Tag Archives: tenure

Still Trying… With Some Perspective

After four cycles of trying, still no luck.  I know that especially since my tubes are crap this is still well within the range of normal, but I’m starting to contemplate when to go back to the RE.  The decision is complicated by the fact that my ovulation pain reached new heights of awful this month and sent me back to my OBGYN basically asking “This is not normal, right? Is there anything I can do about it?”

To give you an idea, this month for five days leading up to ovulation I experienced pressure and abdominal pain.  For the ~2 days around ovulation, everything hurt.  It hurt to sit down, it hurt to walk, it hurt to have sex (which is just adding insult to injury), and the pain was so bad that it woke me up in the middle of the night.  I mean, I know some level of ovulation pain is normal, but this just seems beyond normal.  I had brought up ovulation pain at my last annual visit and my doctor brushed it off, but it was so bad this month that I decided to go back.  So I made an appointment, which wound up being with their midwife who I haven’t met before (I thought someone told me she had retired, but apparently she’s back).

I ran through my symptoms and she basically said that she’d be happy to order an ultrasound but didn’t think she’d see anything — I agreed that she was probably right, particularly since I just had two ultrasounds in May/June during my miscarriage, which also didn’t show anything weird about my ovaries.  She said it’s probably either endometriosis or adhesions — I know I have some scarring from the first pregnancy when we lost our daughter at 18 weeks and I developed an infection that I later found out had scarred my fallopian tubes (worse on the left than the right, which is probably why my two subsequent pregnancies have both been on the right).  She said that there’s basically nothing they can do about those things: “Well, I mean, there’s surgery, but…” she said with a little laugh.  I was sitting there thinking: why are you laughing about surgery?  It was as though she thought it was ridiculous that I might consider surgery for pain bad enough that it affects me for a whole week of every month and wakes me up in the middle of the night.  I mean, that’s bad, right?  So the upshot of the appointment was that I declined another ultrasound, and she told me that my best option was going back to the RE — she thought maybe another HSG would help break up some of the adhesions and relieve the pain a little (which sounds sketchy to me, but what do I know?).  I left totally down in the dumps, wondering when I can finally put this phase of life behind me, because it’s just so unrelentingly awful (except for my son, who is the best thing in the Universe, which is the only reason I am willing to keep putting myself through this crap to try to have another one).

Fast forward two weeks to today, and my period arrives.  I’m feeling like crap, thinking I’ll never get pregnant again, or if I do, the baby will probably die again.  Then I had a meeting with our colloquium speaker.

This colloquium speaker and I have known each other on and off through meetings, talks, and conferences for a number of years.  I think we have sort of a little mutual admiration society going on. I remember meeting her for the first time when she was a grad student and I was visiting her university as a postdoc to give the colloquium.  She had just had a baby a few weeks before, but came to campus specifically to meet with me.  I was equally as interested in her science as in what it was like to have a newborn — we had a ton to talk about.  She just seemed so put together, was doing such awesome science, was interested in science education, was thoughtful, and appeared to be super-mom on top of it.  My career was a little farther ahead than hers, but she was a little older because she’s a non-traditional student who started her PhD a little later in life.  So, we kept tabs on each other a bit, as we both bounced around and wound up in our dream jobs as physical scientists at liberal arts colleges only an hour’s drive apart in New England. I started my job four years before she did, which means that she just started her job in January of this year.  I had a kid about three years after she had her first.  She invited me up to give a colloquium her first semester on campus, and this semester I invited her down to give a colloquium at our campus.  Today she’s visiting, and we started off our meeting with the usual excited back-and-forth about what we’re both up to — how her first year of teaching is going, how my approach to tenure material submission is going, etc.  Then, she changed the subject.  She mentioned that she was 22 weeks pregnant.  I congratulated her, quite genuinely, but couldn’t help feeling a small pang of self-pity that she was pregnant and I had just gotten my period for the fourth time after miscarrying, seven months into the journey to conceive our second living child.

But then, she kept going.  She remembered a conversation we’d had a while ago — she had shared that she had two miscarriages in a row, and I had shared about the loss of our daughter in the second trimester.  Well, it turns out that two weeks ago, at their 20 week anatomy scan, she got some bad news that their baby is much smaller than expected.  She is in that heartbreaking waiting phase where they’re trying to figure out how bad it is and whether they will be able to make it to viability, but there is much talk of early delivery and long NICU stays and potential long-term health issues.  Apparently they can’t yet tell whether it’s a placental issue or a chromosomal issue, but neither outlook is good.  She won’t know more until her next ultrasound in two weeks, but she’s been thinking a lot about how to handle it.  She wanted to know if I had any advice based on what I’d been through before (with weirdly similar timing relative to my tenure clock — we are truly living parallel lives in some ways).

