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Emily Hards
Careers and professional development, Children, young people and families, Perinatal, Social and behavioural

‘Sometimes I give too much to one, and then the other one suffers’

Emily Hards discusses her experience of balancing motherhood with being an early career researcher working in academia. Questions from Guest Editor, Nina Higson-Sweeney.

03 January 2023

Hi Emily, thank you for agreeing to chat about your experiences of being an early career researcher as well as a parent. I know you are about to start a postdoc, and prior to maternity leave you were lecturing. How do you think motherhood may have impacted your academic journey?

Being a mum has changed everything for me. Initially I was very focused solely on my career, and it was all about what my next steps were and what I needed to do to make sure I could meet those steps. For example, when I was doing my PhD, I took on any opportunity to teach… I would take on anything. But then obviously being a mum now, I have to be really ‘boundaried’ with my time because I just don't have the time to take on all these opportunities and I can't overload myself. And that's something that I’ve had to learn because initially I was saying yes to everything and then this put me off balance as I ended up working too much to try and meet all these deadlines.

Motherhood has made me feel more confident in my work though, because I think, “well, I’ve only got this amount of hours and I want to do my best but it doesn't have to be perfect and that's fine”. So motherhood has given me a clear ‘start’ and ‘end’ point of each day. However, it can be tricky in some ways as when I am working on a project with collaborators, I have to be really clear about my boundaries: I can't always answer an email straight away, and that’s frustrating because I'm the type of person that wants to do that, but it's just about being clear I guess. It can be tricky.

What you’re saying really resonates with me because I’m at a period in my life where I’m considering my future career and parenthood, but I currently take on everything… it sounds like parenthood made you prioritise things. In academia we can get wrapped up in this world and forget about everything else that’s out there.

I was totally the same. I would be taking on too much and then just be like, “I’ll figure it out, I’ll figure it out!”. And then I had children and thought, actually, for me it’s important to be a present mum. I get ‘mum guilt’ and obviously I never had that before, so it’s about balancing that with work. I have to have clear working hours, and I have my work emails on my iPad, not on my phone. When it was on my phone I was terrible because I would be out somewhere or with my children and I’d look and be like, “oh, an email, I need to reply to that now”.

It definitely sounds like you have a much healthier relationship with your work now you have kids. We have briefly spoken about this already, but how have you found balancing parenthood while being an early career researcher? Have there been any challenges?

Talking career-wise, obviously it’s slower. I can’t do the publication volume that I wanted to do, I can't do all the projects that I want to do. So that lack of ‘progression’, if you like, is frustrating and I feel like it does put me back. l have found during my maternity leave that having student research projects to supervise has been a real positive and it’s something that I’m really motivated to do. I really enjoy working with students and developing their research ideas and it also keeps my ‘foot in the door’ which is so important, because children can be all-consuming! Another challenge with balancing parenthood and being a researcher is juggling practical things. For example, if my child is unwell at nursery, I need to take time off to look after him. I do feel guilty about that, it is a constant juggling act. 

Why do you think you find that part difficult, the guilt? You’ve also mentioned mum guilt… it sounds like there’s almost academic guilt versus mum guilt.

I want to do both really well and I also enjoy both so much for different reasons. However, I do feel a constant tug between the two things. So sometimes I give too much to one, and then the other one suffers a bit. For me, it’s always about trying to find a balance and just knowing that you can’t do everything all the time. But inevitably I do feel guilty.

Yeah, and it sounds like from everything you’ve said, it's just something you have to learn to accept, there’s no real solution to that issue.

Yeah, but I think that's something that gets easier with time – it has so far!

So thinking on the opposite side of things, what have you found most surprising or rewarding about being an early career researcher and a mum?

During this post as a lecturer, one thing that's been really nice is that I've met so many different people at work and also broader afield – and parenthood actually helped develop those relationships because when you have children, you do have that natural bond with other parents. Parenthood is quite nice as a means for people to understand you a bit more, and they maybe respect you more too. They're like, “oh wow, you're taking on that as well as that, that’s amazing!”. It’s been quite a surprising and rewarding thing and it's given me more confidence in being a parent as well.

