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.”

Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.

Unpaid Work, Part 2: Breastfeeding

Breastmilk is not free.

When I saw this on Instagram, I had an Oprah “Ah-ha!” moment, because I’d never thought about it this way. Nobody does! We see how crazy expensive formula is and think we’re saving money by breastfeeding (as well as all of the other benefits), but ultimately, we’re paying indirectly in the form of unpaid work. And we do, all too often, think of women’s time, bodies and carework as worthless.

We pay in lack of sleep. We pay in hours of unpaid “on-the-job training,” learning how to breastfeed while we’re also recovering from childbirth. We pay in delaying a return to work or pumping at work. We pay in having to buy supplies for this unpaid work: breast-feeding friendly tops and nursing bras and nursing pillows and pumps and nipple cream and Fenugreek supplements and lactation cookies and Motherkind tea. We pay in the emotional labour of fielding unsolicited advice from strangers and friends and family about how we choose to feed our babies, how long we keep it up and whether/ how we do it in public.

Not only is it not always easy–it’s also not free.

What I’m Reading

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I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.

 

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)