Today, we have a bit of a hybrid post. It starts with a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous about things colleagues have said to her during her pregnancy. Her post definitely resonated with me – I thought of writing a similar post when I was pregnant with my third child, because I was so annoyed by some of the comments I received at work. After the guest post, I’ve added some thoughts of mine, as well as some questions that I’d love reader opinions on. My hope is that this post will encourage people to think more carefully about what they say to pregnant colleagues and create a space where people can talk about their preferences.
The guest post:
I am a postdoc who also happens to be pregnant. Around the sixth month of my pregnancy something happened. I must have become large enough that it was obvious to everyone in the department that I was indeed, pregnant. Suddenly, I began receiving comments about my body, my impending delivery, and what my life would look like after having a baby. (This is my second child; I have no delusions as to what postpartum life is like).
Here are a few of the comments I received over the span of two weeks:
“Wow, you’ve really let yourself go”.
“If a baby weighs 8 lbs then where do the other 25 lbs come from?”
Misconceptions about maternity leave:
“It will be so nice for you to have a break while you’re on maternity leave”.
“Think of all the writing you’ll get done while the baby is sleeping!”
My rigor as an academic:
“So what are you research plans for next summer other than nursing?”
“You should have gotten pregnant at the end of your PhD so everyone would have taken it easy on you in your defense”.
“Let’s talk about all of the things that you need to get done before you go off and have a baby”.
“It’s impossible for pregnant women to be discriminated against”.
And from the organizer of a women in STEM event I participated in: “Thanks for further increasing the diversity of the event!”
I have shared the above list with the hope these comments can be recognized as inappropriate, and that others won’t have to endure as many as I have. One of the most interesting things was that most of the academics who said the above things would have considered themselves allies to women in science, and really didn’t see the fault in their comments. In fact, all of them had children of their own.
In case any of these seem reasonable, the reality is that:
1) Being pregnant is uncomfortable and made more uncomfortable by body-comments. Your body is changing constantly, your center of gravity moves on a daily basis, you’re tired, and in my case generally self-conscious. Comments about anyone’s body are not acceptable, and pregnant bodies are no exception.
2) Maternity leave is not a break. Have you ever tried to write a coherent sentence after sleeping in 1.5 hour increments?? The short answer is: it’s nearly impossible. After my first child was born I think I re-wrote each sentence at least 10 times before it was even coherent, let alone polished!
3) Pregnant women are the subject of bias and discrimination. Women in academe already face these types of comments but piling it on while pregnant serves no purpose but ask us to further question if we belong.
When I mentioned this to other female academics, some said that they had started a wall in their respective departments where people could anonymously write down things that had been said to them with the hopes that others would realize how inappropriate they were. However, this puts the women in question in the spotlight, as it would be obvious in most departments who had authored the comments. Many early career researchers (including myself) would be very hesitant to put themselves in the spotlight in this way.
Meghan’s additional thoughts
I completely agree with the author of the guest post that comments about a pregnant person’s body should be off limits. Unfortunately, I also received multiple comments along those lines at work (and, surprisingly, from random parents at daycare). As one example: “Are you sure there’s only one in there?” and, after asking when I was due, “Are you sure?” with a surprised glance at my belly. There was also the close variant: “When are you due?” and, after I responded with a date that was further away than they expected “Really? Are you going to make it?” (I have a hypothesis that the mental image most people have of someone who is 9 months pregnant actually corresponds to someone who is 7ish months pregnant.)
In short: don’t make comments about a pregnant person’s body (even something like “Oh, you’re not big at all!” can be problematic). Similarly, don’t make comments about what the person is doing or eating or drinking. Things like, “That better be decaf!” or “Are you sure you should still be running?” are presumably well-intentioned, but seem to suggest that the person is not an adult who is capable of making informed decisions about her body. As one person I know noted when we discussed this type of comment: the health of her baby is of more concern to her than it is to a random person at work, and, yes, she’s thought about what she’s eating and drinking and doing!
So, while I agree that there are certain things that are definitely not okay, I think that there are also gray areas. I appreciated happy comments (e.g., “Congratulations!” or “How exciting!”), and thought it was sweet that some colleagues at Georgia Tech organized a baby shower when I was pregnant with my first, though I definitely didn’t expect these. Others want to be strictly in work mode at work while still others feel unsupported if colleagues (especially those in power) don’t acknowledge the pregnancy. Similarly, some people love talking about their pregnancy, while others find it intensely uncomfortable to discuss at work. A comment that bothers one person wouldn’t bother another. That’s fine, and doesn’t mean the person who is bothered by a comment is being overly sensitive.
Another thing to keep in mind that, assuming you are not pregnant (or, I suppose, an ob/gyn, midwife, or other birth professional), talking about pregnancy is an unusual part of your day. For your visibly pregnant colleague, it’s something that comes up over and over, whether they want it to or not.
Given the variation in preferences, I’m curious about reader opinions, especially from those who have been visibly pregnant in academia. (I say visibly pregnant because that is what is most relevant to this post. Unfortunately, lots of pregnancies end in miscarriage, but there is a culture of silence surrounding miscarriage in academia and society more generally.) What were the things that people said while you were pregnant that you found problematic? Do you think there are general rules that apply in most situations? Where did you fall on the “Don’t Want to Talk About It At All” to “It’s Okay to Discuss In Some Situations” to “Love Talking About It All The Time” spectrum?