Balancing motherhood and academia; initial reflections from an early-career researcher

This post brings reflections and challenges faced by an early-career researcher and mother attending an academic conference with her young baby.

Mariana at MARE
Mariana Caldeira and her baby, Helena, at MARE Conference

We are women, we are professionals, and in many cases, we are also mothers. We should not be put in a position to opt for one or another.

Almost three months after having my baby daughter, I challenged myself to get back to my professional life. I was to present a study I am working on together with the Nippon Foundation-University of Edinburgh Ocean Voices Programme (OVP) and researchers from Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, Pathways Project and Blue Futures, about the importance of cross-cultural learning in ocean governance at the MARE Conference in Amsterdam. I knew it was a huge step as this would be my first time traveling with my baby. Also, as an early career researcher from Brazil with Portuguese as my first language, presenting in English provoked a feeling of doubt on whether I would be able to properly communicate the study’s reflections in a second language. In this blog piece, I share my initial reflections on balancing motherhood and academia as an early career researcher – the challenges, the opportunities and the people and practices that help along the journey.  


Mothers and Academia 

 Before becoming a mum, I had never thought about accessible diaper changing rooms, about how awkward it seems to bring your own child to academic spaces or how parenthood and work could fit in together. My recent experiences lead me to wonder - is there the necessary space and support for an early-career new mother to be present and grow in the academic world? While motherhood is a position of nurturing, suffering and sacrifice (van Amsterdam, 2015), the academic world is defined by a competitive environment, with long hours of work (Huopalainen & Satama, 2019) and a higher rate of production.  

On one hand, as an early researcher, it is important to attend conferences, present my projects, and connect with new people. On the other hand, as a mother, it is crucial to be near my baby, to have time with her, to nurture and take care of her, balancing my two dreams: my professional and my personal life. Nonetheless, the academic world still seems very hostile towards those who try to live in both “worlds” simultaneously.  A survey with more than 8,000 graduate students showed that the majority of male and female graduate students (74% and 84%, respectively) were “either somewhat or very concerned” about the family friendliness of the fields they aspire to work in (Mason, Goulden, and Frasch, 2009 in Huopalainen & Satama,2019). 

Being a mother in academia and academic events means dealing with unexpected situations. Some people can be frustrated to hear a baby cry in a conference room or be averse to their presence in the academic environment. Also, while attending academic events we also face a lack of infrastructure needed to support researchers with babies.  

We should be encouraged and supported to pursue our careers whilst taking care of our children. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data released in 2020, women in academia are a minority, represented by just 30% of the world’s researchers, and the barrier between motherhood versus academia can be one of the reasons behind this low representation.  

 As mothers, particularly when our babies are very young and we are also learning how to parent, we struggle to find a balance between our roles and responsibilities as a researcher while navigating this unexplored world of motherhood. As early-career researchers, we strive to do our best in our fields, present our work, and establish connections that create a path for our future. Simultaneously, we navigate the profound experience of motherhood, dedicating ourselves to nurturing our little ones, embracing sleepless nights and sweet moments. However, a part of me needed and wanted to come back to work, as a way to search for my new identity as a person. Thinking about my projects, aspirations as a professional and my own dreams apart from my family provided a guiding light in that journey. 


Stepping into Academia: perspectives of a new mother in an academic conference 

The opportunity to present our paper in MARE Conference came up and even though I was not sure if I would be prepared to travel and present it, I decided to go.  My OVP colleagues and ANCORS collaborators had a huge contribution to that, as they kept motivating me and encouraging me to go, offering support for whichever form I needed it.   

After weeks of anxiety and anticipation due to all the potential situations that could go wrong, overthinking exhaustingly about the logistics involved in taking care of my baby, presenting the paper, commuting from and to the hotel; the day for traveling finally came. I knew that this was the beginning of a journey where everything would be a little bit more difficult with a baby.  

The very first day we arrived at the conference, I felt a mix of accomplishment with eager anticipation about what to expect. I felt as if I was crossing two distinct worlds: motherhood and academia. The team from MARE Conference was supportive and kind. Not only did they allow my partner to be with me at the conference venue without charging extra fees, but they also provided a separate room where he could stay with our baby while I was attending the conference sessions. I would like to thank the MARE conference group for the assistance! The only session my baby attended was the one where I was presenting. I would leave her with her father in a separate room during sessions, and at times, I would come over to nurse her. 

