I’m writing about both happy news and … other news. The happy news is that the partner and I are expecting Kid #2. It’s something we’re hopeful and excited about, especially after an uncomfortable miscarriage. Maybe if I lived in a different place (I’m in the US) or a different time (please, I hope the next generation of academics and workers will have different working conditions), the news would end there. Yay for (planned) parenthood for the folks who want to be parents. End of story.
But it’s not.
This potential Kid#2 has a probable due date of right after I’m PhinisheD. Yes, right after I officially graduate, AKA in theory when I would be starting a new position. This has made postdoc and job searching – and overall career planning – very, very difficult.
Yes, it was my* decision to have Kid#1 and to try for Kid#2 *. Yes, technically it would be illegal for potential employers to refuse to hire me on the basis of me being a pregnant person ***. Yes, technically it would be illegal for potential employers to even ask me about a pregnancy or marriage or kids ****.
In the US, the (unpaid) family leave doesn’t apply for folks who are just starting jobs. You must have worked at least 20 hrs a week for a full year before you are eligible for FMLA (again, UNPAID) leave*****. So I have zero protections in the workplace in practice. Even if an employer chose to hire me, we’re talking about having to give birth on one TBD day and returning to work the next. Unless I somehow already had access to sick leave, which is unlikely and would buy me a few days – which may not be enough to even get out of the hospital.
So. I’m sort of stuck at the moment. It doesn’t seem to make sense to even look at job or postdoc ads. Who is going to hire me and then let me delay for 2 or 3 months? That’s not realistic outside of the academy, as the non-academic job market has a much quicker application-to-start-date timeline. This doesn’t seem like a situation in which going alt-ac would actually help. Sure, some large companies have their own family leave policies (often, paid – yay!), but they often also have restrictions on how long you must have worked there before you can take such leave. And most employers in the US have no paid family leave at all for employees – some barely offer sick leave.
So yes, it’s my choice to have a kid, but the policies in place at institutional, state, and federal levels are stacked against me being employed and having that kid. While at least California has a state-level paid family leave program, I don’t live there. Other states are discussing the idea but it hasn’t passed yet, and I probably don’t live there either.
Within the academy, postdocs are often hired for a specific project funded by a specific grant. PIs often write these grants to funding agencies for a postdoc to carry out the work of an idea they’ve been thinking about, and then advertise those positions when the funds come through. These have short turn-around times (compared to say, the year-long application process to apply to be a faculty member). I don’t know anyone who was hired for this kind of postdoc close to their due date or immediately thereafter. Perhaps they too self-selected not to apply given the inability to have access to time off. Perhaps the PIs chose not to hire them. Often these grants have set timelines (only some funding agencies allow no-cost-extensions), so delaying a hire for a few months is a burden on their project. The academic system as is rewards PIs and postdocs who churn out publications – asking for needed time off doesn’t fit into that model. Tenure track PIs may get delays on the tenure clock and some (not all) get family leave, but most institutions have nothing for postdocs, male or female.
The other kind of postdoc, a more independent fellowship directly from funders, is far less common and more prestigious. But that doesn’t mean they have more progressive maternity leave policies^. For example, NIH allows NRSA fellows to use their 15 sick days to apply to maternity leave. How nice of them! Only if those fellows are at institutions that allow paid maternity leave for postdocs are they then allowed to access up to 30 days of paid leave. In practice, maybe people on these fellowships who have supportive PIs don’t even tell the funding agency about a gap in work of ~6 weeks. Again, these fellowships are more rare and very competitive. So while I can hope to get one, odds are against that.
In general, I’ve found that all of the advice and conversation about academic family leave is by and about people who are already in student or faculty positions trying to navigate the (broken) system. Here’s an anonymous article written by a postdoc who had 2 kids during her 4 year “prestigious” postdoc. Here’s another that portends to be “solutions for postdoc parenting problems.” And here’s the official-sounding “A Postdoc’s Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave” from the National Postdoctoral Association. Those are great and important perspectives to add to the overall conversation about the need for family leave and family-friendly policies in the academy, especially for folks in non-faculty positions.
But the constraints and challenges of accessing leave and then balancing work + kids once you’re in a position are different. I don’t mean to undersell those challenges (I’ve been there!), but what about those of us between positions? The current rules and policies seem designed to kick more people, especially women, out of the pipeline. If you’ve been in a similar situation, hired postdocs or staff in similar positions, or otherwise have constructive thoughts to add to this conversation, I look forward to reading them in the comments.
UPDATE: Check out this brand new website developed by women lawyers with support from NSF about how Title IX should be applied to pregnant scholars as students, faculty + employees, + postdocs (basically depending on your institution, postdocs are seen as either students or employees):
They have postdoc specific resources, but again, those apply to people who are already in postdoctoral positions.
*and my partner’s decision. I hate how media references ‘women’ having babies as if we’re cloning ourselves. Not yet!
** there are conflicting figures on how many births are actually not planned, which varies widely depending on birth control use (or not). But the number of unplanned pregnancies is not inconsequential, so I could have been in this situation even if I hadn’t been ‘trying’ per se.
*** but the burden of proof in all EEOC matters on the applicant or employee to show that was the cause of not-hiring, not-promoting, or firing. That’s really tough if not often impossible.
**** but pregnancy is only invisible/a choice to disclose for so long
***** and work for an organization large enough for FLMA to apply. If I were to go work for a start up or small business or the like, they could very well be exempt – AKA it wouldn’t matter how long I had worked there. No right to even unpaid leave to keep the job.
^ or paternity leave.