Scattered across my journals, you’ll find various iterations of multi-year plans, listing off months, allowing me to plan my way backward toward deadlines. In the spring of 2014, while wrapping up the first year of my doctoral program, I made such a list. My husband and I had been married for nearly four years, and we were mapping out the start of our family. (Even in writing this, I feel the need to be on the defensive — to justify our right to start a family by noting that we waited and that we were carefully planning.)
Like a responsible graduate student, I built a plan that would put my maternity leave over the summer. There was a narrow window for conception. August or September would mean giving birth in May or June, giving me enough of a recovery window to bounce back by the start of fall semester.
Somehow, this plan worked. I learned I was pregnant that summer. I bought prenatal vitamins, a special pregnancy journal, prenatal yoga DVDs. On a trip to visit a friend, my pregnancy came up in conversation and I returned home with a tub of her maternity clothes. I was surprised by how good I was feeling, which increased my confidence. Maybe I wouldn’t be too sick and the pregnancy wouldn’t affect my graduate work much.
At our eight-week check, my husband and I watched as the lab technician measured and remeasured the fetal pole. She asked me to confirm my estimated conception date before saying she needed to go check in with the doctor, who was out of the office. A moment later, she led me to the phone in the nurse’s station. From there, my husband standing next to me, both of us looking out at the waiting room lined with women resting hands on their growing bellies, the doctor told me over the phone that he was prescribing progesterone to try to bolster my pregnancy, but that I should prepare myself for the worst.
The brutality of that progesterone prescription was that it made me feel increasingly pregnant. Every movement made me nauseous. My breasts were so sore I dreamt of cutting them off with scissors. I felt like the world was off balance, and all the while I knew the only thing growing in my belly was dread for the decision we would have to make: have a procedure to remove the failed pregnancy, or let it work its way out of my body naturally, knowing that there might still need to be a procedure if the miscarriage was partial. Knowing, too, that each day I waited on my body would be another day before recovery, another day before we could try again.
At the next appointment, we scheduled a dilation and curettage, a procedure WedMD describes as “brief,” to remove the failed pregnancy. Among my thoughts was relief that the procedure would take place at the start of the long Labor Day weekend. I wouldn’t miss attending or teaching classes. There would be nothing to explain.
I had convinced myself that I couldn’t talk about it with my peers because I would fall apart, and I didn’t have the energy to tell and retell or cry through the story. But beneath that sadness was fear and anxiety that I would be found out. Entering the program married, I’d already come in with more commitments than the culture of academia expects. In confessing this failed pregnancy, I would be making myself suspect moving forward. A child wasn’t on the PhD Road Map our department gave us, and it surely wouldn’t contribute to me writing my dissertation in a timely manner and getting onto the job market.
I feared I hadn’t earned the right to have a baby. My department offered me four years of funding so long as I continued to make demonstrable progress toward my dissertation. Would they begin watching for signs of a swelling belly, waiting for me to go against the standing best advice — which seemed to be “don’t distract yourself with a personal life until you have tenure”? Would sharing my experience result in advice to postpone children until after I had finished my dissertation, and would I listen?
I spent my recovery period and the months before I was able to try to conceive again convinced I was lying to my peers and disappointing my professors. Writing this essay has been a visceral revisiting of these feelings, as it seems to threaten similar consequences. Publishing my experience, confirming that I have been a pregnant body and that I have a family, gives future potential employers a means of using the Internet to answer questions they can’t ask in an interview. I continue to find myself torn between sharing my story — serving as a face for the isolation of miscarriage and as a reminder that our bodies are real and exist and have the right to take up space in the academy — and doing what girlhood trained me to do, to shrink and keep my head down, working toward my goals without drawing attention and facing consequences for my ambition.
Meanwhile, during my recovery, I mailed back my friend’s maternity clothes. I hid other supplies we’d acquired in boxes and threw out the journal I’d started. There are pieces of that time also packed away in my mind, dark spots in this story that I can’t bring back to light. What I do remember is being told we could try again and realizing that we wanted to, and that we owed no one a backward-planned calculation of good timing. We owed no one a justification.
One of the things packed away in the darkness of this story is the answer to this question: How did I come to feel I owed someone a justification, or that I was not permitted to have a child? My department is small, social, and supportive; my cohort is loving. They’d done nothing to directly earn the mistrust I carried. But I had been a student for so long, I wasn’t sure when I also got to be an adult. It was never articulated. What was articulated and given in mantra-like advice at orientations and in stressful times of the semester was a reminder that we should take one day off a week to stop work and focus on yourself; that there are more people earning PhDs than will ever be able to access teaching positions; that our dissertation gets stale quickly after completion and we need to be prepared to hit the job market hard; that earning graduate degrees can be isolating and challenging for your mental health, making personal relationships difficult; that people outside the program will struggle to understand.
My graduate school experience had become framed as something separate from my personal life, and when my personal life needed my entire self to focus on recovery, it left me feeling like I was betraying the expectations set out for the graduate student I also was. No moment has demonstrated the tension between being a budding academic and an infantilized student like the moment of deciding to start a family in graduate school, and no point in that journey has proved more isolating than my failed pregnancy.
When was I the colleague and co-author, who could share their personal life to explain why work had become a challenge? And when was I the mentee and student — language so hard to separate from childhood — who had assignments to complete and progress toward degree to demonstrate? If the cautionary advice to those entering relationships was that our partners not in the program wouldn’t understand what school expected of me, how could I expect those in my program to understand my life beyond the boundaries of our campus?
My story continues with a pregnancy that went to term, a department that more than rose to the occasion to support me, and a daughter. It also continues with me no longer accepting the divide between portions of myself. As I mentioned earlier, the publication of this essay, or evidence of my daughter in my Twitter feed and in my peer-reviewed publications, means I become a certain type of scholar. One with a family. One willing to prioritize things other than scholarship. All of this is still marked as inappropriate by some corners of the academy, but in working through my miscarriage, I was also forced to work through what kind of scholar I wanted to be.
The answer, for me, was vocal. Visible. Allowing as little of myself to hide in those dark spaces as possible, for the sake of my own mental health and the individuals who come up alongside and after me in my workplace. I will be a whole person. I will discuss carefully and honestly the limitations that puts on my career, and I will also refuse to accept them as the standing narrative for women, children, or families in the field of higher education.