Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology

Motherhood in Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology Sciences

Motherhood in Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology Sciences
Are you a mother in the fields of Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology or Volcanology? Are you about to become a mother soon or have you just started to consider it? How many times have you considered it but thought that it wasn’t the right time? Starting a family can be challenging as it is, but juggling between starting one while managing a career in Academia can be frustrating and hard, especially for women who are still, in most cases, the main caregiver.

There is no doubt that Academia is still losing women between Higher Education and higher academic positions. These are the conclusions from the SHE Figures 2021 and they are expressed in many sectors in Academia where gender equality has been tagged as utopic. There are many reasons why this may be happening, where career precarity stars in the top. The now established longer time between obtaining a BSc and getting a more secure research position, and the lack of life-career stability (with short-termed postdocs in different countries and across continents, forcing women to move and unroot their families) are behind some of these figures. Women about to transition to motherhood start looking for a stable work position more readily than men and are more prone to jump out of the academic path earlier on. While this has been mapped out and unfortunately will still be true in the years ahead, I was particularly interested to learn about the women that are in Academia and managed to become mothers, living now in what has been coined as In-betweenness.

In the last five months I have had the opportunity to talk to wonderful women and mothers that work in Academia in the areas of GMPV Sciences. I have talked to Marion Garçon (35, French, CNRS researcher), Ana Jesus (46, Portuguese, Marie Curie-Sklodowska Fellow), Valby van Schjindel (38, Dutch, Potsdam Research Fellow), Julia Eychenne (36, French, CNRS researcher) and Cristina Talavera (41, Spanish, Research Fellow), wonderful and dedicated mothers and researchers, equally wonderful and dedicated researchers, and mothers. They were generous enough to give me some of their precious time, sharing their experiences and their thoughts about being a mother in Academia. These perspectives are theirs and we all know that these are very personal experiences and thus are not meant to be taken as references, but these are true testimonials of women that are succeeding in Academia even though, for some of them, it has been a tough journey.

Having talked to them a few things became very clear, and one of them is that it is not an easy ride. While some had to delay their maternity plans because they could not reconcile being in the same city as their partners or because they could not establish a long-term relationship due to their precarious work contracts, others decided to not make concessions and start their families either during their PhD (Ana) or first postdoc (Valby). For Ana and Valby their decision was partially anchored on the fact that one had the support of her family (parents) while the other had the support of her partner “who was key” in the process, and of a housekeeper as well (which apparently it is a relatively common thing in South Africa where she was at the time). But for Marion or Julia, there were conditioning factors related to their careers that impeded them of becoming mothers earlier on. Julia did not want to have kids initially because of the “uncertainty with moving a lot, all the time” but when she came back to France, she started to want to, even though she did not have a permanent position. For Marion, having the permanent position was not the key factor but it was essential that she could be living in the same city as her partner. With academics this is not always possible, especially when both are academics. Cristina was the one that waited the longest to become a mother. She was 41 years old at the time I started talking to her, and her kid Ayla was only 9 months old. Cristina only met her partner and father to her child in the UK, after she finally got a permanent position (2018). Before this year, and although it had crossed her mind, it was absolutely impossible for her to have a child. Even after she became permanent, she knew she would be under a lot of pressure due to her probation period, and she was working much more than her official working hours (35h a week) to secure her position. It was only then that she felt able to embrace another challenge, together with her partner, that would not compromise all the hard work and all the sacrifices she had done for her career.


