Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘pregnancy’

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.

Maternity Leave Considerations

Yawning-1I was recently having an email conversation with another WomanOfScience. She was describing her concerns about getting a tenure-track faculty position. She has a HusbandOfScience, and a one-year-old BabyOfScience, and they will all be on the job market very soon. She relayed a story about how, two weeks after giving birth, she was on the phone with a program officer at a FederalFundingAgency. The baby cried, and she was embarrassed and had her HusbandOfScience move the screaming baby to another room. She felt that the PO might think she wasn’t serious because she had a baby. This made me think of several things:

Would a man with a kid crying in the background have been as anxious about the sound?

People have all kinds of noises in the background of phone conversations. What if a dog had barked? That is annoying, but does owning a dog make you less serious of a candidate?

She was worried that having a baby would make her seem less dedicated, but she was having a phone conversation with a program officer 2 weeks after giving birth! What could be more dedicated?

I think we need to discuss that maternity leave is partially a medical leave! It isn’t just women being hard on themselves. When I was prego as a postdoc, I had two advisors. One was a WomanOfScience who had two kids, and knew that having kids can actually make many dedicated WomenOfScience more efficient and productive. The other was an OldWhiteMaleProfessor who had a stay-at-home wife while his kids were young. When I told him I was pregnant, he was happy. And he said how I was lucky that I had such a supportive advisor like him. This, as I know now, was a red flag.  Anyone who says they are super supportive is probably trying to convince themselves. As the end of my pregnancy loomed closer and my belly loomed larger, he started driving me harder. He would make me stay late – until 9pm to meet with him on a couple of occasions. My belly became too big to actually work on parts of my project. In particular, I was aligning optics, and I noticed the beam shoot across the room because my belly had accidentally moved the mirrors in the front of the optics table. I decided it was getting dangerous to be a fat prego in the optics lab. There was plenty other stuff to do, so I decided to work on other stuff.

One of the other things I was working on was a manuscript. My WomanAdvisor was reading drafts, making edits, and pushing it forward. My OWMP Advisor would not read it. WA said it would be best if I got it submitted before the baby came. I agreed. OWMPA still wouldn’t read it.  He finally read it and said it was ready to submit AFTER I gave birth!

One night I was working late, OWMPA asked me, “What are you doing on your vacation?” I said, “What vacation?” He said, “You know, when you are away.” I said, “That’s not a vacation, its maternity leave.” I was flabbergast. He said that he just wanted to check that I would be working while I was away. This was pretty ridiculous because up to this point, I have had one paper published in a high profile journal, a second that he wouldn’t read, and I already had a job waiting for me at UState, which I was postponing for a year to stay in the lab. In what world would I not come back to work? How could I possibly quit and give it all up just when I was getting everything I wanted?

Further, I have something to say else: MATERNITY LEAVE IS NOT A VACATION! It is a not a leave for fun. VACATIONS DO NOT START BY HAVING YOUR WHOOHA BLOWN OUT OR BEING CUT IN HALF LIKE A MAGICIAN’S ASSISTANT! Maternity leave is a medical leave because you have had a traumatic event destroy your body. It feels like you got hit by a truck, and you can barely move the next day. And, it takes you 6 weeks to physically recover from the experience. So, I hate when people act like maternity leave is anything but what it really is – a medical leave!

Let’s put it in terms an OWLP can understand: If you have surgery for, let’s say, a kidney transplant which cannot be done laparoscopically, and requires you to be cut in half, you would not expect that person to be reading papers and coming into work before the doctor-prescribed recovery time, right? It would be insensitive to expect that person to work, so why is to cool to ask that person to, say, submit a manuscript 6 days after giving birth?

So, let’s get real.

Women: don’t put so much pressure on yourself to act like everything is totally normal right after giving birth. Your husband may be able to go back to work right away, but you cannot because your body needs to HEAL. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Take your leave, get some sleep, and figure out being a mom. The time is really very short, and will not harm your career to be away for 6 weeks. What if you were in a car accident? and had to recover for 6 weeks?

Men: don’t act like maternity leave is not a real, medical leave. Women need time to recover, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t dedicated. It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to come back. Give them time to adjust. It will be alright.

I hope my description of the post-birth experience didn’t swear anyone off of having kids. Post or comment. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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