Academics talk a lot about the impact of family on academic careers and opportunities. We talk about maternity leave entitlements and the uptake of paternity leave, career’s support for travel to conferences, and the impact of children on the ability to undertake fieldwork or long hours or unforgiving lab work.
We rarely talk about the impact of families before academics actually have families. Infertility affects around 1 in 6 couples and so the impact of family can occur well before maternity or paternity leave begins. It can also be very difficult to talk about in work context.
My girlfriend and I have been trying to start a family for a while now. We haven’t suffered from infertility as such, but a string of bad luck that has had huge impacts on both our careers. Without the required machinery, our baby-making processes have been drawn out and involved legal and practical considerations. For a start, not all countries or indeed even states have equally family friendly laws. It turns out that our current residence is a great place for us to have access to medical and legal support. When we do eventually have a fledgling to call our own, we will both be guaranteed parents.
We are incredibly lucky. However, we have limited mobility and simply can’t have the legal and medical support of our current residence, and the luxury of dashing off for academic opportunities elsewhere. I also have a few self-inflicted health issues from my running addiction that have made the process a little complicated and required some medical assistance. As a result, my ability to travel to workshops and conferences has been further compromised.
After just a few months of trying, we had some luck! Our situation took a turn for the worse when I was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. It was an ambiguous presentation and after a few long weeks of confusion, I finally got a call from our specialist confirming the diagnosis. The call came just as I was walking out the door to a conference dinner to receive a career award.
It was a tough time; I had to go for blood tests every two days, regular ultrasounds and other appointments over a series of months. It was physically and emotionally draining. I confided in several work colleagues and explained that I wasn’t up to my usual social capacity. At the same time, several thriving pregnancies in the group meant that communal lunches and social activities weren’t as appealing as they usually would be.
Very early in our process, I spoke to a then supervisor about our planned journey. I explained that I would be embarking on a stressful process that would be practically, physically and emotionally taxing. As such, while I would be able to maintain my current workload, additional commitments and travel beyond my existing work would be stressful for me.
It was a bewildering meeting. I was uncomfortable talking about lady issues with my supervisor, but felt that trust works both ways and he was considered to be an all round nice guy. I came to regret my faith in trust. It was clear that such conversations would not be encouraged. Later, our bad academic baby luck was used against me in a meeting to cast aspersions that my work ethic and performance was sub-standard.
I’ve since spoken to several lady colleagues about feeling as though I had something to hide and apologise for. Sadly, it’s a pervasive feeling. Many women academics have paralleled my experiences of not being able to talk to supervisors, of apologising for pregnancies or miscarriage, of excruciatingly awkward situations explaining female reproductive systems and of having to work twice as hard to hide time off for surgeries and specialist appointments.
I now have a pretty cynical view of the latent impact of families that so many women and couples are discouraged from discussing. Here are some thoughts for young or not-so-young female colleagues suffering similar bad luck or complicated academic-baby making journeys.
1. Be careful who you trust. If you feel you can trust your supervisor or boss, then it is easiest to be open and honest about your needs. If you’re not entirely sure, then be cautious about the information you share. In my case, I now wish that I had simply said that I was undergoing an unspecified medical treatment that would impact my engagement at work. If you do chose to confide in a superior, don’t be surprised if your worries are dismissed or belittled. If you are in a same-sex relationship, don’t be surprised if others make comments about your suitability for parenting. These are disappointingly common. And don’t be surprised by other’s unhelpful, unasked for and facile advice about fertility.
2. Find people who can help. Although I recommend wariness in disclosing fertility treatment to a supervisor, I do recommend confiding in close colleagues or mentors. It made it much easier attending that conference frazzled and distracted knowing that I had a bunch of people on my side. Also, you will find many young women in the same situation who can empathise and support. I’m pretty sure if I had ran off that stage crying before I’d received my award, one of my colleagues would have rushed to take my place for me.
3. Give yourself a break. For many the process of trying to have a baby is laden with grief, disappointment, sadness and envy. It doesn’t help feeling guilty about missing workshops or conferences or popping off for appointments. For many, this is a process that can’t be circumvented in pursuit of the end goal. It’s also a difficult process to navigate – the avoidance of work trips at certain time or absence at conferences that doesn’t result in visible explanation. It’s a good starting point to accept that it’s also a big and important thing you are doing, in addition to working towards a rewarding academic career.
4. Time isn’t how it feels. Academic careers are unusual in terms of their marriage to the passing of time. We graduate from PhDs and a clock starts ticking, counting down the time until you are no longer an early career researcher. Output is measured relative to time – a ‘good’ number of papers is only good if achieved in a specific period of time. The ticking of the career clock is burdensome and stressful and exacerbated by the often coincidental ticking of the biological clock. It often feels that time is running out on both sides, but this is just a feeling. A few unproductive months here or there, or a year focused on achieving an academic baby will not make or break a career. The clock feels like it’s ticking but with a bit of mental discipline you can slow the ticking down or put it away in your sock drawer out of ear shot.