500 Women Scientists is launching a campaign to bring more visibility to the challenges mothers in science face when starting or building their families. As part of this campaign, we are crowdsourcing experiences to shine a light on the challenges many moms face in scientific institutions and creating a repository of resources for sci-parents. For example

  • Have you experienced challenges around getting enough parental leave, pumping at work, or dealing with infertility?

  • What strategies have you used to balance work and family demands?

  • What supports have you encountered at your institution?

  • If you could design your institution's work-life support program, what would it look like?

We want to hear about your challenges and possible solutions so we can create a community of social support, highlight effective programs, policies, and strategies to showcase, and incorporate diverse narratives into advocacy for more supportive institutions


THESE ARE SOME OF OUR STORIES

INFERTILITY

I was diagnosed with low ovarian reserve and a rare uterine anomaly at age 35, in my 2nd year as a tenure-track assistant professor. My uterine anomaly makes it very difficult to get pregnant without assisted reproductive technology. My insurance provides no coverage for the treatment of infertility. After 6 months of trying to conceive, I had one spontaneous pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage after two months of nausea and exhaustion. I think we don't often reflect on the fact that women who don't have successful pregnancies still go through the sickness and hardship that accompanies pregnancy -- it is just invisible because pregnancy loss is so uncommonly discussed. It has been 10 months since my miscarriage, and I had dozens of invasive ultrasounds and surgery on my uterus. Every trip to the doctor is at least 3 hours round-trip travel time because there are no reproductive endocrinologists where I live. IVF treatment in the neighboring state would cost $25-$30k per round, and I would need 3+ rounds to have hope of being successful. There are less expensive clinics, but they would require much more extensive travel and long time periods away from my job -- something very difficult to manage while teaching and running a lab. It feels like cruel punishment to essentially be asked if a 15% chance of having a baby is worth $30k. I frequently do international fieldwork for my research, and have had to stop this completely due to zika risks and inability to take malaria prophylaxis. I have had to decline invitations to meetings, seminars, and fieldwork, just at the time when connections made in these areas are most crucial for career development. There is no end in sight. But I really want to be a mom, so I will keep fighting.

— Tenure-track Assistant Professor


They had no maternity leave. I had to take sick leave, so had to pace the timing of when to have kids around when I had accumulated enough leave. There was no child care available on campus and no subsidy. There was no support regarding infertility. They had just started a tenure clock stop, but you had to request it and because it was new, I received some criticism for taking it (mostly from other women in the department). There was no support network for women on campus.

…this was one of my biggest regrets about staying in academia. I wish we would have left earlier. The cost of not being able to have the family size we had wanted was too great.


My diagnosis timed with a period as a postdoc in a lab where the PI only appreciated people who were similar characters to himself - others obviously didn't have what it takes to be group leaders. He didn't understand that people who weren't loud, confident and good at selling themselves, can actually also be intelligent and do excellent science. With the (to me) devastating news that me and my husband were infertile (for unexplained reasons) and the lack of support/supervision/guidance in the lab, my self-confidence drained away. I clearly was no good at science (or my supervisor wouldn't treat me as if I was invisible), or even at being a human being - I couldn't fulfill the simplest biological imperative, to procreate. Of course I know this isn't rational, but unfortunately emotions often aren't. We were beyond fortunate that the IVF worked (after a few failed implantations) and I had my first child. I had also moved to a different lab where the PI was much more encouraging and supportive of all personality types and really brought the best out in me. He was also very much of the opinion that family comes first, and was supportive of anyone having kids in his group. However, the damage to my career was done, as I had missed the chance to apply for fellowships, which I should have done when in the previous lab group and the rare lectureship positions that come up now wonder why I've spent so long as a post-doc.

— Post-doc

Age 39, over one year trying to conceive. After 6 months of trying to conceive we went to a fertility specialist to undergo the standard battery of tests for infertility diagnosis (for females 35 and over, it is recommended to start testing after 6 months of trying). This led to no conclusive diagnosis (what they call "unexplained infertility"). In the Summer of 2018 (after 10 months of trying), we underwent two medicated IUI (intra-uterine insemination) procedures. After two failed attempts, we decided to move straight to IVF (in vitro fertilization), which has a much higher rate of success than IUI. We waited a few months and then started the arrangements for our first IVF protocol in October. In September got pregnant naturally, only a few weeks before starting the actual IVF protocol. I am now 6 months pregnant and, despite my worries, everything seems to be going well.

The whole experience was an emotional roller-coaster. Navigating my health insurance to understand my coverage was not easy. My insurance only covered 50% of the cost of some diagnostic procedures and a few IUI cycles, but does not cover any medication or IVF protocols. Getting mentally ready to shell out ~$30K for one IVF round was a decision that took time and an big emotional toll. This is an expensive procedure with no guarantee of success (the typical success rate for women my age and condition is around 80%). The procedure itself can be very challenging, both physically and emotionally, for the person undergoing it, as well as their partner and relationship.

In the face of limited emotional and financial resources, one should make an attempt to decide, beforehand, when they are going to stop trying to get pregnant (after one IVF cycle, after two...). The costs add up really fast and the whole thing can suck you into a rabbit hole if you're not prepared. But deciding when to stop is a really hard decision to make, in my opinion.

We ended up getting pregnant naturally, but we went through a lot of the thought process and the initial decision-making. It was a stressful process that I wish on nobody.

