Rachel Leventhal-Weiner

Visiting Assistant Professor at Trinity College

The Perfect Academic Baby

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It's Day Two of our series on pregnancy, motherhood, and the academy. Stay tuned for more. Monday: Sarah Kendzior asked, Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? Wednesday: Kelly J. Baker pondered, Are Children Career Killers?

Five years ago, as I was working toward my Ph.D. in sociology, I learned that I was pregnant. When I told some senior female colleagues the news, they responded by sharing with me the myth of the perfect academic baby. It arrives under the cover of night—presumably without the need for an epidural—in the sunny month of June, after the spring semester has safely ended.

My pregnancy was a great blessing. But the due date was unmistakably imperfect: March.

A March baby makes for a host of problems in the life of a graduate student. That wasn’t a surprise to me, though: When it came to pregnancy and parenthood, I did everything wrong from the outset.

I had baby on the brain from the moment I started grad school. I joined my program the summer after I got married, at age 28. In early talks with our director of graduate studies, instead of asking about comps or research-assistant roles, I inquired about maternity leave. From the start of my training, I faced the age-old choice of academic motherhood: Have kids in graduate school, or wait until after tenure? I might never find that tenure-track job, the search could take longer than expected, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I wasn’t sure I could afford to wait.

As a first-time soon-to-be-parent, I didn’t spend too much time feeling stressed about our baby’s arrival. Instead I was preoccupied with completing items on my academic to-do list, including my master’s thesis and a complex-methods course outside of my department. Both were slated for the spring semester, when I would be my most pregnant. Once I learned that our first baby was due over spring break, I prayed that I wouldn’t be teaching my own course. It was going to be a daunting year of school, but I was determined to make it work.

The passage of time that year felt glacial. But as the months slowly unfolded, so did the hypocrisy of my institution.

Pregnancy is a contentious topic in many lines of work, of course. But it can be especially fraught for academics, thanks in large part to the nature of the university calendar. The prevailing expectation is that most of us will be in the classroom for nine months of the year, and researching and writing year-round.

In a rigid nine-month calendar, there’s little room for personal tragedy or calamity, for a crisis of the mind or a change of the heart. Many academics don’t get formal vacation time because it has always been assumed that vacation will happen over the summer, or during a campuswide scheduled break. But with the advent of January terms and summer sessions kicking off the day after commencement, there’s less and less downtime for many professors.

So while many scholars may technically be entitled to short-term disability leave after childbirth, and up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the vagaries of the teaching schedule may make it difficult for them to take it. That said, at many institutions, faculty members can negotiate for a semester of paid leave or extend their leave unpaid without the threat of losing their job. Professors on the tenure track can often pause their tenure clocks.

Graduate students at my university weren’t so lucky. While many of us did the same amount of teaching as faculty members (a 2/2 course load every semester from the time we earned our master’s degrees onward), our institution devalued us as employees. The first problem was a simple lack of information: If my department administrator hadn’t pointed me to the university’s statement on graduate student maternity leave, I would never have known about it.

The second problem, I soon learned, was even more worrisome: Grad students could access maternity benefits only while we were being paid. And we were paid only during the nine months of the school year. So much for June. In a cruel twist of fate, there would be no perfect academic babies for us.

When you find that you have no actual paid leave, either because your department won’t honor the policy or because you can’t afford to take unpaid leave, it’s time to make some difficult decisions. I’ve watched many graduate student colleagues drag themselves (and sometimes their breast pumps) back to the classroom earlier than they’d prefer, just to keep their stipends and their health benefits. And I’ve seen many others cobble together classroom coverage from their graduate-student peers for a few meager weeks. In these arrangements, everyone loses: The students get a half-dedicated instructor and the families get a half-dedicated parent.

During pregnancy, you cede control of your body. As a teacher or even a teaching assistant, your body is always on full display. We had a baby boom in our department that year, and there was an air of general acceptance, but I still heard plenty of comments about my hormones, my ability to concentrate on my work, and the state of my body. Mentors mentioned “my condition” or “my state” as though I was a “girl in trouble” in 1957, instead of a grown, married woman.

