Family Leave Policies

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 mostlypositive 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.


16 thoughts on “Family Leave Policies

    • Yes! I read your piece and all the others last week. What a great feature Vitae ran. I wrote this post ~2 months ago, or else I would have linked directly to them all. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective.

  1. I had my baby during my last semester of grad school. My university offers 6 weeks/8 weeks leave for vaginal/c-section recovery if you are teaching. I wanted a more flexible leave and was worried I wouldn’t finish if I was also teaching, so I went on filing status, which is similar to withdrawal, but still allows you to file. I returned to writing 6 weeks pp and filed my thesis on time.

    Everyone’s pregnancy and postpartum experiences are different, but I would urge you to remain flexible with your plans and set yourself up for success in both your health and science by having some alternative options in case pregnancy and birth do not go as expected. During my 3rd tri, I experienced symptoms of PTL and had to greatly curtail my lab activities. I also was not fully healed from birth until about 6 weeks pp (couldn’t sit/drive without a lot of pain) and experienced mild PPA that was exacerbated by returning to the lab at 6 weeks to finish my thesis. I wish I’d taken better care of myself pp, but of course, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. I hope that your experiences are much easier!

    Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy 🙂 Being a parent is an amazing experience!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. Our university has no leave policies for grad students or post-docs. As a PI, this is exasperating. I have no idea what to advise my students or who they can talk to. In the end, the decision on what to do to help them falls solely on me and I have had to fill out ridiculous forms and/or lie in order to support my mentees so they can both do their work and have access to medical coverage. Dignity shouldn’t depend on the good graces of a single person or bucking the system. It’s not fair to the student — or their supervisor.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective as a PI on being at a university with no leave policies for grads/post-docs. It’s heartening (but maddening) to know that we agree that dignity shouldn’t depend on the good graces of one person (often a middle aged male PI) or lying. Since my PI did not offer me any paid time away/flexibility of his own volition, I would have rather taken the unpaid time via Family Medical Leave Act (well, as much as possible here without disrupting my health coverage) than have to ask for accommodation — because family leave shouldn’t be a gift or favor that advisors dole out to those they deem worthy.

  3. I’m a grad student in pharmacology, and my baby’s 8 weeks old now 🙂 I think it’s a bit easier for me because (a) my program has a formal policy – 30 days’ leave (which I’m taking to mean 30 work days = 6 weeks); (b) I’m currently writing my thesis, so no more lab work; and (c) my mostly female lab is super supportive and doesn’t expect *any* grad student who is writing a thesis to be around much.

    In terms of reception, I have to say that my pregnancy/baby have had mostly positive, congratulatory responses. My committee (old white males) did want to make sure that I had a plan to finish on time, but they didn’t say anything demeaning or negative. I think there’s starting to be a recognition (at least at my institution) that waiting until post-doc/professorship/tenure isn’t always the smartest move, since we’d just be older and busier. So overall, while my thesis writing has suffered a bit (baby was 4 weeks early, so the thesis wasn’t written nearly as much as it should have been), I’m planning on enjoying every moment I spend with baby, because I know I’ll have a lot less time for the next one.

    • Congrats! Glad to hear you and baby are healthy and doing well. And really glad to hear that you’ve had a positive experience with your advisor and institution. Your situation is an example of my original point – how the specific institution and supervisor matters greatly, since not all schools/employers have policies, let alone good ones. Hope everything continues to go smoothly!

  4. Congrats on your pregnancy! I had my first child during my PhD (end of year 4) and my second child during my post-doc. I’m now a T-T Ass’t Professor at a research university. My experience with having my child during grad school was mostly positive. I was a student at a Canadian university, which generally meant more acceptance for maternity leave, although, very surprisingly the university did not have a real policy. In the end my advisor (older male) and I just decided that he would support me on an RA throughout and I could come and go as I desired. This meant that I mostly stayed home for the first 4-5 months, but very willingly came in with my baby for lab-meetings, etc. I also managed to do a lot of analyses and writing during this time. At about the 5 month mark, my son started part-time daycare and I worked half-days for another 5 months, before returning to full-time work. Overall, I received only positive comments, and felt empowered by my decision and experience. I also did field work during my pregnancy, and had no problems at all. I wish you the best of luck as you navigate these waters. Staying positive and strong can go a long way!

