Guest Post: Being “diagnosed” with pregnancy in academia

Much to my surprise, my fourth year of graduate school was actually an optimal time to have a child.  University of California Academic Student Employees are eligible for four weeks paid maternity leave, thanks to our union. I had a flexible schedule, no classes to take, my data analysis and writing my dissertation could all be done via computer, and I was motivated by being close to finishing my PhD. I had already spent four years developing friendships in the town where I attended graduate school and truly benefited from the “it takes a village to raise a child” strategy.  All of my grad school friends were willing to help me out in a bind, and there were plenty of binds (dinners with visiting speakers, teaching until 8 PM, etc.).  If I had to travel, I could depend on my friends to help my husband pick my son up to take him to and from childcare (my husband didn’t work in the same town). We also benefited from small childcare supplements awarded to Academic Student Employees, again thanks to negotiations of our union.

Starting my postdoc was a rough transition from graduate school, especially having to do it with a toddler.  I would not have been able to move if my husband hadn’t been able to get a job promotion. I don’t think it is any surprise that a postdoc salary is not enough to support a family of three.  When I accepted my postdoc in June of 2013 with a start date of September 1, 2013 it was a mad dash to make sure that my son’s daycare situation was taken care of. I lucked out. There was one spot open at a good care center, one that my new advisor could recommend because he had kids of his own.  Daycare is more expensive here, and I no longer have a supplement. We were lucky to find a house to rent, but housing is more expensive in our new city. Because of all of these factors, despite the pay raise, I am now bringing in less money for our daily necessities than I was as a graduate student.  I also had to figure out the next steps while I was writing my dissertation and preparing for my defense.  I am lucky that I have no student loan debt, like other mothers that I know, who now have to start making payments. Having another child (which my husband and I fully intend to do) is not a good idea while having a postdoc because there is just not enough support. There is no childcare supplement for postdocs even though the median cost for childcare is $972/ month in the state of California. This means you take your kid to an in-home, non-certified daycare that you can afford, or you take out loans. If you are lucky to have family around to help, you may avoid this, but that is unlikely given that many postdocs move to distant locations for a two-year appointment.

When I read about women who found out they were pregnant as a postdoc or in graduate school, the story often reads like someone who has just been diagnosed with some chronic illness (which is not fair to mothers, or people who have a chronic illness).  I admit that I also felt this way, and I had to search (and sometimes beg) for support from faculty and administration. A professor in my program said to me “I thought about what I would say to a male graduate student who told me they were having a baby, so I have to say ‘congratulations’ to you.” Do I say thank you to your backhanded congratulations?? A baby is not a cancer. A baby is a joy, and having one is a life-changing event that is something to look forward to.

The academic system is not set up to actively discriminate against mothers, but it happens to ignore their absolutely real obstacles, which can ultimately turn them off to a lifetime in the field.  Academia is unique in that it is defined by other academics who set the bar for success, while they fight each other for funding. This creates a system that thrives off of exclusivity, and currently mothers are some of the easiest to exclude. There is still a mentality that the longer you work, the more successful you are, and this means that if a researcher can’t be in the lab at midnight, they must be doing something wrong.  I am worthy of my position based on my intellectual ability, and I bring added skill, problem solving and innovative power that contribute to scientific discovery in my lab.  My progress is satisfactory, and I make the most of the time I have in my lab. The fact that I have a kid doesn’t take away from my abilities. It just means I won’t be in the lab at midnight working on an experiment.

Based on my experiences, I must conclude that the pursuit of careers in academia for women with families is a fight. Many capable women just decide it’s not worth it (as demonstrated by the lack of women mothers in academia).  I am extremely close to being in this camp.  Academia’s dismissal of my situation (which shouldn’t be considered abnormal) turns me into someone who often has to fight the system despite my accomplishments instead of excelling through it because of my accomplishments.

It is likely that a postdoctoral appointment is one of the best times in an academic career to have a baby, because you are not tied to a tenure case. Making the postdoc experience more family friendly with childcare supplements, maternity AND paternity leave, advertised lactation rooms, and mentors who truly believe that being a female and having a child while obtaining a tenure-track faculty position is possible, will greatly enhance the postdoctoral experience. We are pushing these issues forward by uniting our voices through the collective action of our postdoc union. Let’s help women succeed because of the environment, not in spite of it.


Today’s post was contributed by DrKA, a postdoctoral research scholar at a University of California campus and a postdoc union member (UAW 5810).

