Musings of a very tired, still pregnant scientist

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.

19 thoughts on “Musings of a very tired, still pregnant scientist

  1. Wise words, as ever. However it isn’t just about maternity leave. Americans have a hard time taking off at all. I bet there are a lot of reasons. Just focusing on academics, it could be that our lab is our social group and who would want to leave that? Do people that work 12 months instead of 10 months per year really get more done? Life is long and everyone can take off a lot more time than they do. And what is off anyway? Staying home and cooking and cleaning and watching two youngsters 24/7 isn’t necessarily more off than going to the library and reading about whatever you want. Or the office. I guess the problem is how we construct where we can go. Coffee shop? Sauna (maybe not late in pregnancy? Finnish friends?)? On a nice long walk, to a museum? Hmm, movie theater might be best for late pregnancy. The kind with seats that lean back and headrests. If we look at longer term goals, not month by month, maybe we can give ourselves permission to take more time off. When these grant preproposals are done, I want to go birding somewhere tropical!

  2. Thank you for framing this so well! Joan Strassmann nails it!

    I have a three month old & it is definitely way more fun to tell the Superwoman stories — I submitted a final report on a grant the morning that I went into labor! But, I also took two weeks “off” after ESA (~37 weeks pregnant) to visit my childhood summer camp, live in a cabin, and swim in a lake every day. When I was pregnant, I needed to see more examples of the scaffolding behind Superwoman stories — the support systems, self-care, and luck that allowed these amazing women to achieve their Superwoman status. Seeking these more complete stories out helped me to balance my expectations for what I could do in my third trimester, and helped me communicate with my advisor while we planned for my maternity leave. Also, I seriously recommend having a September baby if you are on an academic schedule with early summer field work. It’s been awesome!

  3. Hear! Hear! I’ll provide a chorus for the incantations while you wave the magic wand that fixes US maternity leave policies. I worked on a paper while in early labor, a year and 2 days ago, but I also appreciated that I had the last two weeks of December “off” for the holidays, because I was so tired and uncomfortable and didn’t really feel like working at all. Caitlin makes a recommendation for September babies, but I think a early January baby is the way to go for an academic that can swing a whole semester’s leave. And clearly you took that recommendation. 🙂

    • I’ll join your chorus!

      Semi-relatedly, at a grad student mixer the other day I was dismayed to hear a student in another department talking about how four trainees in her lab have had babies in the last year and a half or so and the (female) PI is now intentionally selecting for male trainees* to prevent this continuing to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had said something like “Hmm, who is the person that you can take discrimination complaints to here, do you know?” to make it clear that I thought that what her PI was doing was illegal discrimination and not just a PI being obnoxious, even if realistically she probably wouldn’t make a complaint because of the power dynamics. Instead I said something about the importance of both good leave policies and dads doing more parenting of babies.

      *One of my first thoughts, as an LGBTQ person who spends a lot of time in LGBTQ circles, was how ironic it would be if this PI selected a transgender man as a trainee and then he had a baby. Or if she selected a gay or bi man in a male/male couple as a trainee and then he adopted a baby and needed parental leave.

  4. Amen.

    And if you need someone’s else approval to cut yourself some slack: Meg Duffy, you are fully entitled to define ‘work’ the way you want. And if you are working hard on producing new life, you don’t have to work a double shift and also do all that academic-y stuff, too. It will still be there later. And taking 2-4 weeks off now will in no way affect your lifetime impact. So be kind to yourself and right now work only if you *want* to — not if you feel obligated to.

  5. Great to start this conversation. I too worked up until the end of pregnancy, and was submitting manuscripts the day before labor… BUT, I had lots of flexibility around that time, so I could work only during the hours I had energy and was motivated, and could spend the rest of the time preparing for the baby’s arrival and/or sleeping. I was in the UK at the time, and the expectations there were very much that I should not be in work at the end of pregnancy! I also had three months maternity leave, which now that I am in the US seems luxurious, but while I was there seemed like just barely enough.
    Throughout the last year (pregnancy and infancy) I have had Angela McLean’s words ringing in my ears: “Science is a long game.” Investing in yourself (rather than your work) when you need it will help you stay in the game for longer. No point pushing too hard and then burning out. If you have a good employer, they know that too (yes, even if you are on the tenure track!)

  6. Meghan I feel for you… I am in the same boat, but in the UK – due date tomorrow. I was sitting at my computer feeling rather like a sick dog with a sore womb who hasn’t slept enough, when Amy Pedersen sent me a link to this post. I was feeling guilty for wanting to retreat to the sofa instead of ploughing on with various work tasks. But this is only self-imposed guilt…thank goodness I don’t have to go into work (which is an hour drive each way) in these final days. A friend told me her HR even told her she was “irresponsible” for coming in on her due date. That’s how different things are here. Sure, some days over the past fortnight I could totally imagine taking soil cores (or my equivalent – collecting wild mouse poop) with relish (yay, science!), but other days it would be pushing it way too far, and there should be flexibility to recognise that. So I feel for you guys in the US – expectations seem so unrealistic and I really hope things change. It’s sad that American friends have told me when they announced a pregnancy, the reaction of colleagues has sometimes been concern about how they will cope/fit it around work, rather than the usual “Congratulations!”.

    Although American science is clearly fantastic, I sometimes wonder how much more fantastic it could be if the work ethic / holiday allowance and maternity provisions were more reasonable. In such an international industry like academia, surely these things put some people off (they certainly did me, when at one point we considered moving to the US), and at the same time don’t necessarily increase output. Has anyone ever quantified the brain drain due to these factors?

