Caring for a newborn and academia: my experiences in the USA and Australia

My household is like a small branch of the United Nations. We have 4 Nationalities represented in the family: I am originally from a small island in Southern Brazil, my husband is from a small town in the North Island of New Zealand, my oldest son was born in Louisiana (USA) and my youngest boy is the only one who was born where we currently reside, in Adelaide, South Australia.

I would like to share here my experiences of caring for a newborn while working in academia in different parts of the world (USA and Australia). The support towards families when they go on parental leave is significantly different in both countries, at least in my experience. My goal is to give people some perspective of how the process works in different places, and what I learned along the way. Of course things can (and should) get better, but it could also be a lot worse!

Both my pregnancies were IVF so both were extremely planned, so we could fit in work commitments, holidays, field trips etc at different stages of my pregnancy. I remember planning very carefully when to get pregnant so I could maximize my time with the baby without going financially broke. And I am glad I did so.

I had my first child in 2009 in Louisiana (USA). I was an Assistant Professor (equivalent to Lecturer in the Australian system) and the university where I worked was one hour and a half drive from Baton Rouge, where I lived. For almost 3 years I drove 3 hours every day and taught 4 topics per semester.

Then we decided to get pregnant. We planned to have the baby at the beginning of the summer holidays so I could extend my time at home with my newborn. I presented the whole plan to the Chair of the Department and we agreed on when I would take maternity leave and when my return to work would take place.

In Louisiana and at the institution where I worked, new parents could take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. They can also take sick/annual leave (paid) but in my case this would be equal to only a few weeks of paid leave. I was lucky because we could live in my husband’s salary for a few months, so I took 6 months unpaid leave (long service leave and maternity) plus the summer holidays (which are also unpaid by the way), so I was lucky to be able to afford almost 9 months at home with my son.

Upon my return to work at the University after maternity leave, I was received with an increase in my teaching load. Now I have a new baby, a 3 hours daily drive and 5 topics to teach per semester! I would wake up every morning at 5:30am to feed the baby, then get ready and leave by 6:30am to start teaching in another town at 8:30am. My son was at a wonderful day care so I was only worried when my husband was out of town and just the thought that my child was “alone” in another city would make me really stressed. On my drive back home I would multi-task by pumping breast milk while driving. I had this fancy breast pump, which was a breast pump covered by insurance, that allowed me to pump milk hands-free but I could only imagine what the truck drivers thought when they saw me passing by through their window with the two pumps on my chest, Madonna style. I also had to pump breast milk during the day at work. I used to share the office with a colleague who would kindly leave for a few minutes so I had some privacy while extracting breast milk. I would lock the door and put a “do not disturb” note on it, but that would not stop students from knocking on the door and trying to open it, and a couple of times the janitor opened the door with his keys (also ignoring the door sign) and caught me there with pumps and all. Extracting breast milk became so stressful after I returned to work that I gradually stopped producing milk and eventually had to stop breastfeeding.

This routine lasted one semester and at the end of it I was so stressed, guilty, and feeling like I was going nowhere in either my career or motherhood, that I decided that something had to change. I resigned from my tenure-track, permanent position as an Assistant Professor in Marine Geology. I was devastated and thought for a while that I could not have both career and family at the same time, it was just not for me. Once I got a new position at another university much closer to home and more research/teaching balanced, my professional life smiled at me again.

Fast-forward 4 years and I am pregnant again, but this time we are living in Australia. Again we made a plan, I presented the plan to the Dean of the School, and off to maternity leave I went. This time I did not have to worry about being unpaid. I had about 5 months paid parental leave (plus annual and sick leave), and upon my return to work I was informed that I could go back part-time for another few months (fully paid). This time I also spent ~9 months with my son at home, but fully paid, and then back part-time for 2 months also fully paid. When I returned to work I was offered special arrangements so I could breastfeed in privacy, and a special parking permit so I could go feed my baby at the University’s childcare without the worry of not finding a spot to park my car on my way back. I received regular phone calls from Human Resources asking how I was doing. I did not receive extra teaching load upon my return to work from maternity leave.

What I am saying here is that the Australian system is not perfect, and others’ experiences might be different from mine, but although life changes when kids come into the equation and everything becomes more joyful but also more difficult, women (and men) should not have to resign from their academic jobs to be able to raise a family. Parents should be supported while staying productive at work. And most of all, happy. I should have protested and said no to my increased teaching load in the USA, but I was not supported by any policy and mistakenly thought I should “take it for the team”, which cost me my position at the end anyway. My advice is always plan (if you can!) before you get pregnant or adopt a child, look at your University’s policies for parental leave, know your rights and duties and plunge into the world of juggling family and academia if you decided that it is for you. It is a challenge (and it doesn’t get any easier when babies turn into toddlers and young kids) but I would not have it any other way.

About the Author: Dr Graziela Miot da Silva: Growing up on an island in southern Brazil ignited Dr Graziela Miot da Silva’s passion for the sea and the coast. She is a coastal geomorphologist and oceanographer, with experience and research interests on surfzone dynamics and sediment transport, beach morphodynamics and sedimentology, aeolian sediment transport, and climate change impacts on coastal environments. 

Posted on: 31/03/2022, by :