Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Pregnant Astronomer: Part 1

This week's guest blogger is Kate Follette. Kate is a graduate student at Steward Observatory and an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her scientific research focuses on planet formation in circumstellar disks, and she is also engaged in educational research on mitigating quantitative illiteracy through introductory science courses for non-majors.

This is the first in a series of three posts that I’ll be writing about pregnancy, and this one will be focused on tips and tricks for the first half (weeks 1-20 or so) of the 9 month journey to motherhood. Women have a huge diversity of pregnancy experiences and I cannot speak for everyone, so I’ve called on some colleagues to contribute to the “Tips and Tricks” section at the end of the article. If nothing else, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this article and soak in some of their wisdom. Whether you’re a man or a woman, have children, will have children, or intend not to, I think there’s something to be learned for everyone in there.

There are literally millions of forums, blogs and books out there about the general pregnancy experience, but when I became pregnant I found myself overwhelmed with questions to which these blogs didn’t have the answers – When and how do I tell my advisor? Should I cancel my observing run? What’s it like being at conferences when pregnant? Will it affect my job prospects (consciously or unconsciously)?

The main goal of this series is to compile some wisdom regarding these questions and others relevant to life as a pregnant astronomer. I’ll start by describing my own experience, and will leave you with a compilation of advice from other women astronomers. Remember, this is just installment #1. I’m saving many of the questions – for example those on issues of leave, childcare and returning to work – for later installments.

My Experiences and Advice (so far)

Pregnancy is not at all what I expected. I haven’t been around for the pregnancies of many friends or relatives, and so I suppose that most of my prior pregnancy knowledge came from movies and TV – never a good place to start. My first piece of advice is this: don’t be fooled by the pregnant women in movies who wake up looking well rested, throw up gracefully before breakfast and then put on their high heels and go about their day. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t work this way for anyone.

I didn’t necessarily expect a totally rosy Hollywood pregnancy, but I guess I thought that on the whole I wouldn’t be drastically affected by my pregnancy until I had a big round belly to show for it, and I therefore had plenty of time to plan ahead and get stuff done. I was drastically wrong on this count.

It’s important to know (and I didn’t) that although nobody will necessarily be able to see that you’re pregnant for the first ~4-5 months, you will be experiencing a whole variety of physical symptoms that may affect your lifestyle and work habits. Yes, pregnancy is a natural thing that women have been doing for millennia, but it's also physically demanding, even from the very beginning. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: nausea, vomiting, fatigue, constipation, frequent urination, insomnia, vivid dreams, hemorrhoids, leg cramps, dizziness, shortness of breath, heartburn, food aversions/cravings and strong emotions, and many of these start almost right away.

It’s true that some women feel just fine during their first trimester, but most are not so lucky. About 75% of women experience some form of “morning” sickness (not just a morning phenomenon - something else I would have liked to have known) and even those who escape it experience at least one or two of the symptoms above. For me, the first trimester, and particularly weeks 6-15, was a terrible horrible no good experience. I felt nauseated almost constantly, vomited frequently and was absolutely exhausted all the time. As you can imagine, I had a tough time getting work done, and I wish that I had talked to people earlier and known to prepare for this possibility. As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to have a flexible schedule and to be able to work from home much of the time, but I’d put my productivity during this period at about 30% of normal.

Unfortunately, this period coincided exactly with a really key time at work – falling right between two commissioning runs for a new instrument suite that I’d been working on for most of my graduate career - and I was supposed to be getting all kinds of stuff done. I also had a number of other supplemental responsibilities on my plate, some of which I wasn’t able to quickly extract myself from. If I’d known in advance how I might feel during my first trimester, I would have backed away from all non-essential responsibilities and been more careful about setting up expectations regarding what I would accomplish and when.

I ended up telling my advisor about my pregnancy long before I had intended because I was falling so far behind that I felt I owed him an explanation. This was important for him because it helped him to understand what was going on, and it was important for me because it helped to ease the tremendous guilt that I was feeling. If I had been better prepared and front-loaded work or had been luckier with morning sickness, this may not have been necessary.