23 thoughts on “Guest Post: Being “diagnosed” with pregnancy in academia

  1. I’m 8 months pregnant with my first baby and trying to schedule my defense for 2 months after the baby’s born, so I’m in that boat too! When I told my PI I was pregnant, he did say congratulations. And then he mentioned that pregnancy was a good way to convince my committee to let me defend. Because, you know, I hadn’t already published 3 papers…

    In the end, my husband and I are making it work by taking some loans from our parents. We could’ve waited to start a family (we’re only 28, so we’re not facing the dreaded fertility decline yet), but we want multiple kids and we realized that it’s not really going to get any easier from here on out, unless we wait until our mid-late 30s, which we were unwilling to do. We’re also lucky in that our parents have been very supportive (they want grandbabies!) and once my husband graduates from medical school, at least we’ll have some guaranteed income.

    I do wish there were more female mentors who have a good work-life balance, though.

    • Congratulations, Amy! I’m excited for you to go through these life-changing events. You’ll learn a ton about yourself! You should blog about tips when you have defended. I do agree with you that more female mentors with tips on how to succeed (and stay healthy throughout the process) would be beneficial for the entire experience. Thats why I get excited about these blogs. It sounds like YOU will be a great female mentor in the future! I hope that we all will step up and become the role models for the future academic families.

  2. I just started a tenure-track position, and found myself coming up against the dreaded 35 deadline. So, despite the fact that this was not an optimal time in my career (I have not felt like anytime was optimal), we decided to start trying. Two weeks later, and positive pregnancy test! We are very excited, but I am worried about the idea that I might be perceived as ‘diseased’ or ‘making a bad decision’. When should I tell the department chair? How to tell the rest of the faculty? Here, Faculty that have at least one year of service qualify for a reduced teaching load—should I push to get these benefits, even though the baby is due just a few weeks shy of one year?

    • Congratulations!! Your worries are certainly valid, but you may be surprised in a positive way as well; I certainly was. My colleagues may be 60 year old men, but telling them I was pregnant for the first time showed me that they are good people and that they have daughters my age who are going through what I am. They have been (almost) uniformly helpful and supportive. As for when to tell and what to ask for, you have to do what makes you feel comfortable both with work and with family. I told early and took as much leave as I could get, but was ‘active’ during that leave in terms of answering emails and meeting with students (either with baby in tow or using a sitter for short periods, or having my students come to my house). It’s worked out great for me. It is hard since you don’t know your colleagues very well, perhaps you could start with someone you do feel closer to and see what they say and advise. You could also look for parent or work/life resources on your campus. There may be people who’ve had similar situations and it can only help your planning to have more information. I was terrified about how it would all work out before it started really happening and then I really was pleasantly surprised. It is not easy, but I have no super powers, and it’s going just fine.

  3. I am tenure track. I have two kids, a 3 yo and an almost 1 yo. My husband and I share things roughly 50/50 (he is tenured, having gotten tenure when our oldest was around 1). It is hectic, even crazy sometimes, but I have enormous flexibility that I use to its utmost (as does my husband). I work less than 40 hrs a week. I don’t _do_ much research, but I have a good group and so my productivity looks OK. I spend each morning until around 10:30 with the kids (sometimes both sometimes just the small one if the elder is at preschool) and then go to work. I leave work between 4 & 5, come home for dinner and bedtime and work for a couple of hours once they’re asleep. For me the hardest part is that my eldest has quite low sleep needs compared to an average 3 yo and so there is not so much time between her bedtime and mine. When work gets busy I get even more tired than is usual with kids. BUT, it can be done. What has helped us, is being tenure track the salary is good, we have a flexible sitter and our kids are healthy so not too much home sick time. I’m not sure it’d be any easier with two professionals in any other field. We have so much flexibility. It’s definitely had a huge impact on my career (way more than a two year delay would really compensate), but it hasn’t stopped it and it is our decision to spend this time with the kids knowing we _both_ write fewer papers because of it.

  4. I’m a postdoc. I had my first kid 16 months ago, right at the beginning of year 3. I couldn’t agree more about this being a fight. At my institution, I’ve not only had to fight for resources (i.e. adequate lactation space, accessible/affordable childcare), but I’m still fighting the insidious culture of “the longer you work, the more successful you are” mentality. And this culture is EVERYWHERE. I was recently at a workshop held by the most prominent society in my field, and while attending a “Women’s Issues” session, one of the senior women actually said that there is a direct correlation between the number of hours of work you do per week and how successful you are. Another senior woman said she has “balance” because she takes one day off every seven days. What ever happened to “work smarter, not harder”? In my experience, there is a shit load of un-helpful “advice” out there.

    I think the tangible things you list such as childcare, lactation space, and parental leave are an absolute must. But how do we change the cultural issues?

    • I agree it is destructive for anyone when the lab culture indicates “no of hours = productivity” – it drives me nuts when I hear supervisors commenting on this when referring to their students; and this attitude is especially irksome for parents of young kids or people with chronic illness. I don’t know how you can start to change this culture, except by doing your best to show your own achievements and don’t hide your own light under a bushel. I knew I was making some changes in attitude when a senior staff member once told me that, as a part-timer, I was more productive than some of my full-time colleagues. (It was true, but it wasn’t intentional on my part – I was doing stuff I loved and thought was important, so i would have done it properly anyway. Even though i wasn’t physically present all the time, I made arrangements to ensure things kept going reasonably efficiently).

