At present, I am teaching a large course (~550 students) while 7.5 months pregnant. All semester, I’ve been torn between not wanting to make a big deal of it, since I don’t want it to seem like pregnant women are less able instructors, and feeling like I cannot ignore the biological reality that pregnancy, even an uncomplicated one, is very physically demanding.
I don’t think things have been any different for my students – I still give back-to-back 80 minute lectures twice a week*, I still hold office hours (and schedule meetings with students who can’t make those), I still prepare quizzes and write exams, I still attend prep sessions where we get all our TAs (known as Graduate Student Instructors or GSIs at Michigan) up to speed on the following week’s discussion materials, I still send emails and make phone calls to deal with the myriad of issues that inevitably come up in a class this size. But, while my students aren’t affected, I am completely, utterly exhausted, especially by Friday afternoon.
It’s been somewhat amusing to me that I can be so surprised about how tired I am, given how often I see data at work that make it clear how energetically demanding reproduction is. In my lab, we see that Daphnia infected with a bacterial parasite grow significantly larger than uninfected Daphnia of the same age and genotype, even though they eat much less than those uninfected Daphnia. While that initially seems confusing, it makes a lot more sense when you know that the bacterium sterilizes its host. Reproduction is costly! And, recently at a grad student’s oral exams, David Lack’s experiments with birds came up. The grad student correctly talked about Lack’s hypotheses and experiments, saying that, in his experiments, birds were able to successfully rear clutches larger than the ones they had laid (after Lack added eggs to their clutch). When another committee member asked if the student could think of a cost of larger clutches that wasn’t considered in that study, it was all I could do to avoid jumping out of my chair saying “Oooooh oooh oooh, I know!”
(Thanks to Zen Faulkes for finding the gif!)
Again: reproduction is energetically costly.
As I said above, me being pregnant this semester hasn’t affected the instruction my students are getting – I think the semester is going very well overall – but it is affecting me. The semester has been me fighting between wanting to be SuperMomProf who can do it all (teach! research! search committee! mentor! blog! play with the kids! knit a hat for the baby!), and my body making it clear that I cannot. Just walking home on Friday afternoon feels like a Herculean task.** If we lived in a culture where women’s competence wasn’t routinely questioned, I think it would be easier to talk about this. Given the realities of our culture, though, I decided against even asking on twitter if people had tips for teaching in the third trimester*** and waffled on whether to write this blog post. But, at the same time, acting like it’s just a normal teaching semester is simply not realistic. And that is even though I’ve been fortunate to have a very uncomplicated pregnancy overall.
This is part of why I really love Michigan’s new policy regarding modified duties for birth mothers. As the policy says, “An eligible faculty member may take one term of modified duties for each birth or adoption that adds a child or children to his or her family. For birth mothers who are eligible faculty only, a second term of modified duties (as provided for above) will be granted upon request.” I don’t know yet if I’ll use that second semester (right now I’m leaning against requesting it), but I love that my university acknowledges that gestation, birth, and lactation are especially demanding. (And, yes, I realize how incredibly lucky I am that my university has this policy. I know that there are many that don’t even often that first semester.)
The good news for me is that I’m in the home stretch of the semester and this pregnancy. My last lecture is in two weeks and the final is the week after that. And, even though I’ve been really enjoying my interactions with students, I am really looking forward to that. And, even more, I’m looking forward to enjoying some time home with my baby when he arrives.
*One issue is the size of the course. Everyone I know who teaches hundreds of students at a time agrees that it’s exhausting in a way that teaching a class of 50 is not. I’m not exactly sure why, though I think it relates to needing to devote more mental bandwidth to monitoring a large lecture hall. (Is there a question in the way back? The front way off to the side? Wow that group over there is kind of noisy — should I ask them to quiet down, or would that be more disruptive?)
**I don’t recall being quite this exhausted with my other pregnancies, but assume the difference this time is being older, having two young kids, and a more intensive teaching semester this time.
*** The tips I did get — or things I’ve figured out so far — include wearing support socks to help with circulation, bringing a stool to sit on, wearing an SI support belt (thanks to a wonky sacroiliac joint), and bringing liquid calories (kefir being my preferred source) since I can’t eat enough during class or in the 10 minutes between lectures. I think the stool has been the most important — I normally wander around while lecturing, but I just don’t have that energy to spare. I’ve also tried to cut back on non-teaching activities (e.g., dinners with the search committee I’m on) to conserve energy for teaching.