One can find emotional support out there, but it's not always out in the open. Infertility is still somewhat of a taboo subject, and many people choose not to talk about it while they are going through it. It can easily make you feel inadequate and vulnerable.

I want to encourage people to talk about their infertility struggles out in the open. Many couples go through it and it shouldn't be a reason for shame. By sharing, you begin to realize how common infertility problems are, and it may help you feel less alone as well as find resources and support. That said, it is important to protect yourself from unsolicited advice (i.e. "if you relax, you'll get pregnant!") that just makes you feel bad about yourself. Finding coping mechanisms that help you through your infertility journey is key to keeping your mental sanity.

— Project Scientist


MISCARRIAGE

Miscarriage. I had one (“Oh, what a shame!”). I initially did not want to talk about it because miscarriage is weirdly … embarrassing? However, I very quickly realized what a huge number of other women have realized: that our collective not talking about it makes it feel worse, and that we probably should talk about it more.

It’s kind of a cliché to say that you can’t possibly understand what it feels like to, at one second think that you will probably be bringing a baby home in seven months, and the next second know that you won’t because your stupid embryo doesn’t have a fucking heartbeat. 

PJ Teichholtz in the Scientific American


BREASTFEEDING

As a working mother and graduate student, I have experienced multiple barriers in breastfeeding my children. I experienced challenges with my first child related to establishing breastfeeding due to latching issues, so I thought breastfeeding my second would be much easier because I was more prepared. While this was true in the first few weeks, I experienced multiple challenges at work and school that were based on false assumptions and biases about breastfeeding. These false assumptions and biases lead to discrimination against breastfeeding students and workers, and these need to be challenged and changed to work towards gender equity.

After many difficulties with finding adequate lactation spaces for me to pump while at work or school, I then experienced an even more shocking barrier. I was enrolled in a master's level course on campus, and at one class I was unable to secure childcare for my infant daughter. My instructor and I had discussed that it would be a possibility for me to bring her to class. I brought her and she remained quiet and was not disruptive to class. I breastfed her during class, which is the best and most natural way for a mother to calm her child. I later received an email from the program director saying "people" were uncomfortable with me breastfeeding my child during class, and that it calls into question the "professionalism" of the students, and she asked me to leave the classroom if I brought and breastfed her again. It turned out to only be one person who complained: the instructor.

Since Colorado law states that "a mother may breastfeed in any place she has a right to be," I felt that someone telling me not to breastfeed was a violation of law. I was furious that someone was judging not only my way of feeding and comforting my baby, but also my body and my breasts. Since women's bodies, including breasts, have been sexualized in our society, it's extremely difficult to breastfeed, especially in public. I filed a Title IX complaint, because being asked to leave a space because of breastfeeding reasonably seemed related to sex. However, the extremely painful and difficult investigation led to findings that no law was violated, and that there was no discrimination based on sex


Breastfeeding started well, as my son latched in the surgical recovery room and seemed to get the hang of nursing quickly. His weight gain was acceptable, and for the first three weeks this pattern continued. I was able to work on manuscript revisions while I recovered from surgery and he took restful naps during the days. Then his digestive issues emerged: he screamed in discomfort and his belly was distended with gas. He clawed at me in pain. With medical consultation and a lactation support group, I discovered that my son had sensitivity to cow’s milk protein. When I eliminated all milk products, cheese, and butter from my diet, he was much calmer. I am glad that I did not have to discover this by trial and error or an old wives’ tale. The scientific research is emerging on the topic, but some infants may be sensitive to the proteins from cow’s milk in a maternal diet that passes through to breast milk. I only found this out by being able to access medical care through insurance provided to me by my university employer.”

I had twins during my postdoc and struggled to produce enough milk for both of them. I was nursing and pumping every 2 hours round the clock to build and maintain my milk supply and that schedule didn’t stop when I returned to work. During a typical day I pumped for 30 min every 2 hours. However, my university only had a few lactation spaces and the closest was a 20 min walk from my office. Due to the demand for the space, mothers could only reserve a space twice a day for 15 min at a time. I worked in an open office space with no privacy so I contacted my building administrator to ask about getting a private space for pumping. He suggested that I use the handicapped bathroom as it only had one stall and could lock. I told him I would do that if he ate his lunch in there every day. Eventually my department provided a small office that I was able to use for pumping. By the time I finished my postdoc there were at least 2 other women utilizing that space for pumping. The room also had a desk so I was able to work while pumping which helped me maintain my professional productivity


I’ve had very different experiences pumping at scientific conferences. The first time, the conference hotel was booked so I got the next closest hotel which was a 15 min walk to the conference. The conference had a pumping room but it didn’t include a fridge and they said they couldn’t provide a cooler (even though it was attached to a hotel which I assume has both fridges and ice). This made it essentially useless for me since I needed to be at the conference all day and recommendations are not to keep the milk at room temperature that long. As a result, I walked back and forth to my hotel every three hours and thus missing large parts of the conference. My hotel also did not have fridges in the rooms so I gave it to the front desk to store and they were supposed to put it in the freezer. When I picked up all the milk at the end of my trip only half the milk was frozen. Since I didn’t know if it had been kept cold for the week I ended up dumping most of it.  More recently, I went to the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2018 and had the opposite experience. The pumping room was large, conveniently located, with a fridge, several chairs, storage areas and lots of support from other women pumping at the conference. It made a big difference in my ability to fully participate at the conference.”