My eyes immediately filled with tears for her.  And I silently kicked myself for allowing that earlier pang of self-pity.  It was an important reminder that we never, ever know what other pregnant women are going through, even when it looks from the outside like everything is perfect.  Advice.  What advice do I have?  None, really.  I don’t think I handled my 2nd trimester loss particularly well, but I also don’t think there is a good way to handle it.  I told her a few things:

  • Please accept offers of help.  I didn’t and I made things unnecessarily difficult for myself.  This is a huge life event, and it’s a small fraction of your time on the tenure clock and your life overall, so be kind to yourself while it’s happening.
  • If doing work feels therapeutic to you, go with it.  I couldn’t function for my own sake while I was going through our loss, but I could force myself to function for my students’ sake.  So if it feels right to work, work.  If it doesn’t, don’t.  You need to do whatever you can to get through this.
  • She wanted to know if I had thoughts about when she should tell her department — should she tell them soon so they could plan for the possibility that she might need to take medical leave?  I don’t know if this is the right answer, but I said no.  She doesn’t know what will happen.  Possibly nothing will happen, and she’ll be able to get through the rest of the semester without any issues.  Nobody can plan for this right now, so she has no responsibility to tell other people if she doesn’t want to.  They will figure it out.  They will not blame her for not telling them the news sooner.  There is really nothing to tell right now other than that her baby is sick and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  I advised her to wait until she knows what she needs so that she can ask for what she needs.  Unless she wants them to know for emotional support purposes, but my experience was that people really don’t understand pregnancy loss, especially in the second trimester, and having everyone know is often just a higher emotional load to deal with.

That was pretty much all I could think of.  I also told her that I am so, so sorry, and that I am here to help or if she just wants to talk — I told her that when our daughter died, I was just desperate to talk to people who had had second trimester losses, especially those who had gone on to have healthy pregnancies afterward, so if she has the same desire I am absolutely here for her.  I just wish she didn’t have to go through it, especially not this tortuous period of not knowing what’s going to happen.  She sounds pretty pessimistic about having a healthy baby at the end, but I will be hoping upon hope that it’s another case of unreliable ultrasound and that everything will be fine.

These childbearing years are the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and it breaks my heart the more I learn how awful they are for so many women.  I wish there were a better way.  I wish it were easier.  I wish people talked about it more and were better at supporting each other through it.  I wish we could just wish children into our lives.  When they do come, they’re amazing, but it doesn’t seem like we should have to endure so much suffering to get there.  I will be holding this friend in my thoughts, and checking in with her in two weeks to see if she needs anything after their next ultrasound.

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Day 3 labs and my dad’s memorial service

I swear I’m not as much of a grumpy gus in real life as I am on my blog, but I sure do feel like I have plenty to be grumpy about these days.  I thought I had left most of the bitterness of pregnancy loss and infertility behind me, but we’re now six months and one miscarriage into trying to conceive our second living child and I just today saw the second pregnancy announcement from a friend/acquaintance who is five months pregnant (which is how pregnant I would be right now if I hadn’t miscarried), and my dad’s memorial service was last Saturday, and we’re heading into midterm season which is no more fun as a professor than it was as a student, and I am GRUMPY about it all.

As part of the conversation with my OB about how to go forward with trying to conceive after my miscarriage in May, she offered to repeat my Day 3 labs, which I haven’t had done since before my daughter was conceived — I figured that if they were normal, I’d be more comfortable trying on our own a little longer, but if they indicated low reserve I’d want to head back to the RE sooner rather than later.  The results came back this week, and my FSH and estradiol are both normal (8.8 and 49, respectively).  My FSH was 8 before, so things don’t seem to have changed much there (although I do always worry about inter-cycle variability).  My AMH was a bit on the high side — good for egg quantity/quality, but apparently a potential indicator of cysts or PCOS.  Which makes total sense to me, because it seems like every time I get an ultrasound someone tells me I have a cyst and they’ll “keep an eye on it” and then they never do and then I mention it whenever they do another ultrasound and they’re like, “oh, huh, you do have a cyst… well, it looks normal, but we’ll keep an eye on it,” and then nothing happens.  I also wonder if my borderline high AMH levels are related to the fact that I get wicked ovulation pain these days — I don’t even really need OPKs anymore, because I can tell 2-3 days before the OPK turns positive that I’m starting to ovulate, and by the time I get to ovulation day it hurts to sit down.  Anyway, who knows?  My OB mostly just brushed it off (I didn’t actually get to talk to her; she left a message and said to call if I had questions and I haven’t gotten around to it).  But at least my eggs aren’t rotten, which was my main concern.  So that leaves us in purgatory of trying and trying and wondering when to go back to the RE.  I think I’ll probably wait it out until January — that would be seven cycles of trying post-miscarriage (since it took me >2 months to get my period back after the miscarriage), 10 months since we started trying after our son was born, and it would also be past the window of inconvenient due date timing (since I’m planning to submit my tenure materials next November).  Seems like a good time to step up our efforts.

