“Congratulations! But what about your PhD?”

Original blog: https://www.migrationdiversity.nl/blog/congratulations-but-what-about-your-phd

At first, having a baby whilst doing a PhD might not seem like the ideal combination, as a PhD is very demanding by itself. However, sometimes life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. The first few weeks of my pregnancy I spent kind of worried. I wondered how I would manage both simultaneously and how having a baby would influence my professional future, in- and outside of academia. But I quickly realized that pregnancy encourages you to learn acceptance and let go of things you don’t have control of. It forced me to listen to my body, intuition, take it slow and finally accept that things are the way they are – traits that don’t always comply with the academic working style. Although pregnancy and a PhD did not seem to match at first, I noticed that my pregnancy has given me new insights into my research which focuses on masculinities in the Netherlands, and by extension femininities.

My research has taught me that letting me go off gender presumptions and gender-duality is the way to go if we strive for a more equal society. Whilst I was just learning how to detach my identity from the socially constructed concept of femininity, pregnancy started messing with some of these new learnings. I realized that many of these political and gendered concepts were pressing on to my embodied everyday experiences as a woman. I mean honestly, I have never before been this proud of being a woman; never felt so connected with other women never loved my body so much. Here I want to add that this is an experience that I am more than grateful for, as I know that for some pregnancies can also be extremely challenging, both physically and mentally. But for me, my body’s potential to grow a human and its capability to guide me in life has given me trust in my body I did not know. The way it forced me to take it easier when the baby needed the extra energy to grow taught me how this is not a time of compromise. My brain and mental state adapted to every phase of pregnancy, teaching me how to connect with the baby and prepare for what is coming. How happy and excited it made me feel about every kick and every extra inch of my belly – all made possible by this female body, brain and hormones. But realizing this new awe for the feminine made me wonder – is it still okay for me to feel this way, or am I now also reinforcing gender binaries?

Meanwhile, I had another dilemma to face as I was considering how my pregnancy would affect my ability to climb the academic ladder and professional trajectory. In the Netherlands pregnancies and early motherhood are still seen as a burden for careers and society, rather than something valuable. According to gender scholar and director of Atria[1], Kaouthar Darmoni, “being a woman is not regarded serious business in the Netherlands.” In a podcast about motherhood and emancipation, she argues that pregnant women in the Netherlands are seen as people who disturb the system. It’s like society is telling women “we need your womb as economic capital for our pensions, but the rest you have to arrange yourself.” Women are still indirectly forced to choose between motherhood and a career due to the existing policies which offer short maternity leave (compared to other EU countries) and very expensive daycare. Unfortunately, also academia pressures many women to choose between motherhood and the career they may want to pursue. Although the amount is slowly increasing, in the EU the Netherlands score terribly when it comes to the percentage of female professors at universities – we take position 21 out of 28 EU countries. The higher we look on the ‘academic ladder’ – the fewer women we see.

 But whilst expensive daycare has a lot of influence on a career, inequality already starts during pregnancy. During eight months pregnant women are expected to do their jobs as usual and to stay ‘as normal as possible’ without too much fuss. Then women get about 16 weeks to birth the baby and adjust to this completely new life, show some cute photographs and get back to work as if nothing happened. Partners get a maximum of six weeks, partly paid, to bond with their child and support women during recovery – six weeks is the minimum period that the female body needs to recover from labor. This unequal and short leave creates a burden for many future careers as the roles that we take on during the first months of parenthood, are the roles that tend to stick with us. But besides taking away the negatives, I also believe that there is tremendous potential being overlooked when it comes to pregnancy: that of personal development.

Pregnancy is a time to dive in deep, a time of knowledge inside us, usually not always accessible. But in order to reach that inner knowledge and creativity a pregnant person needs space, a supportive environment and enough rest! On the one hand, I have struggled on an intellectually academic level to theorize my ideas the way I would usually do. But on the other hand, I have been able to have different types of conversations with research participants and the way people treat me in society has changed, which resulted in new perspectives and insights. Research participants told me that talking to me as a pregnant woman gave them a sense of me as a caring person and at times made it easier for them to open up emotionally. Men started looking at me differently, in a more respectful manner I would say, which increased my confidence to speak my mind louder and more often. Other (pregnant) women started sharing their own, at times emotional, experiences of motherhood. It feels like an invitation into this new world that was not accessible to me before. Having to make decisions for two has made me more confident, both about my personal and professional goals. According to my Ayurvedic teacher, this confidence often arises during the last months of pregnancy and is a result of the mother’s instinct to protect what is growing inside of her: in my everyday life this resulted in speaking out against things I disagree with much louder, caring less about other people’s opinion and a stronger urge to speak out against mistreatment. In my academic work, I have become more confident: even though my PhD will be a bigger challenge once the baby is born, I know that I will be able to do it – as now I am not only working on my own future but also somebody else’s. Let’s hope that confidence will stick once the hormones are gone!

I treated my pregnancy as a creative space of mindful growth by keeping a daily journal. It has helped me a lot as often (especially when fatigue is high!), I felt quite ‘useless’ because I wasn’t able to keep up with my regular work mode. But now going back through all the things that I have written I realize how much I have actually learned during this period. And if writing doesn’t always work maybe look for other outlets: draw, or paint, or find some other way of expressing yourself because there is so much to be learned from this unique time in life. In Ayurveda, there is a saying to treat a pregnant woman as if carrying a bowl of hot oil and not wanting to spill a drop – an idea that completely goes against the way we live life in the Netherlands. As emancipated women we do not like being treated differently, we want to show how strong and independent we are. That we can do everything that we want to do, even when with child. But I have learned that surrendering can be just as strong, that letting someone carry your bags; taking naps during the day; asking for help and support; transferring work to your colleagues; taking the time to take care of your mind and body and craving other women’s company does not make you less of a feminist. When it comes to the learning process of my gender identity I have decided that it is completely fine to be proud of my femininity and womanhood and to embrace it as much as I want; as long as we treat it as something that is open to everyone.

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