Pregnancy for Academics

3 weeks postpartum at PhD graduation–at the party, someone asked how I did it, how I combined research and pregnancy/childbirth. I did it by delaying my graduation ceremony, and finishing my PhD before even getting pregnant!

Between not teaching this term, doing up the new house and being pregnant, I’ve neglected this blog over the past couple of months. I’ve been meaning to post thoughts on pregnancy/parenting as an early-career academic, but it’s a big topic to tackle, and difficult to be reflective and inclusive when I really only have my own experiences to share. My maternity leave officially starts today, so I thought I’d have a go anyway and share some of my favourite pregnancy resources.

1) Pregnant Chicken

As a first-time mom who took an instant dislike to the tone of sites like “What to Expect” and “The Bump”, I was thrilled to find “Pregnant Chicken”. Brilliant, funny Canadian writer Amy Morrison is everything you’d want in a mom-friend–she clearly knows her stuff but keeps the tone upbeat and never preachy or judgmental. She strikes the perfect balance between information and entertainment.

Her week-by-week pregnancy calendar e-mails are the only ones I signed up for this time. My favourite posts are this very accurate sleep guide and this essential reading for new parents who are upset/confused/irritated by unsolicited comments & advice.

2) Evidence Based Birth

On a recent Birth Hour podcast, Evidence Based Birth‘s founder Rebecca Dekker, PhD, explained how the site and its resources grew out of her research into her own first birth experience. It was traumatic, for both her and the baby, and included a number of practices that are not supported by evidence. They were simply presented to her as necessary and “the way things are done,” and as a first time mother, she didn’t think to question them. The site presents evidence from actual medical research in a neutral, fact-based way that does not seek to promote any particular philosophy or approach to birth.

As an American in the UK, it’s been very interesting to me to look into the evidence as I try to work out why the NHS does what it does, and why their outcomes are so much better than those in the US healthcare system. This article on the evidence & ethics on circumcision is a great example–if I’d stayed in America, my sons would have been circumcised without a second thought. It’s “the way things are done” there, yet rare in many other countries. The NHS doesn’t perform them routinely.

3) Ina May Gaskin

I never thought I would go for a “natural” approach to childbirth–I always liked the joke that an epidural is “natural” because it’s natural to want pain relief. Two things changed my mind: 1) watching The Business of Being Born, and 2) reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I first heard about counterculture icon Ina May Gaskin in the documentary, and when I became pregnant I turned to her book to learn more. I donated the book after I had George, to pass on her wisdom to others, and then bought another copy when I became pregnant again. I love reading the positive birth stories–especially because we usually hear horror stories from others and in the media! One of my favourite concepts from Gaskin is the idea that women shouldn’t be afraid of giving birth–our bodies are made to do it, and animals don’t approach birth with fear. While there are plenty of scary things that can go wrong, it’s good to be reminded that most of the time, birth doesn’t require extensive medical interventions to get a healthy mom & baby at the end of the process. I’m not 100% on board with all of the ideas presented, but as they said at La Leche League meetings, “take what works for you and leave the rest.”

From whispers to bricks…

In 2008, when I came to Leeds for my Masters, I loved my department. I loved public diplomacy and political communication and the specific ways my department interpreted them, and I admired and respected the vast majority of the staff members. I found friends and mentors, met and fell in love with my now-husband, and I put together a PhD proposal with an amazing supervisor. Everything seemed to be happening for a reason and it all felt right.

After my supervisor’s death, and my other supervisors’ departure from academia, and other staff leaving the department, things changed. I started to sense some whispers, some clues that I no longer belonged in the department. Our international communication experts were replaced with people who interpreted it very differently, and the department abruptly shifted away from public diplomacy. I kept smiling through it all and felt confident that I would be fine. I wasn’t the only one–there were a few of us who were left behind, studying public diplomacy and propaganda in a department that no longer had expertise in those areas. We joked that we were “propaganda pandas”–an endangered species.

I ignored the whispers. I applied to jobs and didn’t get any after the PhD, and I took up short-term, part-time contracts in my department. I told myself it was worth it, to “keep my foot in the door” of academia, to be able to access the library, to have networking opportunities, etc. Apart from a couple of conferences, I have little to show for these 3 years and 10 months of short-term contracts.

Today I got a brick. Nobody in my department has told me directly that I’m definitely not getting my contact renewed–two weeks ago, I was told that they were still allocating teaching and would be in touch. Today, I saw my name in a departmental staff newsletter under the “goodbyes”, listed as one of the people who is leaving.

I’m pretty sure that’s a brick, from the department that’s changed so much over the past decade. I’m going to listen this time, and say goodbye back.

What I’m Reading

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Mama, Ph.D: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008), edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant.

I bought this book almost 3 years ago and I’m finally getting around to reading it, which tells you something about the reality of motherhood and academic life. I read a few chapters with George napping on me today and I love it.

When I bought it, I hoped for some tips and lessons learned, but it’s more theoretical and reflective than that–after all, it was written by academics. I’ve also been surprised by the extent to which I identify with some of their confessions. In the first chapter, Jamie Warner (one of the few contributors who is not yet a mother) voiced some of the very same questions that I’ve considered over the years:

“And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five-page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being ‘average’ considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?” (p. 10)

 

When I was in her shoes, contemplating the big questions of career and family and work-life balance, I wondered whether having a baby so soon after finishing my PhD was partly a delaying tactic, whether I was using it as an excuse for my lack of publications and inability to find a proper (i.e. full-time, permanent, tenure-track) academic job. I half-jokingly reasoned that if it takes a few years to establish your career in academia, you might as well have a kid while you wait for publications to come through and jobs in your field to come up. Now, a few years on, when I voice concerns about my career trajectory, they’re often met with “Oh, but you had a baby”–as if that absolves me from any blame or guilt for not having published more, for not securing a post-doc or a research grant, etc. They’re trying to be comforting, but I don’t see it that way–I hold myself to a higher standard than they do (we’re always our own worst critics).

This book hasn’t really answered any questions for me yet, but it’s comforting to hear other peoples’ experiences and think “It’s not just me!” (On that note, I’ll also recommend Brene Brown’s work)