What to Expect When You’re Expecting…in Academia

As I write this blog post, I feel a small but mighty foot (or is it an elbow?) jabbing at my ribs. I’m currently expecting my first child in just over a month. I’m also a tenure-track assistant professor whose pregnancy timeline has almost perfectly mirrored the academic year—I found out I was pregnant on the first day of Fall classes and my due date is 10 days after Winter semester ends.

As a planner who always likes to know what to expect, I dedicated the first weeks of my pregnancy to intensive information gathering. I ordered pregnancy preparation books, downloaded pregnancy apps, and joined pregnancy-related social media groups. Although I quickly learned everything I could possibly need to know about listeria risk, Braxton Hicks contractions, and what to pack in a hospital bag, I felt completely unprepared for how my pregnancy would affect (or be affected by) work.

I want to share some of my personal experiences and observations from the past 8 months in the hopes that they can even slightly help demystify what to expect when you’re expecting in academia.

The first trimester presents both physical and professional challenges. After discovering I was pregnant, I nervously anticipated the dreaded first-trimester symptoms. I felt great up until 6 weeks and then, BAM!, they hit me like a ton of bricks. Between the nausea, needing to eat something every 30 minutes to curb the nausea, food aversions, and just absolute exhaustion, getting through each workday felt like an insurmountable challenge. But what made things even tougher is that I wasn’t ready to tell people that I was pregnant. When I cancelled meetings because I couldn’t get out of bed, or I was late on review deadlines and co-author feedback because my body said “no thank you” to an 8-hour workday, I worried about what people would think. I had to remind myself that my health came first and that these challenges were time-limited.

Professional flexibility becomes more than ever. Despite the extreme discomfort of my first trimester, I was so grateful for having the privilege of being able to structure my schedule—including asynchronous online teaching—around my own physical and emotional needs. I typically felt worse first thing in the morning and late in the day, so I’d intentionally schedule meetings mid-morning or early afternoon. As much as we might complain about COVID-induced Zoom meetings, knowing that I could mute and turn off video to eat a quick snack or run to the bathroom gave me great peace of mind. Also, I was not prepared for the frequency of medical appointments. Even in the context of my low-risk pregnancy, I had monthly, and eventually weekly, prenatal visits as well as various milestone blood draws or tests sprinkled throughout the 9 months. But I was able to tailor my schedule to meet these needs and make up any missed work.

Leave policies are confusing and your colleagues are great resources. Maternity leave in academia remains a mystery to me. There are so many different policies for different circumstances. For early career folks, there are also decisions about if/how to pause your tenure clock. These policies all likely vary considerably by university, and even by department. For me, the most valuable insights have come from talking to my colleagues who had children on the tenure track in recent years. Asking for people’s own advice and experiences has helped me navigate what to expect in terms of administrative processes.

Research and teaching matter, but so does your health. Pregnant or not, it is exceptionally challenging to navigate the competing demands of conducting research, publishing papers, applying for funding, mentoring students, and teaching courses, all while balancing these professional obligations with personal needs and self-care. Despite my best efforts to find work-life balance, I’ve certainly had plenty of times where I sacrificed sleep, exercise, or socialization in the interest of cranking out a grant proposal or finalizing lecture slides. But during my pregnancy, recognizing the negative long-term effects of prenatal maternal stress, the importance of my own mental and physical health became more salient than ever. When it came to work, I tried to shift my focus from what I could get done to what I needed to get done. If I started to feel guilty for not working at my same level of pre-pregnancy vigor, I practiced self-compassion and reminded myself that growing a human is a monumental job in itself. Did I have the most professionally productive 9 months of my career? No. But I felt strong, healthy, and emotionally grounded as I prepared for the next big chapter of my life.  

I now look ahead to a whole new set of unknowns. Do I abandon all professional service when I’m on maternity leave? Should I still be trying to submit manuscripts in between feedings and diaper changes? How can I ensure my grad students feel supported during my time away? Maybe I’ll come back with another blog post next year. But in the meantime, I will enjoy these final weeks of rib-prodding and look forward to my most exciting end-of-semester to date. 


Author Bio:

Hannah Schacter is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Developmental Science area at Wayne State University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development. Her research focuses on how adolescents' peer relationships affect their mental and physical health.

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