Academic bodies - a reflection on the experience of pregnancy during PhD studies
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Joana Avi-Lorie is a PhD candidate at the School of Health in Social Science at the University of Edinburgh, and a freelance writer and illustrator.
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My pregnancy wasn’t planned.
I was in the middle of writing my MSc by research dissertation and I just asked – the universe, God, the small bundle of cells growing inside me – “please, let me have this. Please don’t betray me now, we came this far.”
My body and my baby have been kind to me. They allowed me to complete my MSc, graduate and start the first year of my PhD. I have also been fortunate to have full support from my supervisors and academic community. This has been a happy story so far for us – me, my PhD project and my baby, all peacefully co-existing in one body until the end of my pregnancy.
I am fully aware this is not the experience for many mothers in academia through time and space.
I would like to use this blog post, this story and reflection to both thank, emphasise and detail the support I have received, which I believe should be standard, and offer some thoughts on what could have been different, based on previous negative experiences regarding my bodily existence in academia.
The ‘ideal worker norm’ (Williams 2000, 2005) shapes how we organise market work in advanced capitalist economies (Ollilainen, 2020). If we chose not to ignore the fact that there is still a division of labour where women perform or are expected to perform most of the family and reproductive work, the worker who embodies this ‘ideal worker norm’ remains an able-bodied male (Acker 1990). If we apply and extend this theory to students, who are future workers – and in the case of many postgraduate students, also current workers –the female body, the disabled body, the pregnant body, any body which doesn’t fit the ‘ideal worker norm’ is bound to find that some sort of barriers exist, not only to occupy the academic space, but also to flourish in it.
The fact that throughout my pregnancy I experienced no pain, no discomfort, no sickness, no leakage, was mere luck. The fact that my MSc supervisor, who is also my second PhD supervisor, is a mother of a young child, the fact that I have two female supervisors, the fact that my recent research projects have been about children and didn’t involve any field work throughout my pregnancy, the fact that my studies are qualitative and situated in an area of research and schools of thought where care and affect are highly considered as part of the academic work, are also just fortunate coincidences. All of these factors gave me confidence to carry my pregnant body and pregnant existence throughout the end of my MSc and the start of my PhD. Even when I didn’t feel confident, I always felt safe to perform that confidence until it became real for me. More than confident, I felt cared for, I felt seen, I felt joy and love and interest in this little person inside me which is what a person wishes for a loved one – even one whom we haven’t met yet.
As more and more women have entered academia, we have made reproduction and motherhood visible. However, in cultures that view the female body through a sexual and reproductive lens (Bryant and Garnham 2014) and perceive it to be irrational and emotional, a pregnant body can intensify these stereotypes (Ollilainen, 2020).
Thankfully, this was not the case for me. I had support from my peers, I did not feel patronised in the academic environment, I found community in my existing groups and in a new group of student parents. I was encouraged to voice my experience, and to include my experience in my PhD writing as it changes and will continue to change my positionality while my child grows, develops and becomes aware of the issue I want to talk about through my research – climate change and eco-anxiety.
Besides being extremely grateful, I would like to emphasise to anyone who is currently pregnant and studying, or considering getting pregnant while studying, that I believe this should be the norm and not an outlier.
In my previous academic experience at the University of Lisbon, it was all very different. The 1989 shocking case of architect Tomas Taveira’s sexual abuse of students at this university is still perceived as a ‘sexual scandal’, and when I entered my studies there in 2008 this case remained in conversations as mockery, a light joke. Today, it would be considered a crime. The experience of existing in a female body in a heavily male-dominated academic environment where sexual abuse was considered a joke was brutal. I had a body in need of finding its comfortable space and right to exist. It did not find that space in academia. Only terror that took years to fully realise.
“In the daily workings of the modern organization, women workers are expected to hide their embodied experiences and manage their bodies” (Ollilainen, 2020, p. 963). We must appear as somehow disembodied entities who do not express themselves too loudly or brightly, do not menstruate, get pregnant, or experience symptoms of menopause (Shilling 2012). This was the culture and environment I previously found my body in. It would have made me terrified to be pregnant and studying, had I not already realised that my experience at the University of Edinburgh would be much different. This time I was part of an academic space full of women, where students are allowed and encouraged to include embodied experience in our work. Unfortunately, to my shock and sorrow, this positive experience of care and respect for my body and bodily experience has not been the experience of fellow students at the University of Edinburgh (Koronka, P., 2023). I can also say that if you asked fellow students who graduated alongside me from the Faculdade de Arquitetura at the University of Lisbon – female students, disabled students, ethnic minority students, pregnant and parent students – about their bodily experience in the university’s academic space, perhaps their tales would be positive or neutral ones. Beyond pregnancy and parenthood, once again I invite you to affirm that care and support in regard to your bodily existence and safety in the academic context should be standard and not exceptional.
My given examples are the two opposite lived experiences that I wanted to document for this blog as a reflective exercise, but also as a reminder that things still have to change. We are minds and bodies at work, but also at play, at growth, and sometimes even at odds with each other. And regardless if our bodily experiences can or can’t enhance the quality of our research, they exist, they are there, and they should never become a barrier for us to flourish and contribute with knowledge that for centuries was (and still is!) kept away from the light because of ideas like the ‘ideal worker norm’. We’re not all ideal, no body is. We simply and amazingly are.
Acker, J. (1990) Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organization. Gender & Society4 (2):139–158.
Bryant, L., and Garnham, B. (2014) The Embodiment of Women in Wine: Gender Inequality and Gendered Inscriptions of the Working Body in a Corporate Wine Organization. Gender, Work & Organization21 (5): 411–426.
Koronka, P., (2023, March). Edinburgh University ‘told students not to report sex attacks’. The New York Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/edinburgh-university-told-students-not-to-report-sex-attacks-nh65t52m9
Ollilainen, M. (2020) Ideal bodies at work: faculty mothers and pregnancy in academia, Gender and Education, 32:7, 961-976.
Shilling, C. (2012) The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage.
Sinclair, A. (2011) Leading with Body. In Handbook of Gender, Work & Organization, edited by E. Jeanes, David Knights, and P. Y. Martin, 117–130. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Williams, J. (000) Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, J. C. (2005) Work and Family Perspectives from Research University Faculty. New Directions in Higher Education 130 (Summer): 67–81.
Williams, C. L., Muller, C. and Kilanski, K. (2012) Gendered Organizations in the New Economy. Gender& Society 26 (4): 549–573.976.