Professoring while Pregnant

Long story short: I was pregnant during the fall semester, my daughter Gwendolyn was born in early December, and I am on maternity leave this semester. We’re both doing very well.

I’ve been meaning to write this post since October, which should say something. For those who have been wondering why I haven’t been writing much, this is why.

This is a fairly personal post. Those mainly interested in the development of the CS program should look for a future post on managing my maternity leave and upcoming research leaves.

First smile on camera (10 weeks)

Conception

Gwendolyn was most likely conceived on the last day of the spring semester, at a time when we weren’t particularly trying.

My husband and I decided to stop using birth control on our fifteenth wedding anniversary, not too long after I was awarded tenure at Grinnell College. It took four years, two miscarriages*, one minor surgery, and a lot of luck to get pregnant. We weren’t trying that month because I was scheduled for another hysteroscopy for the week after final exams were over. Obviously I had to cancel it.

I don’t regret waiting, for a variety of reasons: We took a long time to be sure we wanted children, I am a much more patient and self-confident mother than I would have been when I married at 21, and I am sure that having children earlier would have impacted my career. But I do wonder if it would have been easier when I was younger, or if it would have been difficult no matter when we started trying. I suspect things could have moved faster if I had prioritized my own care, for example, by not waiting for breaks to schedule medical appointments.

First trimester

I felt so fortunate—both lucky and privileged—to go through the first trimester during the summer, when my only teaching obligation was supervising a summer research student. The nausea and exhaustion meant I was often coming downstairs in the morning, eating some crackers, and laying on the couch until 10 a.m. I don’t know how I could have taught the 8 a.m. classes that I had scheduled in both the spring and the fall semesters.

This is not to say the summer was easy: My husband and I moved houses when I was about nine weeks along, which was exhausting. I hosted the annual summer LACS meeting at about twelve weeks, which was exhausting too. Then summer research included some intense days of user studies; with only one student, I was thoroughly involved. Fortunately, we wrapped up summer research around the end of the first trimester.

I also took daily naps after lunch, which (on Dean Tipton’s advice) I wrote into my calendar for the fall semester. Somehow, with all the naps, crackers, and ginger tea, my student and colleagues did not figure out I was pregnant. Neither did most of the LACS attendees—although a couple of senior women did. It wasn’t that I didn’t drink, which was something I worried would be a tip-off. Rather, one LACS colleague noticed I left a morning session abruptly and returned with a cup of tea (fortunately, it’s the previous host who chairs the meeting), and another told me I had a pregnancy glow (which apparently is a real thing).

Second trimester

August started the second trimester. I joined my husband for his annual trip to meet colleagues at Cambridge University. This trip, my third, was notable for my difficulty with eating. Between a surge of morning sickness and a new symptom, acid reflux, I could only eat foods that were bland and high in carbs: oatmeal, pasta (but no tomatoes), and French fries. So I told many of Brooks’ colleagues about my pregnancy before I told my own colleagues.

However, I felt my energy returning, and enjoyed taking some long walks.

Before long my morning sickness faded. My doctor recommended taking an acid reducer, which helped tremendously once I started taking it every day. All in all, I felt fairly good by the time classes started. I wasn’t sure I would even need that nap on my calendar, but I kept it anyway, just in case.

Oh my, did I need the nap. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I taught two classes in the morning. By lunchtime, I was not just hungry (despite having snacked between said classes), but also exhausted. I needed the boost in energy to get through my afternoon class. On days when I attended meetings scheduled during my nap, I regretted it.

I’ve never been a big napper except when I’m sick, but last semester all I needed to fall asleep was the easy chair in the corner of my office and earplugs to block the sound of the building doors closing 20 feet away. I quickly also added a Do Not Disturb sign so that students and colleagues didn’t knock on my closed door and wake me. (Another privilege—having a private office to nap in.)

After thinking about it a while, I decided to announce my pregnancy on the first day of class. I told my students that there would be rumors, and I would rather the rumors were correct! I also called it “elephant in the room”, which my female colleague in the office next door thought was pretty funny. This meant I had to tell friends and colleagues before the semester started—particularly my CS colleagues, who would be most affected by my maternity leave.

On the whole, teaching during the second semester was fine, as long as I got my nap and went to bed early at night. I also shed some workload so I could focus on teaching. I had wrapped up an article in April, just before I got pregnant, and decided not to start a new scholarly project in the summer or fall. I used my Thursday morning writing time for doctor appointments and managing my ever-evolving wardrobe. I tried to limit my service obligations to what I was absolutely committed to (though I did add a few things, like a day trip to Seattle to serve on a UW CSE panel on non-R1 academic careers). And I tried to grade more efficiently, including an experiment with Gradescope.

