Maternity leave

I write as my maternity leave is drawing to a close. My child will start with a full-time nanny during the first full week of August, so that I have time to prepare for the start of classes in the last week of August. I am writing this while traveling to and from my first professional meeting since the birth of my child – and also the first time I’ve been apart from my child for more than a few hours.

As an academic at a nationally-ranked liberal arts college, my maternity leave was both remarkably long and remarkably flexible.  I had planned to wrap up the fall semester, enjoy the holidays, and spend January  nesting until my child was born. But instead my leave started unexpectedly, a week before the end of fall classes, when my water broke and my child was born eight weeks before her due date. I officially had the spring semester off from teaching and service. I also chose to avoid significant research and service commitments over the summer so that I could spend more time with my child during her short babyhood. My maternity leave ends with my return to full-time work just as my child turns eight months old.

I was paid by my institution during all this time; all things considered, that’s pretty generous. At the same time, my maternity leave has had raveled ends and porous boundaries.

After my water broke, it was clear i would not be returning to teaching that fall. I worked with the Dean to enlist colleagues to teach my last week of classes and I set up my out-of-office message. Even after my child was born (by emergency C-section), my sense of professional responsibility would not let me leave work ungraded, turn all my grading over to colleagues (though I did get some help), or even cancel a final exam. I spent hours grading while my child slept in her NICU incubator or her father held her. I finished grading one of my two classes by the Registrar’s deadline, the week before Christmas. The other class I would not finish grading until the first day of the spring semester.

While my child was in the NICU, my husband and I could sleep soundly  in our hotel room – albeit waking several times a night to pump – knowing she was in the hands of knowledgable and caring professionals. Of course, that all ended when we brought her home between Christmas and New Year’s. My husband used up most of his limited paternity leave while our child was in the hospital, so we had just one full, very sleep-deprived week at home together. The next week, my in-laws visited and my husband tried (with limited success) to get back to work. That weekend, I finished grading for the other class, while at the same time pursuing help with breastfeeding and a steady schedule of doctor appointments for the whole family.

After all my final grades were submitted, I spent another ten weeks on leave proper, for a total of about twelve weeks mostly off. However, even this was interrupted by many small tasks for which I felt some responsibility: writing a couple of recommendation letters, grading an incomplete, advertising our sabbatical replacement position, applying to participate in a summer Cross-Disciplinary Teaching and Learning Initiative (CDLTI) workshop, triaging email, and refusing a number of other requests.  During these weeks I did not involve myself in routine departmental business, senior exams, reading faculty applications, phone interviews, or indeed, any meetings at all.

This was the most peaceful part of my leave, but hardly without challenges. It took my husband and I a while to arrive at the shift schedule that let both of us get a few hours each night of uninterrupted sleep. Between pumping, bottle-feeding, and working on breastfeeding, I spent hours each day just keeping my daughter fed. Because I was doing just a little work – and that work had deadlines – it was hard to fit it in. Some of these tasks were done while my child was napping in her carrier, but more while her grandmother was holding her.

Though official maternity leave at Whitman is quantized by the course and semester, I had said I would return to work part-time near the beginning of April, and I was ready to, especially since my child was starting to sleep through the night. During the first week of April, I met with our first candidate for our visiting faculty position, attended their sample class, and met with my colleagues to discuss the interview. (That was baby’s first meeting – I wish I had gotten a picture!) I also interviewed three part-time nanny candidates; because I was on leave from work, finding child care mostly fell to me.

During the second week of April, I took my child to see the CS senior project presentation at Whitman’s Undergraduate Research Conference (she cried during the applause and when I asked a question, but I was so glad I went); had the Dean to my house for lunch to discuss the General Studies committee, which I would have been chairing next academic year (fortunately, the colleague who replaced me during my maternity leave later stepped in to save me from this); and met with 9 advisees while my child stayed with her grandparents. During the third week of April, I took my child to the faculty meeting in which the General Studies program was discussed (she only cried a couple of times); met a couple more advisees with child in tow; and observed a colleague’s class while my child stayed with her grandparents. During the fourth week of April, I observed, met with, and discussed another faculty candidate while my child had her first day with a nanny, and also observed a colleague’s class while my child was with her grandmother. In April I also got my email back under control, mostly while my daughter was napping.