In the meantime, I held my dad’s memorial service last Saturday.  It was so strange.  I still don’t really believe that he’s dead.  Most of the family got together, and it was nice to see everyone.  In a way, it was one of the more pleasant family funerals since nobody was really all that sad, since nobody was really that close to my dad — sounds weird to say it that way, but it’s the silver lining of my dad’s depressing life during which he worked hard to alienate himself from pretty much everyone in the family.  My uncle is a minister, and he planned most of the service.  He did a nice job — told some stories about my dad that were funny but didn’t totally whitewash the seedier sides of his personality.  It’s got to be disconcerting for my uncle that he’s now led funeral services for his parents and two of his three siblings, but you’d never know it from the way he was up there talking and laughing and playing Grateful Dead songs (which my dad definitely would have appreciated).  My son, S, was the star of the show, if that’s a thing that one can be at a funeral.  He was dancing along to the Grateful Dead songs, peeking over my shoulder at a family friend and saying “Boo!” during the service, and when I got up to give the eulogy he held out his arms yelling “Mama, mama, mama!” until I just picked him up and let him sit on my hip while I spoke and he tried to disassemble the microphone.

I had some really nice moments with my dad’s old friends who told me stories about the good old days when my dad was actually a functional human being and did some really important welfare reform work — like, welfare reform that influenced policy decisions across many states and also the platform for one presidential campaign that my dad worked on.  It was all before I was 5 years old, so I don’t really have any memories of those days, but it was nice to hear about how he used to be really driven and dedicated to helping other people.  I don’t know what happened — part of it was being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, although that’s clearly not all of it.  As I mentioned before, there were drugs and alcohol and abuse involved, and I’m pretty sure there were some undiagnosed mental health issues too.  Not depression/anxiety so much as narcissistic personality disorder with perhaps a touch of sociopath, if I may armchair-diagnose my deceased father.  Anyway, it was good to hear his friends remember how he used to be, and to hear stories about him that I hadn’t heard before.  Since he died a lot of my sadness has been related to the empty life he led, particularly towards the end (I won’t elaborate on some of the things I found while cleaning out his apartment, but they were incredibly depressing) and so it was nice to hear that there were other parts of his life that were more fulfilling than the parts that I had the front row seats for.

So, that’s where we are now.  Making arrangements for the funeral and my dad’s affairs has been eating up my life since he died ~3 weeks ago, and with traveling back home on the weekends and my phone ringing off the hook I’ve been very behind on work and it’s been very stressful.  I’ve still got a stack of grading to be done, but I’m keeping up on the essentials, and now I finally feel like I might have a tiny hope of catching up — not that any academic is ever truly caught up, but at least I hopefully won’t feel that I’m constantly dropping balls and letting people down.

One sort of interesting thing that happened this week is that on Monday I was apologizing to one of my masters students for not answering an email that he had sent on Friday — I said that I didn’t want to play the sad card, but I did want to explain that my father’s funeral was Saturday so I just didn’t look at my email all weekend.  He said, “Wait, your father’s funeral?!” and I realized I hadn’t actually told him that my father had died, even though it had come up with all the other members of my group at one point or another.  But after that student found out, nice things started happening all week — the grad students in our department all signed a sympathy card for me and chipped in on a gift certificate to a local restaurant, and then “the students” brought surprise baked goods to our research group meeting today.  When I walked in and said, “Well, this is nice!  What’s the occasion?” they said, “We just wanted to do something nice since you do so much for us,” and it just about collapsed me into a weeping puddle of goo right then and there!  I have strong suspicions that this masters student who found out late goaded the other students into action — it fits his personality, and he’s a non-traditional older student, already married, so he’s significantly more mature than the other students in our program.  But it is clear that all the other students eagerly piled on once someone initiated, and I am grateful to all the students in our program — and my research group — for their kindness this week.  Even though it’s a little awkward, it’s nice to be treated like a human with feelings and shown a bit of appreciation occasionally (not that that’s why I do what I do, but it’s still nice when it happens!), and at a time like this it means even more than it otherwise would.  Our tiny department has all the pros and cons of small town living, but the way people support each other is one of the biggest pros there is.

