Everything makes sense when you are in the planning stages. At least when I make plans it does. The problem always seems to be with the execution. When my husband and I sat down to talk about having a baby in my last year of my PhD program everything was going to work seamlessly. I would wrap up my remaining lab work, move home, we’d get pregnant and then I’d spend the duration of my pregnancy writing and defending the PhD and applying for postdocs. Based on what I had heard about the job market it could take a while. So with the downtime of being between jobs I could raise the little Niffler and be ready for work whenever it appeared. And yet, life did not work out that way.
Completing my experiments took longer than planned, writing my dissertation and getting it approved went TERRIBLY and longer than I planned, and conceiving a child took MUCH longer than I planned. All of the extra time it took to accomplish my goals wouldn’t have been a big deal accept the one thing I planned to take time didn’t. I was offered and accepted the first postdoc I applied for. It was a dream job with a great PI that I could not say no to. So now, I find myself a year and a half later only having graduated 2 months ago, 2 months into a postdoc and 7 months pregnant. I am EXHAUSTED.
Back in my planning stages I had all the pre-conceived notions of what being pregnant would be like and feel like in respect to being a working mom in academia. I had read all the stories about woman who had been made to feel less than or who weren’t accommodated and said that wouldn’t be me. But I’ll be damned; even my best attempts at blocking out some of the toxic culture that exists for woman in academia failed. Here are some key things I said I would do re: pregnancy and academic work and how its playing out in practice.
Note: Now before I go more into detail about this, I want to make clear that my boss is a wonderful human who has been accommodating and kind and the opposite of what I would expect based on other women’ s stories. Without their support I probably would have quit already. The problem is that I know that people who act this way are still in the minority.
1) “I will not overwork myself during my pregnancy or during maternity leave. I did enough of that during my PhD.”
As the start date for maternity leave looms closer by the second, I can’t help but feel disappointed that I haven’t done more. None of my dissertation chapters have been published and neither have any of my side projects. My original goal coming into this Postdoc was to get 4 manuscripts out before I went on maternity leave (I REALLY need to set less ambitious goals). I am knee deep in my postdoc project and have to start preparing to hand the reigns over to my student who will be in charge until I get back. I was hoping to be a bit further in terms of completed milestones re: manuscripts and research but I know that I have done as muchas I could without overexerting or pushing myself past what is healthy for me or my fetus. So while I have stuck to my guns on this one, I was not expecting such a heavy load of guilt to come with it. As a black woman in STEM and academia, I already know come job search time I will be more heavily scrutinized than my colleagues. That fact is sitting on my chest like 30 lb. weight.
2) “I am not going to feel bad about taking maternity leave and I am going to take as much time as I want/can afford”
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. While I am taking the maximum amount of leave allowed by my university for postdocs (4 months), that damn guilt has brought all of its bags and moved into my apartment. How can I abandon my projects for 4 whole months?! There are grants due while I’m on leave and what about those manuscripts I haven’t gotten out yet. Not to mention I basically started my job to take a 4-month vacation (I know maternity leave is not a vacation!). My boss should just fire me and start over again on a not pregnant postdoc. In addition to the guilt there’s the creeping fear that I 1) Will be bored out of mind after the first month or two, 2) Will be completely overwhelmed re: motherhood and yet be compelled to work during leave and 3) Won’t want to go back to work. While I know that maternity leave is not a vacation, I really haven’t had more than a few weeks off from school or work since the summer before I started college. What if I enjoy not working? Will all the sacrifices made to get this PhD and this job be for naught? I will be the embodiment of the leaky pipeline; one of those women who wasted all these resources just to get pregnant and leave the academy. While I’m intellectually aware that this is a manifestation of my imposter syndrome and anxiety, it unfortunately doesn’t make it any less real most of the time.
While I like to think of myself as a bad ass womanist who isn’t going to take any bs from the system that wasn’t built for me and would really prefer if I just went away, the truth is I’m still human and all of these feelings are real and those messages hurt on so many levels. But I have proven my resilience time and time again. I can only promise myself that I can keep pushing through the messages being sent to me on a daily basis and do my best to be the best academic and the best mom and wife that I can be, whatever path that leads me on. I can only be sure that whatever path I do end up on I do my best to ensure that I make it easier for those following behind me until one day there are women who get pregnant in academia and no one bats an eyelash about it.
I say all of this to say if you have a pregnant student or postdoc or other early career researcher in your lab or building, be kind because its likely they are having similar feelings, thoughts and emotions and a little extra kindness goes a long way.