Everything that is wrong in Academia is even harder for parents. It is unbearable for some parents really. Julia Eychenne


Before and after motherhood

To see how being a mother affected their work dedication, I asked them a few questions as to what they used to do before and after becoming mothers. If they worked more than 8h per day, more than 40h per working week, on weekends, evenings, and specific to these disciplines, did long-hours in the lab or fieldwork. It is not going to be surprising to read that before they were mothers, they were working much more than the 8h per day. Julia and Marion were already avoiding working in the evenings or weekends, but Cristina, Ana and Valby were not. Most of them had long-days in the lab (> 7h) to prepare or run analyses. This is the reality we know from Academia and what it is expected from people that are working hard to reach their research and career goals. Once they became mothers, their schedules were terribly impacted and, for most, things changed. Julia mentioned that as she became a mother, she was also transitioning into a new research topic, which required learning new lab protocols and having to spend several hours in the lab to run her experiments.  While she felt she could have used some more extra time to become more on top of her lab work or run her experiments with more ease, her schedule was locked between 9am and 5pm, to leave and recover Danny from his nanny. Marion says that her long-hours in the lab stopped being a recurrent thing, and that, in the first 6 months after Jade was born, she was going home early to spend time with her daughter, even if her partner was at home, at the time, taking care of their child. Most of these women mentioned that it was super important to plan and organise their time to not fall behind and stay productive at work. This meant either opting for compressed hours to have a free day (Cristina) or having less breaks and working more efficiently while at work (Marion). But Ana experienced her maternity differently. She had her first kid during her PhD and the second one was born a couple of weeks after its end. While the first child was growing up, her partner spent a lot of time abroad due to work/PhD. Although she had the support of her family, which she recognises as “essential for her to continue pursuing her PhD”, this implied many interruptions during her working days. She overcame it by working in the evenings and weekends, naming these periods as “her shifts”. This is how she managed and still manages to stay productive while trying to maximise the time she spends with her kids.


The main problem in academia [for motherhood] is that it is full-time, there are few or no part-time options available to new parents (in Germany). Valby van Schjindel


The impact of the first years raising a child in a researcher’s life

Parenting is not the same for everyone. It starts even before childbirth. For some, pregnancy is a period of grace, to others, a period of agony. For some, it is a time of finishing off field or lab work so they can have some quieter time as their babies arrive, while for others it is a stress-free period. Then, comes childbirth. Then, the first months of a baby’s life.

GMPV mothers Marion Ana Valby Julia Cristina
Age 35 46 38 36 41
Nationality FR PRT NL FR ES
Number of children 1 2 2 1 1
First-child age 3 16 6 4 1
Maternity leave duration 2m 6 m, 9 m 3 m, 1 y 4 m 9 m
Baby sleeping well > 2.5 y > 0 m > 2 m > 4 m no
Residing in their home countries Yes Yes No Yes No
Internationalisation before being a mother Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Internationalisation after being a mother No Yes Yes No No
Partner is an academic Yes Both No No No
Family living close by No Yes No No Yes & No
Main caregiver in the kid’s early years Both Yes Both Yes Yes

Summary table of some facts about the women interviewed for this publication.


Maternity leaves are very heterogeneous across the different EU countries, going from only a few weeks to nearly a year. Depending on the income a family may dispose for a nursing school, parents may take different decisions concerning extending or not their mandatory parental leaves. Marion, employed in Switzerland at the time she had her daughter, was only able to take 8 weeks of maternity leave. She was also changing positions and countries at the time, which complicated things. On the other end, we have Cristina and Valby, who took 9 months and 1 year for the second child, respectively. Cristina was really happy to go back to work after those 9 months away. During her third week back to work she said, “I love my job, so I wanted to go back. And it is nice to talk to adults and not just about nappies all the time”. This is the feeling generally expressed by academics that took longer parental leaves. When I saw her for our last interview, towards her third month being back to work, she had another perspective on the subject “because of breastfeeding, immunisation, teething, etc, if people can have a 1-year maternity leave, they should take it”. She even added, “start taking the baby to the nursery a month before going back to work”, as she felt that her work and herself were impacted a lot by illnesses that ramped up when her baby got exposed to more kids.