Yeah, and it sounds like it’s partially because – as you say – you have those boundaries now, those lines, and I guess other parents who are researchers also recognise that, and so there’s already this foundation of understanding before you even get started.

Yeah, it’s very supportive. I have found that if you work with researchers who have a family, there’s a mutual understanding there. For example, I’ve currently got revisions I have to do for a paper and I’m sure my collaborators would want the paper right now but I just can’t do it – and no one’s said to me “can we do it right now?”, but I know I need to do it. Every time I get a paper which needs revisions, I always ask the editor if I can get more time and we negotiate. I do tend to submit before the deadline anyway, but I always ask for an extension because you never know with children. I find the time pressures of editing papers stressful though as they are time-sensitive, so it does add pressure.

Yeah, that does sound stressful, but really good that you feel able to approach the editors and ask for that time. We've touched on this, but do you think there are any specific challenges faced by early career researchers who have children in comparison to other early career researchers? I know you mentioned publications.

Early career researchers are at a stage where they're trying to get their career up and running and there’s a lot of competition for posts, especially at the moment. It’s hard because early career researchers have to have a varied CV, which is hard to achieve anyway, and then it’s even harder for ones that have children, maybe because you have taken time out to have a baby/maternity leave etc. However, I would be very cautious about saying that it's harder for those who have children, because it can be seen as a handicap which I don't think it is. Also, other people have other things going on… at the end of the day we all have challenges, and it isn’t necessarily about comparing those with and without children.

What kind of support has been available to you in terms of working in academia with a young child?

When I started my position at Bath as a lecturer, I was literally on campus for a day and then we were in lockdown due to Covid, so I didn’t have to go to campus. In some ways that made it easier to work around my young child as I had a great support network. If I had been physically on campus though, having a space at the campus nursery would have been really essential because it would have been more practical. The support at Bath has been fantastic though – if I’ve needed to change things or if I’ve needed to work more flexibly, the Psychology team have been brilliant, really understanding. I have to say having supportive work colleagues and having a support network at home to manage things is vital in making sure you are supported and able to do your job.

Bath was also really helpful because I was breastfeeding, and I was very clear when I took the job that I am a breastfeeding mother and this was something I wanted to continue doing and I asked if there was somewhere I could express in private. Bath were excellent in supporting me with this. There is a policy that people should definitely make use of if breastfeeding is something they want to do. It helped me enormously because it enabled me to continue feeding my child the way I wanted to and essentially allowed me to continue being a mum at work.

That sounds really good. And just off the top of your head, are there any resources you could recommend to early career researchers that are expecting or have a young child?

I honestly think speaking to other early career researchers or lecturers who have children is the best thing. I spoke to some senior lecturers who have children of a similar age to mine, and they normalised how I was feeling. They made me realise that I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time off to look after my sick child – if they’re ill, they’re ill, that’s just the way it goes. Just talking to other parents in academia is the best advice and support you can get. And also asking, “How are they managing it? How do they do it?”. I think all the things that I do now I've learned from other parents, so I think it’s great to ask questions and even better if you are able to help!

That’s great. So what are your thoughts and feelings about returning to work after maternity leave? I know you've already done it once, but how do you feel about it this time?

I'm really looking forward to it because it will be lovely to get back into work and have some dedicated time to work on my research and develop myself as a researcher. Obviously I am nervous, and it will be a real shift especially with my home-life, but I feel ready for the next chapter now.

My final question is thinking towards the future – what changes in employment policies would you like to see to better support early career parents in general, and particularly nursing mothers?

More awareness about policies and helpful information to support working parents in academia is needed and really important. Parenthood doesn’t feel very talked about, it feels like it’s in a box unless you’re like, “I’m on maternity leave, now what do I have to do, who do I have to speak to?”. Just practical stuff like, “can I breastfeed at work?”. Yes, but I had to ask the question. Just more conversations about it.

About Emily

Emily is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Bath. The aim of her research is to improve understanding and treatment of adolescent depression to benefit young people and their families.