On Teaching While Pregnant

Last week was the first of the new semester, and I was 39 weeks pregnant. These two things do not fit comfortably together.

I’m not interested, in this post, in complaining about my situation; there are far harder jobs to have while pregnant than English professor, and I have been lucky to get to spend most of the huge and uncomfortable part of my pregnancy resting during the summer. Instead, I want to reflect on the experience of teaching while pregnant – and the conversation (or, really, the lack of conversation) about this experience. Women teach while pregnant all the time, but I still went into this having heard little of others’ experiences and having little idea hor it might feel or what particular issues might arise.

Some of this silence is, I suspect, a reaction to fears that if we (as pregnant women) talk about what it feels like to be pregnant and teaching, it will encourage others to see us primarily as our pregnant bodies. They may find us wanting or think of us as weakened by our pregnancies. We may miss out on important career opportunities or be sidelined – not maliciously, and perhaps out of intended kindness, but this is still something I feel pretty sure pregnant academics want to avoid.

And then there’s the question of how – or whether – to address it with students. This semester, my pregnancy is obvious, and I cannot hide it from students. On the contrary, it is one of the first things I have had to talk about with them, since I’ll be on leave for part of the semester and since my belly is very present in class. Last semester, however, I found out I was pregnant before the spring semester began and of course talked to my department head and some of my colleagues early on, but I never mentioned it to my students. Not once, all semester. I strongly suspect that although some of my students would have been interested and sympathetic, others would have instead pinned any weakness I showed on my pregnancy (as opposed to the weaknesses that come with basic humanity) and wondered why I was teaching while pregnant at all. They may have used my pregnancy to explain away my reactions to the topics we discussed in class and dismiss them instead of taking me seriously.

Of course, there were definitely days when I wished I could take advantage of all of the assumptions about pregnant women and say, “Hey, guys, I feel extra tired and sick, so we’re all just going to sit quietly for a bit now.” Or days when I wanted to say, “Even though I feel like vomiting, I’m teaching up a storm here. I’d like some credit.” But neither of those approaches really leads anywhere productive for the class. Best, I figured, to just pretend everything’s normal.

Having said that, pretending everything is normal ignores the fact that it is not normal. Pregnancy is a normal human experience, of course, but it is not representative of the vast majority of my life. It is unusual and demands physical and emotional energy that my non-pregnant life does not, and this change affects what I am capable of doing in class. I didn’t call in sick any more than usual; I showed up and did my job – teaching classes, meeting with students, etc. But I did so at a much lower energy level than usual. And I believe this affected my students’ response to me and to the class they were in. I noted a drop in my evaluation numbers (yeah, I know, such numbers are flawed (at the very least), but I have to look at them) in the spring semester, and I firmly believe that part of that drop can be explained by my pregnancy. One thing I usually have going for me in my teaching is that I am excited about the topics we discuss and clearly invested in what we are doing. Students comment on this regularly. During a semester when simply standing up for the entire class period was sometimes too much, I obviously wasn’t able to be so energetic. I still cared, but I couldn’t show it in the same way, and even without the ability to compare my performance across semesters, I think my students felt the drop in energy. They simply saw it as my normal, however, and judged me accordingly. Perhaps an acknowledgement of my circumstances could have changed that. Or perhaps not. I am still not sure what the best way to address this might have been.

I wonder how other pregnant professors have dealt with this. I have definitely heard stories of students negatively judging women for teaching while pregnant, but are there stories that show the opposite? I actually wouldn’t be surprised if those more positive stories are few and far between, given the judgment I’ve seen leveled at female professors and their female bodies for far less significant issues (dressing in ways the students disapprove of or dislike, dying or cutting their hair, being fat or short or whatever).  How do other pregnant professors balance the demands of teaching and growing a human being? What about balancing the desire to be seen as normal with the desire to recognize the specifics of the experience? And can this be done without pathologizing pregnancy? Can we be normal and pregnant at work at the same time? The answer to this should clearly be yes, but I’m not sure most departments or universities are at that point in practice.

I don’t have any answers to any of this. But I do think it’s something that should be discussed more broadly and acknowledged as an issue. Not just by people experiencing it or by people who do research on these topics, but by academics (and administrators) in general. After all, if universities want to hire human beings – many of whom, as it turns out, have or want to have families – and if they want those human beings to put down roots and stay a while, they need to be prepared for this eventuality, and, furthermore, the institutional and disciplinary culture regarding pregnant professors should go beyond tolerance (abiding by the law, etc.) to become welcoming.

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