Most academics that I know, they postponed having kids at least to after their 30’s or mid-30’s because juggling parenting and the stressful and precarious academic life is very challenging. Ana Jesus


One of the things that I identified as having the greater impact in how they dealt with going back to work after the maternity leave was the sleeping patterns and how much rest they were getting. Marion and Cristina were the ones suffering the most with sleep-deprivation. “As I was leaving my office and going down the stairs, I was forgetting where I was going” or “I had to make sure I was [mentally] present at the time I was locking the [car] door”. As they recognised, they felt exhausted, sleep-deprived and experienced some memory loss. For some, this lasted for a few months, for others a bit longer. This exhaustion was also behind the lack of capacity to focus for long periods of time at work. Valby, mother to a 6- and 4-years old, feels that “my brain is not the same anymore”. Since she took a longer maternity leave for the second kid, when she went back to work she felt less impacted in her ability to work, when compared to the first one “I did not feel very productive going back to work then”. On top of the hardship of parenthood, every woman experiences the hormonal, physical and mental changes differently. Some women feel more fragile after giving birth, possibly experiencing postpartum depression or severe exhaustion condition. The way the academic world is designed, women that suffer after childbirth with any condition lack a safety net; if they cannot go back to work, to producing papers and applying for grants, their careers are at a peril. At the end, as Valby puts it “it comes down to how much you are willing to do [and self-sacrifice], because at the end, it will mostly affect you and your career, not others”.


How becoming a mother has changed how they work and their productivity

Something that is not often recognised is that these in-betweenness women managed to continue working in Academia or continued being successful in their jobs because of their self-sacrifice spirit and very strong resilience. Motherhood did not come to them without compromises. Marion mentioned how she had to continue working during her maternity leave because she had to prepare for her ERC interview. Juggling between grant proposals, job interviews, planned lab or fieldwork and becoming pregnant to have a baby require a strong discipline, good organisation skills and/or a family to back you up. As I talked to these five women, I got a sense of self-discipline that was enhanced by their will to be both great mothers and academics. Cristina told me, “the best thing that happened to my life was having the baby”. While sometimes she felt frustrated, because she could not progress as fast as before in her work, on the other hand she felt like “she was having a life” and now she was starting to have a different perspective on the amount of extra hours she was putting for work, “we are really not recognised by the extra, unpaid work we do”, so she is improving the balance between her work and personal life. Julia said something that really stroke me “having a kid brings time constraints but also a rhythm, because it forces me to work more productively in the time I have” and added “Danny makes me happier and he gives me another strength, so I can work even when I am feeling tired.”. We recognise that many people only self-sacrifice that much if they really believe in what they are doing, and to work through exhaustion says a lot about how much they love their work. At the same time, she also admits that committing to deadlines is now an almost impossible task, especially during winter when illnesses are more frequent, and when she is forced to constantly leave work. Remarkably, except for Valby whose partner is also not an academic, these women without a partner in academia are usually the ones taking the responsibility of keeping their children at home when they are sick. They attribute this fact to their flexible working hours. However, this implies that they need to make time, at other times, to finish their work. This balance is better attained when both partners are academics, as both have the same working hours flexibility.


In Switzerland, they [ETH] have day-care, restrooms, and dedicated rooms for families to use with their kids. They have invested on their facilities. Marion Garçon


It is hard to measure the impact of motherhood on their productivities. They all recognise that there is a clear impact on the number of hours they can dedicate to work compared to their peers that do not have dependent relatives. They have seen their number of papers reduced or their ability to establish new collaborations or apply to grants affected, but there are other factors that can enhance a drop in productivity. Ana and Valby have singled out the general lack of funding as one of the main perpetrators on their progression. On the other hand, Valby and Marion mentioned the impact of Covid in softening their returns to work after their maternity leaves: “I did not do fieldwork or go to conferences, but no one was going”. It becomes hard to distinguish the impact of one or the other on their production and ability to travel. Yet, Valby highlighted that she was able to attend more conferences following her second maternity leave because they were held online, something she recognises she wouldn’t have done if they had been in person.


