Talking about Family Planning with Students

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.

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7 thoughts on “Talking about Family Planning with Students

  1. My Perfect Breakdown

    These little life lessons are sometimes more valuable then anything that comes through a curriculum. I suspect that your conversation about how personal this stuff is will likely leave an impact on everyone involved in the conversation and I suspect this will forever change how at least a few people ask questions about other’s fertility and family planning. Good for you for being brave and sharing what you were comfortable sharing!

    Reply
    1. lyra211 Post author

      Thanks, MPB. If nothing else, I hope that the conversation will save some other woman going through pregnancy/loss/infertility some pain if one of these students remembers this experience and decides NOT to ask the question (I’m pretty sure the poor girl who asked in the first place will think twice before she asks something like that again!). This is one of those weird things about being a liberal arts college professor — I’m a professor, but my relationships with students are a lot more personal than they would be at an R1. When the personal/professional boundary gets blurred, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s all on me to manage the situation, since I’m the one with the power/responsibility. I often rehash these sorts of interactions and think about doing things differently. I imagine I’ll evolve with time.

      Reply
  2. jwhitworth7

    I really related to this post as a former educator. It is always hard to know what to say in the moment and you went with your gut. I do think your response will stick with them. Many of my students knew about Oliver since I missed the first few months of a school year. I was honest with so many of them and sometimes it was a positive conversation and other times it was a bit awkward. I am saddened that some of them may go through loss in their future but hope my honesty will allow them to know they aren’t alone. I’m sure your conversation will guide their responses and questions to others in the future.

    Reply
    1. lyra211 Post author

      I think it’s great that you were able to talk with your students about Oliver — that was very brave of you. My students knew I was pregnant, but after our daughter died, I just… couldn’t talk about it with them. I emailed them to cancel class, and gave brief facts about what had happened… I thought about saying something when I came back to class, but in the end I was just in a place where I couldn’t talk about it yet, so I taught them physics and didn’t say anything personal. For my research students, a couple of them tried to awkwardly say how sorry they were, and I thanked them for it, but that was about it. A few left cards or flowers outside my office. They were so sweet, but I was so unable to process what I was going through at the time that I just didn’t discuss it with them. Now I kind of wish I had. I think putting on the facade that everything was normal and I was just going to go back to work probably perpetuated the culture of silence around pregnancy loss and the toxic tough attitude of not letting people be people in academia — the idea that letting your personal life affect your work is a sign of weakness or ineptness.

      So, anyway, I’m glad you were able to talk about Oliver with your students. I wish I had talked about my daughter with mine. Maybe someday (probably after my childbearing years are finally behind me) I’ll start talking.

      Reply
      1. jwhitworth7

        I totally understand your response and mine was the same in front of each class. It was the more personal interactions (lunch with students, one on one time) where I opened up. I also think there’s something to be sad about just getting up and doing your job. I almost felt a sense of relief when I first returned to work that it involved something other than grieving. I think the important thing here is how our interactions in the present shape our future interactions. You are amazingly strong for even thinking about it like that!

  3. RJ

    I think it’s really neat to see a glimpse of your relationship with your students. I think you handled it nicely. It’s interesting to put myself back into that college mindset and I wonder how I would have reacted. I just don’t know. It’s hard to really get it when you’re so naive but then again who knows!

    Reply
    1. lyra211 Post author

      Ha — yes, I go back and forth between being surprised by how mature my students can be, and being surprised by how immature they can be. 🙂 It’s a fun age — college students always keep me on my toes. They are so close to being adults, but in many ways they’re still kids. They’re asking big questions about how the world works and their place in it, but they have no experience or context with which to understand the answers. I have no idea how they would have reacted if I’d said more, but I can guarantee it would have been interesting.

      Reply

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