Special Issue - Never Enough?

Newsletter

Learning to balance an academic career with a growing family is a challenging task, which can leave one exhausted and feeling like they are not doing enough. This article shares a new parent's personal journey to better work-life balance.

An old story goes: as many people, as many opinions. That's why, when I asked several colleagues to define work-life balance, they all had a slightly different answer. In fact, many of them said I must be struggling with mine. It was just a small exercise I conducted after an editorial meeting when we decided on the topic of the December 2023 special issue of the MCAA Newsletter, and I was simply trying to understand if the topic resonates with the audience. However, their responses made me wonder if my balance was actually off.

In modern society, many academics, including me, try to focus on a major career push in their 20s-30s. We all know how competitive this world is, so when you find the topic you love, you should work really hard for it, yes? Chronically overworking, attending many international conferences, taking on extracurricular activities in professional societies to push yourself even further, spending too little time with your family or not being fully present. Does it sound familiar? Well, at least it does sound a lot like my life for the last 10+ years. Although some might find this lifestyle tiring, I actually enjoy it a lot. Every late night writing an article, scanning at the hospital or going on a work trip, I am also looking forward to learning something new, to seeing the results of hard work that has finally paid off. But as much as I enjoy it, I'm also happy to have a supportive partner by my side and want to have a life outside of work.

Sasha Ivashchenko
Sasha Ivashchenko

Bionote:

Oleksandrs (Sasha) Ivashchenko is a senior medical physicist at the nuclear medicine department of the University Medical Center Groningen. After obtaining her MSc in applied physics in Ukraine, she moved to the Netherlands to pursue her PhD at ITN Trace'nTreat, based at TU Delft. Subsequently, Sasha worked at various academic medical centers, increasingly moving towards medical research. She is the current editor-in-chief of the MCAA Newsletter and holds a board seat at several professional and humanitarian NGOs, including European Federation of Organizations for Medical Physics and Science For Ukraine.

A few years ago, I finally started feeling that I was getting somewhere with my career. My network was growing, a long-awaited permanent position was secured, and collaboration opportunities were coming in. My inner voice was saying: ”Yes, Sasha, you are rocking it!”. At the same time, I was near my mid-thirties and realizing that this really was the time to start a family. I was at the age where, before I found my “calling” in academia, I thought I would already have a family. But the work, more work, grant applications, paper revisions, and job insecurities happened, and, after a few years, I just got too caught up in the whirlpool of the modern lifestyle in academia.

We were lucky to welcome our son into this world in May 2023. He is such a sweet and joyful beacon of light and I can't imagine our lives any other way. But when I look back on the last few months of my motherhood experience, I wish I could go back and shake myself.

To start with, 16 weeks of maternity leave sounded like an eternity to me, as I have never taken more than 2 weeks off in my life. Childishly or rather stupidly, I was deeply concerned that several projects would fade away, people would forget to involve me, that the momentum to publish our results would pass. Even on the day of the delivery, I texted colleagues to let them know where the files were to submit the manuscript before the deadline, and apologised for the inconvenience. Over the past few months, when I could have just stayed in the moment, I often found myself reading notifications on the phone, scrolling through science journals during night feedings, and staying semi-present.

Image by MidJourney
Image by MidJourney

Especially after going back to full-time work in mid-August, I found myself being stuck in the half-present zone all the time. When I am at home, I feel the responsibility to monitor work matters due to the “less” hard-working work style I have now. I know this isn't the case, but I do feel a little guilty every time I cannot stay late for experiments. At work, I constantly feel guilty about not spending enough time with my family. I want to do more for and with them and give them the best version of me they can get, yet 100% sure that I’m failing at it. There is a feeling of being not enough wherever I go. It is a nagging feeling of self-doubt that is now rooted into my daily life. Therefore, when my colleagues said that I might be struggling with the work-life balance, I thought they were onto something.

As academics, we are trained to excel and thrive for excellence. Publish or perish, push for results, and move forward. At last, now I simply want to stay in the moment and enjoy the life I have, at home and at work. Many of us rush to move forward and forget to “enjoy the ride”, something I’m now learning to embrace. Slowly by slowly, I’m starting to understand that the “never enough” guilt I have, is just the next phase in my personal development.

Just like my little boy, I am now gaining new skills: really learning to say no, setting better boundaries, and focusing only on projects that actually matter to me. When I look back on the last year of my life, in reality, it was probably the most productive year I've ever had. In fact, parenting has pushed me to finally apply all that time management knowledge and task delegation skills I learned in personal development courses during my PhD. Better late than never, right? Instead of jumping 'hands-on' into every project I like, I now teach and invest in people around me. In a way, I'm exploring a new circle of support and collaboration that always surrounded me at work, but that somehow I hadn't seen before. Yes, unfortunately, some of my concerns were true. For example, I get sideways glances from several older male colleagues when I turn down meetings because of breast-pumping time slots in my calendar. However, within a few months, I also gained more confidence by reminding them that we live in the 21st century, the fact that their remarks are inappropriate, about my rights, and the fact that they needed to eat as a baby as well. The last argument, in particular, puts a peculiar look on their faces.

That is why, in the depth of the “not enough” phase many of us will need to go through once in our lifetime as new parents, I just want you to remember that it is a way forward to a more fulfilling and better balanced life. And if you will stumble or struggle on the way, don’t forget that there is a big MCAA community ready to support you.

Sasha Ivashchenko
Medical physics expert
University Medical Center Groningen
o.v.ivashchenko@umcg.nl
Twitter: @OleksandraIvas3

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