Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Miscarriages Happen" (4)

  1. Oh, I’m so sorry for your miscarriages. I can’t imagine the horror of three late-first-trimester miscarriages in a row. And even though I haven’t been there, I relate to this post even though I so wish that I didn’t. I’ve been on the tenure track at a liberal arts college for not quite two years, and for all but six months of that time I’ve either been dealing with subfertility (seeing a reproductive endocrinologist because of wildly irregular cycles) or my first pregnancy that ended in miscarriage at 4.5 months. Now we’re trying again, so if all goes well (big if) it’ll mean going back through the extreme fatigue and nausea of the first trimester right as I start year 3 — and if not, back to the REI for more inflexibly timed testing/treatment.

    About telling your colleagues… it’s hard either way. It’s hard to feel like a slacker during infertility testing/treatments or the illness of the first trimester and not be able to tell anyone why, but it’s also hard when miscarriage is public knowledge. When I miscarried I was showing and everyone in my everyday life knew I was pregnant, so I had to deal with the full range of reactions and non-reactions at a time when I really didn’t want to be dealing with people at all. I was not entirely graceful about it. The rest of my department is all male… at least they’ve all had kids, and I know at least one of them experienced a first-trimester miscarriage, so there was some level of understanding. But honestly, nobody understands second-trimester miscarriage because it’s so rare (thank goodness). I felt like they all expected/encouraged me to bounce right back and be normal, at least physically, but it was so very hard. I went through a painful and prolonged delivery (stupid placenta) and my milk came in (ouch) and I had retained products of conception (yikes) so I had to go back for a D&C two weeks after the delivery (a relief, honestly). After a full-term delivery, nobody would expect you to come back right away, but after “miscarriage” — even if it involves going through labor and giving birth to a fully formed, if small, baby — they do. I only rescheduled one of my classes, but now in hindsight I recognize just what an extremely impaired state I was in and wonder what the heck I was thinking and why nobody other than my mom told me I was nuts to go back to work so soon. I found out our baby had died Thursday afternoon, was discharged from the hospital on Saturday morning after the delivery, and when I came back to work on Tuesday my postdoc chirped, “It was so nice that you got to take a couple of days off!” My second day back, while I was still dizzy and randomly gushing blood (not normal, by the way!) and adjusting to my 15lb lighter frame and sudden total lack of belly and bursting into tears at the slightest provocation (seriously, a question about the colloquium schedule set me off), one of my colleagues told me “You look great!” and I nearly punched him. It was all extremely well meant, of course, but I couldn’t deal with optimism at that point. The only work colleague who was actually helpful was a women from another department who stopped by to give me a hug and ask how I was doing and then just stay to listen. Seriously, lesson learned: even if you’re not a hugger, a genuine inquiry into someone’s state of being and the willingness to hear a less-than-rosy answer goes a LONG way for a person who feels like their life is falling apart. And I know my work colleagues have no responsibility to be interested in my personal life, but the half hour of that woman’s time made such a difference to me on that day.

    I’m so glad you’ve written this, because there’s plenty written about how hard pregnancy and parenting is for women in academia, but it’s a special kind of challenge when pregnancy does not go well. I’ve never experienced the third trimester of pregnancy, but I’d take the second over the first any day, and having to go through the first trimester over and over again… well, it’s a very impaired state, and a very lonely one, and even if a few other people know what you’re going through, it’s likely not something they’ve experienced. Balancing these uncontrollable life events with your teaching schedule, your travel schedule, and your tenure clock is hard, and significant. Around 3.5 months I started getting invitations for talks or conferences that would fall during my parental leave or shortly thereafter and turned them down — so now I’ve turned down three invited talks, and those opportunities won’t present themselves again, and there will be a sharp decrease in invited talks that I won’t really have a way to explain when I come up for review (although it’s small enough that in the grand scheme of things I doubt it will matter). I’m also wondering… should I go to these conferences anyway, and request a contributed talk? And what if I get pregnant again — will I start turning down more talks at 3.5 months? Or do I accept the talks, and then if my pregnancy miraculously works out, cancel later on with less notice? That seems like kind of a jerk thing to do, but a reasonable one given my history, although not one that I’d necessarily be comfortable explaining to random other scientists.

    Anyway, these things are hard, and I’m really glad you started the conversation. I’m wishing you the best as you continue trying to have another living child.

  2. Oh, I’m so sorry for your miscarriages. I can’t imagine the horror of three late-first-trimester miscarriages. And even though I haven’t been there, I relate to this post even though I so wish that I didn’t. I’ve been on the tenure track at a liberal arts college for not quite two years, and for all but six months of that time I’ve either been dealing with subfertility (seeing a reproductive endocrinologist because of wildly irregular cycles) or my first pregnancy that ended in miscarriage at 4.5 months. Now we’re trying again, so if all goes well (big if) it’ll mean going back through the extreme fatigue and nausea of the first trimester right as I start year 3 — and if not, back to the REI for more inflexibly timed testing/treatment.

