Caution: Pregnant Lady

Academia tends to have a reputation of being a fairly warm and fuzzy place of enlightened minds and progressive politics. Universities like mine pride themselves on liberal benefits packages that emphasize work-life balance and family friendly policies. This past year I got to compare perception to reality as I worked full-time, attended graduate school part-time (at a different institution), and gave birth to my first child. I found it really interesting, at times frustrating, to experience pregnancy from both sides of the ivory tower: as an archivist in a special collections library, trying to remain active and engaged with my job and the profession, versus as a master’s student in a history department, trying to graduate before my baby was born.

My workplace is pro-baby; many of my colleagues are parents, and the library administration is supportive of staff taking time off to have children. In regards to leave policy, the library is generous, particularly for its professional staff. I had no problems taking leave for doctor’s appointments or other medical issues during my pregnancy. My university offers three weeks of paid parental leave, which must be used following three weeks of the employee’s own leave. This policy seemed stingy at first, until I looked into other university policies and found that many institutions give no paid parental leave — the employee must use vacation or unpaid leave. The typical “family leave” policy bragged about by institutions basically just promises that you won’t lose your job or benefits if you need to take time off for family. Legally, according to FMLA, institutions of a certain size must offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members — so, most of these places are just following the law, and nothing more. In my case, I worked until the week I delivered my baby, and then took 13 weeks of leave, using a combination of my sick leave, the paid maternity leave, and my vacation time. I feel extremely lucky to have not had to take any unpaid leave. I also feel extremely lucky to work at a place that respected my time away from the office: My supervisor did not expect me to check email, call in to meetings, or answer for anything during my leave.

My experience as a graduate student was quite different than my experience as a university staff member. As someone working full-time, and not teaching or otherwise employed by the history department, I was already a nontraditional student for my program. But my pregnancy set me apart even more. My thesis adviser originally encouraged me to take a leave of absence for spring, believing that I would be too tired and distracted by my pregnancy to work on and defend my thesis. Another professor regularly made comments in class about my status as the “pregnant lady,” and at one point wrote a note on an assignment asking me if a mistake was due to “pregnancy brain.” Many of my problems stemmed from my professors’ inexperience in dealing with pregnant students. I was also inexperienced at dealing with being pregnant, and addressing these comments head-on. I gave birth exactly one month after my thesis defense. I cannot imagine returning to school and trying to write my master’s thesis now, as my adviser originally suggested a year ago.

On the one hand, I had a generally positive experience with my employer, especially in comparison to my concurrent experience as a graduate student. But, in the grand scheme of things, everything was still harder than it needed to be. I faced the same ignorant questions and unintentionally insulting comments that every pregnant woman faces, including plenty of remarks from colleagues and classmates. (I also received those same comments from friends, family, and strangers — many people outside of academia. People can become ridiculously invested in strangers’ lives and life choices, and pregnant women seem to attract the worst sorts of judgey, nosey comments at precisely the time when those women are feeling exposed, uncomfortable, and vulnerable.) I also found that my status as a pregnant woman put me at a disadvantage whenever it came to asserting myself. As our other bloggers have found, being labeled “too emotional” is already a common problem faced by women in the workplace. It can be very difficult to be taken seriously when sometimes you actually *are* emotional.

