PhD & pregnancy: Academic guilt squared

Paper garland by; quote by Amy Poehler

It's a common trait of the PhD candidate (actually, academics in general) to feel that they’re not getting enough done. Sometimes it seems like there are always data to be re-analysed, conference abstracts to submit, papers to be written, reviewer comments to respond to— The list goes on. Well, throw ‘creating human life’ into the mix and you have a whole new level of academic guilt.

When I first started my PhD I had numerous (female) colleagues mention that it is a great time to have a child: flexibility, (some) maternity leave, and a stable (but low) income.* While I wasn’t remotely interested in having children at the time something about this advice must have stuck. In my third year when my partner and I decided that we did in fact want a child, and the looming uncertainty of post-PhD life was approaching us, it suddenly seemed like the perfect time to do it.

For the most part, this timing did indeed have certain benefits. But throw a life changing event in with something as challenging (and often stressful) as a PhD and you are bound to face certain difficulties. For me, the biggest challenge has been guilt. 

Academic guilt x pregnancy-related academic guilt (PRAG) = lots and lots of guilt

I’m typically pretty good at handling academic guilt. I work hard but know my limits, and I often engage in self-care practices to avoid burnout. But PRAG was a whole new beast I didn’t know how to tame. And while I still can’t completely do so, figuring out the source certainly helped.

In our society, the labour of pregnancy mostly goes unrecognised. This includes the physical, emotional and financial labour involved in growing a human life within you.** Despite being a women’s health researcher (one who researches women’s experiences of pregnancy, birth and beyond, no less) and a raging feminist, I too found myself diminishing the work of pregnancy. Why couldn’t I do everything like I used to while doing this one thing that so many women have done, are doing, or will do?

The answer was that I couldn’t do it (although some women do) nor should I have to. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who reminded me of this. Before I became pregnant I mentioned our plans to my supervisor in order to suss out what level of support I could expect post-birth. She tentatively pointed out that one needs support well before there is a baby to care for as you never really know how pregnancy will affect your body and the changes you may need to/want to make to accommodate this. At the time I thought she was referring to someone with a complicated pregnancy rather than acknowledging the varying degrees of labour involved in all pregnancies. I will forever treasure this advice. I also had the support of my university; every leave application was approved without fuss and always with a kind note from those who processed it.

The problem was largely with me.*** PRAG was always there lurking in the background. It came when I had to revise my thesis plan for the third time in a month, when I got an email about a night seminar or university social event I couldn’t attend due to an antenatal appointment or not having the energy, and when I cancelled yet another meeting with little notice due to an unexpected but normal pregnancy quirk. Unlike some other departments or institutions there is also an expectation in my school for PhD students to maintain relatively standard office hours. However, the daily two-hour commute to the office was no longer feasible (and some days just not possible); I could achieve much more working at home and it was better for me that I did. It’s all these things and more that led me to feel like I was falling behind when in reality I was doing fine - things just looked different than in my pre-pregnant life.

Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if all women went on strike from all forms of labour. In 1975 in Iceland, women went on strike from all paid and unpaid (e.g. childrearing, housework) labour for just one day and the whole country came to a complete standstill. The work of pregnancy is important and valuable. If you ask me to provide a rationale for my research and to justify the money the government has invested in it, I could do so easily (and have). If, a few months ago, you had of asked me to justify why my paid work had to accommodate my unpaid labour of pregnancy I probably would have struggled (side bar: obviously it's not OK to ask someone this).

It's difficult to undo a lifetime of socialisation that devalues any form of ‘women’s work.’ This socialisation seems particularly cruel for women given we know firsthand the weight of such work.

It was only through constantly reminding myself of this labour that I have managed to keep my PRAG (mostly) at bay. Frequently communicating my experience with my partner, supervisors, and friends (particularly those who have been/are in a similar situation) also greatly helped. I tried also to be mindful of the language I used in my professional life when acknowledging anything pregnancy related. For example, I had a tendency to be apologetic: “I’m sorry I won’t be able to tutor that subject because I will be on maternity leave then.” It was more appropriate to express the same sentiment without apologising: “I am not able to tutor that subject as I will be on maternity leave then. Let's make a plan to discuss this again when I return from leave.” A woman never has to apologise for being pregnant; something I unfortunately found easier said than done.

I look forward to the day when I supervise my own PhD students and together we can work out a plan to prevent PRAG being a factor in their pregnancy and PhD experience. But for now, on those days when it feels like I yet again didn’t do enough, I remind myself of everything I did achieve while also growing a human being. Like a boss.

Kate xx

Stay tuned for a future post on tips to have a budget baby when you (and your partner) are doing a PhD.

*In hindsight all of the women giving me this advice had partners who worked outside of academia; it’s a whole different ball game when your partner is also a PhD candidate! 
**There are many ways a baby comes into the world. I can only comment on my experience which is why I am writing from the perspective of someone who conceived their child spontaneously within their own body. It would be great to hear about different experiences.
***For a woman in 2016 this is almost a luxurious problem to have. See here, here and here for more.