My Blog Title is Apt Again

Well, whaddya know.  I’m pregnant.

It has never taken us less than 8 months to conceive before.  This time, first try.  We are thrilled and a little stunned.  I’ve always been a little skeptical of the stories you read of how people who have experienced infertility/loss often get pregnant quickly after a full-term, healthy pregnancy — I mean, maybe it happens to some people, but I was sure it wouldn’t happen to me.  Well, here I am!

For now, of course.  I know as well as anyone that first trimester miscarriage is a distinct possibility, as are losses at later stages of pregnancy, as are all manner of other health problems (I’m still at elevated risk for ectopic pregnancy and placental abruption, for example).  But for now I’m pregnant, and that’s a very, very good thing.

We’re a little shocked at the timing — I mean, we were trying to get pregnant, obviously, but we just didn’t expect it to happen this quickly.  Of course our minds started jumping to the possible reality of having a new baby join our family in January.  Two under two — yikes!  It would also throw a monkey wrench into my tenure plans (I’d been on track to submit my materials a year and a half from now), but… we’ll deal with that.  Our family is more important than my tenure case, and if I wind up using both my clock extensions and spending nine years on the tenure clock, so be it.

I was also just starting to cut back on pumping at work this week, but for the moment I’m still breastfeeding/pumping four times a day, which is going to start feeling like a lot as I get more pregnant.  But… what if I wean, and then miscarry?  I’ll be mourning the loss of a baby simultaneously to mourning the loss of a wonderful breastfeeding relationship.  I suppose I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing (i.e., weaning from the pump during the day, since I would never mourn the loss of a relationship with my pump!) and see how things go over the next few weeks.  I’ve got a viability scan scheduled for a week from Monday, after which we’ll know a little more (and, if all goes well, I’ll start back on Lovenox).

What a weird and wonderful week it’s been.  Pregnant again.  Holy cow.  Here’s hoping this little bean sticks around!

Dragging My Feet on Trying Again

I’m curious whether any of you have ever felt this way.  Before we were pregnant with our daughter, and then again after her death, I was laser-focused on getting pregnant as quickly as possible.  I was temping, I was charting, I was using OPKs, I was doing everything I could to time things properly and maximize chances of conception.  This time around feels… different.

I want another living baby, very much.  Therefore, I want to be pregnant again.  And rationally, I realize it makes sense to start trying now.  It has never been easy for us to get pregnant, and it probably won’t be this time either.  I’m 34, so Advanced Maternal Age is staring me in the face.  If we want another kid, there’s no time like the present, clearly.

But… our son is still so little.  Our breastfeeding relationship is still going strong.  He’s only just started reliably sleeping through the night.  I’m enjoying the mommy-daddy-baby triad and am not eager to upset it with another little one, even though it’s absolutely what we want for all three of us in the longer run.  Starting over with a newborn sounds exhausting.  Being pregnant again sounds exhausting.  Heck, even getting pregnant again sounds exhausting — getting pregnant with my son was an exhausting and heartbreaking almost-2-year-long haul, counting everything we went through with my daughter.   That’s part of what makes me eager to get started sooner rather than later, but it’s also a big part of what’s making me reluctant.  I just can’t imagine going through it all again.

So, I’ve been dragging my feet a bit.  Just last night my husband asked… isn’t this the week?  And I was surprised to realize that it was, and I just hadn’t really been on top of keeping track.  But he’s keeping track, apparently!

Are we really ready to get back on this roller coaster?  I know that another living baby in our family will be more than worth it in the long run.  But it’s been a LONG run to get to where we are now with our son, and it’s daunting to think about going through it all again.  There’s also my tenure clock lurking in the back of my mind.  If all goes as planned, I’ll submit my materials about a year and a half from now.  Another baby between now and then would practically require me to push back that clock.  But since it’s probably going to take us a while, it still makes sense to start now so that ideally our pregnancy will be timed (ha!) so that my due date would be shortly after I submit my materials.  So there’s the gamble about trying to time it so that it’s soon… but not too soon.  But I also fully subscribe to the mantra that there is no good time for a baby, and that the potential pitfalls of waiting too long are far more dire than the pitfalls of moving back my tenure clock a bit… or even than not getting tenure at all.

