By Jeanette Mokry
Halfway through my sixth year on the tenure track and a few weeks before my materials for tenure were due, I received news far better than earning the tenure I had been working towards. I was pregnant! My department culture is one where we meet to discuss a colleague’s tenure application. After several people suggested I attend a conference that August, I shared that I wouldn’t be able to do so because I was pregnant, due in August. Although it was early in my pregnancy, I felt okay sharing the news and in fact had planned to do so within the week, as we’d soon be planning courses for the coming year, a year in which I’d be on leave for the fall. Congratulations were shared, and I left the meeting hopeful that I’d have two things to celebrate in the year ahead.
A day later I was supposed to meet with my dean to talk about my case for tenure. Instead, I called him from my doctor’s office to let him know I wouldn’t be making it to the meeting (which he likely already realized as I called him after the meeting was set to begin). I told him I had a family emergency. When he told me he hoped I was okay I said, “I’m not. But I will be.” I had just learned that my baby had no heartbeat.
When I returned to my office later (having had to wait for an ultrasound to confirm what the doctor had suspected), I saw two colleagues in the hallway. I asked if anyone had come to my office, as I had to cancel office hours last minute. I shared where I’d been and what I learned. And I cried. My husband was waiting for me downstairs so I grabbed what I needed and went home. The next morning as I cried in the shower, I decided to go to work. To me it was better than the alternative – sulking the day away at home. I made it through most of my classes, wondering in the back of my mind if my students could tell I’d been crying all night the night before. By the end of the day I was just too tired, physically and emotionally, and asked a colleague to cover my last class. It wasn’t until months later that I would learn that my colleagues had shared lecture notes with one another and were already prepared to cover my classes for me that day. I had told my brother that I wished I’d never told my department I was pregnant, because now I had to tell them that I wasn’t anymore. But he said to me, “Don’t you think that’s a good thing for them to know?” And he was right. I wasn’t myself. I was hurting. I was sad, I was tired, and I wasn’t focused. And I needed their support. From the colleagues working together to make sure my classes would be taught, to the colleague who shared his own story of loss, to the colleague who sat with me while I cried in her office, I was able to get through that day.
Unfortunately, that was not the only time during my journey to motherhood when I would need my colleagues’ support. At the end of the semester, I found out I was pregnant again. Early in the summer, while teaching summer school, I found out I’d miscarried again. This time I needed surgery and it would mean missing a day of class. I asked a colleague who was also teaching during the summer if he would cover for me. He did without hesitation, and he didn’t ask why. It would be months before I would share that second miscarriage with my department, and I told different people at different times. One such time was early in the fall semester, when I once again needed someone to cover a class while I had surgery. I had gone to see a specialist after my second loss and a saline ultrasound revealed that I had scar tissue in my uterus, either due to not everything being cleaned out during my D&C or my body’s reaction to it. Either way, it had to be taken care of if I were to successfully have a full-term pregnancy. With both surgeries I simply told my students I was having out-patient surgery, that I would be okay, and that I’d only be missing one day.
For months I struggled with my losses, and with the fact that I couldn’t seem to get pregnant again. Until that day that I found out I was pregnant for the third time. It was August, and so I felt like I didn’t have to rush to tell my colleagues. We wouldn’t be planning for the coming academic year until December or January. They’d been so supportive in the past, but I wanted to hold on to the news for a little while. Gradually, I shared with my department and others on campus. Throughout the semester, I’d be asked how I was doing, how I was feeling. I was on sabbatical that spring so I knew I wouldn’t have to miss any classes despite having a late April due date. I emailed my department news of my son’s birth, and even with it being the most hectic time of the semester, I received congratulations from almost everyone.
After all my struggles to have my son, I feared that it would once again be two years before I would get pregnant again. I always wanted more than one child, so my husband and I decided we’d start trying again when our son was just a few months old. And when I returned in January, having been home in the fall on maternity leave, I was pregnant once again. There was definitely a sense of surprise from people when I shared the news, but no one seemed bothered that I’d be popping back for just a semester only to leave again. Or if they were, they never let it on.
Once again, I was home in the fall for maternity leave. But this time, when I returned in January my baby was only four-and-a-half months old, and I had a toddler. I had requested a schedule that allowed me extra time to get to work than I was used to, assuming it would take longer to get out the door with two little ones – and I had assumed correctly! And given the expense of having two little ones in daycare, I opted to stay home with them on the days I wasn’t teaching. So here I was – two under two, working full time but home four days a week, with a new prep that required me to learn the material as I went. To say I was exhausted was an understatement. But once again, my colleagues showed how supportive they can be. I attended meetings via speaker phone so I could be home with my children. With the support of my department chair, I changed the meetings I hold as a coordinator of several courses from in-person to an online discussion board. On several occasions I had to pull out of a commitment I’d made to a colleague last minute –a child was sick, I was sick, or I’d left my pumping accessories at home and had to leave early to fit in a pumping session before picking up my kids. Each time I was met with understanding.
I often think about what my brother told me after my first miscarriage. Sharing something personal with colleagues can be difficult, it can be awkward, but it can be critical to getting through a difficult time. Like many women in mathematics, I believed my personal struggles should not be brought into the workplace. However, sharing what I was going through helped me succeed in my job, thanks to the support of my colleagues.
Jeanette Mokry is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Dominican University and a mother of two young children, Austin and Olivia.