The strange duality of being a pregnant professor

Alternatively: The spirit is willing, but the body is busy making other plans

This semester, I’ve prepped a new class, advised students, written papers and proposals, attended two international conferences, and served on committees. In short, I’ve done all the things that an academic usually does. I’ve also put on twenty pounds, had heartburn so bad it made think I was going to throw up, lacked the lung capacity to get from my parking lot to my office, and had nights where I was so uncomfortable I got barely three hours of sleep. In short, I’ve done all the things that second & third trimester pregnant woman usually does. The tension between the daily work which engages my mind and the unmistakable physical changes which are taking place in my body have given this semester a strange duality – a sense of occupying two spaces at once, in a way that neither was meant to be occupied.

My mind is just as engaged with work as ever. Someone asked me whether I was experiencing pregnancy brain – a sort of absentmindedness commonly described in expectant mothers – but, no, when I’m attending a seminar, teaching a class, reading a paper, working on data, or talking with a student, I’m 100% attentive and just as committed as always. These are the times when I’m jolted back to physical reality by a well-placed kick reminding me to get up and move around or go to the bathroom.

But despite how much my mind is still all about the science, I don’t have the stamina for long work days, field work, or travel that I normally do. I’m having a hard time getting going in the morning, because I’m not sleeping well at night. More days than not, I’d prefer to take a nap on the couch in mid-afternoon. And I’m pretty well done for the evening by someplace between 8 and 10 pm (depending on whether I got that nap or got a decent night’s sleep the night before). And despite academia’s vaunted flexible schedules, I haven’t been able to accommodate those naps and early nights as much as my body wishes it could. I’ve found myself up until midnight several nights per week prepping lectures for my course, to be delivered first thing the next morning. I’ve done my best to soldier on, knowing that I can’t afford to look like I’m less than 100% this semester or risk seeming weak or uncommitted to those colleagues who will be voting on my tenure decision and who never experienced the physical effects of pregnancy themselves. And I certainly can’t afford to take time off.

The duality bleeds into professional encounters too. I told my lab group in the summer, before I was obviously showing, but I haven’t said anything to my class, even though at this point it’s completely conspicuous. I told my chair sometime in my second trimester, so that we could have plenty of time to make plans for handling teaching, grants, etc. But shortly after that I found out that other university folks were discussing my “situation” behind my back, in ways that were inappropriate and made me uncomfortable. And when I traveled to a conference in my third trimester, basically every colleague I saw asked about the baby bump, due date, etc. I like these people and consider many of them friends, but, hey, let’s talk some science too! However, let’s not talk science over beer late at night, because I’m not drinking and I get awfully tired.

While my chair and several of my colleagues have been wonderfully supportive, the university administration has not been. I’ve had to fight hard to get the 12-weeks of unpaid FMLA leave to which I’m legally entitled. Various offices in the university act like they’ve never encountered anyone asking for FMLA before, even though in a university with over 5000 employees, it has got to be happening multiple times every year. My fight to get leave took several weeks of time and energy, I suspect we’ll see another round or two of battle before it’s all over, and I’ve heard horror stories far worse. As a reminder, this is unpaid leave – the university will actually be saving money by not paying me for most of a semester – yet they act like I’m some sort of prima donna demanding unreasonable accommodation. (See why I don’t dare make any reduction in effort this fall?) I’m left with a sense that women with children are less than fully welcome at this university, that I’m trying to occupy two spaces when I really should be content to occupy just one – over there in the corner, not making any noise, grateful.

And the strange duality of this fall signals an even bigger disconnect coming – in January, I’ll be home with a newborn when my colleagues start the next semester. I’ll be overwhelmed with the physical demands of being a new mother, so for some time I’m expecting a full stop to my professional activities. But academia never sleeps… students have a reasonable expectation that I will supervise their thesis writing, grants have deadlines and obligations that are fairly inflexible, and I’m hoping to get my tenure portfolio ready for submission this spring so I need to get the last couple of papers off my desk. But I’ll be on 24/7 nursing and childcare duty. And I won’t be being paid. And I know from experience that sleep and free hands are scarce commodities in those first few months.

This semester, pre-baby, I’m trying to get as much work done as possible and say “no” to as many things I can for next spring. And I’m trying to weigh what I really need to keep on my plate in the next few months. The trying to get work done is subject to the physical limitations I described above, and the saying “no” seems to require a careful cost-benefit analysis for each decision. No to reviews, going on leave from being an AE – those are easy decisions. But a grant proposal that might fund my next research stage? That’s a big task, with uncertain outcome, but potential big payoff. Getting papers out the door? Really, really important, but how urgent? But if I don’t get them out the door this spring, am I going to have any more time to work on them as the mother of an infant, then toddler, on top of everything else I do. So I go back to trying to work as hard as possible for these last few weeks to ease my load a bit in the months to come. I’m living both in the present and the future, in a much more tangible way than normal, and it does nothing to ease the uncomfortable duality of my position.