Negotiating our sprawling campus as a pregnant graduate student was exhausting. Off campus, if strangers saw me lumbering, rushing, or struggling, they would give up their seat, hold the door for me, or simply smile. On a campus full of self-absorbed students, I stood on bus rides to the outskirts of the commuter parking lot and then schlepped over to my car. I could not fit in desks and dreaded the three flights of stairs in the ADA-unfriendly building where I kept my office. In the mailroom, a young male faculty member gestured towards my growing belly and asked “What’s going on here?” as though he’d never seen a pregnant woman before or was too nervous to ask me if I was expecting. Others simply stared.

Looking back, my concerns about pregnancy and the earliest days of parenthood mirrored the concerns I felt about my own authority as a scholar. Before I went public with my news, I worried that my colleagues and mentors would stop taking me seriously or question my dedication to my research. The year of my first pregnancy was the hardest year for me, because as the weeks passed, my colleagues began to see me as mother first and scholar second. I felt like I was all belly and no brain, that my intellect took a backseat to my bulging middle. If I shed my identity as a scholar and let motherhood take center stage, I worried, no one would be there to rein me back in. My mentors, I feared, would lose interest in me. The structured life of the academy is no place for a person with a distracted mind. In choosing to expand my family, I felt like ivory-tower roadkill, left behind in many ways.

Somehow I managed to earn my master’s degree, just two weeks shy of my impending due date. Four days before I was finally induced, I proctored a midterm exam for a class of 70 students. Their mouths gaped as I wandered up and down the aisles of the lecture hall, passing out exams. Although they had noticed me sitting in the front row all semester, somehow they had missed my growing belly. And like any diligent teaching assistant with no time off, I graded their midterms while I was in labor.

The myth of the perfect academic baby is just that—a myth. Most academic babies, like regular babies, are born whenever they darn well please. Academic work lives, however, are often governed by an unforgiving set of expectations levied by an unfriendly employer. Unlike elementary- or secondary-school educators, who are surrounded by children of various ages and stages, the academy sees itself as an adult place.

Scholarly life is built around the assumption that your time and dedication to your work will both be everlasting. With a newborn on my hip, I found that I could not be both Perfect Future Scholar and Perfect Mom, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to try.

I now have two daughters. In raising them, I have adjusted my expectations of myself—I now prioritize parenthood, in all of its imperfections, over a life of “pure” scholarship.

Five years later, I know that muddling through was worth it, despite the extra year it took to finish and defend my dissertation project. And though I am not yet settled into my long-term position, parenthood has taught me to accept uncertainty, to be patient, and to revel in the simple and delightful moments with my family.

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  • Wonderful reminders of what is really important, Rachel. Thank you!

    Keith Myers
    Keith Myers
  • Brilliant but sad analysis of the lack of support for women navigating all that we do (still, in the twenty-first century), in grad school and elsewhere. Yes, family is what's really important, but that doesn't mean ambition and desire and oppression and forced sacrifice aren't. You know I can't help comparing your story to the stories of the male partners of pregnant women academics -- some similarities, but a whole lotta differences.

    Barb Grr
    Barb Grr
  • Thank you for this post! Sadly, your experience is all too familiar to me, and I'm still struggling to fit back into my department and catch up with my research. It is so very important to normalize all stages of motherhood in academia, and honest accounts like yours will lead us there!

    Catharine Wallace
    Catharine Wallace
  • I completely relate. I accepted a tenure-track position last year just weeks before I knew I was pregnant, and 5 years into my dissertation project! It's set me back considerably with departmental contributions and dissertation work, but it's been worth the challenge. Finally starting to get back on track.

