Teaching through a Miscarriage

Let's think

Wow, she even remembered the constant of integration!

And now for my first academia-focused post…

Google rarely lets me down, but there is just not a lot out there about going through a miscarriage while teaching at the college level.  Tons of hits on how to help your students through their miscarriages, and a few stories from K-12 teachers who got substitutes, but what do you do when you’re teaching an advanced 13-week class for college students on your own particular specialty that nobody in the department can reasonably cover for, and your life suddenly falls to pieces?  (Obviously not just a miscarriage issue…)

Here’s a little bit of an inside look at experiencing a miscarriage while being a college professor:

I canceled only one class.  I’ve mentioned before how dumb this was in retrospect, but at the time I was freaking out about lots of things, most of which were out of my control, and getting extremely far behind in my teaching responsibilities was one fear that I could actually do something about.  Also, after a few days of sitting at home slowly realizing that my baby was actually gone and sobbing inconsolably and zoning out in front of about a dozen episodes of Buffy, I wanted nothing more than to escape from my own head for a while.  Seriously, I felt trapped, and it was scary.  I have never felt that way about my brain before.  I was hardly able to focus, but when I did finally manage to force my way through grading a few problem sets, the hour or two of relief I got from the obsessive misery I was experiencing felt therapeutic.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, grading was an escape.

I think about half of my students knew I was pregnant.  After the 14-week ultrasound was normal, I had made the announcement to my research group, since I wanted them to hear it from me (rather than worrying as they saw my belly start to expand, or hearing the news from a colleague) and I wanted them to know I had a plan for how to handle my leave during a semester when two of them would be writing theses and graduating.  So my research students knew, and some of the other seniors and masters students knew since it had come up at a department happy hour.  And maybe some of the others guessed or gossiped, I don’t know — I felt like it had to be obvious by the time I was 4.5 months along, especially since it was late summer and I was wearing form-fitting short-sleeve tops, but I know that (thankfully) not everybody is as attuned to my body as I am!  Anyway, I told my research group right away by email what had happened (in very few words), and I’m sure word got around to the other students.  The students who did acknowledge it were generally lovely.  Two of them left flowers and cards outside my office.  I never said anything in class either about my pregnancy or the miscarriage.  When I canceled the Monday class, I told them by email that I had had a serious health issue and had been in the hospital over the weekend, but that I expected to be back by Wednesday, and I was, and that was that.

Going back to teaching was… surreal.  There’s no other word for it. My first experience back in the department on Tuesday was to go to a seminar that one of my colleagues was leading.  I still remember sitting there, hearing nothing that he said (or at least not processing any of it), and seeing visions of my dead daughter interspersed with plots and bullet points.  It amazed me that everyone could act like nothing had happened, or that anyone cared about what we were talking about (I sure didn’t).  When I taught the next day, I just walked in there like nothing had happened and got started.  I was still dizzy, so I made sure there was a chair, and I sat in it for some of the class.  There was one point when I was writing on the board and I got a wave of dizziness.  I felt like I swayed a little — I’m not sure — and I know I stopped talking for a moment… but I was so determined to get through the class that I just plowed on.  To me, the class felt like a mess, but at the time I didn’t care.  At least the preparation, just like the grading, forced me to focus on something outside my head, something other than the disaster that had just hit our family.  I’m not sure that it was entirely healthy to try to avoid my morass of feelings that way, but there was no one right thing to do, and I just muddled through as best I could.  I spent plenty of time processing my emotions over the subsequent weeks and months (clearly I’m still doing it!)… teaching just allowed me to spread it out a little to keep it from becoming overwhelming.  It occurred to me to wonder at some point how stay-at-home moms manage, when family is so much more central to their daily lives and they have no secret identity to escape to.

The most absurd teaching day by far went like this: I rescheduled my canceled Monday class for the Friday 1.5 weeks later.  The day before the make-up class was scheduled, which was also two weeks after they had started inducing labor, I went back to my midwife to investigate the intermittent heavy bleeding and pain I’d still been having.  The midwife suggested an ultrasound, and said that the hospital would call me to schedule it later that day, and that it would take place on Friday.  She wanted to get it resolved as soon as possible in case it was something like a retained placenta that could make me hemorrhage.  So, Friday morning I started calling the hospital and my doctor’s office about scheduling, in between preparing for the make-up class and meeting with my students.  I met with my research group members in the morning, but during one meeting I had to excuse myself three times to take calls from the hospital and my doctor’s office as they sorted out the missing order and got me on the schedule for an ultrasound that afternoon.  I worked through lunch to prepare my class (just as I was putting my first spoonful of lunch to my mouth the office called to tell me not to eat just in case I had to have surgery that day), went to the hospital at 2, had an incredibly painful transvaginal ultrasound (twice, since they had a student do it the first time — normally these things aren’t at all painful, but everything was still quite tender), and then went back to finish prepping my class while I waited for the doctor to call with results.  At 3:30, my doctor called to say that the ultrasound didn’t look normal and she was recommending a D&C for retained products of conception, and that we would do it that night if I was ready.  I said yes, since I just wanted to get this all over with.  So, she gave me the pre-op instructions, and I called my husband to make sure he could drive me to the hospital after work.  Then I picked up my notes and went to teach my class, lightheaded from fasting all day, still leaking blood and ultrasound goo, freaked out about having surgery in a couple of hours, but slightly manic about it all.  I have no memory of that class whatsoever.