For me, the nausea and vomiting phase eased up right around week 16, literally the day that I boarded a plane to Chile for a two week commissioning run. The fatigue persisted for quite a while longer, and I had some trouble keeping up while on the run. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt asking for accommodations while all of my colleagues were pulling 16hr days, and in the end I mostly toughed it out, but I really shouldn’t have. By the end of the run I was feeling sick again, probably from exhaustion, and that was a little risky as well as unnecessary. It took me a couple of weeks after returning home to recover.

My motivation for keeping quiet about how I was feeling, and I think a lot of women experience this, was that I didn’t want to perpetuate the myth that pregnancy is some horribly compromised state that makes women useless in the workplace. It isn’t, at least not for most women with healthy pregnancies. But that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t requiring a lot more of you than before, (you’re growing another person for heaven’s sake!) and its important to listen to it and to ask for help when you need it. It wasn’t the observing run itself that hurt me – the travel, altitude, etc. all worked out fine – it was my insisting on acting like nothing had changed. I’m planning on traveling to several conferences this summer, and I hope to learn from my own mistake and take it a little easier this time.

As with many women, my second trimester has been much better thus far. I’ve been slowly catching up on the things that I neglected during my first trimester, but have been careful to take care of myself by getting plenty of sleep and eating well. Having a supportive partner has been a big help here, as my husband has picked up much of the slack at home so that I can concentrate on work and sleep.

I still have plenty of things to figure out, which is why this is just the first posting in this series. In the next installment, I plan to focus on preparing for and taking leave, which has been on my mind a lot lately. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the advice that I wish I’d had before I began this journey.

Tips, Tricks and Anecdotes from Women Astronomers

First Trimester Physical Symptoms

“For once, it may be an advantage to work mainly with older men who basically will notice nothing about you or your pregnancy. Don't be self-conscious
because people are noticing less than you think. Somehow, no one noticed all the times I fell asleep with my face on my keyboard during my first trimester.”
--Senior Research Faculty Member

“I just tried to take advantage of any time I had when I didn't feel like crap, which was not very much time. If I felt even marginally not horrible, I would just work a ton, even if it was nights or weekends. This was to make up for the times I didn't feel okay. I also tried to work a lot before I got pregnant, since I anticipated it being rough (which it was).”
--Grad Student

“I did not feel sick during the first trimester although I was pretty tired. Since this was during the summer, I could be flexible with my schedule and take naps as needed. This was very important to keep me well rested and low stress during the crucial first trimester.”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“I was unlucky in that I experienced severe morning sickness for the entire 9 months of my pregnancy. I was very lucky in that my postdoc job didn't have a lot of requirements of in-person meetings, teaching, or hard deadlines, so I honestly did a lot of working from home.”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“I did get the incredible exhaustion that's associated with the first trimester, but the second trimester is A LOT better. For me, it was something that gradually happened. I also have a slight coffee addiction, and so quitting cold turkey when I found out I was pregnant totally exacerbated the tiredness problem for me. I found out I was pregnant over the summer, so I did my best to work at home."
--Grad Student

“Ugh, the first trimester is the worst. *Especially* because you aren't telling people, and what you'd really like to do is lay on the floor. It will get A TON better."

Telling Advisor/Colleagues/Grad Students

“I waited until after the first trimester to tell people at work. I told my only female colleague first and then my department head and then waited another month to tell the rest of the department. I made sure to tell my grad students early so they did not hear the info second hand and get worried about how it would affect them. I was worried as a pre-tenure faculty that people would think I was making a bad career move but everyone was very supportive. In fact, many colleagues said they were reassured since this meant that my family was happy and settled in the area.”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“Knowing when to advise your supervisor of health issues depends upon whether there are obvious impacts, or changes that are going to be needed, and how rapidly. For example, if you have severe nausea early on, you may need to disclose earlier than some people. Others can play
things by ear and wait until they show. I would suggest if you can wait, do so for a while, demonstrating in the meantime that you can continue to work as before, and then when you do announce, point out that to that point, there has been no impact on your productivity.”
--Senior Research Faculty Member