    Laura Mangini
    Laura Mangini
  • Thank you for this post. Just so you know, it doesn't actually get any better once you have tenure. We teach 4/4, and my second daughter is due in mid-September! We (as a family) can't afford for me to take the whole semester off from teaching, so it's turned into this ridiculous ordeal of: teach 3-4 weeks, take leave, and teach 3-4 weeks again. As if a due date is actually a set date in time.

    It's as if no one has ever had a baby before. Very, very frustrating.

    Karen Redding
    Karen Redding
  • So much of this resonates with me. I tried for the perfect academic baby too and thought I hit the jackpot with a January 2nd due date, right between semesters of my 2nd year. Of course, my son was born (via unplanned c-section) 8 days past his due date - aka deadline - and I had to start classes a week later in order to maintain my funding. I trudged through a frigid winter with a newborn attending 9 hours of class each week and fretting about all the lab work I was failing to do. I felt guilty about everything -- leaving my baby, staying home with my baby, recovering from surgery, asking my husband to do more, taking vacation time...

    M J
    M J
  • It's depressing to hear that there are still so many barriers to women in academia. I was extraordinarily fortunate in my universities, my colleagues, and my friends. I got pregnant with my first child during my third year of grad school. I was allowed to take my comprehensive exams a semester early. My daugher was born on August 8, 1980, and I was back in the classroom three weeks later taking classes (with her in my arms, breastfeeding) and teaching classes (with the help of my husband and my male dissertation advisor). When she was 15 months old, I went to Mali to do fieldwork, along with my husband, for two years. When we came home, I deliberately got pregnant again in the fall of our last year of dissertation writing. I went to a job interview in April 1985 -- very pregnant -- and got the job. My son was due in mid-June, but came early, the day after I defended my dissertation. He turned out to have Down syndrome and needed surgery to survive. My husband defended his dissertation three days later. We named our son Peter Hunter Dettwyler and sent out announcements that we had received three PhDs that weekend. I started work at my first academic job, a two-year Visiting Professor gig. in September, while my husband stayed home with Peter full-time. After two years, in 1987, I got a tenure-track job at Texas A&M. Before I came up for tenure, I decided to have another baby. I was able to teach first summer session, rather than second, and a tenured colleague gave up his parking spot next to the department so I didn't have to walk far in the Texas heat while pregnant. My younger son was born on August 10, 1991, and I was happily back in the classroom in early September, with a T/R schedule, teaching two sections of one class, a class I had taught many times before. A grad student came to the house to watch Alex while I was teaching. I took him with me to office hours, faculty meetings, and students' dissertation defenses. I earned tenure when he was just over 2 years of age. I never got anything but 100% support for my role as a parent from my anthropology colleagues. Throughout their childhoods, I left campus at 3 pm every day to go pick them up from school and day-care. In 2000, I walked away from my tenured position after a diagnosis of cancer, when my youngest was 9. Today, 14 years later, I teach part-time as an adjunct, and work on my research and writing whenever the mood strikes me. I leave campus at 2:30 pm every day to be home for the para-transit bus that brings Peter home from his Easter Seals day program. We need to recognize that it isn't simply the nature of academia, or university-wide policies, per se, that make being a parent difficult for female academics -- it's the attitudes and beliefs of our colleagues. I was fortunate to have wonderful colleagues, and have always gone out of my way to support my colleagues in return -- whether they need volunteer help for their own health issues or for childbirth or adoption. Be the change you want to see in the world.

    Katherine Dettwyler
    Katherine Dettwyler
  • Interesting articles in a good series. It's important, I think, to keep in mind not just the actual things that actually do happen when one has a child, but also the role of perceptions of parenthood, entirely independent of what actually happens. You mention this briefly, but I just wanted to add a link to a couple of blogs I wrote based on research on the effects of the perception of motherhood and the perception of fatherhood. It's not encouraging, but it also shows that there's more than family friendly policies that are needed.
    The motherhood penalty: it's not children that slow mothers down: http://bit.ly/motherhoodpenalty
    The fatherhood bonus: have a child and advance your career: http://bit.ly/xEiTox

    Curt Rice
    Curt Rice