Lessons & Transformation: On Returning to Work

Rachel Luu, Founder & Principal, Immunomind

I felt like a lone fish swimming upstream, as it seemed all other cars were headed in the opposite direction.

This particular weekday started similar to most: I dropped off my husband at his work (since we had the one car, though he would often bike) and proceeded on my way. I did not drive to my own work, though, as per usual, but instead went the opposite direction — feeling like I had to do something, go somewhere… so I ran errands.

This was my first day of maternity leave, about two weeks before my due date. I had been working full time at the same company for 5 1/2 years straight, after completing my M.Sc. in Microbiology & Immunology, and I loved it.

I grew to love being home with our son as a newborn, though I did have a hard time with it, through sleep deprivation and nursing challenges. (I am sure looking back I romanticize it more than a bit, seeing others coddle their own newborns now, while my son is an energetic 7- year- old.) It was valuable to have the time to visit family more often, and for longer visits.

Before I returned to work, we transitioned to daycare. We had been on the waiting list for several locations since I was pregnant, and we received a space at one of them about a few months ahead of time. The daycare center was very warm and welcoming, and they had a room just for babies. We started with a short visit there together, gradually longer over a few days; then came the time that I would leave for an hour or two, and to drop him off on his own for a full day. It was bizarre to get in the car and leave him for the first time with someone that wasn’t family. I’m pretty sure it was tougher on me than him, as he had lots of little friends for company and excellent care with an assortment of activities, though I suppose I hoped he would miss me at least a smidge. It helped to know that he was napping well, and I began to treasure bath time in a new way at home as it was not something he had at daycare.

I was somewhat eager to go back to work, though I knew the balance would be tricky for all of us, and I knew it would be a little different after having been away for a year. The main change for me was that there was a new flow cytometer in the lab; I had been a ‘power user’ of the earlier flow cytometers (Canto and Aria), and now needed training on the new Fortessa. Teamwork was more prominent and necessary with larger studies requiring several sets of hands at once to process samples, analyze and QC data to make important decisions for the next studies. A few new people had joined the team, and roles had shifted. In light of this, it was important to let go of my functions from where I had left off, while recalling my experience and troubleshooting strategies to apply myself in new ways and be most effective for the team to meet deadlines and move seamlessly between concurrent projects. It was useful that multiple people were well-versed in the same techniques in the lab; on occasion, the daycare would call to say our son had a fever, so I would need to pick him up and keep him home until the fever had passed.

During my second mat leave, my husband and I decided it was time for a change and new challenge after spending 10 years in Ottawa. We both found jobs in the Vancouver area, where we also had family, so we found ourselves packing up our home and starting a new chapter. We talked about it for months in advance, calling it our big adventure, which it was. With our nearly 3-year-old son and 9-month old daughter, we headed west in our little Honda Fit, taking our time to keep the days somewhat structured, with naps in the car and stopping for playtime. We would stay overnight in a hotel room we found for cheap along the way, based on the weather which determined our route. We drove farther and farther south to avoid freezing November rain on the highways, stopping at Circus Circus for some extra family fun time. By the time we arrived at our destination eight days later, we were quite content with the idea of not driving anywhere for awhile!

We settled in over the next few weeks, until my husband and I eagerly started our first day of work on the same day in early January. Both of our children started daycare at a new place, a home daycare where they could play with other kids of different ages. I was determined to give it my all at my new job, and I was usually the one to drop off the kids around 8:30 am and pick them up around 5:30 pm. This January in Vancouver seemed particularly dark and rainy, as I gradually learned to change lanes often on my commute while some cars were parked on the right, others turning on the left. The kids were tired from long days at a new place, I was determined to give my all to my new job, and my husband commuted from North Vancouver. We moved again a few months later to New Westminster and the kids started at a new home daycare closer by. They adjusted well and we seemed to grow accustomed to the somewhat crazy rhythm of the week, with recovery mode on Saturdays and family visits or exploring on Sundays.

This continued for 3 years, until my job moved due to company restructuring, and we remained settled. I decided to take some time to re-evaluate. I loved my work and didn’t mind putting in extra time as needed. I’ve seen so many job postings appear and thought they sound like a great fit. Yet with our daughter just about to begin kindergarten, and our son working to focus his energy at school, I now have the chance to hang out at the school park in the morning before the bell rings, so my son can do monkey bars, and I can push my daughter on the swing.

I’ve established a consulting business, Immunomind, to provide scientific expertise to start-up companies, saving time, generating focus and enhancing productivity for teams managing resources in the critical early stages of growth.

My husband has been an amazing support through this new endeavour. I completed a self-employment program and learned about aspects of running my own business including finance, marketing and operations. I thrive on variety and challenge, and I love a new chapter.

Each time I interact with a potential client, I learn more about developing and establishing relationships, and become exposed to an intricate array of exciting projects. This new journey fits well with my experience, supporting teams in and out of the lab to do their work efficiently and striving to refine processes wherever possible. This is underscored by my previous work in any one position, where I’ve been eager to do a good job, but wanting more, to have a better sense of the big picture, continuously pushing myself to do more, learn, experience, and inspire others to love what they do and find ways to improve. This includes my children, as my ongoing wish for them is that they do not feel held back from trying new experiences. I enjoy setting an example for them to venture out, apply themselves, and explore.

A little over-share plus a tribute from behind the scenes… My very first time returning to work was when I had an ectopic pregnancy. I felt a strange little pop in my abdomen, later followed by nausea which I thought be due to food poisoning (perhaps in denial, as I knew I was about 8 weeks pregnant) and fainted in the bathroom at work on a Friday afternoon as I was bleeding internally. Thankfully a co-worker found me, they called my husband who was working nearby, and we rushed to the hospital. I felt like I wanted to go back to work just a few days later, but I stayed home for a week to recover from surgery and was received warmly by co-workers as I returned to work, no longer pregnant. This experience was heartbreaking and has taught me to lean on those around me, when I am usually extremely independent and too proud to ask for help. I think I never extended a proper thank you as I was quite embarrassed about the situation. Audrey Lavoie, you are my hero. Thank you!