Right now, I’m 9 months pregnant and waiting on my baby to decide it’s time to make his entrance. During the semester break, there wasn’t much expectation that I’d do work, so it wasn’t a problem that I mostly didn’t feel like working. But, the semester is starting up again, and I’m feeling more pressure to work. Admittedly, much of that is self-imposed, but I think it’s also driven by a general sense (in the US, at least), that women should generally work right up until having a baby. I suspect that general sense in the US is a combined effect of our culture of overwork, plus our poor parental leave policies. If you take a couple of weeks off prior to having the baby, and you only have a total of 6 weeks to take off for maternity leave (and not everyone gets even that much), then you’ve only left yourself 4 weeks home after having the baby for recovery and bonding. That’s not much time.
In thinking about this, one thing I’ve been thinking about is how I thought about this before having kids. Back then, I think I had the standard US mentality – that, unless there was some health problem, mom would work right up until giving birth. I had heard stories from women who talked about finishing up a committee meeting while in labor, then heading straight to the hospital, or of being in the field collecting soil cores the day before giving birth. Prior to having kids, that seemed like a normal thing to do to me, not something that required being Superwoman.
Now, having had personal experience, and having known many more women who’ve had children, I more fully appreciate just how physically demanding pregnancy can be, and I’ve experienced first hand just how poor sleep in late pregnancy can be.*
So, now when I hear the stories of people doing a full day of lab work while in early labor, I think that’s great if it was because the woman wanted to be there (go, badass scientist!), but that it’s awful if it’s because the woman had to be there. And I worry that the Superwoman stories (which I think we’re all more inclined to tell — they’re fun!) set up the expectation that all women will be able and willing to do that.
The problem is that we’re stuck in a system with terrible parental leave policies. So, while I hope that I am an understanding mentor when it comes to arranging leave for people in my lab, I also am constrained in what I can do (given university policies, grant policies, etc.). But there are still things I can do. For example, I can try to arrange things so that there’s more analysis or writing (e.g., working on a review) around a woman’s due date, so that at least she can work flexible hours and not have to be in the lab at a particular time. But that still feels like a pretty inadequate solution.
What I’d love to do is wave my magic wand and have America’s parental leave policies get in line with those in places like Canada or Finland. (This map shows maternity leave practices by country.) Sadly, I can’t do that, but I’m hoping that one thing I can do with this post is at least challenge the assumption that Superwoman is the norm and the way things should be. As I said above, if a woman wants to work right up until giving birth, more power to her. That’s fantastic. But I can also very much understand the desire to start leave a few weeks before one’s due date. Doing so does not indicate lack of commitment to science, but, rather, reflects the reality that pregnancy can be hard, even when it’s an uncomplicated pregnancy.
Or, as Joan Strassmann put it on twitter yesterday, “Pregnancy is a highly variable experience and women should get that latitude to do what is right for them!” Amen!
* The whole ‘sleep now before the baby comes’ thing starts to sound pretty ridiculous when you’ve been up with prodromal labor several nights in a row.