Rachel Leventhal-Weiner

Education Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children

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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