Pregnancy in Academia

Earlier this week, The New York Times blogger K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote “Pregnant Without a Policy in Graduate School”.  The author received a letter from a medical student whose pregnancy was viewed primarily as “a personal issue [she] was having”.  The author wrote,  “She’s wondering – and so am I – if her experience is typical of that of the pregnant graduate student, in medicine or anywhere else, and if set policies would benefit students or limit them”?

I was surprised that the author wondered at how typical these experiences were.  Although I have not been pregnant and in graduate school before (but hope to be at some point), I have many friends who have been.  Some were accommodated by understanding faculty members.  Others were not.  One friend, when announcing her pregnancy to our cohort was told by a faculty member, “Well, that will affect your academic career”.  Even at the same university, experiences with pregnancy in graduate school can vary widely by department.

But even those who have wonderful advisors and committees face challenges.  During pregnancy, it can be difficult to balance classes, graduate assistantships and other duties.  Although one commenter on Dell’Antonia’s blog post wrote that it was easy to take a leave of absence, that isn’t always the case.  Many graduate students are financially dependent on their assistantships and fellowships.  Going to graduate school is a job as much as it is a scholarly pursuit, and often students cannot afford to take a year off.

After pregnancy, it can be difficult to find adequate facilities to breast feed or pump.  Child care is expensive and not widely available.  Although a few universities subsidize childcare for its students, making it affordable, many times there are daunting waiting lists.  At my university, most students wait an upward of 18 months before then can enroll their children.  Some graduate students trade off child care duties with their spouses, taking independent studies or night classes to make their schedules more flexible.  Others rely on gracious extended family members to help them through.

Although some graduate students are able to make pregnancy work, many choose to wait indefinitely until they finish.  But with the tremendous time it takes to finish an M.A., a Ph.D., a DVM, an M.D. and then go on to residencies or post-doc positions, this can be a gamble.  All this to say – in response to Kell’Antonia’s post – yes, unfortunately, this pregnant graduate student’s situation is common.

So, what should be done?

Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee, authors of Professor Mommy outline strategies for up and coming scholars to balance work and family life.  Their book discusses everything from the best time to have children, to choosing the right institution, to going up for tenure as a mother.  Moreover, they recommend that women who have already been tenured work to change things on campuses – to work for better and less expensive childcare options; to allow for leaves of absence and for the tenure track to be stopped for a year to accommodate pregnancy; to create spaces for women to pump or breast feed; and so on.  In the collection of essays entitled Mama, PhD, edited by Elrena Evans and Miriam Peskowitz, women write of their experiences, and provide encouragement for women at all stages of their academic careers.  They too call for more sensitivity to pregnancy in academia.

Certainly the challenges faced by women in graduate school are not unique to them.  Working women face many of the same barriers.  But for me, all that signals is an even greater need for change.  For not only accommodation, but for acceptance and even – dare I say it – celebration of pregnant bodies in public spaces.