Guest Post: What not to say to a pregnant colleague

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:

My body:

“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?

 

38 thoughts on “Guest Post: What not to say to a pregnant colleague

  1. I love this discussion. Being body shamed was a huge part of what I remember from my pregnancy, especially from colleagues. Colleagues also also all of the aforementioned questions and voiced the aforementioned concerns. It is great to have an open dialogue about this.

  2. Thanks for this post; I completely agree with the thoughts. I was myself a pregnant postdoc last year. Here are some different comments that I received and found inappropriate:
    – “Your belly hasn’t grown in the last few weeks” (when I was around 7 months pregnant and growing from day to day). In my view comments about small bellies are as bad at least as their counterparts: they imply that the baby is not growing as it should…very insensitive when one is 7 months pregnant and the greatest preoccupation is the health of the unborn baby
    – “You want to come back to work already then?! You will never manage to leave your baby at nursery”. Before the first child you don’t even know yourself as a parent – why should a colleague of yours think to know better what you will want to do?

    • Thanks for this comment! I think the comments about small bellies seem like compliments to some people, but, as you said, they imply that the baby might not be growing well, and the health of the baby is a huge concern!

      I also find the daycare comments annoying. With my third, I remember thinking about how all the messages I was receiving were that I should be Very Sad about him starting daycare, when it actually seemed like a huge relief to me.

  3. At least, for me there is a simple general theme is somebody is pregnant
    1) Congratulate and asked if they already know the gender
    2) Occasionally ask if they are fine. If the person doesn’t seem to like the questions, stop asking
    3) If the pregnancy does not go smoothly and you work closely together, offer your support during difficult phases
    4) Congratulate after birth & a present (at best from the working group)
    And thats all. If she wants to talk more about it, she has to start the conversation.
    If you are the direct supervisor there has to be some more organization of work issue, etc.

  4. This is a great discussion. Pregnancy in academia shouldn’t be frowned upon or even seen as something abnormal. Many faculty members, male and female, have children so I don’t understand the hurtful comments towards pregnant women. I am a PhD student and considering having my first child at some point during my degree. I’m 29 and in a long-term relationship, but I’m so anxious about what my supervisor, my colleagues, my department would say. I’ve heard a lot of “grad school babies aren’t a good idea, you’ll never finish your degree, it’s dishonest to your supervisor to take a year “off”, what will happen to your research”. It’s so disheartening.

    • As someone who had a baby in grad school, I can identify with your worries. I hope that you can find a way to focus on what will make you and your family happy and worry less about what other people think. It helped me to think long-term — I knew I wanted a family, and I wasn’t going to let other people’s perspectives stop me from having kids.

      Yes, I did my best to have kids when it was “better” timing during my career, but there’s no magical “best” time. And even if the timing seems like it’s not ideal, there are ways to make it work.

      If you want to finish your degree, you can finish your degree.
      It is not dishonest to take time off. This degree is ultimately about you, not your supervisor.

      Sending hugs and powerful, uplifting thoughts to you!

      • I had 2 kids during my PhD and shared a lot of your worries both times. I had the chance to have a very supportive supervisor which definitely helped but I totally agree with the previous comment: there is no right time to have a baby and it’s your life and your choices!
        While gradschool is a challenging period, I am not convinced it would be any easier to have your first kid during a postdoc (where you have typically shorter contracts and thus less time to be productive) , or as a young PI, when you are potentially responsible of a whole team on top of your own work. I think there are probably pros and cons with doing it at different career stages, but at the end of the day, what matters is that you feel ready and want a baby! It is probably going to be hard to be back work and productive no matter what, but I actually appreciated the break in my PhD, where I had to focus all my attention on something else. It gave me a new motivation to go back to my project. There again, I think everybody is different and you probably cannot even predict yourself how it’s gonna affect how you feel about your project, but these general comments that I have also heard so often are definitely wrong: nobody can tell you how YOU will feel after having children and if you are motivated enough to be in grad school right now, then you will be fine!
        How long are you supposed to put your life aside for academia and a promise of a longer term contract that might not come any time soon? Now that I have the kids already, while it definitely makes decisions about moving for jobs and things like that a bit more challenging (although the same questions pop up when having a partner already), I know that my priorities are my family and that we will stick together no matter what and that actually makes me feel more confident about my future: we will make it work, one way or the other!
        Good luck!