      I guess the other thing we can do is to ensure we are sympathetic to those who work with us, and look at their smartness rather than their hours in the lab. (Or as well as…).

  5. As a feminist, I always congratulate any expectant parent, regardless of gender. As a parent, I also add that I won’t immediately comment on the complexities of parenthood, but am at their disposal for any future conversation. End of interaction.

    For lack of a better word, I think that this blog describes the “both-ness” inherent in being a pregnant women and then a female parent. The description of what the union offered is super-progressive and wonderful. The benefits in such a contract must have been negotiated by thoughtful feminists. It is so much better than what my supposedly progressive and feminist college offers to t.t. profs who have a baby. They generously give “leave” and insist that it be taken. They discourage working on grants/papers/books while that leave is in progress. They insist on it being “off the clock.” Then they expect you to come back and be an “ideal worker” (again like a man) after that period is over.

    I am concerned that most faculty policies fail to embrace the “both-ness” that was described in this post. Because that seems to be the most common narrative that I hear from women who successfully navigate through pregnancy + parenthood + progress toward tenure, regardless of exactly when/where they experience pregnancy and parenting through infancy and toddlerhood.

    I suggest that more new policies are needed, aiming to embrace and enable that “both-ness.”

  6. Though I support your choice to have a family, I don’t think it’s your employers responsibility to support it. Make your husband stay home with the kids (as mine did) or do it yourself. They deserve to have parents raise them, not some stranger. They also deserve to take a higher priority in your life than your career.
    Don’t read that as me suggesting that you stay barefoot in the kitchen, just that you always choose showing your love to your family over your love for your job. That means you wont be in the lab until midnight and it’s your employer’s right to be able to hire someone else who will for the whatever they’re willing to be paid (especially if it’s less than you’d do it for). It’s tough to hear that you may not be able to advance your career because of your choices involving your kids but blame your choices (and be happy that you made the right ones) instead of ‘the system’ or your employer.

    I enjoyed your post!

    • You can have them both, children and career, and you should fight to have them both because it is your ***right***. I’m in Canada, and I have it quite close to have them both because of great working benefits (at least at the professor level). I can only wish that other people would have those benefits too.

    • Hi Sue,

      Thank you for your response. I have a few comments on your view of how salaried jobs work, and how women mothers fit into the working world. First, from my personal perspective:

      (a) my son is my first priority, and anyone you talk to who knows me would agree.
      (b) I didn’t have him to be needed (although it is nice!) I truly believe that my job as a mother is to show him that dreams do come true, and to do that, I will live out my dreams. I also wish for him to become his own person. And even if my dream was to become a stay-at-home mother, I would want him to experience early education in some way. He interacts well with other kids, he learns to share, he learns how to trust other people, and when to not trust others. He is independent, brilliant, and watching him become his own person (in contrast to an extension to me) is amazing. If you saw the smile on his face, and the way that he sings to every song he hears, I think you would see that he isn’t suffering because I chose to work.
      (c)The idea that I could ‘make’ my husband do anything makes me giggle. I won’t ever try to force him to do something, just like he can’t ‘make’ me do anything. We have an equal partnership and we are happy with this dynamic.
      (d) As I said above, I was hired because I do something special. I don’t think grad students are told this enough. My graduate school work was attractive enough that someone else said “I want that person on my team!” and reading my quarterly reviews, I’m living up to standards.

      I also am grateful for the union of workers that disagree with your opinion, and fight for basic employee rights that treat parents as equals. This means employers are asked to value employees based on their intellect and productivity before their available time outside of contracted hours. Being a grad student/postdoc/P.I. is in essence, salaried work. We are hired this way because our knowledge, creativity, and experiences give us something unique to bring to the table. We contribute to the world based on our novel ideas and unique execution. I won’t be in the lab at midnight, but that doesn’t mean that my productivity suffers. Now that I am a mother, I am extremely conscious of my time, I use it more effectively. I wasn’t a slacker pre-baby, but my mindset about time management was different.

      I hope that academic employers will treat postdocs more like ‘humans’ with families and recognize that if you make the workplace a friendly environment and remove the threat of termination for not working beyond contracted expectations, you can increase productivity. I don’t think this is too much to ask. I’d spend less time fighting to be treated fairly, and spend even more time being productive!

      • It’s true, ‘make’ was a poor choice and didn’t reflect the equal partnership involved in the decision that we made together.