“I’d told my advisor that I was pregnant by the time I was 8 weeks pregnant. I know that seems early, but my rationale was that I felt like crap and I didn't want him to think that all of a sudden, I decided to slack off. Additionally, I have a condition that put me at a higher risk for miscarriage and so if I needed to take a week to compose myself (or even deal with it medically), I wanted him to know, again, I wasn't just slacking."
--Grad Student

“Telling people is terrifying. Even when I applied for postdocs I was... hesitant to share. But at the end of the day, my family is important to me, and that's ok. I work hard, I travel when I need to travel, and I make it work. Being upfront (which is hard, and takes practice) works better. My coworkers were totally fine with it. They got a little nervous when I tried heavy lifting as I got bigger, but let's be honest, that's ok. I acted like it was normal, and they got on board. If you occasionally need accommodation (not wanting to crazy hike, needing help lifting something) you let them know, and it is ok.”

“If you feel like things are good with your advisor, I'd tell them sooner rather than later. Because if they are supportive, they can help you figure stuff out. If they aren't, better to know now so you can have a backup plan over the next bunch of months. Overall I'd come down on the side of transparency because... people don't like being surprised, and it stressed them out. When you tell them, they know *you're* thinking about it. "I'm going to be 7 months pregnant, I talked to my doctor, here's the drill." Then they don't have to freak out."

Travel During Pregnancy

“I did a few work trips during my pregnancy (gave colloquia, conferences, committee work) and overall they were fine and I didn't need anything special. Airline crew are really nice and helpful when you are pregnant (and traveling with a newborn).”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“1 week after finding out I was pregnant, I was supposed to go observing and I was worried about the altitude, so I cancelled the trip. Thankfully the people I dealt with were very understanding and only a few people found out I was pregnant at this early time.”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“The one conference I did attend while pregnant was the AAS, which was being held in Austin. I think I ended up going for 3 days, but I ended up missing a couple of talks I really wanted to see because I was so tired (which sort of creeps back towards the end), but I was 7 months pregnant at the time."
--Grad Student

“I spent a chunk of my second trimester in the field. It is do-able. I worked 18 hour days in the field, and my husband wasn't there, and it was fine. Then I was just HUNGRY. My son is probably 50% dairy queen milk shake. Maybe 25%. But still...”

General Advice

“Slow down and rest. Pregnancy and taking care of a child are demanding. It's okay to let journal articles, committee work, and service work slide. Turn down panel requests and referee requests. The best thing you can do is stay healthy and well rested.”
--Pre-Tenure Faculty

“My two main pieces of advice are a) find an OB (or midwife!) that you trust and can help you have the kind of birth that you want. Once you have an OB you can trust, make sure that you talk to her/him about everything, including travel and work stuff. And b) listen to your body. It'll tell you if you're pushing yourself too hard and that's the most important thing.”
--Grad Student

“I don't think it should be treated as an accomplishment to be professionally active while pregnant, but since a lot of people seem to feel that it is, run with it and be a good role model.”
--Senior Research Faculty Member

“I am afraid that culturally we are very likely to interpret the effects
of the distractions that come with pregnancy as the results of female hormones and uncontrollable biology whereas with all of life's other distractions we are more objective. I've heard several male colleagues with new babies complain about their inability to work effectively as the result of being so tired. But not one ascribes this to "fuzz brain"
or "intellectual haze" from hormones;; they name it sleep deprivation, which is exactly what it is!”
--Senior Research Faculty Member

“No one who is pregnant knows how things are going to work out, what health issues they may encounter, and how these are going to affect their
work productivity. In principal this is no different from others with health issues, but historically, the work environment has not been friendly or accommodating to women."
--Senior Research Faculty Member

9 wonderful women astronomers, identified generically by career stage in the comments above, contributed to this article.


Anonymous said...

One of the highest impact effects of pregnancy that I suffered from was the so-called pregnancy brain. I couldn't remember anything at all, and had to keep meticulous notes on everything I did and planned. This occurred from the moment I got pregnant, until well past the time I stopped breastfeeding. Even with my youngest now being 4, I still don't feel I ever regained the mental flexibility I had prior to my pregnancies.

Unknown said...