    Right, I shall now remind myself that Superwoman was never depicted as heavily pregnant for a reason, and sit on the sofa with a hot water bottle and paracetamol. Hope you can do the same when needed Meghan!

  7. First of all, CONGRATS in advance, Meg! My wife & I had our first child last month & I’m here to tell ya it has been life-transforming (mostly in a good way). As a guy there is only so much I can experience vicariously & so I constantly remind my wife to “keep me in line” & share with me her experiences. They are very different from my own I confess.

    My spouse has struggled too with the limited time her employer provides for maternity leave (3 months). We discussed the possibility of her resigning & then looking for employment later. But she has so much invested in her career that didn’t make sense to us. Our budget is tight too as we purchased a new home not long ago & it didn’t come cheap. So we’ve been through the ringer on these things.

    Very fortunately we were able to broker a deal with her employer. They’ve agreed to let her work part time for 12 months after her leave expires so she can spend more time with our baby. It’s not ideal but we are at peace with the decision. She has a high pressure job in real estate so the reduced stress will be very beneficial too. On the flip side, my employer does not offer any paternity leave so I am burning up all the vacation time I’ve banked over the years. It helps but in a couple of months I must go back to the grind & I feel guilt over not being able to do more for my wife & child. But we can’t let our incomes lapse for very long so these are the outcomes for us.

  8. You can take all the time off you want. Take a leave of absence. But why should students and taxpayers – most of whom make much less than you – pay for a benefit for you that few could hope to have?

    Its a pretty reasonable and obvious question. Im sure pregnancy is hard but put things in perspective: this is a first-world upper-middle class problem.

    I’ll take my answer off the air.

    • please have a look at the map that Meg linked. it clearly shows that paid maternity leave is not (only) a first world thing.

    • I guess that the idea is that parental leave leads to happier and healthier babies and parents, less stress, longer life expectancy, more productivity in long term, and long-term boost of natality in developed countries (where low natality is a problem) as more people can afford to have kids — having kids is more normal and less of a privilege. Also, the pay during paternity leave is usually lower than full-time salary. Finally, you can think about it reciprocally: I you grant part of your taxes to go to parental leaves of your fellow citizens, one day they will grant their taxes to fund your parental leave.

      • Also ensures we don’t go back to Victorian times, and women are financially just as able as men to have a career. Surely a good society has those incentives/options, right?

    • This argument sounds clean and simple. Except the real world is not clean and simple. There are any number of places where society groups together to help people at a moment in their lives or facing special circumstances. Some of it is done commercially through insurance. Some of it is done governmentally.

      We pay for K-12 schools collectively even though not everybody has kids in their life and a majority of people do not have kids in the schools at any point in time. We used to have significant state (hence taxpayer) funding for universities too because having a well-trained work-force was seen as a public good. It still is, but now society is freeloading off the individuals that can afford it. Fire and national defense are obvious examples. Medicare and Social Security are wildly popular in the US and are not-self funding (i.e. requires those not benefiting to chip in) and only available to those who live to 65. We give substantial additional resources towards educating and training individuals with learning disabilities. Should we give any of these up? For that matter I hope you don’t go to a park or a library at those times in your life when you need nature or a book as those are government funded and relevant to only particular times in one’s life (if at all – some never use them). If not then your argument is not a compelling reason why we shouldn’t fund maternity leave.

      And as for the “could hope to have” argument, if I drive 3 hours north, west or east of my home in relatively rural Maine I am in Canada and somehow they manage to pull off significant and universal maternal (and even paternal) leave all while having a productive, competitive economy (indeed an economy not recognizably different than my own right down to WalMart). The map generalizes this anecdotal evidence to hard data. Its a choice.

      Thus the “I’m not giving money to help anybody else” mentality seems logically consistent, but it in fact has never existed in the history of human society and doesn’t exist today. The only question is which forms of help should we give. Petr has already given plenty of cold hard facts why maternity leave is a societal good in hard nosed return on investment terms, leaving aside empathetic terms.

      When you get old, I assume you’re not planning on drawing Medicare or Social Security that will be funded by kids in our society who exist and grow to be productive workers able to fund you courtesy of pregnant mothers (and their dads) that you don’t want to fund?

    • “You can take all the time off you want. Take a leave of absence. But why should students and taxpayers – most of whom make much less than you – pay for a benefit for you that few could hope to have?”

      The only part of this statement making any sense is, “… a benefit for you that few could hope to have.” I think you’ve made a profound point without realizing it. The “few” you speak of are right here in the USA. Many other democracies provide this benefit to everyone, and also provide paternity leave.

      At the end of the day, and the end of our lives there is but one thing that matters- family. I’ve never seen a tombstone that read “She was a really good worker,” or “He was amazing at math.” But “amazing mother,” “loving father,” “kind brother” are very common grave marker phrases.

      Family should always come first, and full time daycare at one month of age just doesn’t cut it.

    • It’s not an upper-middle-class problem – parental leave is (among other things) a workers’ rights issue, and poor and working-class new parents need it too. The fact that few currently can hope to have it is part of the problem, not a reason to brush off the problem.

      Calling it a “first world problem” is funny given that nearly all developing countries (along with all developed ones except the US) already have, at the very least, paid maternity leave, and many have at least 14 weeks of it.

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