    • Thanks for sharing your story and glad to hear your advisor was flexible, especially given that you too were at a school with no leave policy. I hope your current university has a policy in place (and/or that you can have one as a department or lab — it’s crazy to me that a lack of institutional policy means that an advisor could give leave/flexibility to one grad but not another).

  5. Congratulations, I send much vicarious joyfullness to you and your family, and I hope all goes as well as it possibly can go. I cannot understand anyone not celebrating the miracle of a new life and not wanting the mother to have the best emotional support possible, even if they can’t do much about the physical circumstances.

    I’m not going to gild the lily – it is hard. Even when everything goes well, as it did for me, it is emotionally and physically hard. Just accept this and get on with what you want to do, because it is also do-able as the previous commenters have said. And everyone’s solution is different. One thing that kept me going was a supportive partner – and it seems you have that. Working it through together stops the molehills developing into mountains, and sometimes makes them disappear. In my case, it was worth the extra effort (both the family and the science). And, although it doesn’t seem like it, there are more women with families around in academia now than in my day, so that support – even the support online here – I hope will help you. (I only knew of one other professional who went back to work soon after a baby, a close friend of mine whose second was 6 months older than my first – and she was in a flexible teaching-only position whereas at the time, I was in a research-only position with standing-at-the-bench work).

    I am very sorry that your (and your husband’s) colleagues are not generally more supportive and joyful for you, but you just have to think that is their problem not yours, and do what you know in your heart and head (sometimes the head has to win!!) is right for you two.

    All the very, very best for the health of you and your little one, and also for the completion of the science.

    ps. A Mommy-lecture: when all is done and dusted, look after your own health first. if things are not going as well as you hoped medically, then STOP and let your body do the best it can at recovery. This was said above by someone else, and I can speak from experience too with a couple of long-term problems that only developed as i got much older, which seem to have been due to my running around like a mad thing during pregnancy, as if i was invulnerable. Turns out I wasn’t, even though I felt fine at the time. The science can wait a few months, it doesn’t seem like it at the time, but it can. It is always there to be done another day.

    • Thanks for your well wishes and advice! I heartily agree that in person and online support from other female academics and even a few male academics has already made dealing with the mole hills better. 🙂

  6. I got pregnant during grad school as well. We were ready and tired of putting it off because of the fact we were in academia. We were very lucky that we got pregnant right away in October, putting me due at the beginning of July, which would allow me 6 weeks to be at home with my daughter before I would have to potentially start teaching again. Then we had a whole bunch of other drama when we found out my husband’s postdoc lab was running out of money and he had to go on the job market, but I digress.

    We actually had overall positive responses. I think because there have been a few other grad students who had kids during they time in grad school. My advisor and his wife (who was one of my committee members) were both super supportive when we told them. My advisor told me to collect as much data as possible because I could write up my dissertation from anywhere. Also, he paid me as a research assisstant during my last semester so I could focus on research, and paid me through the summer, even after I had my daughter.

    I had some great role models in my department, successful women who had families and did not sacrifice their families for work. Now I am moving on to my postdoc and I am very happy because my advisor is a woman with two kids who told me she puts her family first. During my interview, she told me she was excited to help a fellow mother out the way others had helped her.

    Also, the two body problem sucks!! We were very fortunate that my husband just recently got a tenure track position and I was able to find a relevant postdoc. Now what will happen after I finish my postdoc, who knows.

    Good luck to you and your husband with your little one.

    • Thanks for the well wishes and thanks for sharing your story! I’m glad to hear your advisor was accommodating and that some of the road had been paved by others before you. Again, it makes it clear that individual institution and advisor really matter — imagine if everyone could have the flexibility, support and resources that your advisor wanted for you!

      [And yes, the two body problem is terrible but a story for another time … glad to hear you and your husband have a solution for now]

  7. I haven’t heard anyone mention it here, and I think it is very important to know that pregnant women and mothers are offered protections under Title Nine. This article mentions it primarily in regards to graduate students and post-docs.

    Here is a flier with some more basics about Title Nine

    It is worth investigating at your university.

  8. I think it is OUTRAGEOUS that there is no federal PAID maternity/paternity leave in the US! We should all petition for this!
    “The U.S. is the only high-income nation not to have paid maternity leave, while almost all middle- and low-income countries offer it, too,” says Jody Heymann, founding director of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and author of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone. The exceptions include Swaziland, Papua New Guinea—and us.

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