When early-career meets early-family

When my husband was first starting out in grad school, he took a crosslisted graduate/undergraduate physics class. One day the professor looked away from the board for a moment, gazed out at the class, and said, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Academia is not compatible with family life.”

This was also the day the only two female students in the class were both absent.

There’s a lot to unpack in that line. Sometimes, sexism isn’t even subtle. This isn’t the tyranny of low expectations, or unintentionally writing weaker letters for female students, or women getting crappier student evaluations. Sometimes, we’re still straight-up telling people that women don’t really belong here.

And we’re telling men that they can’t expect to both be a good father and succeed in this business, and that they’d be ridiculous to even want that in the first place. When asked on a survey “Do you think having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?” one responded (also a physicist incidentally, not that I think they’re all that much worse at this than we are) “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.

I couldn’t have finished grad school with a baby. I know people who’ve done it and I think they’re incredible. But it wouldn’t have worked for us. For one thing, I doubt we could’ve even afforded the hospital stay with our stipends and crummy insurance. I knew students who were foreign nationals who’d fly home to have their babies where heath care was government-supported, because there’s no way they could have paid for it here. Not to mention getting time off to recover, affording child care with no family nearby, and finding the time to teach and research. I barely finished as it was. I can’t imagine doing it with a baby.

Then we lived apart for three years while we finished school and postdocs and tried to find positions close to one another. Maybe we could have managed a baby then. But neither one of us wanted to spend such an important time in a child’s life apart, and that’s completely ignoring the problem of timing. Ovulation doesn’t schedule around school breaks and weekend redeye flights.

So we got going late. Once you’re over 35 you get branded at the doctor’s office with either “geriatric pregnancy” or “advanced maternal age.” I don’t feel either geriatric or advanced, but they didn’t ask me. I know about the increased risks, and the decreased fertility. But I also know that plenty of people have kids a little later and the vast majority of them are just fine.

But so far it hasn’t been so lucky for us. A warning here: the rest of this post discusses managing the loss of a pregnancy. If you’d rather skip out now, I don’t blame you and I wish you the best of luck.

This spring, as we got ready to close on our house, I found out I was pregnant. We were thrilled. I had thought for sure it’d take us a long time, or maybe just wouldn’t happen at all. But here I was, feeling like I had a chronic hangover and barely able to keep a thought in my head, but happy.

I knew the risk of miscarriage was nontrivial. The miscarriage rate for confirmed pregnancies is somewhere around 20-30%, but good data is hard to find.  So I did what a mathematician would do: I found a model that showed my approximate risk of miscarriage per day of pregnancy and watched that number slowly drop as I waited the agonizing four weeks for my first appointment. So far so good, but I also knew it was possible that I’d already miscarried and my body didn’t even know it yet.

When I went for my ultrasound and the midwife found a too-small, too-dark spot on the screen, I thought I was prepared. I made the followup appointment, gathered my things (including the big bag of prenatal vitamins and mommy stuff they’d given me before they did the ultrasound, for some reason – this bag is still in my trunk) and went back to the office.

I didn’t even make it that far. As soon as I saw my female colleagues, I lost it. They let me go home. I did.

After that awful first day, it honestly wasn’t so bad. Work went on without me thanks to my incredibly supportive colleagues, including my co-blogger Beth who bailed me out of my bit of our Pi Mu Epsilon ceremony. Ultimately I needed surgery, but it was easy and almost painless and I even made it to a conference the next day. I had some complications the following week, but my husband was able to stay home with me and I still taught all the rest of my classes. He picked up all the slack at the house we’d just moved into while my body tried to figure out what the hell just happened. It still hasn’t quite gotten back to normal. Maybe it never will.

I was lucky. My husband was a dream and could take time off work so we could both recover. My insurance covered everything. My chair and colleagues were easy to talk to and more helpful and kind than I could ever have hoped for. I was never worried about how my absences and missed meetings and ungraded homework might affect my tenure dossier. A truly shocking number of friends came out of the woodwork to share the stories of their losses and, for most of them at least, their ultimate successes having adorable kids.

I can’t even imagine what a early-career professor in this situation – male or female – would do if their chair was one of the two jackasses at the top of this article.

I’m writing this not just to get it all off my chest, though I have had a hell of a time trying to write about anything else these last few months. I’m writing this because while the academy has gotten a little better at dealing with having families (The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics has issued a call for papers for an upcoming issue on math and motherhood!), we’ve only barely started talking about the pitfalls of trying to start one. A fabulous Chronicle article by Jessica Winegar was about all I found when I was grieving. Her article is much more eloquent and well-sourced than mine, but I’m writing this anyway. One column about a problem this common and this devastating isn’t enough. My words will have to do.

It’s reasonable to put off children for the sake of an academic career, especially when the doors to the ivory tower slam shut behind you if you leave even temporarily. It’s a myth based on truly ancient data that fertility drops off precipitously after 30 or 35. The idea of “scheduling” a baby around an academic calendar should die as too, because successful pregnancy is a poorly understood process and not the inevitability of nature they scare you into believing it is in high school health class.

Chairs, advisors, tenure committees, and administrators need to be aware of the issues their students or faculty members might be having outside of the office, and be willing to be flexible, including extending fellowships or the tenure clock if necessary. There are an awful lot of doctors appointments involved with issues of fertility and pregnancy, and not all of them can be scheduled around classes and conferences and grant cycles. And due to all the weird taboos around early pregnancy, your colleagues might not want to give a ton of details about why they’re missing work.

There are people who would prefer that those who decide to devote their time to issues of family just stay out of the academy entirely, and leave the profession to those who are sufficiently dedicated to their field. Certainly it would be easier. But professors aren’t monks anymore. And believing that we should be will continue to drive many of our best and brightest away from academia and into government or industry, where having a life outside of work is less of a liability. We have to be aware of what we lose when we limit our vision for how a good professor looks and acts.

I hope this post can help to continue the conversation about how to keep people in the academic mathematical community, whether they choose to have kids or not. If you happen to bump into me (I’m in Chicago at MathFest right now!) and you’d like to stop and chat, I hope you do. If you’d like to anonymously tell your story here in the comments, or share what you wish your chair or colleagues had done when you were dealing with loss and frustration, I hope you do. If you’d like to email me, I hope you do. For the sake of our sanity – and our profession – we must be allowed to stop trying to do this alone.

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