Pregnancy, Invited Talks, and Pregnancy Loss

Braunstein-998x697Here’s an academic problem I never thought about before I became pregnant: how do you deal with invited talks?  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good problem to have.  But much ink, both analog and digital, has been spilled about how primary childbearing years tend to align with prime career-building years, and one of the main career-building tools of the academic is the invited talk.  In my first pregnancy I turned down three invited talks that would have fallen during my parental leave, which turned out to be three huge wasted opportunities since my pregnancy ended prematurely, leaving me free to go to those meetings after all.  That’s a gap in my CV that I can’t easily explain.  But I don’t know how I could possibly have handled things differently, or indeed, how I would handle a similar situation in the future.

There are essentially two categories of invited talks: conference talks, and colloquia.  Colloquium invitations tend to go out shortly before, or right at the start of, the academic semester.  So you’re typically planning a maximum of four months in advance, and most of the time the scheduling is pretty flexible.  Colloquia are therefore not so hard to schedule around a pregnancy, since pregnancy, as I’ve noted before, is LONG.  It sucks to travel and give colloquia during your first trimester, but for me, at least, it was doable (I had a relatively easy first trimester, with plenty of fatigue and nausea but at least no vomiting).  And if you already know you’re pregnant when you get invited to give a talk, you can try to schedule it for the (relatively) easy-breezy second trimester, when the nausea and fatigue of the first trimester subside (for all but a few unlucky women).  So for me at least, colloquium invitations were not a problem, and I scheduled several of them for my second trimester, figuring I’d better get some traveling done while I still could.

Conference invitations are trickier.  These tend to be planned much farther in advance — like, six to twelve months in advance.  I was invited to give a talk in Japan right after I found out that I was pregnant, and it would have fallen during week 31, which is just before the cutoff (32 weeks) at which many travel insurance companies will no longer sell you policies.  Being an adventurous first-time pregnant lady, I accepted, and planned my trip around my anticipated heavily pregnant state: I booked aisle seats, kept the trip short so I’d be back a few days before the 32-week cutoff, and looked into travel insurance so that if I developed complications I could cancel the trip at the last minute and not be out the cost of a flight to Japan.  Those little reminders — aisle instead of my normal window seats, colleagues asking me why I wasn’t staying for the whole meeting — were painful barbs throughout the whole trip (I did a lot of crying in my hotel room).  But at least I went.

Worse were the three conference talks I was invited to give this spring, during what should have been my parental leave.  The cluster of invitations came in after the first trimester, but before our daughter died, during that beautiful 1.5-month period when I had started to trust the pregnancy and make plans for the future around being a mom.  My career is still accelerating, which means that I don’t often get bonanzas of invited conference invitations like this, and two of the three were big, important international meetings.  One of those meetings seemed like it might be barely doable; my daughter would be three months old, the international meeting was only a few-hour flight away, and my husband was willing to travel with me so that I could give the talk.  But, full of optimism and commitment to my new role as mother (and honestly some trepidation about bringing a 3-month-old on an airplane), I decided it was for the best, that this was the beginning of my efforts to navigate work-life balance, and I turned them all down.

I told the organizers why, of course; I didn’t see any reason not to.  After my daughter died, this led to some awkward interactions and decisions.  I ran into the organizers at meetings and they asked how my baby was.  The conferences I was invited to are still happening this spring, but of course they’ve already filled my talk slot… should I go anyway, and hope they’d at least give me a contributed talk slot?  But ugh, can you imagine submitting an abstract to a conference after that, and the ensuing awkward conversation among the SOC: “Wait, didn’t we invite her to give a talk?  Why is she submitting a contributed abstract?”  “Oh, her baby died…”  Ick.  I generally really like my colleagues in this field, and it’s far too late to contain the information about what happened to me, but I really don’t want to encourage that sort of talk any more than it will naturally happen on its own.  So I’ve avoided these meetings.  It’s fine; my spring schedule filled up with colloquia and is busy enough as it is… but I can’t help but think about those three invited conference talks that should have been, a loss that pales in comparison to the loss of my daughter, but collateral damage to my career nonetheless.

And… what will I do if I get pregnant and I get conference talk invitations again?  I can’t know how I’ll feel until I’m there, but at least for now my impulse is to avoid telling anyone else in my field (outside my university) about my pregnancy until it’s unavoidable.  And having been burned once, I’d have a hard time turning down talk invitations in a future pregnancy.  But what can I do… accept a talk, and then turn it down at the last minute?  “I’m very sorry, but I’m going to have to withdraw my talk from the conference because I’m suddenly 8 months pregnant and can’t travel”?  Or “I’m very sorry, but I’m going to have to withdraw my talk from the conference because I just gave birth and will have a two-month-old during the meeting”?  They’ll think I’m nuts and/or a highly irresponsible person!  Maybe there’s some middle ground, but I’m not sure what it is.  The standard thing to do would be to withdraw after the first trimester, but I tried that already and it failed miserably.  And it’s worse, because I know my prognosis for future pregnancies is not great, so (1) I should probably avoid too much travel because of the likelihood of developing complications, but (2) I have even less reason to count on a future pregnancy continuing and am therefore hesitant to plan my life around it.  But… to not travel for a year (nine months of pregnancy and three months of leave)?  Professional suicide might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  I suppose I can always give vague excuses (“I’m very sorry, but I’m going to have to withdraw my talk from the meeting because of medical issues that have made travel impossible”), but my field is small, and word gets around, and the likelihood is high that they’d figure out what happened.

Anyway, it’s a conundrum, make no mistake.  And not the sort of work-life balance question for which there’s a lot of advice floating around the internet.  This is a fairly niche question, but if there’s anyone out there who has advice, or has experienced something similar, I’d love to hear about it.

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3 thoughts on “Pregnancy, Invited Talks, and Pregnancy Loss

  1. Ulrike Ingram

    I have struggled with the same problem teaching while or after going through a pregnancy loss. I do not attend conferences, but for me the difficulty is in requesting my teaching requests for the following year. I had planned to teach part time or online only for the first semester or two after my daughter was born. So after she passed away, I then had to change from my part time teaching load to a full load. My department chair fully accommodated my request and was able to add 2 sections on somewhat short notice. I can understand your struggle whether to accept the invitations or not.

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  2. lyra211 Post author

    That’s great that your department chair was able to top off your teaching load on fairly short notice — we had to do something similar in our department this semester (although for a totally unrelated reason), and our administration squawked about the extra money. So good for your department for being supportive. But I can imagine that it must have been terribly sad to have to make that request at all.

    My first day back my department chair came into my office and told me that since I wouldn’t be going on parental leave my sabbatical would be coming up a semester earlier and I had to apply for it that week. I burst into tears (the only time I cried in front of him) — it felt like I was going on sabbatical *instead* of on parental leave. (Am I the only faculty member in the world who has cried about going on sabbatical?!) He was really nice about it and actually just submitted the application on my behalf. Honestly, I still don’t want to go on sabbatical next spring — I’m holding out hope that I’ll be on parental leave instead, although that’s looking more and more unlikely, and it sucks. I should be excited about sabbatical, but I just can’t be.

    And that’s for something that in theory I should *want* to do — having to ask for more work instead of leave must have felt just horrible. But I’m very glad that your department was so nice about it, and that you were able to get back up to a full load.

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  3. Pingback: An Update and an Academic Quandary | The Pregnant Physicist

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