    About telling your colleagues… it’s hard either way. It’s hard to feel like a slacker during infertility testing/treatments or the illness of the first trimester and not be able to tell anyone why, but it’s also hard when miscarriage is public knowledge. When I miscarried I was showing and everyone in my everyday life knew I was pregnant, so I had to deal with the full range of reactions and non-reactions at a time when I really didn’t want to be dealing with people at all. I was not entirely graceful about it. The rest of my department is all male… at least they’ve all had kids, and I know at least one of them experienced a first-trimester miscarriage, so there was some level of understanding. But honestly, nobody understands second-trimester miscarriage because it’s so rare (thank goodness). I felt like they all expected/encouraged me to bounce right back and be normal, at least physically, but it was so very hard. I went through a painful and prolonged delivery (stupid placenta) and my milk came in (ouch) and I had retained products of conception (yikes) so I had to go back for a D&C two weeks after the delivery (a relief, honestly). After a full-term delivery, nobody would expect you to come back right away, but after “miscarriage” — even if it involves going through labor and giving birth to a fully formed, if small, baby — they do. I only rescheduled one of my classes, but now in hindsight I recognize just what an extremely impaired state I was in and wonder what the heck I was thinking and why nobody other than my mom told me I was nuts to go back to work so soon. I found out our baby had died Thursday afternoon, was discharged from the hospital on Saturday morning after the delivery, and when I came back to work on Tuesday my postdoc chirped, “It was so nice that you got to take a couple of days off!” My second day back, while I was still dizzy and randomly gushing blood (not normal, by the way!) and adjusting to my 15lb lighter frame and sudden total lack of belly and bursting into tears at the slightest provocation (seriously, a question about the colloquium schedule set me off), one of my colleagues told me “You look great!” and I nearly punched him. It was all extremely well meant, of course, but I couldn’t deal with optimism at that point. The only work colleague who was actually helpful was a women from another department who stopped by to give me a hug and ask how I was doing and then just stay to listen. Seriously, lesson learned: even if you’re not a hugger, a genuine inquiry into someone’s state of being and the willingness to hear a less-than-rosy answer goes a LONG way for a person who feels like their life is falling apart. And I know my work colleagues have no responsibility to be interested in my personal life, but the half hour of that woman’s time made such a difference to me on that day.

    I’m so glad you’ve written this, because there’s plenty written about how hard pregnancy and parenting is for women in academia, but it’s a special kind of challenge when pregnancy does not go well. I’ve never experienced the third trimester of pregnancy, but I’d take the second over the first any day, and having to go through the first trimester over and over again… well, it’s a very impaired state, and a very lonely one, and even if a few other people know what you’re going through, it’s likely not something they’ve experienced. Balancing these uncontrollable life events with your teaching schedule, your travel schedule, and your tenure clock is hard, and significant. I can’t imagine that my teaching evaluations will be as high this semester as they normally are (I had some real lecture flubs in the weeks after the miscarriage that were not normal for me and came up on midsemester evaluations)… but whoever winds up reviewing my reappointment case in a year or two won’t necessarily know the context. Around 3.5 months I started getting invitations for talks or conferences that would fall during my parental leave or shortly thereafter and turned them down — so now I’ve turned down three invited talks, and those opportunities won’t present themselves again, and there will be a sharp decrease in invited talks that I won’t really have a way to explain when I come up for review (although it’s small enough that in the grand scheme of things I doubt it will matter). I’m also wondering… should I go to these conferences anyway, and request a contributed talk? And what if I get pregnant again — will I start turning down more talks at 3.5 months? Or do I accept the talks, and then if my pregnancy miraculously works out, cancel later on with less notice? That seems like kind of a jerk thing to do, but a reasonable one given my history, although not one that I’d necessarily be comfortable explaining to random other scientists.

    Anyway, these things are hard, and I’m really glad you started the conversation. I’m wishing you the best as you continue trying to have another living child.

  3. I definitely think we should tell. It sounds absurd that we would have to suffer quietly through such turmoil for fear of being considered lesser on unreasonable grounds. In fact, I think that there are even simpler cases of health issues related to women only that we should be more open about. How would a guy feel about going to work with a body-splitting cramp and temporary depression?

    Actually, I think that the root of the problem is deeper. It goes back to our innocent “How are you – fine thanks and you” habbit. I wish we realized that it’s OK to not always be OK, and that we were comfortable expressing dissatisfaction publicly.

  4. Thank you all for sharing (including the replies to the priginal post). I have also suffered a miscarriage at 4.5 months. The pregnancy showed complications at week 7 and they continued until we finally lost our son. Due to the seriousness of the complications for me and the baby, I was forced to share my condition with some colleagues and word spread quickly. I was in and out of work quite a bit but fortunately it was summer for the worst part of it all. To be honest, I lost so much blood (placental abruption) I had very little color and looked awful. With my department knowing, it was actually a big relief – one less thing I had to worry about. No one knew how to handle it, but they were all ‘nice’ in their own ways even if that meant keeping a distance. It was the summer before I applied for tenure and my consistent absences would have surely looked bad if they had not known.

    I look at it this way, if a male colleague had knee surgery, we would surely know and be understanding of the time off. Of course, I didn’t take as much time as I should have but I did take time off following our loss. I took more time than I actually thought I would have though. I did it mainly for the female students who might have to go through my situation and I wanted them to see that it was ok to grieve and recover. Many of them talked to me about this one I returned and healed a little. The time to recover physically was atleast 6 months. The emotional toll is still challenging. However, I think it’s important for us all to go easier on ourselves and think of how we would want our female (or male) student to behave if tragedy strikes. Unhealthy recovery from physical problems or grief only leads to problems down the road. I’m ‘happy’ to see that we can start to have these conversations. It’s important. I’m sorry for your loss, everyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: