Saturday, November 19, 2016

Science: the land of unpaid maternity leave

My contract ended on September 30, and my son, James, was born on the 10th of November. My first son is six years old. This is my second child, and my second unpaid maternity leave. It is also the first leave where there is no contract afterwards. I am not complaining. I can afford to take time off and be with my children. This is simply a post that summarizes my experience, while trying not to impose judgement.

Dreams and science
I have been working in science for the past 15 years, and felt on the top of the world since. I started research in 2001, two months before the September 11 disaster. My first research project was in grid computing, and our dream was that "the grid", which was made up of remote computers connected through the internet, would be accessible to everyone. In the years that passed, the grid became the cloud, and the dream was achieved. My second research project from that period involved modeling gravitational wave emission from boson stars (compact objects that can mimic black holes and are made up of dark matter-like particles) numerically. The dream there was that gravitational waves would be found, and that models like the one we made up could be constrained. LIGO found its first waves in 2015, and work on constraining various models with real data is underway. So, from a scientific perspective, I am in the unique position of saying that some of what I dreamed of happened. Of course, there were other projects I started later, which still have to reach this dream-like outcome, e.g., we still don't know what dark matter is, and if it is made-up of luke-warm ultralight particles or not, and we don't know much more about neutron stars than we did when I started my PhD thesis. We also don't wear atomic clocks on our wrists and while we have them in space, they don't yet go around in trucks and planes to monitor density changes underground.

The academic environment
In all this time, the academic environment has been surprisingly static. Proposals are written the same way, and the process is even more complicated and time consuming than in the past with fewer positive outcomes. Grants do not, generally, come with money for maternity or paternity leave even in countries where these kind of leaves are the norm. In Europe, countries provide for their own citizens, but most scientists work in countries that are not their own and cannot take advantage of these programs.

There are some very few specific awards on which there is support, but, on average, postdoc and PhD advisors are still in the position where they have no money to provide their staff with if they get pregnant. They also do not know how to handle these situations because there are so few women and no rules and no help. If they are stuck in the position of having a pregnant employee under a contract that cannot be broken, a good advisor mostly allows the person to show up and do what they can when they are able to once they have their baby.  This attitude is a choice and not something supported by the university or grant office. At the faculty level, some provisions have been made for women professors, where they teach less or not at all for some time after having a baby. It helps to be in a university with money and staff to spare.

The reaction at work
I did not mention my pregnancy until it was obvious. So, everyone at the University of Zurich noticed I was pregnant only after I came back from the US in the beginning of September. This was during the LISA meeting. My colleagues congratulated me, and asked how far along I was.

I had an informal discussion during coffee with Karsten Danzmann from the AEI Hannover over a potential position. He also asked me when the due date was and congratulated me over the pregnancy. He jokingly asked if I am one of those crazy people who are back at work a day or two after having the baby. I smiled and stared blankly. He then patted my back and said I should, of course, take as much time off as I needed. My AEI visit was already scheduled for late September. He proceeded to explain why it makes sense that I come visit AEI in person even though neither him nor the other group leader would be there at that time - I would be meeting the rest of the group and their opinion was decisive as well. By then I was more than 34 weeks along, and insurance does not cover travel beyond the 34th week.  I booked my ticket and tried to come.  I am tall and my pregnancy did not show very much, and so I thought the airline might not notice how far along I was. However, Wizz Air refused boarding. I wonder if, in their opinion, it is better to drive or take the train. I did contemplate these options between the moment I was denied boarding, and the moment I canceled the trip. Even though I lost the money for the tickets, it was easier this way. Edward had started school and refused to do homework with anyone but me. It would have been unreasonable to leave him alone and angry yet again. While Karsten wrote me a week after our coffee-break chat that I did not fit in his group, the AEI is still keen in having me visit, and believe I am more suited for an independent grant (i.e., they would give me a desk and a support letter if I brought my own money) than for a regular postdoctoral position.