        You sound totally amazing as a mother and a person and, really, my only contention are those who claim privileges or benefits as a ‘right’. I’m sure that any employer who is worth their business would jump at the opportunity to have you on their team and you’ll never be in danger of termination, especially because you’re meeting or exceeding contractual job expectations.

        Some (or as see it many) lobbying groups lobby for the privilege of their members over others. I’ll give an example from my work.

        By contract, we have working hours like most people but because of the nature of our facility there must be 24 hour monitoring by qualified staff. This means that twice a month each of us has to work a grave yard shift which wraps around the evening.

        Our supervisor takes into account many personal scheduling difficulties and attempts to make the schedule equally tolerable for everyone but last year one of my colleges had just expanded their family claimed that, because of the new child, they were exempt form this duty which we all bear equally. This colleague claimed that it was their right as a parent to be there for their child and that there should be no employment repercussions.

        Though this is an anecdote from my own life, it illustrates the trouble with new parents and their ‘rights’:

        We all know what our expectations are and we accept compensation offered when we’re hired. Those expectations have not changed since I had a kid.

        My responsibility is to meet or exceed those expectations to earn the compensation and the institutes responsibility is to compensate me for what I produce.

        I realized I’ve started to ramble but I think my overall point is this: they owe me no more than what we’ve agreed on for compensation and I owe them no more than what I’ve agreed to give them. The whole idea that I have a right to more is bogus.

        I have a right to find a better employer but, frankly, I like where I am and I like the high flat-line expectations. They harshly require the same from everyone…… yay equality!

        • Hi Sue,

          Thank you for sharing! I see a bit more where you are coming from, and I think I understand your concerns. I wonder if the woman in question has experienced some sort of discrimination in the past that required her to fight for rights? I know that I can get defensive when people bring up issues they have with working mothers, just because of my past experiences. If not, maybe she is the exception, not the rule?

          I know that after I delivered, I couldn’t stand for long periods of time, so the idea of working a full shift was pretty much impossible, but this would be for the first few weeks. Once I went back to work, I purposefully took TA sections that were at night after my husband got home from work, so I would have liked this graveyard shift option! I hope there were some resources for this new mom to investigate ways to develop a better balance between her job and the things she valued as important for the bond with her child. I also believe that both men and women should get some time off initially after a baby is born, equality IS important!!

  7. I got pregnant while i was working on my master’s thesis as a GA. My son was born 8 weeks early due to preeclampsia, and he spent 5 weeks in the NICU. My university handled things as best they knew how, and in a fair way, but it was clear that no one was prepared to deal with a situation such as that, so everyone was winging it. There need to be better, clearer protections for women with families in academia, especially at the student-worker stage.

  8. Thank you so much for this post. As a grad student considering starting a family before the end of my PhD, I must admit this is a little terrifying. It is wonderful to hear that it can be done, but disheartening to hear how much of a struggle it is. Starting a family in itself is daunting, but this is only exacerbated when there seems to be so little support, and when any support you have is extremely unstable since you have no idea whether there will be any at all after you graduate. I also recently realized that none of the women in my department have children, and the absence of “role models”, or really anyone to turn to for advice, certainly doesn’t help. So I am thankful for the comments too, even if hearing of others’ experiences is not entirely reassuring, it certainly is helpful.

  9. Don’t know if this helps – of my childrens’ friends and family who have had babies in the last few years, I know of some mothers who have stayed home full time and others who have returned to work under various different arrangements. Both groups find it hard at times. From my own experience of a generation ago, no matter how ‘perfect’ you think your arrangements are, you will often feel totally overwhelmed. Young parents who work have a tough time and possibly can’t do anything with the same vigour they did before. Young parents who decide one of them stays home also have a tough time, from my observation, and still can’t do anything with the same vigour they did before.

    If you have an internal need to continue your profession, that is important for you and eventually, with yourself cared for in this way, it will also be important for the whole family. Whatever you decide to do is right for you, just hold that thought and forge forward. Raising kids is a very special extra that some of us are fortunate enough to experience. Be confident in whatever you decide, and be forthright if you think you need extra considerations at work.

    I wish all of you the very, very best. It will work out Ok in the end.

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  14. Spot on. It was told to me (with a sneer) multiple times that having children was a ‘choice’ and you would have to deal with the consequences/career hit if you ‘chose’ to have children.

  15. Wow! You hit home with so many of these points. I was pregnant with with my son during qualifying exams, and did my comps when he was 3 months old. My department and committee are supportive in the sense that they also wish academia was friendlier to women with or planning on having children. The structural obstacles are hard for even our graduate chair to fight. I feel fortunate that my pregnancy wasn’t made out to be a medical diagnosis, but it’s been hard being asking to extend myself further than I already do as a new mom. Women shouldn’t have to choose between their families and their careers. It’s such a trap to make this choice, and then to be judged for our choices…all of which seem to be open for public and private judgment. Thanks for writing about your experience!

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