I was home on a break from grad school when my best friend from college shared the exciting news: she was pregnant. (With twins, but that’s another story.) I was elated for her, and we chatted excitedly throughout dinner. And then I went home, locked myself in my girlfriend’s bathroom, and cried. I cried because my best friend and I would not have kids that grew up together. I cried because, although we were both celebrating new beginnings, they would offer very different ends.
I started my Ph.D. at almost 30, so this was just the first such occurrence. During the time it took to finish my doctorate and secure a stable, full-time position, many friends, my younger brother, and several of my close relatives had one, two, and even three, children. Those twins? They’re now the smartest, kindest, most fun-loving eight year-olds I know.
You might be saying at this point - “why not get pregnant in grad school, many people do?” Well, this didn’t seem an option for me for many reasons, and I’ll share two major reasons here. First and foremost was the fact that I’m queer. While I experienced several hetero-partnered people get pregnant during my Ph.D. experience, this was always explained as a “happy accident” rather than something that was planned for (note that these were all women; I won’t even get into the gender gap around this issue). The fear of the stigma surrounding pregnancy in grad school and not being seen as sufficiently “serious about my work,” kept me from even contemplating it. Several recent articles and studies prove that the baby penalty is real for women in academe and that it increases as the careers of academic women progress.
The second reason that I didn’t try was, of course, the money. As anyone who has been through assisted reproduction can tell you, even with the best insurance, trying to get pregnant through the medical system is not cheap (particularly when you have to pay for donor sperm). For grad students, contingent faculty, and others precariously employed in higher education, this means that, unless they have a partner who makes more money, getting pregnant is not a possibility.
Fast forward six years - at 36, I have completed my Ph.D., secured a full-time administrative position, and begun to start putting everything in place. After a six month health-related snag, I begin to start trying. At this point I’m 37. But still my blood work is great - “everything looks perfect” - I begin to hear again and again, from the ob/gyn who does the initial testing, to the midwives who are helping with my IUI procedures, and eventually from my reproductive endocrinologist, who I begin seeing after several unsuccessful IUI attempts, which included an early miscarriage.
But I’m now going on a year of trying and I’m still here. And I constantly ask myself: would it have been this hard if I started earlier? Did I wait too long? Was there a better time? For me, and my particular life circumstances, there was not.
I hope that two things come from sharing my story: the first, helping to dispel the myth that women who are successful and driven are so focused on their careers that they “forget to have kids.” In my case, as with many others, nothing is further from the truth: I have been thinking about having kids since high school, and have weighed the costs and benefits of trying to get pregnant at various points in my life.
The second reason for writing about this topic is to provide a space where those who are similarly situated can feel seen and supported. Because I have kept my attempts at parenthood limited to all but a close circle of friends, I have few peers to discuss this issue with. Every week I scour Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, poring over any article that discusses infertility in academe. Back in grad school I didn’t even know any other queer women doctoral candidates who had tried to get pregnant (though I’ve since met several queer women who have given birth while pursuing their doctorates - shout out to them!). So those of you out there, in similar situations, know this: you are not alone.
Throughout all of this, I also know how lucky I am. I have great health insurance. I also have a hugely supportive group of friends and family who’ve helped me through this process. And, from a medical standpoint, I can take solace in the fact that, in the words of my doctor: “it’s just a matter of time.”
So for now, I continue to cross my fingers and prepare for another cycle of trying.