Fancy, lovely dinner
My postdoc advisor, Philippe Jetzer, honestly said he would not have been able to provide leave if I had been under contract because neither my fellowship nor his grant come with such money. Luckily, my contract was over before I gave birth. The sad part is that he is correct. There is no money for maternity leave on most science grants even in Switzerland. Like in the US, there are one or two very specific awards that come with maternity leave, but the majority of grants do not come with such provisions. I would like to stress that Philippe and our group at the UZH are outstandingly nice people as is Karsten and his group at the AEI. This is simply a statement of the general situation. Furthermore, the day care facility on the UZH campus is so small, it is not available unless one registers on their waiting list soon after getting pregnant or even before that. It is, however, quite prominent on campus and with a beautiful see-through glass window through which one can see the handful of children they care for.

Before I left, my group took me to dinner, and we had a wonderful time. I am still affiliated with the UZH for any research I do for the next 2 or 3 years. This means I can access computers, journals, the library, publish. I can also use the software, etc. While it involves working for free, all this is tremendously helpful. I also have computer accounts at NCSA, which come with a similar kind of affiliation. The AEI in Hannover still say they would be happy to have me visit, which I cannot do easily with a 7 day old baby, but there is always next year with its spring and summer.

Why I will NOT be applying for grants aimed at parents returning to science
I looked at these type of applications with my brother when he was considering re-entering the academic world. We were looking at the Marie Curie action with its CAR program, and we were told that the probability of getting funded in STEM in such a program is less than through a regular program. Basically, like with the UZH day care, they make such programs visible, but the money is so little and the chances of getting funded are so low that it is not worth the time to write the 15+ pages of application. To restrict the applicant pool, they add conditions that enforce no work is published for the period of the leave, which is not something that would fit me. Mihai did apply that year and did not get funded, but I am not up to another such involved application with a baby and two other children to raise. My time is too valuable to write grant applications of tens of pages that have a probability of success of a few percent.

So what next?
Science-wise, I would like to finish the projects I started, and perhaps work one or two more things. It would be nice to be paid for some of this, but I do not wish to be at work from morning till night again while James is small, and Edward and David still need me so much. Even if day care was available, I do not want James to be away from me for most of the hours of the day.

Edward is in second grade even though he is only 6, and David is in 5th grade at 9. They have lots of homework, and catching up to do, which I have to help with.  With Edward, I add multiple digits numbers, solve equations, and next semester we'll learn to multiply. With David, we do powers, systems of equations, and series of thousands of terms. This is the math, but there are also the other subjects that are mostly in a poorly translated German that have to be made sense of + Romanian with its grammar, poets, and writers. 

I have a chicken army: we adopted 15 chickens from the factory farm in October under the assumption that half of them will die. So far they are all thriving. They now have feathers and spend most of their time outside. They come and eat from Edward's hand and we get about 2 eggs a day (total). We also have tortoises, 3 more chickens, terrapins, and a dog. The dog eats eggs, and so we have to make sure we get them before he does. 

There is also other property to manage and lots of people to help and other things to do.

Why do I try to do so many things? Most pressure is self-imposed. I have always felt I have to prove that I am worthwhile and that I am leaving something behind. That something takes the form of an article, a book, a house, a happier child, a happier chicken, a new child, etc. It partly also comes from never receiving unconditional support from anyone other than my mother (and my grandmother when she was alive). For the rest of the world, I keep having to prove that I have non-zero value and I am so tired of these endless proofs.

I try to invest some fraction of what I earn in what I think would grow and/or last. I have done this since I started working. It helped to be living in the privileged side of the world while keeping a relatively simple life-style. I have used cars (16+ years old) with small engines, and never had a taste for eating out, alcohol, cigars or fancy clothes. I do travel. I started taking vacations after having children because they need to see the world to understand it, and because we enjoy it. We will continue to travel some of the time.

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