Finally, there’s the juxtaposition of wanting to be so focused on work and get stuff done, while also knowing that there are a certain number of things we need to do as a family before baby arrives. We’re going to need a pediatrician. We’re going to need someone to take care of my older child and dog while I’m in the hospital. It would be very helpful to have some diapers when baby and I get home. It might be helpful to have some baby clothes ready. Or a carseat purchased and installed. And I want to savor these last moments with our family perfect just as it is – with a kid old enough to take to museums and concerts and to eat grown-up meals – without juggling the needs of baby on top of it. I want to savor being able to spend an evening just focused on my big kid – supervising piano practice and homework, cuddling on the couch to read – without the distraction of nursing and evening meltdowns. Not to mention it would be nice to go out with my partner without having to pump and hope that baby takes the bottle. So I find myself caught between using what energy I do have to focus on the professional versus on the personal. And running out of time to do either.

Maybe duality isn’t the right word. Maybe what I’m experiencing this semester is simply liminality – of being on the threshold of something new. But these last few months have been long enough and distinct enough to feel like they deserve their own recognition, discretized from what’s coming next. In academia, we often think of ourselves and each other in terms of our ideas and our work. This semester has been a strong reminder that I am not a disembodied mind, that the physical provides real constraints on what work I can accomplish and how those around me treat me. While there are definite downsides to this duality – things I’d banish in a perfect world – there is one big plus point: come January, I’ll be snuggling with my new baby.

I’m not taking career advice from old white dudes anymore.

Recently, a senior emeritus professor called me out because he hadn’t seen me at a talk in a different department (let’s say it’s Astronomy). “I’ve never seen you at a single Astronomy talk,” he admonished. “You really need to go to those.” I patiently explained that I typically have a teaching conflict, which he brushed off, and repeated his imperative that I really needed “to go to those talks.” He was angry at my laziness in failing to attend these critical seminars in a tangentially related field, and didn’t respect my explanations that 1) I couldn’t, and 2) even if I could, I have to make hard choices and don’t always have the luxury of doing everything I’d like to.

Now, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist– in fact, my position is split between a departmental home and an interdisciplinary institute, which means I go to twice as many faculty meetings and probably four times as many seminars as most of my colleagues do. But the advice of this retiree was that I needed to add yet another seminar to the list, and he wasn’t afraid to scold me about this front of my colleagues. This particular professor is of the opinion that I need to be just like him — or, rather, like his retired incarnation, which has a lot of free time to leisurely enjoy talks — in order to succeed. It’s just a small example of a phenomenon I’m starting to grow tired of, which is this paternalistic attitude some of my senior colleagues — all older, white men — have. They give advice liberally, these silverbacks, from the comfortable position of retirement or full professorship.

And you know what? It’s really, really shitty advice. Continue reading

Mental Health in Academia

The academic life is a never-ending stream of new challenges that can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. We’ve talked about some of those stresses here at TSW, from dealing with toxic mentors, to the job hunt (which could trigger Job Market PTSD), to the timing of starting a family, to feeling like you are falling behind even once you have your dream job. Mental health issues seem to be rising in academia and can seriously affect academics’ productivity and success – an insidious negative feedback loop.

The only way to break a ‘hidden epidemic’ out into the open is to talk about our experiences and acknowledge the pervasiveness of the problem. We are starting to talk more openly about mental illness in academia – even if there is a culture of acceptance around those issues. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other kind of doctor trained in diagnosing or treating mental health issues, but I can talk about my experiences as a way to continue the conversation. Continue reading

It’s Letter Writing Season!

It’s that time of the year: letter writing season!  In my field, GRFP letters are due today, but there are letters for many other things –faculty jobs, grad school, fellowships, etc– typically due around now as well.

(As an important side note: get your letters for the NSF GRFP in on time!  A bit less than 10% of the GRFP proposals are not reviewed simply because us letter writers have failed and not submitted our letters by the deadline)

As I’ve been writing GRFP letters of rec, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good letter, and realizing that this is yet another part of our jobs for which we are simply not trained.  Instead, we muddle along and seek out advice where we can get it, often at the last minute.  So one of my goals here is pass along the little that I *think* I know about letters, and also to aggregate advice for the future me into a handy resource. Continue reading

Fixing problems in science (for white men)

Have you seen the Software Sustainability Institute’s petition on

We must accept that software is fundamental to research, or we will lose our ability to make groundbreaking discoveries.

The petition advocates for cultural and structural changes in how science treats software and the people who create it. It says that science has a software development problem. It doesn’t say why science has this problem, but several of the points in the petition hint at the problem. Continue reading

Finding Structure & Productivity Despite Stress & Self-Doubt

I think I can remember when it began. Nearly 10 years on, I can faintly recall the comments on that paper, the subtle doubt expressed by a pregnant pause in a conversation with a mentor, the moments that I interpreted as meaning that I was not as strong a scholar as I believed myself to be. Instead of leaning on all of the positive affirmation that I had received previous to these interactions, these moments lodged themselves in my memory, and eventually chipped away at my confidence.

You may be thinking that this just plays like a typical case of imposter syndrome. And it does – Because it is. I am not the first scholar to battle the kind of self-doubt that can wake you in a cold sweat. But I can speak to the long-term impacts of this struggle. Imposter syndrome takes what is your core belief in yourself, that thing that gives you pride in your particular skill set, your ability to construct a deft argument backed by strong data, and punctures it with tiny holes day after day.

Although imposter syndrome slowed my progress, it did not bring it to a complete halt (thankfully). Continue reading