mum (professional or not). In fact, I have to hand it to all SAHMs. It is the hardest job in the world. And yet, I do also feel that I get the emotional rewards of being a mother. I might not be with my kids all hours of the day but I do go to bed knowing I have been present for a large proportion of their day. (But if I wrote more papers… went to more conferences… I wouldn’t be). I am rambling. Thanks for following xx enjoy your little baby.
    Ps. I don’t write much about being a wife, it is true. Some things are best left private and sacred. xx

  • Thanks, for your reply! For yours words of wisdom on relationship..
    As long as you put you expectations first then, you are doing a awesome job!
    For a moment there it sounded like you were a little frustrated and hard on yourself. No offense on my end on professional or nonprofessional careers. I also give it to the SAHMs. We all have different callings and I’m thankful for Drs like you especially opening up to other women and being realistic about real life scenarios. Thanks again I enjoy following your posts! xx

  • OH Lorena you are right, I am feeling a bit frustrated and starting to be hard on myself! But I think all mothers (and parents) do this at some stage. No matter what our situation is, parenting is the hardest 24/7 job, and the most important. We’re all just doing the best we can! I wish you lots of joy with your little one xx

  • I enjoyed this post. You write about career disruption, and I. being a SAHM, wrote about whether or not I’ll be a positive role model considering I don’t have a career.

    I think Mothers experience a roller coaster of emotions. We always want what is best for our kids, even if the best is not considering the ideal by others.

    I understand you and sympathize with you on your “career disruption.” I understand the momentary frustration and the lingering questions that follow. Even if I don’t currently work. But, I am a blogger with dreams of becoming a writer, or professional blogger, but right now that’s on hold due to my other dream of raising my son. I have moments where I wish I could do both. Raise him the way I want to and continue blogging. Right now it’s one or the other. I’m not sure if it’s about what is more important to me at the end of the day. My son or writing? I’m sure many moms who are career oriented would say, both. And I could not blame them. Dreams should not die because you have children, but I do think that life changes drastically and one should definitely be accommodating to their kids, the way you have been. You are more than just accommodating by the way. You are admirable. I can see and understand your battles in all your posts. I agree. The time spent or not spent with your kids you’ll never get back. And as the book “Just 18 Summers” emphasizes, it’s only 18 years for most of us, until they’re off to college. So when I get that itch of why am I not writing more, I see my son and remember I don’t have too much time with him. And I go to sleep at night with no regrets.

  • You are not less competitive. In fact, I would view you more competitive. Not only have you established a medical career (which is no small feat in itself), you have a successful marriage, you have managed to do some academic work, and you are raising two children. These are all incredible things. The fact that you have done them all moves you to the top of my list. It is easier for the childless person, male or female, to apply more time to their career. Do this make them more successful? ABSOLUTLEY NOT. Your priorities are different and your idea of success and happiness is different…not less. I too have struggled with being a working mom. I had my first child during my third year of general surgery residency. I was used to long stressful hours of being working for 30+ hours at a time, but nothing could have prepared me for the exhaustion of staying at home after my son was born. My career disruption lasted only six weeks. On the first day back to work, I felt like the most horrible mother in the world. How could I leave my six week old son with a stranger? Needless to say it was a terrible adjustment period of severe guilt. The struggles of having a surgery career, marriage, and a child has forced me to make decisions that sacrificed time from one to put toward the other…from having to rely on family to care for my sick child, to failing the oral step of my certifying boards, to not giving my husband the time he so deserved. I have made “mistakes” allocating my time in some people’s eyes, but I have done my best and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am still learning as well. And now that I am two weeks from the arrival of my second child, I have decided on a career change into a subspecialty that will be a pay cut of over $200,000/year. But as the other commenter said, my husband and I have decided that we can do with less to get more. More time with my family, and that is my priority now. Does making less money make me less successful? Does not passing my oral boards make me less successful? Does not staying home with my kids make me less successful? No. I am as successful and competive as the rest of the mothers, surgeons, and wives. My priorities may be different, but I am not less. And neither are you.