Maybe it’ll be easier this time.  Maybe we’ll surprise ourselves and get pregnant quickly without intervention (unlikely, but possible).  Maybe I won’t lose another pregnancy.  Maybe the Lovenox will just inject itself every day.  Maybe we’ll get a magical easy newborn (ha).  Right now, it just looks like a lot to handle, and I’m tired (but not newborn tired, thankfully!), and I want to enjoy my son, whom I love to the very depths of my soul and with whom I never feel like I get to spend enough time.  I’m sure this ambivalence is normal.  But I’d love to hear any thoughts about how to get past it.

In other news, S continues to delight.  He’s walking and climbing all over the place these days, and starting to communicate.  No clear words yet, but definitely several expressive gestures that he uses in different contexts (I won’t call them “signs” because they’re not the official ones that I’ve been using with him, but he has clearly developed his own signs — instead of “all done,” for example, he’ll grab the front of his high chair tray with two hands, and just this morning he also did it when he wanted to get out of his jumparoo.  It was very clearly the same communicative gesture in a different context, and it was so cool to see that he is actually putting together the pieces for communicating with other humans!).  He’s big into blocks and wheels and gets delighted whenever he manages to balance a thing on top of another thing.  He’s very snuggly and pretty social and loves to hang out with our friends and family members, or walk outside and just look at the world and touch the bushes and trees.  I simply can’t get enough of him these days!  Having another little one to watch grow up has to be just as great… right?

Back to Work(?)

I’m going back to work on Wednesday.

Well, sort of.

The plan is for me to work half-days for the rest of the summer.  In June, for the four hours that I’m at work daily, my husband will take care of our son four days a week, and my mom will do it the fifth day.  In July, we switch to half-days at the university daycare.  In September, everything becomes full-time.

My logical brain is very happy with this plan.  There are a lot of very good things about it:

  • My husband will take on a more prominent role in the childcare.  Right now he is pretty definitely the secondary parent, and rarely cares for Soren when I’m not around; having primary caregiving responsibilities when I am not there for four hours a day will be a big step up in his relationship with his son.
  • Ditto for my mom (Nana).  She was a huge help in the early weeks, but hasn’t spent as much time around her grandson lately.  There’s no substitute for one-on-one time, and I’m so glad that she is able to help us out in this way and strengthen her relationship with her grandson.
  • Getting back to work is going to be good for my brain.  The few times I’ve done work or gone to the university to meet with students or colleagues, I’ve come back feeling refreshed, and caring for my son has been all the more fun and interactive because of it.
  • Giving my research program a boost with my time this summer will be good for my long-term job security.  I’m just about 2.5 years away from the crucial up-or-out tenure decision point, and research has been harder for me to maintain at a high level than teaching.  I love my job, I get a lot of personal satisfaction from it, and I know I make an impact on my students.  Also, it pays the bills, and more.  I want to keep my job in the long run.  Summer is the only time I can focus exclusively on research, and so this time is particularly important to help me do my job well.
  • Transitioning to part-time daycare when my son is just over four months old will mean that he gets care from people trained in early childhood development, and has a chance to ease into the daycare situation instead of suddenly going full-time when he’s six months old.
  • Since my schedule is completely up to me this summer, we can try things and change them if they don’t work.  If everyone is miserable with the plan, I can work less or not at all, and then we’ll have time to work out a new plan before September.
  • I can pay myself for my time out of a grant.  Me working even half-time this summer means about an extra $10k for our family, which more than pays for daycare and offsets the cost of the unpaid leave my husband is taking in June.  And if I don’t take summer salary this year, I might not be able to use up the summer salary I budgeted before the grant expires.  So the finances make sense for us.

My emotional brain is much less happy with the plan.  There are some negative thoughts that keep running around in my head:

  • My son is too little for me to go back to work.  He’ll be 14 weeks old when I start back part-time, which is more leave than most moms in the US get… but theoretically I could stay home full-time until he’s six months old.  What kind of mom would choose to go back to work before she absolutely has to?  This is mostly guilt, I think.
  • Being apart from my son feels physically painful — and I’ve never been apart from him for as long as four hours before.  Still, I know that it will be healthy for me to have a break from caring for him all day (while I love him to the ends of the Earth, taking care of an infant full-time is difficult work mentally and physically), and I know that learning to separate from him is something I will have to do eventually — better to do it gradually than all at once in September.
  • Then, there’s the bottle situation.  My son is not good at eating from bottles.  We’ve been working at it since he was six weeks old, and most days he just doesn’t seem to want to do it.  I will feel extremely guilty if I go off to work for four hours a day and come back to a screaming baby and a frazzled husband/mom because of the bottle situation.  I’ve heard horror stories from friends of babies who refused bottles for 8-hour daycare days for weeks before they finally caved.  I do not want to do that to my baby, or to my husband and mom.  The logical part of my brain points out that Soren is entirely physically capable of going without food for four hours even if he’s not happy about it, and it’s better for him to learn to take a bottle during four-hour days than during 8-hour days in the fall… but that’s going to be cold comfort to my stressed-out husband/mom in these early weeks if it’s as bad as I fear it’s going to be.  Maybe it won’t be, though?  The good news is that I’m only a 7-minute drive away, so if it gets too bad there’s always the option that my husband/mom can drive him to me (or once he’s in daycare, he’ll be a 10-minute walk from my office).  I’d rather nurse him than pump anyway!
  • Once we start him at daycare, the chances that he’ll get sick increase astronomically.  I’m dreading his first illness.  I will feel awful when he gets sick.  Holding off that inevitable first illness until he’s six months old instead of four months old sounds awfully appealing.

