Being pregnant at an academic conference is a strange collision between the personal and the professional. It’s one of the few times in a career that your personal life is (very) visibly on display, and your colleagues suddenly feel comfortable commenting on it. This week I spent two days at a conference, presenting an invited talk to an audience of scientists in my particular technical field. Here are a few thoughts.
First, I’m so glad that I’m not this lady. It was both appalling and fascinating for me to read about a woman being uninvited to a conference after disclosing to the organizers that she would be 7 months pregnant during the meeting (side note: the resulting #7monthsawesome Twitter trend was fabulous and empowering). The story broke mere weeks before I knew I’d be taking my last plane flight for a very long time to give an invited talk at a conference while I was exactly as pregnant as she would have been. I debated with myself, checked with my doctor, and reached out to my thesis advisor (who was on the organizing committee for the conference) about the wisdom and importance of attending this conference 7 months into a high-risk pregnancy… but my doctors assured me that with everything looking normal so far in this pregnancy, and with the blood thinners I’ve been taking to avoid clotting issues, there was no medical reason not to fly at this point. Especially since it was a short flight to an extremely major city where I could get top-notch medical care if something did go wrong, there seemed to be little reason to call it off. So I waited until a few weeks before the conference to buy my plane tickets, made sure to book direct flights and aisle seats, shortened the trip to two days, and at #7monthsawesome I headed off to the meeting. (Thankfully, my advisor didn’t disinvite me from the meeting in the meantime!)
Overall, I thought my colleagues treated me reasonably professionally — the comments were limited to coffee breaks and mostly involved brief congratulatory acknowledgments that quickly transitioned into science talk. I’ve gotten used to the vague belly-ward gestures that are supposed to indicate my pregnancy — usually it goes something like this:
Old white nerd guy: “I see that congratulations are in order [waves vaguely towards my abdomen]”
Me: “Yes, thanks!”
Him [clearly relieved]: “So, science…”
The younger crowd, many of whom are friends as well as colleagues, tend to want longer and more involved interactions. Interestingly, I don’t think any women with children have said a word to me about my pregnancy, despite the fact that there are at least two here that I know reasonably well (well enough that I’d at least say congrats if I saw them pregnant). The younger women without kids are clearly interested but don’t really know what to talk about beyond the general info (due date, sex of baby). But the young men with kids are all over this stuff — they want to talk about how many weeks I am and how the flight was and what my university’s parental leave policies are like. It’s kind of funny, but in a good way — I think it’s just a bit of evidence that male scientists in my generation are both interested in and working at being involved parents, in a way that older male scientists often weren’t.
Mostly, being at a conference while pregnant has just been like any other conference experience. Nobody’s been overly solicitous (a few ribbing comments about how I couldn’t take advantage of the open bar at the reception, including one “You know, there’s really nothing wrong with having a small glass of wine — you’ll just get some dirty looks!” but that’s it). People have asked me more about my science and my faculty job than they have about my pregnancy, which is great. Physically I’ve found it hard to sit in uncomfortable chairs all day, so I spend more time standing in the back of the room than I normally would, but I’m not so uncomfortable that it’s really affected my ability to focus. I frequent the restroom more than usual, but at a male-dominated science conference, there’s never a wait at the women’s room anyway. The flight was probably the most uncomfortable part, since I was confined to a super-uncomfortable chair for a long time, and then the breathless feeling that has started to take over as my kid moves up into my ribcage was exacerbated by the thin atmosphere in the pressurized cabin. Bottom line: I’d totally attend a conference at 7 months pregnant again in the future (assuming an uncomplicated pregnancy), but I probably wouldn’t do a longer-haul flight than the 2.5-hour trip it took to get here.
I did have one very sad/awkward interaction. When I was just over 3 months pregnant with our daughter last year, I attended a conference where I met a colleague for the first time. He’s someone whose papers I’ve read and with whom I’d exchanged a few emails, so it was nice to finally meet him. At one dinner with him and a bunch of other scientists, I sat between to him and a female collaborator who has a young daughter — I’d wanted to talk to her about her experience doing science with a young kid at home, so I told her I was pregnant and proceeded to interrogate her. The male colleague sitting on my other side overheard, and so we chatted about my pregnancy — he has an elementary school-age daughter, and he asked all sorts of questions about the pregnancy, in a friendly way. When I saw him at this conference, he immediately came over and again started asking questions in a friendly way:
Him: “Wow, I guess it’s been a couple years… congratulations again! Have you been getting much sleep?”
Me [awkwardly]: “Oh, um, plenty of sleep…”
Him: “That’s great! How are you adjusting to the new lifestyle?”
Me: “Um, well, actually, our first baby died when I was 4.5 months pregnant.”
Him: “Oh… I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
He tried to recover and ask me about this pregnancy, but that was awful too. I could feel myself turning red in the face — It felt like embarrassment, not that that I think I have anything to be embarrassed about, but I guess I was just feeling embarrassed about the situation. I think we were both relieved when he changed the subject to science instead, and we had a nice science discussion after that.
Aside from the awkwardness, I’m glad that I chose to come speak at the conference. It felt really empowering to stand up in front of this audience of scientists and give my invited talk while my son kicked in my belly. I think it’s generally good for the field to have visible signals that women are combining family and science. I also think a lot of people don’t understand how capable women can be even far into pregnancy (at least when they’re lucky enough to have a so-far uncomplicated pregnancy like mine). I do worry a bit about people mentally “mommy-tracking” me, since it’s now totally obvious that I’ll be on leave next semester during my facility’s big proposal deadline… but I think that the positives balance the risks.
And otherwise, things are still going well. Tomorrow I’ll be 31 weeks pregnant, so just nine short weeks to go until my due date, and a maximum of ten weeks until we meet our son (assuming all goes well). I’m working hard to finish all my grading and coursework before the week is over so that I can focus on my research for the ~2 months left until the baby arrives. I’ve got one paper draft mostly written that I really, really want to have finished before I go on leave. There’s another paper draft by a student that I’ve been sitting on since the start of the semester that also just needs some TLC from me before submission — if I can really get two papers submitted, or at least out to collaborators for final commentary, then I’ll feel particularly great about heading off on leave. (And if not, I’ll gladly do it anyway! But it’s good to have goals.) I feel that our preparations for the baby have stalled a little bit… I was feeling so brave until the breakdown about the baby shower, and now I’m feeling nervous again. But we’ve still got two months, and with hand-me-downs we really have everything we need for a newborn already, and there will be plenty of time to think about nursery-decorating later if necessary. For now, I’m just hanging on between prenatal checks, feeling my belly dance and starting to play with getting reactions from my son — now when I press on my belly, he’ll often kick back, which is just too cool. Hiccups are another cute new thing that I’ve started to notice (although less cute when they happen at 2am, like last night). We’re getting there, one day at a time.