  5. I had my first baby in grad school. When I was at work, I was in work mode. I didn’t want people to talk about my pregnancy or my pregnant body because I was there to work regardless of what was happening with my body. When non-pregnant partners go to work, people do not constantly ask them how the pregnancy is going.

    I really like the idea that my colleagues were generally concerned with my well-being, and pregnancy can be a very exciting time. As a grad student, though, I already felt judged for having a baby in grad school, and so I wanted all conversations to be work-oriented. (Side note: a senior woman without children said children would really impede a person’s career. Another senior woman with children said that having a baby in grad school would be the worst choice someone could make. … So, yeah, I was feeling a little threatened in that department.)

    I think you can ask how someone is doing, generally, and if they bring up the pregnancy, fine. But I had a male colleague ask me “How’s everything going?” while gesturing to his midsection and looking at my midsection. Sorry, but I do not want to tell you how my pregnancy is going. That feels too personal. I’m sure this comment was well-meaning, but I still remember how it bothers me 7 years later!

    I had my second baby as a postdoc, and I didn’t announce it until I was 4 months pregnant. A senior woman in the department said, “I knew you were pregnant. We were all chuckling about how long you were going to try to hide it.” Wow. That made me feel horrible about my appearance, insecure that department members were talking about me, and flustered that they thought I was somehow trying to deceive them. I just wasn’t ready to announce it to a new-to-me department.

    In short, just be friendly and ask how your colleague is doing without specifically asking how the pregnancy is going. I also think it’s nice to share your congratulations after it’s been announced (or shared with you) that your colleague is pregnant. Do your best to let your colleague determine the content of interactions instead of setting up the topic to be about pregnancy all the time.

    • “In short, just be friendly and ask how your colleague is doing without specifically asking how the pregnancy is going. I also think it’s nice to share your congratulations after it’s been announced (or shared with you) that your colleague is pregnant. Do your best to let your colleague determine the content of interactions instead of setting up the topic to be about pregnancy all the time.”

      I agree with all of this!

  6. Thanks for the post. An important topic.

    All the comments reported about having children during grad school being dumb or wrong really annoy me.

    I’m probably being extreme but the only way I can see for having that view strong enough to tell other people that they shouldn’t have children during grad school is the intersection of two views: a) work is more important than rest of life and b) your adviser owns your time during grad school, not that they are there to support you. Both of these views are deeply flawed. One is in graduate school to actuate ones own self and achieve one’s own life goals. Not to be an indentured servant or to have others decide their priorities. Having a child is pretty darn self-actuating and a major life goal for a lot of people too!

    I’m male so obviously a much different lesser story, but still I made a heavy parental investment in my two children one during my PhD and one during my Postdoc (the birth of my first son probably delayed finishing my PhD by a year). Personally it worked out great for me to get those super intensive periods of child-rearing done when I had more flexibility rather than waiting until I was tenure track. But I know plenty of other people who made the opposite decision and it worked out great for them (certainly you have more resources when you have a tenure track salary). People who think that what is right for them should automatically be right for everybody else kind of scare me …

    I also relate to Meghan’s comment about miscarriage, My wife and I had a very complicated miscarriage event right around the time I was supposed to be accepting my first tenure track job. My head was completely not in thinking about jobs at the time and yet it was hard to ask for more time to make decisions (and not that well received when I did)

  7. Via Twitter:

  8. A bunch of good reminders in the post and comments about things one shouldn’t say, some obvious but some more subtle. Meghan, I wonder if you could expand a bit on this one, which has not received much discussion:
    “Let’s talk about all of the things that you need to get done before you go off and have a baby”.
    I can see that this line of conversation leads lot lots of landmines, and the tone of the quote is not great, but presumably some form of this discussion needs to occur between the postdoc and their mentor/colleagues? Is there guidance you can offer on this?

    • Yes, I think a lot of the problem is in the language used (and particular tone). For me, I would approach the conversation with a lab member by suggesting that it might be a good time to update our mentoring plan (I have one with everyone in the lab) to think about what adjustments we might want to make. For example, one pregnant lab member started working on a review, since that allowed her to get work done at irregular times, but then also to totally stop the project if needed. We also always review safety — are they working with any chemicals that might be a concern? what adjustments should we make for field work?