Despite the support given, I could not help but feel that next time I attend a conference I would be looking for even greater assistance. First, it is important to feel that the atmosphere is welcoming towards a mother with a baby – it is unpleasant to feel that bringing a baby to a conference seemed inconvenient to some people. Despite there being other mothers who attended the conference, there was only one other child present. This number could be greater if there was more support towards families. Secondly, it is important that academic events have the infrastructure needed to support mothers, parents and caregivers of babies and children - such as diaper changing stations and pump rooms.  


Exploring alternatives for fostering greater inclusivity for mothers within Academia 

The academic world should foster equality, inclusion and diversity. We should explore ways of integrating both academic pursuits and motherhood, so they are not completely apart from each other.  

We need to have conferences, workshops, and academic events that are family-friendly, offering the option for parents, and more specifically, women, to balance both roles without feeling the need to opt out of academia. Only in this way we will be able to encourage women to continuously pursue their careers and motherhood.  

During my time at the conference, I spoke about the importance of having diverse perspectives which can guide global ocean governance. While our study focused on cross-cultural learning, this premise also applies to the need to include the voices of mothers in academic demographics. Our contribution to the academic world is enriched by our experience as mothers, tending to have a more holistic view about complexities regarding various aspects that affect society. As mothers, the academic world also has a meaningful impact on our lives, as it can provide the support needed to find our new identities beyond our maternal role. 

Following my experience, here are some suggestions which can act as stepping stones to break the barriers for mothers in academia:  

  • Allow partners and other caregivers to have free access to conferences. 

  • Ensure that the necessary infrastructure at academic events exist - diaper changing rooms, breastfeeding spaces, childcare drop-off, etc. 

  • Record sessions to allow parents to view them if they were not able to be present during the live session. 

  • Discuss, rethink and redesign the belief that early motherhood and research need to be separate. 


I am glad I was committed to presenting our work at MARE conference. My intention is to share my experience and hopefully bring attention to the importance of making academia accessible to mothers and early career researchers. It is necessary to embrace and encompass all the roles women play in society, including the professional and familial ones. I hope that in the near future, women are not afraid of assuming new roles in their environment and that academia offers the support needed for mothers to overcome existing barriers. 

I would like to thank The Nippon Foundation-University of Edinburgh Ocean Voices Programme for giving me the opportunity to be in this conference. Many thanks to Harriet, Marjo and Gail for giving me the support needed and encouraging me to trust myself. I am also thankful to the other OVP friends for all their help and kind words, and also to Dr. Michelle Voyer for the support with the presentation before and while I was there. Finally, I want to thank my partner, for all the support and caring with our child and for motivating me constantly to pursue my career. 


  • Bos, A. L., Sweet-Cushman, J., & Schneider, M. C. (2019). Family-friendly academic conferences: a missing link to fix the “leaky pipeline”?. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7(3), 748-758. 

  • Bosanquet, A. (2017). Academic, Woman, Mother: Negotiating Multiple Subjectivities During Early Career. In: Thwaites, R., Pressland, A. (eds) Being an Early Career Feminist Academic. Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

  • Huopalainen, A. S., & Satama, S. T. (2019). Mothers and researchers in the making: Negotiating ‘new’motherhood within the ‘new’academia. Human Relations, 72(1), 98-121. 
  • Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N. H., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do babies matter?: Gender and family in the ivory tower. Rutgers University Press. 
  • Raddon, A. (2002). Mothers in the academy: Positioned and positioning within discourses of the ‘successful academic’ and the ‘good mother’. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 387–403. 
  • UIS - UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2020). Women in science [fact sheet n°60]. UIS/FS/2020/SCI/60, UIS Publ., Montreal, QC, Canada. Available at: 
  • van Amsterdam N (2015) Othering the ‘leaky body’: An autoethnographic story about expressing breast milk in the workplace. Culture and Organization 21(3): 269–287. 


Suggested bibliography 

  • Else, H. (2019, February 19). Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after first child. Nature. Springer Nature. Available in:,parenthood%20affects%20career%20trajectories%20in%20the%20United%20States 
  • Kim, J. (2018). An Argument for Bringing Kids to Academic Conferences. Inside Higher Ed. 
  • Derrick, G.E., Chen, PY., van Leeuwen, T. et al. The relationship between parenting engagement and academic performance. Sci Rep 12, 22300 (2022). 


Author: Mariana Caldeira

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