How does any of this relate to our theme of women and the archival profession? For one thing, the statistics suggest that pregnant ladies are all around. Survey respondents to the A*CENSUS were about 65% women, and nearly four out of five respondents under thirty years old were women. The census documents that three times more women than men began their archival careers between 2000 and 2004, the year of the survey. A 2010 survey about professional satisfaction among archivists under 35 ended up with a pool with women as 79% of respondents. With so many younger women entering the profession, it is time to improve the conditions faced by the pregnant women among us. Isn’t it a bit sad that three weeks of paid maternity leave was such a lucky break for me? Maternity leave for American workers is pathetic when compared to the rest of the world. But I was surprised that universities are not more generous in terms of parental leave for their staff — Duke is willing to pay for college tuition for my child to attend any school in the country, but is not willing to give me even a full month of paid maternity leave? Also, institutions that restrict parental leave to either vacation or unpaid time off are being needlessly punitive to their employees. My sick leave should be mine to use as I choose. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for many new parents, even when they work in the family-friendly world of academia. In addition, I should clarify that my institution’s paid parental leave is only available to the primary caregiver — so, if my spouse had also worked for Duke, he would not have been eligible to take that leave. Only one parent gets it. Considering that I spent my first six weeks of maternity leave recovering from major surgery, I find the designation of “primary caregiver” laughable and relatively insulting to fathers. This policy hurts everyone. Why are institutions encouraging the establishment of a “primary caregiver,” anyway?

The problems facing pregnant women go far beyond the archival profession or even academia as a whole, but, having experienced it firsthand, it has made me reconsider what it means to be a truly welcoming and accommodating workplace. I am so grateful that my colleagues were supportive and kind to me during this past year. Now it is time to push for broader changes at an institutional level. Ideally, I would like to see:

  • Paid family leave for women and men. Three weeks is not enough.
  • More creative approaches to keeping a work-life balance. One of my colleagues took 6 months of parental leave; another negotiated a 3/4-time schedule that gave her summers off to spend with her kids. I also know of several situations outside my institution where staff (all women, coincidentally) needed to take extended leave to care for elderly parents. All were able to keep their full benefits. These sorts of ideas should not be considered radical at the institutional level.
  • Protection and resources for pregnant women, especially graduate students, who find themselves treated differently by their departments or supervisors. Fortunately I wasn’t relying on my program for my livelihood. Other women are not that lucky and may feel unable to speak up, even when they have every right to complain about inappropriate comments or attitudes.

My transition to parenthood has changed my understanding of what it means for an institution to be accessible. I look forward to sharing more thoughts on what the archives profession can do for parents, particularly new mothers, in my next post.

Surveys referenced:
—“A*CENSUS: Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States,” American Archivist, 69 (Fall 2006), 329-330.
—Cushing, Amber. “Career Satisfaction of Young Archivists: A Survey of Professional Working Archivists, Age 35 and Younger,” American Archivist, 73 (Fall/Winter 2010).


9 thoughts on “Caution: Pregnant Lady

  1. Amazing post. When I gave birth to my son, I worked for a small non-profit rather than in academia as I do now, but all of this still hit home. Duke’s policies are similar but more generous than either my former or current (university) employer. There’s a lot to chew on. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think the archival profession specifically might do about these issues.

    “Duke is willing to pay for college tuition for my child to attend any school in the country, but is not willing to give me even a full month of paid maternity leave?” <– This is an absolutely amazing point. I had never made that connection. The cost of 6 months of paid leave pales in comparison to the cost of tuition remission benefits!

  2. I agree that institutions that claim to be family friendly should put their money where their mouth is, but I have to play Devil’s Advocate here.

    Although you’ve outlined the steps that our institutions could take in order to provide adequate support to new parents, you haven’t made it clear why taking these actions is in the best interests of the institution (i.e. good for the bottom line).

    It seems that the austere family leave policies discussed above are in place because these institutions don’t see the value of developing more generous policies; until we can demonstrate that the monetary value of a better family leave policy is greater than the loss of productivity while the employees are on leave, I don’t think that we are going to see any real change in this area.

    • I would counter by pointing out that other benefits offered by higher ed, such as college tuition grants, don’t do anything for the “bottom line” monetarily, but are in place to attract and retain the best people. Going on that premise, I believe that the lack of paid maternity leave (and other family leave options) is one of the lingering symptoms of institutions historically undervaluing their female staff members. Rather than blame the inevitability of capitalism, I hope that this is a case where institutions have not yet caught up to societal norms.

      And, for further reading, here is a link that includes some actual data.