      Additional guidance I would offer:
      1) pregnancy is unpredictable, and some pregnancies are more complicated than others. So, what worked for one person won’t necessarily work for another, and plans might need to be adjusted. Ensuring there’s an open dialogue where the person won’t feel judged is important.
      2) during these conversations, avoid making it seem like the goal is to not have the person’s productivity impacted at all by the pregnancy and birth. It’s a major life event. But, in the US at least, I think there’s a lot of pressure to try to not have a “baby gap”. That’s not good for the health or emotional well-being of new parents!

  9. Via Twitter:

  10. I was pregnant twice as a postdoc. I got many of the same comments on my body that are mentioned – most didn’t bother me, but I can understand why they would bother others.

    For me, much worse were the comments about my reduced thinking ability and crazy emotions. I’m an adult. I have bad days and good days, pregnant or not, but I’ve learned how to deal with my emotions and I’m not going to fly off the handle just because I’m pregnant. I didn’t have “mommy brain,” I was not unable to control my emotions in a public space. If my door is closed, I hope you’ll leave me alone, just like any other time. If my door is open, please assume that I am a fully functional adult. Some things certainly do change during pregnancy, but I was in no way incapacitated emotionally or mentally during working hours.

  11. Via Twitter:

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Terry’s advice (in which case, my apologies), but this suggestion seems to me to fall into the grey area Meghan identifies: “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.” And it contrasts with the advice from another commenter earlier earlier in the thread (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/guest-post-what-not-to-say-to-a-pregnant-colleague/#comment-76272). My own instincts are like those of that earlier commenter–I feel like it would risk coming off as disapproving/unsupportive/rude to say literally nothing about a colleague’s pregnancy, not even “Congratulations!” But I’m curious what others think.

  12. Via Twitter:

  13. I was pregnant during my PhD and postdoc. One thing that really got me was people wondering if it was ‘planned’. This was often hinted at but not asked outright. It got to the point, that when people asked something about my pregnancy, my answer would include a statement along the lines of “I decided to have a child now…” Looking back, I regret doing that. Ridiculous, and really none of anyone’s business.

    • A number of people on twitter also reported “was it planned” comments. A friend just told me a story a few weeks ago where someone asked her that (or, more accurately, assumed it was not), so I’m not sure why I forgot to include it in the post. As you say, it’s ridiculous and definitely not anyone’s business.

  14. Via Twitter:

    (trivial irrelevant aside: I continue to wish there was some way (automatic or manual, whichever) to fold substantive Twitter comments into our threads so that the comments appear on our homepage as coming from the originating Twitter accounts rather than from me. As it stands, whenever a post generates a lot of Twitter commentary, our home page makes it look like I’m commenting repeatedly, because I’m the one copying and pasting all the tweets into the thread.

    Idea: maybe I could set up a new WordPress account called “Comments copied from Twitter” (or something), and use that account whenever I’m pasting tweets into our comment threads.

    Second idea: wait 24 h and then paste in all relevant tweets as a batch into one comment? That has the disadvantage of not being timely. But in practice commenters here hardly ever reply to individual pasted tweets anyway. So if the main function of me pasting in Twitter comments is just to record social media discussion of the post for posterity, well, I can just do that the next day.

    Third idea: quit pasting in tweets. Stop bothering to preserve social media discussion of our posts for posterity. Quit trying to produce even a facsimile of a unified, all-in-one-place discussion of our posts.)

  15. I was pregnant as a grad student and also in my this year of my first job. I finished my dissertation when my first child was 6 months old. As I struggled on the market (everyone does!) my advisor would say “you chose your family! At least you have your family!” and that was annoying for a million reasons. In my next pregnancy, all the misunderstanding about maternity leave – from “you’ll get so much done” to “you won’t get anything done and your career is gonna suffer” came about. But the worst was just that it I’d approach colleagues having a conversation about work or research, they’d immediately stop the conversation and ask me about my pregnancy. I am at work, I would like to talk about my work. I found my colleagues (especially young and male) just good not deal with my pregnancy- they just didn’t know what to say and so they just became hyperfocused on it all the time.
    I will say, as this wore on, I became increasingly less able to deal so when they asked how I was, I started to tell them about my back, feet, nursing plans, etc. If they wanted info, they got it!