“One of the unwritten conditions [of Academia] is that you work all the time, that you have no working hours. But as a mum you need working hours.” Cristina Talavera


“I have refused keynotes because I don’t want to spend that much time away from my daughter”

“It didn’t even cross my mind”

“I wouldn’t have gone if they had been in person conferences”

“I don’t want to spend a lot of time away from them”

“I started rejecting review requests, it was too much”


If you have written grant or fellowship proposals, you will have seen how research dissemination is valued by panels. Some of us know that important connections and networking happens at conferences. Some of us are still going to conferences when looking for the next, much needed job! Others rely a lot on collaborations to access research labs and facilities. What you see in these testimonials is that as parents, their availability to travel to attend conferences was impacted. Ana and Valby, who have fixed-term contracts, mentioned how they feel encouraged by their partners to go, but also how going made them feel guilty. Ana, now mother to a 16- and a 11-years old, travels a lot due to her MSCA Fellowship and to access the labs she requires for her research. Quite often, she said “she is treated differently from her partner”, who is a man, in the way that she is asked by other people “if it is difficult for her to leave them behind when she goes?” while he was never asked such a thing. Society still holds this perception of women as the core of a family and refuses to admit that women are equally allowed as men to be successful as parents and as professionals. She admits that this behaviour is intended to feed a culture of culpability, where “women are not allowed to pursue their work aspirations”. To her, it is also an offense to men, as it questions their capacity to take care of their family if the mother is away. While luckily not all academics will be faced with this sort of behaviour, most acknowledge to have seen hints of lack of empathy at times. Occasionally it may come with an email from a collaborator reminding of a paper that is due but not ready, a chat in the corridor about an unanswered email while you were on maternity leave, a co-worker making a comment about your working hours or the disappointment in someone’s face when you do not step up to a managing role, because you try to prioritise what matters to you the most. Julia puts it as, “everything that is wrong in Academia is even harder for parents”. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Julia and Marion mentioned that a healthy work environment helps a lot and can make the difference. Julia said, “I work a lot with other women, so they know what it is like, and they are very supportive”, while Marion mentioned “here [LMV], there are many young researchers with families, which promotes a healthier family environment”. Indeed, in Schools/Departments where most of the staff are more senior, way past their early years of parenting, the level of empathy towards new parents and how available they may be is different. It is vastly referred to in the literature, how changes in first-time parents are greater than in more experienced parents, and that a more pronounced change (psychologically and behaviourally) is seen in women rather than in men as they transition into parenthood. Academics facing similar challenges will be more empathetic than others who are at different stages of their careers, and subtilities between gender parenting perception are also present. This implies that researchers will have a more positive experience when transitioning into parenthood if their research institutes have younger staff and a healthy gender balance.


With motherhood comes some unforeseen changes

While it is true that parenting can influence research work, it is even truer that parenting changes man and woman. Sometimes these changes are truly profound, in the way they envisage their future or forcing them to re-think life, while at other times it may come with the realisation that some things are no longer possible, or they come at a very high cost.

I followed Cristina closely as she adventured back in her work following her 9-month maternity leave. In her third week being back at work she was quite optimistic and really enjoying the fact she could think science again. She planned things well so that when she would be back, she wouldn’t dive into a stressful work schedule. She knew she would have to stay at home with Ayla 2 days a week, due to a lack of place in the nursery, so she set up 2 days working from home. She was thrilled going back to work because she loves what she does. But then, her daughter started teething, and at some point, she also got a complex ear infection. During the following 4 weeks, I saw how much more exhausted Cristina was feeling. At some point she told me “the sleepless nights are piling up, I have been tired since the day she was born” and we even joked about her exhaustion background being already so high that it was already difficult to detect if a given week had been worse than the previous. She soon realised that going back to work added an extra duty to her routine. After her daughter was put to sleep, a new task fell on Cristina “I have to prepare her things for the next day”. As her partner is less available because he works and studies at the same time, she was running most errands and working more flexibly to accommodate this new routine. But this eventually started to take a toll on her. She realised that working from home with her baby was challenging, especially as she could only really focus on her work when Ayla was napping, which only happened a bit more than an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. Towards the end, and as her daughter was able to spend another day at the nursery, she decided to work compressed hours, allowing her nearly 1 day off on Friday. In this way, she was feeling more in control of things at work, while also being able to take care of her daughter, without having to stress about having to work from home, on Fridays. These struggles are real, the juggling and the compromising, and co-workers, colleagues and friends seldom perceive these changes and how they affect the ability of these women to do certain things, even things they wish they could still do.

