“The more I learn about the magnitude of this task, the more remarkable it seems that it ever actually happens…”
It’s how I’ve started many a research seminar. I study how sperm make it to – and successfully fertilise – the egg. The feat of fertilisation is nothing short of incredible. It’s the biological equivalent of Mission Impossible.
But of course, it does happen. It happens all the time, across all sexually reproducing organisms. From nettles to narwhals, periwinkles to people.
And as of March 2017, my (or perhaps more accurately, my partner’s) personal feat of fertilisation will result in the production of a brand new, kicking, screaming, real-life human being. Our very own “fitness unit”, as one eminent behavioural ecologist put it.
This is going to be my most self-indulgent post to date. I’m going to write about how baffling, surreal, and terrifying this situation is. I’m going to write about this from the perspective of an academic. I acknowledge that many other careers have similar (or different but equally worrying) pressures. I know I am not special. I know this is a completely ordinary thing that many many people (including academics) do at some point in their lives. But I’m also sure that every parent-to-be will find at least some common ground in the confused ramblings that follow. So here goes. This is my current world-view as the recently outed pregnant scientist:
Last week I did the “big reveal” at work. I felt so nervous telling my Head of Department, I had to practically spit the words out. I’m not sure why I found it so difficult. It wasn’t like I was going to get told off. Yet for some reason I felt like I was revealing some kind of dirty secret, admitting a fundamental character flaw. At one point my voice cracked unexpectedly and I felt overwhelming panic that, right there in the HoD’s office, I was going to cry. Fortunately, talking a bit faster and wringing my hands a little averted the crisis.
Of course, my news was received in celebratory fashion. I was congratulated, smiled at, bolstered up for the adventure ahead. Exactly as you would expect. I must admit, I felt a definite sense of relief to get it out in the open. You spend an awfully long time nurturing your dark secret after you find out you are pregnant. You find yourself avoiding certain topics of conversation (“I assume you’ll be at the conference next Spring?”, “What are your plans for dissertation students next semester?”) and postponing email replies (“Would you like to come and give a seminar here in April?”, “Are you offering any summer placements?”). Sometimes, I even resorted to barefaced lies (“Yes I’ll be teaching the animal behaviour module next year”, “Perhaps we can look into that further next season”).
What else can you do? The first few months of pregnancy are terrifying and exhausting. You daren’t tell anyone the truth because you are convinced something will go wrong. This is particularly true if, like me, you study the causes of reproductive failure and spend your days examining dead embryos. I’m very aware that the chances of something going wrong are remarkably high. You also can’t bring yourself to tell anyone because you still don’t really believe it (I’m not sure that is ever going to change).
On the flip-side, you feel like you have a massive flashing neon sign above your head signalling your ‘condition’. You feel awful. The act of dragging yourself out of bed seems heroic, let alone maintaining a productive balance of stimulating lectures every morning, hours of lab work in the afternoon, regular meetings with project students, and manuscript drafting into the early hours. I tried to take inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg’s proactive mantra, but the only thing I found myself leaning into was the toilet. And all the while, your brain – your oldest, most reliable friend, the one who solves all your problems – shrinks away as your body trades off somatic maintenance against reproductive investment.
Then there’s the problem of how your imminent maternity leave and ongoing life of parenthood will affect that clear career trajectory you had planned. As an early career researcher, I have big plans. These involve grants, collaborations, overseas travel, increasing productivity, an eventual – dare I say it – permanent position. But when it comes down to it, what I’ve actually got is a short-term contract that finishes halfway through my maternity leave, a missed fellowship deadline (I was so ill during the early stages of pregnancy, something had to give), and a teaching load that leaves paper-writing as a rare weekend treat. Add to that only four months to get everything in order before this next massive project is handed to me with no instructions, and it all becomes a little bit daunting. This is where “leaning in” and maintaining full brain capacity would be really useful – how ironic.
The overwhelming nature of the situation should be helped by the rapidly diminishing expectations of others. I jokingly tell my partner that I am no longer “me” in the eyes of others – I am “pregnant me”. It’s not really a joke. When people ask “how’s it going?”, what they mean is “how’s the pregnancy going?” Not “how’s your research going?”, and definitely not “how’s that fellowship application going?” (way too much pressure). People stop asking you to do things and don’t include you in long-term plans. I shouldn’t complain – this makes things easier, right? But it’s incredibly hard not to write yourself off when you can tell other people already have.
I’ll end this self-pitying monologue with my most ridiculous pregnancy side-effect so far: Selfish envy. The things I can’t do that others can. The reason this is so ridiculous is because my main example concerns my own partner’s recent promotion. Two weeks ago he found himself in a position where three different companies were vying to employ him, each offering a senior role, increased pay, and more flexible working hours. Let’s be clear – this is as fantastic for me as it is for him. It means we will have more money and more time together at home. And yet, as he sat there one evening, a couple of weeks ago, pondering out loud the pros and cons of each job and casually dismissing the problem of unpaid paternity leave (we are too close to the due date to qualify for paid leave if we change jobs), I began to feel slightly hard done by. It was all so easy for him. I currently have no negotiating power, no option of changing positions, and quite frankly, I feel vulnerable with respect to my long-term job security. I’m also super competitive, and he’s frog-leaping me. It’s ridiculous, as I said – and of course deep down I’m glad he’s doing so well – but I can’t help feeling like a comparative loser.
I’m afraid this post will end up coming across quite negative. Probably not what you’d expect from a happy mum-to-be. That makes me feel a bit guilty (although I did forewarn about the self-indulgence). On balance, I actually feel quite positive about this situation. I won’t lie – I’m not relishing pregnancy. But I am looking forward to having a baby (as much as one can look forward to something they can’t yet perceive) – I love a new challenge and I’m sure it will be good fun having a little mixed up version of me and my partner around. As I lay awake at night, experiencing the bizarre and slightly gross sensation of being booted in the bladder by another person that is growing inside me, I’m already getting the first pangs of motherly love. I know the sun will shine out of this child’s backside. I do, however, feel overwhelmed by all the uncertainty. I’m used to being in control, but I’m not sure I’ve got a good grip on this one yet. I am reflecting on my many ambitions and wondering which ones remain realistic (I’ve already conceded ‘rock star’ is out, despite a new electric piano remaining on my Christmas list). I don’t want to change my career plans, but I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t throw a huge spanner in the works – even if people try to tell me otherwise. Ultimately, I’ll just have to see how things pan out and try to enjoy the ride, wherever it takes me…