Last week the senior faculty member in my department hosted his annual 4th of July barbecue for our department — all the faculty, their families, and all the students who are here doing research for the summer were invited. It was quite a crew (for a liberal arts college), with 30 or more people hanging out in his backyard, munching hot dogs and (veggie) burgers, and splashing in the pool. It was a beautiful day with some really great people, and I love that my department is such a welcoming and family-friendly place (this is one of several regular events throughout the year at which partners and children are explicitly encouraged to attend).
I was sitting on the grass with my son on my lap. He was contemplatively munching on a veggie burger. We were surrounded by students. They were commenting on how much he’s grown since the last time they saw him, how long his hair is (it’s in these amazing platinum-blond ringlets right now since we haven’t cut it yet), asking what new things he can do, etc. Then, one student busted out with “Are you going to have more kids?”
I gave my stock response: “We’ll see!”
Another (perceptive) student said: “It sounds like maybe you say that a lot.”
I laughed and said, “You’re right! A lot of people are curious. Almost as much now as when my husband and I first got married and we got lots of questions about when we were going to have kids.”
Another student said, “It’s kind of a personal question, isn’t it?”
I said, “Yes, it’s personal.”
The student who asked in the first place apologized. I told her I didn’t mind, that I was also very curious about things like that when I was her age.
It was a brief twinge of discomfort in an otherwise lovely day. I kept turning it over in my head. I almost wanted to tell them why it was personal — to tell them about the daughter we lost before our son was born, or the fact that I’ve been pregnant three times with only my son to show for it, but I didn’t want to spoil the festive mood. On the other hand, I feel that we generally do our young people a disservice by being so closed-mouthed about the realities of pregnancy loss and infertility. I teach my students lots of things, and sometimes they learn from me whether I want them to or not — I know that the students have been keenly interested in my life since I revealed that I was pregnant with S (the students were also keenly interested when I was pregnant with his big sister, although that generation has all graduated by now). I also know that for all the young women, I am the sole example they have of a female professor in our field, which can feel like a heavy responsibility. I want them to be encouraged by my example, not daunted. But I also want to prepare them for challenges they are likely to face. There were about 8 students sitting with me on the grass during this conversation — odds are that several of them will experience miscarriage sometime in their lives, and probably one of them will experience infertility. Is it better to prepare them, or to let them find out for themselves? I made a choice in the moment, a choice that felt right to me at the time, but I could imagine having handled it a different way.
For now, I educated them that asking questions about fertility plans is personal. I’ll save the conversation about pregnancy loss for another time.