As I read this list now, I’m pretty confident that our plan is what’s going to work best for our family, and that the positives outweigh the negatives.  But the guilt I’m feeling right now is enormous.

Well, hopefully everything will go smoothly this week, and there will be mornings full of father-son bliss at home while I productively pound out papers and then come home to hang out with my smiling, cooing baby for the rest of the day.  I can dream, right?

My Surprisingly Intense Sociological Climate Study Interview

I’m always a little bit tickled to be the subject of a research study.  Who knew you could study people?! 🙂

And now for an academia/pregnancy loss crossover post…

On Monday I participated in a follow-up phone interview for a national survey of professional climate in my field, which is being run by a national women-in-science organization.  After the interviewer (a sociologist who focuses on issues of gender and minority status in the sciences) gave me her standard spiel, I said something along the lines of “Well, I’m happy to help out, but I don’t know that I’ll have much to tell you — I can’t imagine that I wrote anything interesting on the survey!”

Ha.  What was supposed to be a 45-minute interview, max, lasted for over an hour.

Sociologists are good at their jobs.  I had been thinking about the climate survey as a chance for women to talk about sexual harassment and overt sexism in the field, and I’m fortunate enough to have experienced blessedly little of this.  I’ve got my stories, as does any female physical scientist who survives to the professorial stage, but on the whole they’re quite mild compared to what many of my friends and colleagues have been through.  But man, this sociologist drew out all kinds of climate issues that I’d never even thought of as climate issues before.  I thought I’d talk about two of them today.

First: the hierarchical attitudes towards professor jobs at R1 institutions vs. liberal arts colleges. 

This came out when I was talking about my time as a postdoc, at an institution where I was very unhappy for a number of reasons.  I had (and in fact still have) several issues with my postdoctoral supervisor, who was not particularly supportive research-wise, and was blatantly unsupportive along several other dimensions.  This culminated in an experience mere weeks before I left the institution for my current job, which I shared with the interviewer:

My postdoctoral department had a Christmas play tradition.  Maybe you know the sort — every three years the responsibility rotates between students, postdocs, and faculty, and the relevant group writes, produces, and acts in a play that “roasts” various other members of the department.  Lighthearted and fun, right?  Well, my postdoctoral supervisor was the faculty member who wrote the Christmas play that happened a few weeks before I left this top R1 department for my current job.  During the play, he referred to me as a suffragette (because of my work on equity and inclusion in our field), and gave the following line to a character in the play: “Oh, [the pregnant physicist].  You don’t have to worry about her… she’s off to tutor rich kids and will never be heard from professionally again!”  And this mere weeks before starting my job as an assistant professor at a top liberal arts college.  You can bet I felt devalued, demoralized, and ready to get the heck out of that place.  It did an amazing job of making explicit many of the climate issues I’d barely been able to put into words while I was there.  But indeed, in a top R1 institution that had a fraction of female postdocs that was 1/3 of the national average in my field (which is not large to begin with), I *did* stand out as the “suffragette” type.  That’s not hard to do when you’re routinely the only woman in a room with a dozen men.  And while the grad students, male and female, were all surreptitiously asking me how they could get a job like mine, their supervisors openly mocked my career path.  Awe.  Some.

So, the interviewer and I explored this issue a little bit more, including some of the comments I’ve received since then from collaborators and faculty at other institutions.  Everything from backhanded compliments like “You know, everyone thinks you’re too good for your job” to clueless questions like “How come you’re at [institution]?  Did you not get any other faculty jobs?”  It’s a climate issue that I’d never really articulated as such, and I thought about it a lot after my interview with the sociologist ended.