  • Oh Carolyn, thank you for this post; it is so well written and reflects what I think a lot of us experience when we have babies alongside building and sustaining careers.
    My daughter was born almost six months ago and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be taking maternity leave through her first year (especially as we’ve been in the US where average mat leave is just 6-12 weeks). Taking time off does mean compromising my work, including pausing my practice, which will take time rebuild once I return to work next year, and deferring a Masters. I think it’s worth it, but I am sometimes plagued by the “am I good enough / am I doing enough” feelings that come from doing work i.e. baby-raising that is oftentimes not valued as ‘actual work’. I recently took on a small amount of freelance writing almost to prove that I’m still contributing (what IS that!?!) which, theoretically, I can do around the baby… but she is still so little and so demanding (not a big sleeper), and as a result I’ve found it incredibly challenging to manage what is a relatively small flow of work. Case in point: even writing this reply has been interrupted several times, as the baby’s teething at the moment and subsequently fractious. My husband is really involved and a very hands on Dad / partner, but he’s also a busy early career academic with an astronomic workload… there is no way he could/would take an extended period of leave from his work without feeling that it would have negative consequences. It’s a hard juggle!
    For what it’s worth, it sounds to me like you (and your hubby and kids) do exceptionally well finding a balance that works for you – where you don’t have to completely compromise your career trajectory (which is important) nor time spent with your little ones (which is vital). I always enjoy reading what you have to say and find it inspiring to hear about your experiences and outlook.

  • Hi Linjen. Thank you for your really thoughtful comments.
    I fully agree with you, I think what we all want is to live without regrets. Especially, as you say, because the children are only little for such a short time. So I am, as you can tell, trying very hard to live without regret first and foremost in my personal life. The impact on my career, well, we cannot deny it has an impact, but I know what fills in the holes in my CV. It’s life and love. xx

  • Hello Kathleen! Welcome to motherhood and to a life of juggling writing, academia, and well, life! I do remember what it was like in those early months, it did come back to me very slowly, and by about eight months I could wrap my head around some form of “work” or study once or twice a week. It was very very hard though as mine wasn’t a good sleeper either (try two half-hour naps a day from eight months…) I do also feel in your words the pressure of accommodating your husband’s career. It’s really quite something that you’ve committed to some freelance work at this stage, and I completely understand the “am I good enough” feeling. You are more than enough! Enjoy your baby, as difficult as these months can be, there is something really very very very special about your time with your first baby when it is just you and them. (And something very very difficult too). xx

  • Dear Carolyn,

    I read this and thought: SNAP! Last week I wrote a similarly themed post on being a working, researching mum and the kinds of choices we and our partners make based on our multiplicity of commitments, dreams and challenges: .

    My ideas about ‘career’ have changed since having children (now 2 and 4). Where once I had quite a linear, upward-moving view of my career trajectory, now I see it as more of a meandering path. As we wander along, sometimes we stop to reflect on where to go, considering alternative less-traditional choices, veer in a different direction, follow a trail of wildflowers, or machete our way through thick jungle. It’s a more flexible possibility-filled way of looking at where career might go, based in the belief that I want to be both a good parent and someone who leads an intellectually-stimulating and difference-making life.

    Thank you for your post!

  • Well hello Deborah!! Such a pleasure to “meet” you – I feel a very similar sense of SNAP! We seem to almost be living parallel lives although sadly, despite being 2 years into my PhD as well, I am nowhere near your impressive 77,000 words. I absolutely loved your post on work-family fulfilment and I have just started reading Crabb’s book and there is a LOT of head-nodding going on as I do! All the best for the last year of this wonderful PhD journey of ours. Mine has always been a meandering career path, interestingly – I’ve said “yes” to opportunities along the way and found myself in academia; now I am facing the prospect of committing to a career that is rather more linear than I am. Yet, I’ve had lots of different insights since spilling my guts on my post – including that my family need me but my career doesn’t. Lots of fascinating thoughts on that one, to be sure. Thanks for your comment and for your post x

  • Thank you for sharing this personal and poignant story Carolyn. I am a year into my PhD and at 32 know that becoming a mother before I complete is highly likely, so I am gleaning stories and experiences of others where I can. Most are honest and heartfelt and do not sugar-coat the realities of juggling (new) parenting with academic life. I don’t yet know where this journey will take me, but like you I get frustrated that career progression and success still does not recognise the worth of parenting and the ‘transferable skills’ (yuk!) that you gain along the way. I have already decided that my family will be a priority over any paid job, but it will be hard to tame the ambitious and determined career dragon I have been nurturing over the last ten years. I admire your grit and determination, and so should any worthy employer. I noticed this post is a few months old now so I hope your family and career are both healthy and happy.

  • Hello Heather, I hope all is going well with the PhD. I still struggle with the problem of maintaining the “research output” balanced with my personal and family needs. But I was going to say that having a baby in the middle of a PhD is certainly not impossible to manage (I went on my second maternity leave at 9 months FTE, just after confirmation!!) There really doesn’t seem to be the “perfect time” to have babies :) I hope you never have to tame that career dragon of yours, long may it breathe fire! You may just have to put it on a rein every now and then… On a positive note, there has been a move towards institutions in Australia recognising “career disruption” in academic careers, so at least there is some recognition of how our output should be assessed “relative to opportunity” (I love that term). All the best with the PhD.

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