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.
—“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).