You may recognise Professor Alice Roberts – she's travelled the country, lime-green Volkswagen van in tow, to present Coast, as well as fronting numerous other science programmes. She's a mother to two children and holds a post as Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. We ended motherhood month by sitting down with her to talk breastfeeding, maternity leave and what she sees in the mirror.
Last year, you joined our Twitter chat on breastfeeding ‘bribes’. Is this something you feeling strongly about? What would have been helpful to you as a new mum?
There are so many benefits to breastfeeding, for both mum and baby. The current rate of breastfeeding sounds high (a 2010 survey showed that more than 80% babies were being breastfed at birth) but that rate drops off very quickly. At six weeks, just 55% of women are breastfeeding. I think that it’s great to be informing parents about the health benefits of breastfeeding, but the emotional benefits may be underplayed. From my own experience, breastfeeding (and I know I was lucky – my babies took to breastfeeding immediately, and I loved it; I had some difficulties, but nothing that Lansinoh and nipple shields couldn’t help me overcome), breastfeeding was a joyful, lovely experience – part of caring for a baby that I wouldn’t want to have missed out on, and really important for bonding. I also had very supportive friends and family – there was no question of breastfeeding being considered an odd choice. But how can we encourage more women to breastfeed and support them to do it for longer – ideally up until weaning? It’s clear that some women feel bullied by health professionals, and that can’t be helpful. It’s also notable that women who are over 30, well educated and relatively affluent are more likely to breastfeed. What can we do to help women who don’t fit that description, and why are they less likely to breastfeed to start with?
You took your baby daughter with you when filming Digging for Britain. Do you find it difficult to juggle motherhood with your media career?
Often, making television documentaries can be very un-family-friendly work. It involves long hours, and often being away from home for days and weeks at a time. But I was very lucky when I made Digging for Britain to work with a very supportive production company (360 Production). They decided to take the risk of hiring a pregnant presenter who would start filming, bringing a tiny baby with her. My husband [field archaeologist David Stevens] took on the role of primary carer when we were filming, and he came with me on all the shoots. We’d meet up at lunchtime so that I could breastfeed, but sometimes the timing didn’t work out, so I had to make sure that I had amassed a stockpile of expressed milk so that my daughter could also be bottle-fed – with breast milk, not formula. My daughter is now nearly four, and I also have a nine-month-old son. The juggling of work and family life is challenging (I think it is for everyone!) but in my situation, it depends entirely on my husband being the primary carer when I’m away working. It’s still unusual to find stay-at-home husbands but the reforms to maternity leave due in 2015 should make it easier for families to make this choice, if it suits them. A similar setup has existed in Denmark and Sweden for years.
Your husband stayed at home to look after your daughter Phoebe in 2012. Did he struggle with this decision?
It seemed like an obvious choice, and I don’t think he struggled with it. It’s often seen as a big sacrifice for one parent to have to put their career on hold – but it’s also an amazing opportunity to spend precious time with your children. Some of his friends seem to think it’s a soft option but I don’t think looking after kids can ever be described in those terms!
Has being a mother changed your career ambitions, or the way your see yourself?
My career ambitions haven’t changed much, in that my main ambition is to work hard at whatever I apply myself to. Work is still important to me, but I don’t feel that it defines me in the way I certainly did before. Motherhood has completely changed the way I see my own extended family, my partner (because it was amazing to see him in his new role too), as well as giving me a different perspective on life and death. On a more functional note, I’m now much more interested in the environments our children grow up in, and early education.
And finally… what do you see when you look in the mirror?
I think I look almost perpetually tired at the moment (but am battling with baby-related sleep deprivation). I notice the signs of time passing – lines appearing, white hairs. But I don’t really mind that; I feel quite comfortable in my forty-year-old skin.
Thanks Alice. To catch up with our other motherhood content, click here. And thank you to everyone who made motherhood month such a success! Stay tuned for February's discussion on women and ambition.