Ana told me how she had to decline an invitation to apply to a very good Fellowship position at a time when she had no better job in Portugal. She did it because she was considering her family needs before her own. Valby realised that perhaps “Academia is not what makes me happy anymore” and that “my family comes first now”. To Cristina it was the realisation that it is fine to work less hours and channelising your energy to “something so beautiful as raising a daughter”. She says this, while acknowledging she speaks from a privileged position of having a permanent job. But she knows things at work cannot be the same as before. Julia mentioned that she has been saying “no” to many things now, and perhaps missing out on some opportunities, but she chose not to do those things. Becoming a mother is an important part of who she is now, and it also requires time. She was doing this even before she got a permanent position. But she remembers of very extenuating months, having to apply to jobs and not being able to think very clearly at times or being prevented from working those extra hours. She said, “I feel like I have two jobs or at least two lives: a work life, where I feel like myself, I can focus on me, and a second life, where everything is about parenting.”. This is the in-betweenness where these women live now.


Academia: take action!

One thing that is very clear from talking to these women is that they can see that regardless of what they did before, of how successful and competitive they once were, that their production decreased during the first years of their kids’ lives, and it is hard to recover from it. Some even say they fear it a little bit, the “falling behind”. The sleepless nights, the endless hours they spent either at the doctors or at home when their kids fell sick or just because it makes sense to spend time with their children in the evenings and weekends, all of these things have had an impact on their work. Less papers, less availability to travel for long periods of time to strengthen collaborations, fieldwork or accessing labs, general exhaustion when going through sleep-deprivation, which impacted their brain capacities, etc. As it may be, they are all happier now as mothers. They see their kids and families as an inspiration to do better, to follow their aspirations.

We should give researchers the opportunity to embrace another side of their lives more easily. It comes down to us, as a community, to find new ways, better ways, to support families in Academia. This could be by offering small research grants to academics (e.g. main caregiver; single parent; expatriated; etc) in the first years of their kid’s lives, ensuring that academics who are more impacted would have priority and some incentive to continue working on their research, while also raising their children. As Marion realised that she was not as productive as before, this feeling was eased by the fact that she has an ERC securing her, with the possibility of having students, a postdoc and enough funding to do her research. This is the sort of security which should be accessible to more academics, as this is one of the fears and anxieties behind deciding to go for parenthood. Marion equally referred that ETH is finding a great way to support their researchers by offering nursery and spaces in their facilities to families. Similarly, Cristina mentioned the existence of a more affordable nursery scheme and on campus at the University of Edinburgh. There should be more Universities like these with a very clear policy and action plan to support researchers balancing their family-work lives. Having day-care on campus is a stress reliever. It can provide that extra hour of work to many parents. But perhaps, as Valby thinks, we should also be considering more part-time research contracts, allowing new parents to have a less stressful and more balanced experience going back to work after their parental leaves. This would need to come together with flexible metrics applied to part-time researchers. At the end, what we definitely need is to be more empathetic towards parents in Academia, accepting that we should be allowed to divert paths from time to time, without agonising about losing the chance of having a shot at nailing an academic position. This implies enforcing more diversified evaluation criteria in job applications and valuing out-of-the-ordinary career paths.

What steps do you think are required for a more parent-inclusive Academia? Have you experienced something similar to these academics? Leave us your opinion and thoughts in the comment box below. Share if you like this post.

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I am a Research Fellow, working on improving petrogeochemical tools using accessory minerals such as titanite and rutile. I am interested to develop tools that allow us to assess metamorphic conditions from detrital minerals and improve our understanding on the evolution of crustal geothermal gradients through time. I love books. I love nature. I love Earth Sciences.

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