Speaking at a Conference, 7 Months Pregnant

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.


11 thoughts on “Speaking at a Conference, 7 Months Pregnant

  1. My Perfect Breakdown

    I remembered talking/writing with you about the conference months ago so I’m excited to hear it went well!!
    And, I love hearing that your little guy is doing well. It’s hard to believe you are already at 31 weeks! Time sure has flown by at least from my perspective over here. 🙂

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Ha! I always feel that way when I read other people’s blogs too, but somehow it flies much less fast when it’s happening to you. 🙂 I already feel like I’ve been pregnant forever, which may have something to do with the fact that I’m coming up on a year of being pregnant, if you add together my two pregnancies(!).

      Thanks for the good wishes about the conference! It really makes a difference the way that you (and others) encouraged me to live my life while trying to get and/or being pregnant — it was great advice. 🙂 I’m thinking of you as the holidays get underway!

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Heh… yeah, the restroom flip (lines at the men’s room instead of the women’s room) is hilarious. 🙂 Glad to hear it’s not the same in business/industry!

  2. hopingforatakehome

    I laughed at your interaction with old white nerd guy and the vague belly waving. 🙂 I have been sometimes surprised with the types of men who have been interested in talking more about my obvious bump. Like young 20-something hipster guys that I wouldn’t have thought would be super interested at all. It’s been a nice surprise.

    1. lyra211 Post author

      The vague belly-waving happened so many times that by the end I was just waiting for it with every interaction — it was so funny! You’re absolutely right, I find it really hard to predict who’s going to be interested in baby talk and who’s not — sometimes it makes sense, like the guys with young kids, but sometimes it just comes out of the blue, like your hipster guys! 🙂

  3. theskyandback

    Good for you! I’m glad you spoke at the conference and that everything went well. It must have been a cool blending of both worlds to feel your son kick while you were speaking. I, too, have travels planned for when I am 7 months. Not for business, though. We’ll be 2-3 hours from the nearest major city, so I’m a little nervous about that. But my OB said it was fine, so we went ahead and booked. Glad to hear you 7-months travel experience went well!

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Glad it’s making you feel better about your own travels! Like I said, being at a conference at 7 months was a piece of cake — you’ve been 7 months pregnant before, so you’ll probably have a better idea of how it will be for you specifically, but I really didn’t find it that bad at all. For me, at least, it was just the getting there that was uncomfortable, and the worries about what I’d do if something went wrong (my husband and I talked about it ahead of time, and he pointed out that I’d be only about a six-hour drive from *his* parents, so they’d be able to come, at least!). I know baby stuff can happen fast, but it’s a pretty rare circumstance where 2-3 hours would make a life-or-death difference, so it’s very unlikely you’ll need to worry about the city travel time. I hope you’re going someplace fun on your non-business 7-month journey!

  4. jwhitworth7

    First off whoo hoooo! Having that 3 in front of the weeks is awesome! I’m so glad that the conference went well and that despite some awkward moments you made it through!

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Thank you! Yes, I’m loving the 3s — it makes things feel like they’re going faster somehow! Hope you’re doing well too — January is so soon!!!


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