You may think I am being petty by listing where my daughter was during each of these events, but it matters. The downside of Whitman’s generous parental leave policy is that I had much more leave than my husband, so that I have been the default parent through most of my leave.

At the end of April, my husband and I flew with our child to California for his 20th college reunion. It was far easier than I feared it would be, and yet I am so glad that our first big trip with her came with a flexible schedule and no professional obligations. My calendar shows me that in April I did not go to CHI 2018 or PERSUASIVE 2018.

During April, I gradually built up to working about ten hours each week. I worked roughly ten hours each week through the month of May, as my child spent every Tuesday with her nanny and every Thursday or Friday afternoon with her grandmother. In May I met with various potential clients for CS senior projects; met with the department to respond to fall enrollments and conduct our annual end-of-year retreat; attended several senior presentations in the Math department; took husband and daughter to the CS/Math picnic; administered the Pledge of the Computing Professional; went to see our first majors graduate at Commencement; wrote a couple of blog posts; attended the final meeting for the Learning Management System pilot project; cleaned out my to do list; set goals for the summer; and made travel plans for the meeting I am traveling to now.

In June, my pace slowed as child care plans fell through. I cancelled with the nanny one Tuesday when my child had her first virus – a nighttime fever followed by nine days of diarrhea. The nanny cancelled another Tuesday when she was sick. And finally, we had a short day for my child’s six month well-baby checkup. I also learned I couldn’t work at home anymore – my child fusses too much if she can hear me but not see me. Nonetheless, in June I wrote a small grant application (now funded); caught up with my colleagues; started writing letters for their third year reviews; clarified the state of the department budget; attended three sessions of an interdisciplinary workshop, led one discussion, and did all the necessary prep work. Most importantly, since my summer nanny had informed me she was not available for a full time job, I relaunched the search for a nanny. We made an offer at the end of the month.

Now it’s the end of July. It’s been a month of travel. My child and I tagged along on my husband’s work trip to Cambridge – this let him stay and work with his colleagues longer than he otherwise would have been comfortable with, and it let me scout out possible collaborations in the area. Fortunately, our daughter coped with the jet lag fairly well (only one really bad night), and also with the upsets in schedule as we dined out more often and much later in the evening than we would at home. I found a daytime babysitter through childcare.co.uk, which let me visit colleagues without baby in tow, including attending a symposium and making a day trip to London. My child did so well with the babysitter that this gave me much more confidence that she will be fine with our nanny when I go back to work full time. Also during this trip, we wrote a work agreement for our nanny and finalized it by email; we signed it two days after our return to the US. At the same time, I also continued to play the role of housewife so that my husband could work full days and we could enjoy the evenings and weekends.

Less than a week passed before we left for my in-laws house, where my husband and child are staying as I travel to the annual LACS meeting. I hosted LACS at Whitman last year; this year it is at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it was my responsibility to chair the meeting. It was hard to be away from my daughter; I finally changed my phone’s wallpaper to a picture of her. It was surprisingly just as hard to pour breastmilk down the drain, as I’d decided it was too much trouble to take it home and I hadn’t thought to make arrangements ahead of time to give it to a mother in need. It was good to spend time as my professional self – and to have one really good shower and one good night of sleep – but I planned my trip to be as short as possible, and I am looking forward to being home.

I have one more week at home with my daughter, and one big project to complete – those letters for my colleagues’ reviews – before our nanny starts on August 6. Stay tuned for a post on the re-entry into teaching, as well as more news of the department.

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