Reproduction is energetically costly

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.

19 thoughts on “Reproduction is energetically costly

  1. You are an inspiration. Keep up the great work and take a break when you need it. Don’t drive long distances when exhausted.

  2. So nice to read this post- I taught this summer while super prego- I think I was 37 wks at the exam! My classes were small but 2.5 hours long and at night. I can relate to the exhaustion! Plus I would get home at 9:45pm and my stubborn 3 year old would still be up- refusing to go to bed with Daddy!
    I was also extremely lucky to have an uncomplicated pregnancy. I’m not sure how feasible teaching would have been if I had any issues. I had some sweet comments from students wishing me well with the baby on my evals, but otherwise I think the students were unaffected by having a balooning instructor… It normalizes professors/instructors- we are people too, with families and babies and life outside of class!
    Food, water, and lots of bathroom breaks were key for me. Provided time for students to work on in-class questions!

    • I will also be 37 weeks at the final! I’m viewing it as double full term day (even though I know they’ve redefined 37 weeks to be “early term”, but I’m sticking with the old definitions for this!)

      I feel so awkward having 300 students know I’m heading off to pee that I’ve avoided taking a bathroom break, but it might be necessary in the next two weeks.

      And, yes, I think that if I’d had pregnancy complications, it would be likely that I wouldn’t be able to keep teaching. I have a plan in place for who would take over if I can’t finish the semester, in case something comes up, and knowing there’s a plan has helped put me at ease. But, at this point, there are only three class days left to get through. I will be very happy when I’ve given my last lecture!

  3. I appreciate this post, Meg, but I wish it were a little edgier. (Well, I mean, not that you have the energy for it…)

    I feel like we, as women, are always voicing our appreciation and gratefulness (which, yes, is important for our personal sanity), that we don’t call out the system that is messed up. No woman should be required to do physically demanding work in the third trimester in order to keep her job. Period. The fact that our society hasn’t adjusted to the fact that almost half of workers are women and that the majority of them are childbearing at some point in their work-lives is atrocious. We should be demanding systematic change.

    P.S. Another possible reason why you’re so exhausted is that this baby might be enormous. I couldn’t physically get to work (1/2 mile walk was too much for me, a person in normally great shape) from about 8.5 months on with my second. Turns out he was a ten-pounder. That explained everything — after the fact.

    • Totally agree with the first two paragraphs (third sounds plausible but what do I know).

      And hey, other Dynamic Ecology authors – how are your personal lives going? Any new kids or old kids with more/different requirements? Having some problem balancing work and life?

      Thanks Meghan so much for your posts (and Margaret for chiming in all the time!) – you’re very inspirational and have brought up a lot of issues I haven’t even realized existed that would/will be important in my future. I just wish it didn’t seem like a male/female split in the blog (almost down to the comments).

    • To reply to Margaret’s original comment: edgy isn’t so much my style, even when not exhausted, but I do see your point. Systematic change is definitely needed.

      As for the baby’s size: my daughter has given him the in utero name of “Mr. Tiny”, but I will be shocked if he’s less than 9 pounds. So, that may well be part of it — though, for now, I like the mental image of “Mr. Tiny” better than “Mr. Huge”. 🙂

  4. woot on the stool suggestion!
    I have to stress the exhaustion from nursing. It’s much easier now that I need only pump once a day, but at all other points, trying to squeeze in 2-3 sessions (3 I generally accepted as impossible unless it was an exceptionally long day) is brutally hard on balancing everything else. I was so happy to have 2 semesters off with this last child.

    • One of the things I hate about pumping is how fragmented it makes the rest of my day. It chops up the day so much and makes it hard to consolidate meetings in other buildings (since that would require figuring out a place there to pump, and usually it’s easier to come back to my office). I’m not looking forward to that!

  5. (Replying here rather than directly to the above comments, sorry)

    Thanks for the comments Jeremy and Brian. I do appreciate that you guys often address these issues too. I think social media and blogs have been great for getting a broader conversation about parents in academia/science that didn’t exist (probably?) when I was getting started in science.

    Also, I did mean that I’d appreciate more front page posts about parenting/caring for parents (I bet that’s an issue that people are facing in science more)/finding time for hobbies, etc. from a range of folks. But I do understand that it’s a comfort issue! I hope I didn’t add to any ‘uncomfort’ you guys might have about sharing.

    I guess I think that part of solving these problems can be about pushing past some uncomfortableness especially on the part of people who are relatively privileged, (the other dreaded p-word!), including myself. Whether that change comes at a institutional level (and we do have it so much easier than others even if we’re not all at UMich level) or at a social level, I think talking about things is definitely the first, if not easiest, step.

    • “‘Also, I did mean that I’d appreciate more front page posts about parenting/caring for parents (I bet that’s an issue that people are facing in science more)/finding time for hobbies, etc. from a range of folks.”

      Thank you for the feedback, but afraid we can’t promise anything. All three of us post on what we feel moved to post on. Trying to post more on topic X wouldn’t work for me, and I’m guessing it wouldn’t work for Brian and Meg either. And if we were to poll readers, we’d get requests for more posts on every topic we post on and many we don’t. Different readers would like to see us change in different ways. Indeed, the last time we did a reader poll, one reader asked for fewer posts on gender issues and work-life balance.

      Re: wanting to see posts from a range of folks, we continue to invite occasional guest posts, but many invitees say yes and then don’t follow through. So for the foreseeable future most of the posts will of necessity be by Meg, Brian, and I.

    • I definitely had to push past some uncomfortableness to write this post. As I said in the post, I waffled a lot about whether to post it. A tension with blogging for me is that I feel compelled to write about these sorts of topics but, at the same time, doing so can leave me feeling vulnerable. In the end, in this case, I decided posting it was worth it.

  6. Pingback: Musings of a very tired, still pregnant scientist | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: Science-ing as a pregnant postdoc | Supplementary Materials

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