By Sara Hinkle
As I contemplate my latest post for this blog, it’s clear that I should write about the subject that’s closest to me right now and at the forefront of my mind: my pregnancy. As I write this I am closing out my 39th week of pregnancy and eagerly/anxiously anticipating the arrival of my first child. The road to this point has been a long and slow one, for the most part. As I reflect, it occurs to me that, while balancing parenting and career is something that both men and women deal with (in theory if not in practice), pregnancy is a condition only experienced by women. I will take this opportunity to reflect on how I’ve balanced the physical and mental challenges of pregnancy with my professional responsibilities as an assistant vice president for student affairs.
The first trimester can be both a time of excitement and uncertainty. On the one hand, there is the thrill of getting the positive pregnancy result, hearing the baby’s heart beat for the first time, and, perhaps, seeing the child via ultrasound. On the other hand, the first trimester is a time of high risk, as many women miscarry during this time. This, coupled with the stress of planning for a new life with a child, can be the source of great anxiety. Women also experience potential physical discomforts, such as fatigue, nausea and “morning” sickness. Further, many women choose not to disclose their pregnancy during this time, as they would rather wait until they have moved out of the “high risk” phase. As a result, it can be a lonely time, during which you’re not able to share your condition with those you see every day (e.g., your colleagues), but it’s still taking a toll on your physical and mental health. Further, you’re not able to receive support from the workplace.
I remember at one point during my first trimester, my boss invited me to attend a meeting of the senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) from all of the state institutions. I eagerly agreed, as I saw this as a great opportunity to network and gain insight into the issues of SSAOs. The meeting was several hours and included a meal. As the meeting grew into the afternoon, I felt my eyes getting heavy and I struggled to keep them open. I was so embarrassed, as I did not want to appear disrespectful to my senior colleagues whom I had just met. I wanted to speak up: I’m sorry! I’m not being rude. It’s just that I’m growing a person and am really tired right now! Of course, I didn’t do this. But I was mindful of the fact that my secret physical condition could potentially be impacting how I was perceived by my colleagues and I didn’t like it.
This is the point in pregnancy when women tend to share the news more widely, as I did. Sharing with colleagues and supervisors can be both happy and anxiety producing for all involved. On the one hand, it’s a happy moment. On the other, colleagues might be thinking, what does this mean for me in terms of workload when she goes on maternity leave?
This was also the point where I felt more comfortable about asking specific questions of human resources about my situation and parental leave. I had tried to obtain information at my point of hire and at my new employee orientation, but I struggled to get timely answers; I also found it awkward to ask, since the questions were personal in nature. I tried to find information on-line so as to avoid having to ask these questions, but the information was not readily available. It was at this point that I learned that my employer offered no paid parental leave, which came as quite a shock to me. The importance of having readily accessible human resources policies and paid parental leave is a larger topic that merits its own blog post. However, I will suffice it to say that this added stress to my situation.
The second trimester is also known as the “honeymoon phase,” as many women tend to feel better during this time, and the risk of miscarriage/stillbirth greatly decreases. However, in my case, I can’t say I felt a lot better during this time. In fact, while during the first trimester I could get through the day and then collapse at home at the work day’s end, I now felt bone tired from the minute I sat down at my desk. Even the (doctor permitted) two cups of coffee didn’t seem to help. Every day I would think, okay, I just need to get through this day. I can’t tell a lie, I would spend the occasional lunch break curled up in a ball on the love seat in my office, trying to sneak in some zzzzzzzs.
It was also during this time that deadlines for several writing projects I had committed to came up. Though these projects were related to higher education, they were not a part of my formal work responsibilities. As such, I was mindful of trying to work on them outside of my regular work hours. I would get up early before the work day, or attempt to work on them after work. However, my growing fatigue definitely made this challenging. I really enjoyed these writing projects and was committed to seeing them through, but it was tough!
The third trimester was awkward in that it coincided with the start of the new school year. So while everyone around me was ramping up, I was trying to wind down. Specifically, I was examining the various tasks on my plate and trying to ensure that my responsibilities were covered and would continue seamlessly in my absence. I often had to push people for information in a timely manner, with a gentle reminder about my impending maternity leave. One thing that seemed to complicate matters was the size of my belly (or lack thereof). Because I carried on the smaller side, I didn’t look as far along as I was. As a result, I don’t think people felt the same sense of urgency that I did to address certain issues or tasks. While I was ticking off the weeks (and now days) until I would give birth, others had the idea that I still had months to go.
At the same time that I was trying to delegate tasks, some people were adding NEW tasks to my plate. For example, “We’d like you to join this committee; let us know who will be your proxy in your absence.” These were committees I was happy and eager to join, but this added some last minute stress to my plate. As I reflected on this with a colleague, she suggested this could be because people perceive me as engaged and focused, rather than “checked out,” right up until the very end of my pregnancy. I appreciated this perspective and hoped that she was correct in that was how I was perceived. But, to be honest, there have certainly been times during the pregnancy when I have not felt as engaged and focused as I would like to be.
Also worthy of note is that I was able to connect with a new and expecting parents group on my campus. This was not a program set up through human resources, but more of an “organic” outreach that stemmed from the personal and professional interests of a faculty member on campus. It was a connection I was grateful to make.
Though much has been written about “work-life balance,” primarily as it relates to working mothers, I have not seen much written about balancing a career with the physical and mental challenges of pregnancy. The above provides just some highlights of my experience. On the one hand, I have had a relatively healthy pregnancy, free of major complications. But on the other hand, the physical and mental challenges that this condition has posed have not always been easy. I pride myself on being a conscientious and dedicated professional. However, I would be lying if I said that keeping up with my professional dedication has not sometimes been a struggle over the past nine-plus months. I know that pregnant women go to work every day, often, like me, working up until the very end of their pregnancies, and are professional and productive. Images of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer come to mind as she worked right up until the end of her pregnancy (though reportedly she worked from home during her last few weeks). Women like this make it look easy, but it’s not. I was fortunate to be surrounded by supportive colleagues. But at the end of the day, I felt like balancing my health with my professional duties was my responsibility, and sometimes this felt lonely.
The bottom line is that women are going to continue to have babies and careers simultaneously, and many (if not all) will struggle along the way. As I alluded to above, more needs to be done at the institutional level to support women from pregnancy and beyond. Most of the workplace support I experienced came from the good will and initiative of colleagues (e.g., kind words of support, a workplace shower, the home grown support group). My intention in writing this is to provide other pregnant working women a point of connection. If you have felt tired, stressed, lonely, and a faltering sense of professionalism during your pregnancy, you are not alone!
As I turn the corner from pregnancy to motherhood, I know that I will face a new host of challenges. I look to this community for support!