Somehow, I made it through the rest of the semester.  Academics tend to be fanatics about their jobs, and most of the time I think I have the best job in the world.  But for a few weeks after my baby died, I just didn’t care about anything, least of all my job, and the extreme apathy that settled over me was scary (in retrospect; at the time it was a mere curiosity, since I didn’t really care about the apathy either — that was weird).  I prepared for class only minimally; I’d copy out some notes from the last time I taught the class once and call it good (this is NOT my normal method!).  On some level I felt bad that the students weren’t getting the best professorial version of myself, but on another level… apathy.

Oddly, one useful thing that the semester taught me was that I can get away with a LOT less preparation than I normally do.  Even with everything that happened, I got really high student evaluations.  There were a few comments about how I’d botched some derivations (those classes were disasters, seriously — the embarrassment was almost enough to penetrate my haze of apathy), but a full 3/4 of the students nevertheless rated the class and my teaching “outstanding.”  It’s possible they were being nice because they knew what had happened, but I don’t think so.  My canceled class was only in mid-September, and I know that none of the students had any idea about all the complications that dragged on for weeks.  My “fake-it-til-you-make-it” approach (which has gotten me through much of the transition to professorhood, by the way) seems to have worked, and plowing through those classes was evidently good enough.

So, that’s my story.  I have very little advice for anyone going through the same thing.  I can only express my extreme condolences, and hope that your recovery is as smooth as possible.  I’d like to say that you should take as much or as little time off as feels right to you, and trust yourself to be the judge, but I remember at the time feeling like that advice was unrealistic in the extreme.  I didn’t feel that anyone else could cover for my classes (although I got a couple of offers), and I felt a strong responsibility not to let my personal tragedy screw up the educational experience of all my bright young students. And ultimately, I think that sense of responsibility, and the pressure to focus on something objective and numeric, was actually therapeutic in a way.  There is no good way through this — you just have to get through it however you can, making sure to take care of yourself and your family first, and know that from the outside nobody sees what a complete and utter wreck you are.  Your prior teaching experience will carry you through if you need to keep teaching, and it won’t look as bad to your students as it feels to you while you’re going through it.  I survived, and you can too.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching through a Miscarriage

  1. Ulrike Ingram

    I am very sorry about your loss. I wish I had more or better words to express how sad I am for your family. I agree with your blog post. There is not much available information out there about going through what you have experienced while teaching at the university level. I am actually in a very similar situation, except I am a lecturer of geography instead of a tenure-track professor. We lost our daughter to a cord accident, stillborn at 36 weeks while I was teaching last spring. I took one week off (which was an exam that a colleague proctored for me), then it was spring break, so I returned after 2 weeks. I had sent an email to the students within a couple of days after my daughter’s birth. I emailed 4 of the professors I work with most closely to let them know. I don’t know if the department chair ever made an official announcement. I was 35 weeks pregnant at one department meeting and then clearly not pregnant the next month. But I had no baby photos to share. Nobody said a word. Anyway, I feel like I could write a whole novel about my experiences at work since then, since your story hit home for me. I wish I had some comforting or encouraging words to offer now, but everything that comes to mind is a platitude that I myself didn’t find very helpful, so I’ll just leave it with: I am glad I came across your blog. Shared experiences are better than lonely experiences.

    Reply
    1. lyra211 Post author

      Oh, Ulrike, thank you. And I’m so sorry for your terrible loss of your daughter as well. You’re absolutely right that shared experiences are better than lonely experiences, and I so deeply appreciate your words (and you’re generous to call our experience shared, since my experience only leaves me in awe of your ability to survive what must have been even more unimaginably difficult both physically and emotionally).

      I can’t believe nobody in your department said a word to you. That must have been (and must still be) such a horrifically lonely feeling. And how absurd — to not even acknowledge the incredible physical change that must have been so obvious to everyone. At some point recently I came across this (very good) guide to helping grieving students (http://grievingstudents.scholastic.com/), and was struck by one of their very first pieces of advice: that it is vital to speak up and acknowledge a loss, because silence communicates volumes (i.e., that you may be insensitive, uncaring, incapable of support, lacking in confidence, or disapproving). It’s so true not only for students, but for friends and colleagues as well. It actually makes me think that this very basic life skill ought to be taught somehow — some responses to grief you can only learn through painful experience, but clearly there are some basic principles that you’d think would be universally understood but aren’t.

      Last spring… that’s not so long ago. I hope you’ve been healing, and I wish you and your family the best as you move forward. And thank you again for your words — they mean a lot.

      Reply
  2. Ulrike Ingram

    I just wanted to clarify. The few professors who knew, who I had emailed, did acknowledge what happened. One of them offered to cover my classes for the rest of the semester. I felt supported and cared for by those 4. I mean that the rest of the faculty members didn’t say anything. When I place myself in their shoes, I understand how awkward it would be. The first couple of months, I wonder if I gave off a somewhat distanced vibe. I think I did that to protect myself, so I wouldn’t break down. Reminded me of your post about crying in public. Anyway, I just didn’t want to sound too negative about my colleagues. It’s a tough thing to do: to support somebody going through a tragedy. I know 100% that there was no ill intent.

    Reply

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