Second: Departmental support (or lack thereof) after my daughter’s death

First, let me just say this: I love my department.  It was an oasis of sanity after my crappy postdoctoral experience at the top R1 institution.  My colleagues are generally wonderful human beings.  We talk to each other.  We know about each other’s research, teaching, and advising challenges and successes, and we have a basic working knowledge of each other’s personal lives as well.  We work hard to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.  We are functional and make decisions sanely and with a minimum of politics.  We like each other.  I am proud to be a member of my department and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

That said, my interviewer’s antennae pricked up at an offhand comment I made during the interview, about how it was sometimes lonely being the only women in my department, and how female faculty in other departments had been important sources of support when I was going through difficult personal and professional challenges.  She asked me to expand on this thought, and eventually asked me to be specific about the challenges I was referring to, as long as I was comfortable talking about them.

And that was when we got started on the subject of my daughter’s death.

I told her about how I found out my baby was dead on a Thursday, got out of the hospital on Saturday morning, and went back to work Tuesday.  How nobody told me I might be able to take a medical leave or suggested that I cancel my classes for that first week.  How I’d had multiple surgeries since then, most recently in February, and even though I’ve told my department chair that I had to leave for surgery (including one week when I had a procedure on Monday and depending on the outcome might have had to have another surgery on a Friday), nobody has followed up to ask about how I’m doing health-wise.  Other than that brief logistical conversation with the chair, nobody in my department has any idea of what I’ve been through since my daughter died.  I’ve mentioned my surgeries to one or two department members once or twice, and have even made offhand comments about my baby when it comes up, but they very obviously shy away from the subject and so I’ve stopped talking about it.  As a result, they know that I lost a pregnancy in the middle of the second trimester, but they know nothing else about my life since then, including all the challenges I’ve been through in the past 8 months, and the fact that I’m facing the prospect of high-risk future pregnancies.

By contrast, there are three female faculty in other science departments who have been life- and sanity-savers.  One of them offered to take over my lectures the week after I delivered my daughter, and has been a literal and figurative shoulder to cry on throughout the whole experience.  Another routinely checked in every few months at the end of work-related meetings to find out how we were doing and how the medical stuff was progressing.  A third was the only person (in my whole life) who wrote to acknowledge my loss on Mother’s Day.  What would I do without these amazing women?  But on the flip side… it turned out that my otherwise all-male department is not really equipped to help me deal with a loss that none of my colleagues have experienced and really can’t even imagine.  As a result, I think in retrospect that they bungled it.  I feel a lack of administrative support because I was not made aware of my options in the wake of this medical crisis.  I feel a lack of personal support because nobody in the department has offered any emotional support or even inquiry into my wellbeing during the months of intense medical attention that followed my loss.  Yes, these are my coworkers, and as such they’re certainly not required to be my confidantes, but as I mentioned in the first paragraph, the culture of my department is such that we tend to have strong personal connections as well — in every area other than this enormously significant part of my life.  I can tell you the theme of my coworker’s daughter’s fourth birthday party and all about my other coworker’s kids’ Saturday morning swimming lessons on campus, but they have no idea that I’ve missed a cumulative week or more of work over the past 8 months for surgeries, doctors appointments, therapy, etc.

The interviewer also asked about ways in which this experience affected my ability to function professionally.  I had a list ready, from three declined invited talk invitations (and therefore three conferences that I couldn’t bring myself to travel to, resulting in a loss of professional visibility), to comments I received on teaching evaluations about some sloppiness with preparation in the middle of the semester, to reduction in publication output, to jeopardizing relationships with collaborators with whom I wasn’t comfortable sharing this very personal news to explain delays in my research output.  Frankly, I suspect I don’t even know the extent to which this experience has affected my professional life yet.  And yet my department is not even acknowledging that this significant professional impact might have taken place.  It’s not really their fault — I suspect it wouldn’t have been better anywhere else.  But my experience does shine a light on how the climate in my field occasionally fails female scientists — or anybody with out-of-the-box medical and family issues.  I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that a more gender-neutral but similarly intense health issue would have been dealt with very differently by the other members of the department.

Well.  This post is getting awfully long, so I’d better wrap it up!  In summary, I was surprised at the extent to which the interviewer pulled climate issues from my interview that I had never really articulated to myself as such before this experience.  It was incredibly emotionally intense, and I was in tears throughout most of the section in which I was talking about the loss of our daughter.  I felt shaky and distracted for a couple of hours afterwards.  But I’m glad I participated in the interview.  I think that these issues of academic hierarchy and the flexibility to deal with medical issues that arise during childbearing years that aren’t *exactly* normal pregnancy and birth, but are very closely related, are issues that our field should address.  Perhaps the broader-context way of articulating the latter issue is that our field needs to be, in general, more accepting of the impact of life, health, and family, particularly when our needs fall outside the standard script and at non-ideal places on the academic calendar.  I’ll be really interested to read the report when it comes out.