I had both my daughters in grad school (my first at the end of my 3rd year and my 2nd a couple months after I defended, which was 4 months before I moved to an international postdoc position), and I have lot of experience with all of these issues. I have gone observing, to conferences, collaboration research trips and more, both while pregnant (early and late stage pregnancy) as well as with an infant (I also have some really funny stories if anyone needs a break from the pregnancy/baby stress and would like a laugh). I think the most general advice I can give is that while I definitely felt the same guilt that many of the people mentioned already, in hindsight, I would say that you should try your hardest NOT to feel guilty - that this is a natural part of a woman's life and you should empower yourself with feelings that you have the right to have this experience and ask for the help you need during this time - and expect to get it. I realize that not everyone may have the support that I had during this time, both from my colleagues, my family, and my advisor, but even if you are not as fortunate to have this support, never allow anyone to make you feel like anything is your "fault" because of your condition. Like anything else in life, we've made the choice - one to have a baby AND a career, so we have to take responsibility for that choice, but you should never allow anyone to make you feel like you have any reason in the world to question your right to make that choice, or that it was a "poor" one for an astronomer.

Anonymous said...

I traveled a lot while pregnant (more than ten trips, I'd estimate), both because I was looking for a job, and I figured that it would be a lot harder to travel with a newborn. I can say that the hardest part about the frequent traveling was the anxiety that something would go wrong when I was away from my health care team. I'm glad I got to participate as fully as I did when pregnant, but it was extremely stressful.

Anonymous said...

Instead of feeling guilty, I try to look at all the time my male colleagues waste chatting (oops, sorry, networking!) around the water cooler while I'm working hard (in office hours, evening and weekends sometimes).

I am trying to learn to say 'no' more often unless it really benefits me, my family or my team (and therefore my Department and University by proxy!). I can sit on committees when my baby has grown up, left home and I'm suffering from empty nest syndrome!

I love my job, I adore my baby. I can do both really well, but I can't afford to be a listening post or ego massager for random male colleagues who are bored with their work or use work as a social life.

Some of my male colleagues have said they come to work for a rest from their families. I go home to my family to get recharged.

When I was pregnant, I had super-woman like energy in the second trimester particularly. It may just have been the impending deadline of delivery and more likely, some nice hormone thing. I used it to produce lots of publications to cushion the maternity leave or sick leave I might have to take.

I know I couldn't have done that in industry or commerce. In astronomy, I had the flexibility to design my future the way it suited me as long as I recognised it was my right to do so.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first poster - pregnancy brain, particularly in the third trimester, can seriously inhibit your ability to focus on a problem. In addition I also experienced postpartum depression, which added to the burden on my brain and simultaneously made me loose motivation in my work for a long time, which ground my research to an almost halt. I don't think I regret having a baby in graduate school, but students should know that there is a good possibility your studies will be extended long beyond the extra '6 weeks maternity leave' from various effects.

Now that my son is 15 months old, and my dissertation writing is back on track, I feel much more confident in my abilities. But the recovery was slow. And it's true that your mental faculties will continue to be split between home and work life, as they would be for a student, professor, man or woman. I no longer feel that I can work at home as effectively as I once did, because when I'm at home I think about home things. Even going to a coffee shop changes that for me. I use the physical separation to mentally switch focus. When you have something really important going on in your life at home (like a baby and a toddler are), of course it becomes harder to be that carefree graduate student who can think about their research whenever and wherever. That doesn't make it wrong...just harder to schedule. :-)

Anonymous said...

The European Research Council subtracts 18 months per child when considering your 'academic age' or years post PhD (for men and women).

One assumes this is sensible recognition of the true impact on one's career - rather than a ridiculous 6 weeks maternity leave and everything's back to 'normal'!

bellatrix78 said...

Oh, how right OP is in praising the second trimester! Really, suddenly you feel "fine" after that period of weirdness (dreams, morning sickness, fatigue, ...).

I tried to take it all in stride - relax! Yes, you still end up throwing up several times on the way down from observing from a mountain in the first trimester, but meh - the road really IS curvy :).

So you take longer at the security line when traveling, so you come in 20 minutes later to work, so you don't give that presentation with that great physical cartoon you usually do.

I just try to relax... in reality I am grinning, because I and only a few people in my inner circle know that there is this wonderful thing growing inside me! :)