  3. Another issue to consider is women planning to have multiple kids. Once you have the first kid you have a lot fewer resources to pull from to help you prepare for additional children. Less time, less money, more sick days, etc. And all of these dictated policies only factor in if your child is born without complications and you had a trauma free birth.

    My employer has a system in place that allows my colleagues to donate their own leave for qualifying medical emergencies which has been an incredible benefit to me and my family, but the base policy is in itself unusable for most people. I personally can’t afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave since I am the main income earner. I had to return to work 8 weeks after giving birth since I was and remain the main income earner. There was a lot of stress around getting access to the lactation room (which most companies don’t provide) and my baby not wanting to feed from the bottle. My husband thankfully was able to be a stay at home dad but now he’s working too.

    It’s the modern feminists’ Catch-22. I’d like to send a personal shout out to President Nixon for vetoing the national Comprehensive Childcare Act back in 1971.

    This is a great post to help move this very important topic forward. Thank you.

    • You are so right. And the clock for FMLA starts ticking the moment you start your leave, even if you’re on bed rest for the last month of your pregnancy. That happened with one of my friends; she got 12 weeks of leave but only 8 weeks with the baby because she was unable to work during her ninth month of pregnancy and they wouldn’t let her work from home. It’s so messed up.

  4. “Duke is willing to pay for college tuition for my child to attend any school in the country, but is not willing to give me even a full month of paid maternity leave?”

    Good point!

    My institution has the donating leave time thing, too, but you have to cash out all of your sick and vacation time before you can dip into this. I think it’s dumb that you have to use vacation time because your kid is sick. Use sick time, ok, but vacation time?

    Hey, can you give some examples of some of the things that were said to you when you were pregnant that you found ignorant/insulting? Or, put differently, things you can and shouldn’t say? I’m a guy and therefore have not and will never be pregnant, so it’s quite possible that when I’ve made conversation with pregnant people in the past I may have unintentionally said something dumb. As an aside, I’d actually feel kind of liberated not feeling like I have to pretend to care that someone I’m not related to/friends with is pregnant. But it always seemed rude to me not to mention the pregnancy when making small talk since I figured the person was really excited and that’s about all that was front-of-mind at the moment.

    • One thing I’m hesitant to do is make a suggestion on behalf of all pregnant people, but I think it is safe to say that you should never bring up or comment on another person’s physical appearance or medical condition unless they have mentioned it first. Specifically, you never know how someone may be feeling about her pregnancy at a particular moment. Maybe she is excited, or maybe she is really worried about the baby or nervous about labor or embarrassed about her swollen feet. Whatever the case may be, she is under no obligation to discuss it with you, even if her belly is literally in your face. Pretend to care about a different, less sensitive topic.

  5. I’ve had two kids while working at two vastly different institutions. At the first one, the HR person said to me on my first day back at work, “Well, we never thought you’d come back.” This was AFTER I spent a lot of time with her on the phone negotiating things like a month of pre-birth leave on the midwife’s orders, figuring out how to pay the institution for all my benefits after the 90 days they paid them (thanks FMLA) wore out, etc. It didn’t help me that I was the only person working in the library who had a child, or who even needed the “family” medical care. I was of course not being paid during any of this time, but since I was in New York State, I was eligible for disability pay for 8 weeks from the state.

    The primary caregiver rule is offensive, I have to say. I’m wondering if the staff policies are different than those for faculty (and possible graduate students). All of my male friends who are academics have been able to take a semester of leave when their children were born. There’s got to be more faculty/staff combined labor work (and other work!) in academia in the future.

    No new parent has energy to spend on committee work for changing institution policies, but maybe some of the other parents in your workplace do. At my current institution, a faculty/staff GLBT committee was successful in getting the institution to pay federal taxes back to GLBT people who could file married tax returns in our state, but not at the federal level. Another archivist I know successfully advocated for some GLBT-friendly benefit policies, despite working in a not friendly to GLBTs state institution.

    Thanks for writing about this, it’s appreciated!

  6. Pingback: Tangent: Being there to help | The Unexpected Archivist

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