The Best Time

It might have been in grad school that I heard this conversation for the first time. Now that I’ve participated as a mentor in the ISA Pay It Forward event for the past two years, it’s something that is asked of me.

When is the best time to have a baby?

As a grad student, this was something I fretted about. But then again, I had it all planned out. I was going to get my PhD, my first job, and married at 26, tenured at 32, and then a baby at 33. While I was in grad school, a few friends had gotten pregnant and had babies. We were told “oh, that’s a GREAT time to have babies. You’re writing your dissertation while they’re young and they won’t remember it.” Supposedly, babies make you more organized and more on top of your work. Babies are portable. Babies are easy! It’s the older kids that are hard! You don’t want to be TOO old when you have kids!

charliebrown

Remember my plan? I did start my first job and got married at 26. I finished my PhD at 27… and then got divorced at 28. It was also around that time that I started having symptoms of endometriosis: dysmenorrhea that made me lay in bed for a few days a month, random bleeding, and pelvic pain. I got my diagnosis around the time I met my husband. I had my first laparoscopy three months after we got married. My doctor had told me that if we wanted to get pregnant, this would be our first step and not to wait. Plenty of women with endometriosis end up with hysterectomies in their 30s (which we now know is not the best way to deal with endo, but…) Two rounds of Clomid later, we were pregnant and our son was born nine months later.

At this point, I was still on the tenure track. A senior member of my department commented that I had gotten pregnant “quickly” while others whispered about my pregnancy. According to them, I had found that “best time” to have my baby… I found a method to delay my tenure clock and also to have a semester off from my teaching load. That “best time” looked a lot different to me… it was marked by recovery from a c-section, difficulty breastfeeding (who knew that you could get preeclampsia postpartum and have your milk dry up thanks to hard core diuretics?) and postpartum depression that set in when I realized that I was going to have to give my baby formula (what I then saw as a failure on my part…overachievers like those who pursue PhDs don’t fail at anything).  Strategy had nothing to do with it: my gynecologist told me that endo doesn’t wait for anyone and so I took my chance and went with it.

Last week was infertility awareness week. While I got pregnant with our son relatively effortlessly (one surgery and some clomid is relatively effortless on the infertility spectrum), trying to get pregnant again was insanely difficult. I definitely wanted to wait until I had my tenure letter in my hand (because I was waiting for that “right time”). During that awful stressful year, I ended up having emergency surgery that affected my fertility again. And then we tried. And tried. And tried. I saw the one reproductive endocrinologist in town who was a complete asshole to me (I later learned he was a complete asshole to everyone). I took clomid again. I did injectables. I did not get pregnant.

My gynecologic surgeon suggested I drive up to our closest big city, to the women’s hospital where he had done his residency. That’s a 90 minute drive, one way. A three hour round trip that would have to be done multiple times a week, for testing, ultrasounds, and any other monitoring that would need to be done if we did more invasive fertility treatments. All while teaching and doing research. Not to mention that my insurance (and my husband’s) doesn’t cover fertility treatments. I’ve had friends who did IUI and IVF, spent the thousands of dollars necessary to do that, and still had their hearts broken in the end. My husband and I thought long and hard about it and decided IVF wasn’t for us. Maybe if we hadn’t had our son, we would have been willing to invest the money into the risk, but we couldn’t justify it. The right time, that time that I thought would be so perfect post-tenure, just wasn’t.

I’m that annoying person who has a happy ending to my story. After giving up on baby #2, I got pregnant a few months later with no interventions. There are so many people who don’t get that happy ending. We like to point to fertility issues as an age thing, but honestly, I know plenty of women who have problems getting pregnant and/or staying pregnant for reasons not related to age. So, now, post-tenure me rolls my eyes at those conversations about “the right time” to get pregnant. (Or, worse, people who suggest timing your pregnancies to have the summer off! Kudos if you can actually pull that off!) So, when young women ask me when is the “right time” to get pregnant, I tell them there is no right time. You just need to take a leap of faith and do what is right for you and your family… and also not worry about the whispers that might follow. We academics are planners. We just need to make that connection that all that planning may not work out the way we want it to.

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Enough is enough

One of the first things my (former) chair said to me when I started my tenure track job was to protect my research time. “Just do the basic service necessary. Review manuscripts, be panel discussants, the usual,” he advised. And, for years, that’s what I did. Post-tenure women are still advised to say no. While we excel at service, it is to the detriment of our research. And while it is important for us to increase our service post-tenure (in tune with our department and college/university expectations), research-focused schools do not reward service with promotions. However, how can you balance these guidelines with the impulse to get involved in this post-election period? I was in a meeting last week for one of my service projects (helping to start up the new Women’s Resource Center on my campus) and I found myself starting to apologize for not being involved in one of the new multi-generational feminist groups that started in the fall. I mean, when it started, I was on parental leave and then the meeting time didn’t mesh with my kids’ daycare pickup, and… I’m sorry.

I found myself apologizing to others for making the decision not to march in January. Two of my very good (local) friends were going, my university was sponsoring a bus to DC, and a few of my (non-local) friends were meeting up to spend the weekend together. Plus… it was my spouse’s birthday. It wasn’t a milestone birthday, but I didn’t want to be out of town without him that weekend. I confessed to one of my friends that I met through a campus women’s group that I was worried that people were judging me for not going to the march. I felt a lot better when she said that she struggled with the decision too. Crowds aren’t her thing (they aren’t mine either) and not going to DC didn’t mean that she (or I) had any less of an effect on the political process.

About a month later, I got a Facebook invite to attend an organizational meeting of a local NOW chapter that some colleagues and acquaintances had helped to initiate. This was exciting! This was activism at its finest! This was… not going to fit into my calendar at all. My weekends are reserved for my family (as are most evenings). I know that there are plenty of other women who are involved in this type of activism that have partners and kids and aging parents but… they aren’t me. The first NOW meeting passed with me feeling an immense sense of guilt. I convinced myself that I would make it to the next one.

I have a friend who is doing some local organizing to help find a challenger to run against her local congressman, all while raising two kids, teaching music lessons, and being a member in her local orchestra. The women who organized the local chapter of NOW are all professional women who have partners and kids and careers. The women who marched in DC are from all different backgrounds and ages and locales and they found time to march. Are all these people more dedicated than I am? Am I being lazy?

rest not quit

As I found myself apologizing at that meeting last week, I quickly stopped myself before the words “I’m sorry” ever made it out of my mouth. I do enough. I can’t be everything to everyone. I am involved in a number of women’s groups already, albeit concentrated in my campus service and my service to the discipline. I like that service. To me (and to others), it’s service that matters. And yet, I feel guilt for not doing more, especially in this political climate. However, what more women need to realize is that we do enough already. There is plenty of evidence for that.Those of us who struggle or feel guilt about not doing enough are probably doing more than others already… and I guarantee that we are making a difference to someone. And, while it rests on our shoulders to protect our rights and the rights of other underrepresented groups (because we have seen time and again that we can’t leave it to others to do the work for us), a division of labor is necessary to avoid burnout.