When I first started my degree in chemistry 43 per cent of the undergraduates were women, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a leaky pipeline until the last year of my PhD. We’d just got married and we were thinking about starting a family, and I did this mental flip, like two steps ahead, and I found that in a department of over 200 only 5 people were women, and of those 5 women only 2 had young children. That really left me feeling like, oh, is this even possible? You know, is academia even possible for me? I conjured up this image of being like a part-time professor, and it just didn’t look like it even existed. I was on that career conveyor belt. I’d spent four years doing a PhD and I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do next, and my colleague recommended me for a postdoc position.
Although I showed up for the interview, although it was my CV and credentials, I really felt like I only got that position because of my contact rather than anything that I was… You know, anything I’d achieved myself. When I took that position, it really left me feeling like I needed to prove myself, prove my capabilities. Two weeks into that postdoc, a 12-month contract, I also fell pregnant with my first child, Oscar. Immediately I had this feeling of, you’re on a 12-month contract, you’ve got no security, you’ve got no job to come back to. You need to make sure here that you get this contract extended. It left me feeling like, ah, there’s about 100 people waiting in the wings ready to take my place.
I’m going to become the go-to person to get things done. I’m going to say yes to everything, and I’m going to make myself indispensable, and that’s exactly what I did. It was only a couple of weeks before I was about to go on maternity leave where, as people do, started to offer me series of advice. One person said to me, ‘I was on my fellowship when I went on maternity leave. I got a nanny and I returned to work after two weeks.’ I go, okay. Someone else said to me, ‘I wrote my fellowship on the first 12 weeks after giving birth. They don’t do much for the first 12 weeks.’ I think, okay, I should be doing something with this maternity leave. Then someone else said to me, ‘Make maternity leave look like it never happened on your CV.’
What that really said to me was, I really need to make the most of this maternity leave. Five days after giving birth, and a one-litre haemorrhage, and I was very green under the eyes, I had that laptop open. I was back up and working with a baby next to me, sending out requests to project partners across Europe, sorting all the budgets and the reports for the impending project reporting period. It was absolutely madness when I look back on it, but I continued to operate in that way for quite a number of years after that. this is me on my second maternity leave. This time I’ve got two under two tag-teaming me at night. I didn’t just take one project with me on mat leave. I just continued with all my projects on mat leave, and although I’m smiling in that picture, I can remember so clearly that my face was so achy it hurt.
I started to look around and think, how are people doing this? How are all these academics doing this? Maybe I’m deficient in something. I went to the doctors, had all the blood tests, not deficient in anything. It turns out that I wasn’t deficient. I actually had an excess of something, and that excess is what I like to call superhuman mode. You know, superwoman, superman, superhuman, that running on adrenaline, 200 miles per hour, saying yes to everything, go, go, go, 100 per cent all of the time.
It wasn’t really until I found myself awake one morning, a really hard lump in my left breast, that I really stopped to pause and think what impact that’s had on my health. Two weeks later I was at a radiographers office, and as they ran the probe over that little pea sized lump they said, ‘It’s not what you think.’ They said, ‘You’ve had a lymph node that’s migrated from your armpit to your breast tissue. Have you been really poorly recently?’ I said, ‘No, not poorly.’ as I was walking back to the car I remember thinking to myself, I’ve been going too hard for too long. Something has to change. I have to change and I have to be different in some way. I
t took me another couple of years to really find how to go about doing that, how to be different, how to manage my time and energy and how to really put my own priorities first, and that’s how I ended up in coaching.
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