At the end of the second trimester

Third trimester

The third trimester started in November. Over the month, I became more tired. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, which I felt very resentful about. It was interesting to record my blood sugar, but I never did work out a diet that let me manage it.

We kept our plans to travel to Grinnell for Thanksgiving week. I’m grateful we had that chance to catch up with old friends during my pregnancy (and I also caught up on a lot of grading). However, by the end of the trip, my feet were swelling and my calves cramped if I walked longer than ten minutes. We returned to Walla Walla with two weeks left in the fall semester.

That Friday was a full one. I taught my three classes. I debated going to the General Studies Committee meeting versus taking a nap; my conscience led me to the meeting where I complained about needing a nap. I met with a student during office hours. I served on a late afternoon panel organized by the Women in STEM club. I caught up with a colleague who also served on the panel, and I went home not too long after five to cook dinner (beef with broccoli) for myself and my husband. We had dinner, cleaned up, and went to bed.

At 11:30 pm, I woke up to a gushing sensation. I swore loudly, then asked my husband to bring me a towel and go call the hospital.

Birth

Fortunately, my own doctor was on call to verify that my water had indeed broken, but I was not in labor. I got the first of two steroid shots, for baby’s lung development, and an IV drip of magnesium sulfate to prevent cerebral palsy. Since St. Mary’s in Walla Walla does not have a neonatal intensive care unit, my husband and I had an ambulance ride to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, an hour away. We arrived at about four in the morning.

On Saturday, I settled in for a possibly long hospital stay. My husband went home to get more of our belongings (including my laptop, so I could grade). We agreed on a name, just in case. I emailed my dean to ask her to contact colleagues about covering my last week of classes.

I slept on Saturday night, as well as one can in a hospital room. But by Sunday morning, the fetal monitor was all too quiet. We could not get the baby to move during an ultrasound.

Gwendolyn was born by C-section later that day. Although my doctor later said it was a surgery he would remember, her Apgar score was 6-7 out of 10, not bad for an emergency C-section.

Beyond

I was released from the hospital after three nights. It took the first day for the narcotics to wear off, but by the second day I was out of bed grading, doing paperwork, and wandering the halls. 

Baby Gwendolyn would be in the NICU for 24 days. We stayed in a hotel near the hospital and settled into a routine of pumping overnight, a late breakfast at the hotel, days with Gwendolyn in the NICU, dinner out, and back to the NICU for the evening weight check, then shower, bed, and starting it all over again. Fortunately Kadlec has a lounge for families with babies in the NICU, where we ate a lot of lunches and I did a lot of grading.

Grading was surprisingly enjoyable as it was something normal that I could do by myself. With some help from Andy, I submitted grades on time for CS 167, after more than two weeks in the hospital. I asked the Registrar for extra time to finish grading CS/Math 220. David Guichard had administered my final exam, while Albert Schueller brought papers to me in the hospital. I was frustrated by some emails from students, but most were considerate.

To go home, Gwendolyn needed to breathe on her own, maintain a stable body temperature on her own, and eat enough on her own to continue gaining weight. Just after Christmas, it became clear she was on her way to meeting the third milestone. Suddenly things started moving very fast, and all my time was taken with paperwork, learning a few last things, and packing our belongings to take them home. I wished I had already gotten more grading done.

We brought Gwendolyn home between Christmas and New Year’s. The newborn craziness ensued. I did not finish grading CS/Math 220 until the first day of the spring semester, January 16, when my maternity leave officially began.

Home from the hospital (4 weeks)

* Footnote: Miscarriages

I had two early miscarriages while trying to conceive. I mention them because I wish more people would talk about miscarriages.

My first pregnancy came after I had accepted the job at Whitman College and before I moved to Walla Walla. I worried about taking maternity leave during my first year at Whitman, but in the end nothing came of it. Discovering the miscarriage was a long, drawn out process, starting with an ultrasound showing development that lagged behind my calendar. In retrospect, I had substandard medical care (my doctor resigned the day after referring me for a D&E), and it definitely added to the stress of moving.

The second miscarriage was physiologically much easier. It was confirmed with an HCG test and did not require further medical care. It started on election night (November 8, 2017), so I had two things to be sad and angry about. It was easy enough to talk to my students about the election and keep the miscarriage to myself.

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