Navigate your career as a woman scientist at the right pace to avoid physical and psychological burnout, says Komal Atta
I write this as I wait outside my toddler’s summer preschool. It’s the same routine every day — I drop her, she wails, I leave. Later, the teacher reassures me that she’s completely fine as soon as I’m gone.
This is classic separation anxiety. I am overcome by guilt.
As I’m on maternity leave to care for my other (newer) daughter, I find myself with another flavor of separation anxiety — I feel constant pangs of guilt from the work I left behind.
My daughters bring me immense joy. I love spending time with them. But still I get the feeling I’m “under delivering,” “not giving my best” or “lacking dedication to my work.”
As a medical doctor, researcher, and teacher, I’ve been trained to be hyper competitive and conscientious about my career. We’re taught that there’s no room for excuses or delays or slacking off. These days, whilst my main concern is feeding and wet diapers, it all creeps up on me:
Looming research deadlines.
Flooded email inbox.
Students not attended to.
I’m very lucky to be a part of one of the most enlightened and gender-balanced institutes (The University of Faisalabad) in Pakistan. I have support for my maternity leave from my colleagues and administration — and they’re particularly sensitive to the needs of an expectant mom.
To cope with my own feelings I try to take the day slowly. We all live in a fast paced world, where racing for tenure track, getting promoted, and starting clinical work is considered imperative to success. As a working mother the most important thing I’ve learnt is that none of it matters. Or, at least, none of it matters right now.
Success will come at your own pace, on your own terms. I put my PhD on hold for my kids and initially the idea of lagging behind frustrated me, but looking back, I think made the best choice. Meanwhile, look for mom-and-science-friendly options, like day care set ups, part time work or any other options your institute is willing to consider, to make you at ease.
Here are some more things I learnt, which I hope will be helpful to others in a similar situation.
Talk to your employers
Unless you put any demands you have for your maternity leave into words, nothing is going to happen. I’ve found more often than not a solution to most issues does come up — or a middle ground is reached when you’re able to openly discuss with your bosses and colleagues.
Keep a good working relationship with your colleagues and bosses, be an ambassador of your institution — invest your time and intellect and it will pay you back. Ditto for your family and home life. Do not go into either side half-heartedly.
Give work away
Learn to delegate shamelessly. Doctors are egoistic creatures who believe that they can do everything themselves and do not need help. We are not superpeople. Help will always be needed and necessary, so do not be afraid to ask. My in-laws kept my baby while I was at work, and I felt immense guilt and “mom failure” for overburdening them. With time, my fears eased out — my daughter grew up and flourished, my family was happy and my work was secure. Some negotiations and sacrifices will always have to be made. Be prepared.
Get into cruise mode
Be as proactive as possible with your work issues, do most if not all your work toiling in the University and come home with an empty mind, so you can focus on other issues. Do not let office politics, which are inevitable; get the best of you. Learn to ignore and be in your own cruise mode.
Bring player 2 into the game
Be upfront with your partner or support system with what you can and cannot achieve, where you need their help and how you feel. Everyday my productivity, mood and attitude dwindle — having a toddler and an infant and bundles of work takes a lot. This is where my husband comes in — building your own support structure is crucial.
Being women in competitive and largely male-dominated science fields, it is up to us to make sure other women know that it is ok to slack sometimes. You can breathe, take time off, go for a vacation. There is only one life and it can’t be run at superhuman pace. Similarly, it is ok to outsource, to share both your work and your household chores. There will always be ebbs and flows where life is concerned and your working life will depend upon how you take these, the key to living well is not to excel — but to relax. A peaceful mind is a productive one.
Dr. Komal Atta is a full time mother, physician, researcher in oncology, obesity and medical education and Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology, and also lecturer Medical Education at the University of Faisalabad, Pakistan.