    • Yes, couldn’t agree more with this! I would enter the common lunch room and it’s like all looks were on me (at least that’s how it felt like) and conversations would automatically change to my pregnancy. I didn’t wanna talk about it, I wanted to feel like a regular, capable human being and talk about science or any other anecdote colleagues had to share, not me, my pregnancy and post pregnancy plans all the time!

  16. I just don’t get why anyone would need to be told not to say these things! Tragicomic. my favorite should-know-better comment is “was it planned?” (no, we accidentally had sex, regrettable but sh*t happens)

  17. Via Twitter:

    (as I said above, this seems like sensible advice to me, for whatever little that’s worth…)

  18. Via Twitter, more advice along the lines of what a couple of previous commenters have suggested:

  19. In the post and comments, I got the feeling that women try to hide their pregnancy as long as possible or at least for a good amount of time. I work in a lab where due to safety reasons pregnant women are not allowed to work in the lab. Thus, they have to tell at least the supervisor of their pregnancy, so that the safety is ensured.
    What I was wondering, can be the fear of telling you are pregnant be so high that you do not tell your are pregnant regardless of safety (of course this would be horrible and devastating)?

    • For me, I felt like there was a very strong cultural message that you are supposed to wait until after your first trimester to tell people about a pregnancy, because the risk of miscarriage before then is high. This, of course, relates to the part I had at the end of the post about the culture of silence surrounding miscarriage.

  20. Via Twitter:

  21. During my pregnancy, I found the most offensive the comments regarded how being pregnant/having children would affect my intelligence and abilities. For instance, these are comments I got from colleagues while pregnant: “Just wait, in a few months you won’t be able to use your brain” or “No successful female researchers have children”. Sure, there probably were thoughtless comments about my body as well but these were the ones that stuck.

  22. I applied for postdoc positions and defended my PhD this past year while pregnant, and had my baby 10 weeks before starting my postdoc. I was so afraid to tell my postdoc advisors that I was pregnant that I waited until the week before giving birth for fear that they’d rescind the offer. They didn’t and were supportive, but I would have loved to have had longer with my baby before starting. I didn’t feel like I could negotiate a later start date because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t committed to my career.
    In the back of my head I keep on hearing a potential postdoc mentor tell me that she never could have gotten her job at a great R1 if she’d had her child before starting. She had no idea I was pregnant at the time, but it emphasized my greatest career fear.

  23. Pregnancy is just the introduction to continued unsolicited advice/comments during the parenthood journey, so I feel like it is par for the course, but I also enjoyed pregnancy and talking about it. Perhaps I am lucky because I don’t recall any negative comments about how my research or career would be affected while I was pregnant during my postdoc. And with people I knew who didn’t acknowledge my pregnancy even though it was obvious, it felt very awkward for me to have to announce it. In contrast, my pregnancy was a conversation starter with strangers, and I think a lot of people starting these conversations were parents themselves who just liked to reflect on the nostalgia of the days when their own children were young. I was generally more humored than offended, and one of my favorites was from a man at the gym who saw me lifting wights and said my son “was going to come out big and strong”, which I took to be encouraging and counter to Meghan’s example of, “Are you sure you should be running?” In the academic realm, I agree with the advice to congratulate a colleague and then continue conversation or not based on the cues from the woman. I know that sometimes well-intentioned small talk fails tremendously (and posts like these can help us know what is appropriate). In the case of a mentee or someone you are supervising, there need to be directed conversations about plans for after the pregnancy, and someone else pointed out that guidance on this area is missing. Perhaps this is another topic for a post about how to have these conversations as either the mentee or mentor.

  24. I know of a case where a PI who was a champion for women in STEM, and who has written many pieces on gender discrimination in Academia, withdrew a job offer to a prospective postdoc in her lab because she found out the prospective postdoc was pregnant. This was even on top of the fact that prospective postdoc’s partner was planning to be the primary caregiver during the time.

    Discrimination against pregnant women is not only real, it is pervasive, even within the equity champion community! – this is sad.

  25. Via Twitter:

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