Pregnancy and parenthood can be like academia more broadly for a lot of women – in that it’s full of self-doubt (“Am I good enough? Am I sacrificing my family for my career? Am I sacrificing my career for my family?”) and judgment (other people asking themselves those questions about you). And like almost everything in academia, your lot seems to depend on what institution you’re at, if they have workplace protections and expectations, and who your immediate supervisors and colleagues are. It’s been great to read about other TSW contributors’ very (or mostly) positive stories about balancing pregnancy and parenthood across academic stages. Yet it also reminds me of how tough it can be of you don’t have an institution, department, supervisor, etc. that values work-life balance for its employees.
I’m a grad student at a large R1 university in the Midwest US. Shockingly, the university has no maternity or paternity leave policy in place for graduate students or postdoctoral researchers. Zilch. (They do have a written policy for tenure track faculty.) Despite being in and represented by a graduate student union that is otherwise working hard for its members, this issue is not even on the table for current or future university-graduate student union negotiations. So what is the university’s suggested ‘accommodation’ for parenthood? Taking a(n unpaid) leave of absence. Yet that would also mean no healthcare, let alone no salary, so it’s not a realistic option for most people – and in some programs, leaves of absence after becoming a dissertator are not allowed! Huh?! I am pleased to see that other similarly ranked and sized schools are far more progressive than mine and have multiple forms of accommodation including paid maternity and paternity leave and extended time limits for degrees or candidacy. Perhaps most importantly, there is a clear process in writing and contact person available. Good job UMichigan! Hope other schools can follow suit, for the many reasons that others have already pointed out in the posts linked above.
I found out I was pregnant 6 weeks before my prelims (thesis proposal defense) and decided not to disclose that information to my advisor, committee, or professional community unless/until things looked good after the first trimester. Mid-semester this spring, when I did disclose that information, I received a range of replies:
- Benevolent sexism – my advisor was mostly excited for my husband and me, but then immediately projected his wife’s experience with pregnancy onto me and our situation. For example, he expressed concern about my ability to conduct light fieldwork this summer (something I’d already cleared with my doctor and hired extra undergraduate help just in case) because in his wife’s experience, she couldn’t remember names or numbers in her third trimester. Everyone’s experience with pregnancy is different, and I found talking with postdocs and other women in science who conducted fieldwork in their third trimester to be much more helpful and empowering. More disconcertingly, when I told him about my plan to take federally protected Family Medical Leave Act time off and return to my research assistant position after a month, he told me that “there are just some things that moms need to be around for instead of other people” and tried to encourage me to take additional, unpaid time off. Frankly, how my family figures out parental leave, daycare, and finances is none of his business – and I certainly don’t want him – or anyone – proscribing ‘solutions’ to new parents based on their individual experience.
- Chastisement – one of my committee members told me I was telling him too early (what does that mean?), another indicated that this sort of personal information wasn’t something he wanted to know. Um, okay.
- Congratulations – to be fair, not everyone is a jerk. Some people were happy for us; thank you! This is something we’re happy about and want to celebrate, even if the timing isn’t ‘perfect.’
- Accusations that I’m not serious about science – this is mostly something I’ve gotten from other, male graduate students, at least to my face. It’s disappointing. There are several male postdocs and graduate students across the department who are universally congratulated on their marriage and childbirth milestones.
Or so I think. My husband, a humanities postdoc on the same campus, didn’t receive universal congratulations. Instead, he got:
- Accusations that he isn’t serious about academia – now that my husband is transitioning from a postdoc to adjunct academic employment nearby so that he can be near me and hopefully our baby next year while I continue my program (two body problem, yet again), he found that several (all male) professors in his department questioned his commitment to academia because he didn’t want to move. These same folks are responsible for approving his application for teaching classes next year, and now he’s worried that they won’t take him seriously.
- Condolences – arguably the most inappropriate response, a professor in my husband’s department offered his condolences when he shared the news. This person is a father, so I have no idea where he was going with that. This professor is on panel that is reviewing a grant my husband submitted, which again, leaves my husband with a bad feeling in his stomach.
Without institutional or supervisor support, where does this leave us? Fortunately, I now have funding for next year that will allow me to have a flexible schedule and an annual stipend, so I will not have to take unpaid time off, for which my bank account and I are extremely grateful. And since daycare is so expensive, my husband and I will trade off research/teaching and baby responsibilities throughout the day and week next year. The rest we’ll have to play by ear, depending on how things go if and when we have a baby – all while trying to ignore the snark and condescension of the folks above.
Have you given birth or adopted while at an academic institution without a family leave policy? How did you balance this? Were your colleagues and higher-ups supportive? I’d love to hear your story.
This post was contributed by graduate student SquirrellyRed, whose previous post at TSW was on everyday sexism