A Scientist’s Journey from the Lab to ParenthoodFeatured

My story is a little different from the usual motivational narrative that as a woman in this day and age, you can “have it all” – a high-powered career and a beautiful family life.

Rather, I’d like to highlight something that is often overlooked in these well-meaning encouragements: some women find they do not want to have both of those at the same time.

Yes, of course we can. But do we actually want to?

This is a question I struggled with daily for a year and a half after returning from maternity leave.

Managing expectations while expecting

For my entire adult life, I set ambitious career goals for myself. Being raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet taught me to value my independence.

I was a double major in college and then completed a PhD, followed by postdoctoral research, and ended up at an innovative biotech start-up that was on the cusp of bringing its cutting-edge technology to market.

My role as a scientist on the protein engineering team was extremely hands-on, consisting of running experiments in the lab every day. I was used to long hours in the lab and enjoyed this type of work, always excited to explore new ideas to improve our projects.

Within my first year of working there, I got pregnant. It didn’t slow me down in the lab at all. In fact, I remember being 7 months pregnant and still in the lab until after dark one night checking my bacteria cultures.

In my mind, I would come back after a few months of maternity leave and pick back up right where I left off with my research, becoming an accomplished scientist as well as a loving and attentive mother in parallel – it’s really funny looking back on it now. And then, when I laid eyes on my son, everything changed.

In between meetings, research projects, and feeding schedules

I spent four months at home with him before returning to work. Running on hardly any sleep with a new pumping schedule to fit in, I slowly integrated myself back into projects.

I knew things didn’t feel right from the start – I missed him all day every day and was overwhelmed trying to maintain his feeding schedule while making it to meetings and planning experiments. I struggled to get motivated by my research in the way that I used to. Everyone told me it would get better with time, so I pushed through.

When he was 8 months old, I stopped breastfeeding, and around the same time, I was given the lead on a big project that would advance our technology far ahead of our competitors. Not having to visit the wellness room every 3 hours did free up some much-needed time in my schedule and I was able to start making more progress on my experiments.

At the same time, my son was starting to crawl, walk, and talk, and I felt sadness every day thinking I was missing out on these milestones. Again, many people assured me it would get better with time.

Before I knew it, it had been 1 year since I returned back to working full-time and my son was 18 months old. One year of missing him all day and feeling a sense of chaos as I juggled taking care of our home and being a productive scientist.

This anniversary forced me to reflect: I was burnt out, and I needed to make a major change for things to improve. I had to face the fact that what I wanted in life had dramatically shifted from my career to my family. My research was no longer my baby, I now had a real baby, and spending time with him felt more important than spending time in the lab.

Learning to embrace shifting identities

At first, I struggled to accept this change of heart. I had worked so hard to become a scientist for so many years that it became a huge part of my identity. It was hard to admit that my identity had changed so dramatically from becoming a mother that “scientist” might not be an important part of it to me anymore.

I loved research and being in the lab; I always had. Why couldn’t I get excited about doing this anymore? I knew I was in a position that I enjoyed before and felt like I needed to enjoy it again. I tried to understand it the only way I knew: by looking at biology.

What I discovered is a vast amount of research on the neurological changes motherhood induces, including some that permanently rewire a mother’s brain to adapt to the increased mental load by developing new behaviors. The changes are so dramatic they are similar in comparison to those experienced during puberty.

Reading the scientific literature on this topic gave me an explanation for my feelings, which allowed me to accept that I was just no longer the person I once was. If my brain had physiologically changed in such a great way, it made sense that my thinking on certain aspects of my life would change as well.

As our company’s yearly review time came around, it forced me to list my career goals going forward. Upon doing this, it quickly became clear that I would need to make a big career pivot. Being in the lab every day was no longer where I wanted to be, I needed the flexibility to be there for my son and my family so I could feel fulfilled in my most important role.

That being said, I knew being a stay-at-home mom was also not for me, as I need my own goals to feel content, and I still very much love working in science and technology. I used this opportunity to voice my feelings to my manager to discuss role changes that would better align with my new goals, knowing that if it did not achieve the results I wanted, I was willing to walk away completely.

Eventually, I made a plan to move on from my research role in biotech to become a science writer. At first, this decision was daunting, but as I sat with it, I became more excited about the challenge of something new and cultivating the work-life balance I desired.

The importance of life check-ins

Now that I’ve accepted this career pivot, I reflect on why it took me so long. Why did I suffer for so long thinking I would magically start to enjoy something that had been making me miserable? I was not prepared for the fact that my thinking would completely change during this process, and because of that I did not make a plan with myself or my manager to check in with how my return to work was going on a regular basis.

My suggestion to any new working moms or moms-to-be is to make sure you schedule time frequently to re-evaluate your wants and needs during the first year and don’t be afraid to speak up to your manager if something isn’t working for you. If you are an employer or manager of a returning mother, make sure to check in with her frequently about how well her role fits with her new lifestyle and help redirect her path if you are able. It is natural for us all to grow and change over time, and it is a beautiful thing!

I really appreciate this - thank you for sharing your story. Even after having two kids, I’m still asking myself: where did my ambition go? And then I beat myself up for not having the same drive I used to (and I miss it! I miss that identity!). It’ll be good to reflect on how I can meet myself where I am now instead of the person I used to be.
I once heard at a women's group talk someone who had just given birth and was feeling a complete lack of motivation to return to work. The panelist to whom she asked the question was further along in her career and family life and recalled also having this moment of returning to work after giving birth, hearing her team argue about head count, and thinking, I just created life. She did say that eventually she got back into work and her ambitions but with a new lens. Hope you can find and be comfortable with the new, parent and career you :)
Thank you so much for sharing your journey! And so glad that you found something that worked well for who you are and your career ambitions and your love for your son.