One Small Step Towards Tenure

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That’s me in the middle.

Today I went through my second-year review, which is the first step on the path to tenure.  (I’m actually half a semester into my third year, but details…)

I’d been stressed out about it, because it was supposed to happen last semester and didn’t, and I’d been bugging my department chair at progressively shorter intervals because as time went on I started to fear that something was going terribly, terribly wrong.  He kept reassuring me that it wasn’t, and that everything was fine and he was just busy, but as my colleague / carpool buddy quipped, “Great, but can I have that in writing?”

Well, after two failed attempts at scheduling my review, it finally happened today.  And as my department chair had told me, there was nothing to worry about.  He had nothing but positive things to say, including the interesting statistic that apparently I have the highest teaching evaluations in the department (I had no idea!).  Really the only constructive criticism I got was that I could lighten up on my students a little, since they all rate my classes as “strenuous” even though they also rate my teaching as “outstanding.”  That, I can do. 🙂

It was really nice to hear from my department chair how well things are going from their perspective, and how much they appreciate having me in the department.  My brain had been coming up with all sorts of possible criticisms they might make, but they didn’t make any of them (and when I asked about some of them at various points during the review, he reassured me that they were not important or even relevant).  I still have worries about the tenure process (that’s my personality, and it would probably be a bad thing if I didn’t), but now I’m much more able to put them in perspective.  It helps to have a nice official glowing letter, written by my department chair and signed off by the administration.

The loss of our daughter came up once, obliquely, during our conversation.  The three pillars of tenure are research, teaching, and service.  I was a little bit worried about the service category, since I haven’t yet served on any major university committees — I was elected to one last year, but after I requested parental leave for this semester they decided to remove me from the committee… but only a few weeks later, our daughter died and the point became moot.  I could probably have asked to be reinstated, but I didn’t (I had other things on my mind…).  I was worried that it might look bad for me to have been elected and then not to serve, but he reassured me that it wasn’t a problem (a bit too emphatically — obviously he knows the reason, but I know not everyone looking at my case will).

I was also worried about it in a different way that I didn’t bring up during the review, namely the gap in my CV that I can see even if nobody else can.  I not only turned down three invited talks, but I avoided those conferences entirely, just because I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation that might result if I put in a contributed abstract after I’d turned down an invited talk because I was supposed to be on parental leave.  So I missed out on some serious professional visibility.  I also did approximately no research last semester, while I was picking up the pieces of my life and dealing with the medical fallout (tests, treatments, surgeries), which will show up in a couple of delayed publications and some proposals I didn’t find the time to write.  And I completely flaked out on a couple of professional service activities I’d agreed to do — also not good for my professional reputation.  The impact is real, if most likely insignificant in the long run.  My chair reassured me (in a general way) that I am exceeding the departmental expectations in the research category, so hopefully it won’t be an issue in the end (because wouldn’t that be an awkward annotation to my tenure package…).

But it made me think about how many people probably have similar issues that aren’t accommodated in academia: a prolonged or serious health issue, for themselves or a spouse or parent, a divorce, a death of a sibling or parent… we’ve all got issues.  I guess it mostly evens out in the end.  But it would be nice if there were some official way to annotate significant gaps in a CV that happen for some reason other than a parental leave to care for a living baby.

Anyway, I’m very happy that my review went so well, and relieved that it’s finally over, and that I finally have in writing what my department chair has been casually alluding to every time I’ve mustered up the nerve to badger him about my review.  It was also nice just to have a formal opportunity to ask questions about the tenure process that have been nagging at the back of my mind for a long time — everything from “Does it matter if my PhD advisor is a minor coauthor on most of my papers?” (we’re in a very small and team-oriented field so it’s hard to avoid him even if I wanted to; the answer was no, as long as there’s evidence that I’m responsible for driving my own science and being recognized as a scholar in my own right) to “Are there other materials I should be assembling for my reappointment review [now only five months away], and can you please go over that process with me?”  I left it feeling pretty good about how things are going, and a little more relaxed about some of the things that had been stressing me out.  All in all, a win.

And then I left work a little early for my second volunteer shift at the barn, my first as a horse leader instead of a sidewalker.  Tacking up a horse for the first time in over a decade, leading her around the arena, giving high fives to her grinning rider, and coming home dirty and covered in horse smell was a great way to end a beautiful spring break day.

I hope spring has sprung where you are!