Columns PhD Cafe

Choosing to be a mother while pursuing a PhD

Enam Reyaz

Enam Reyaz, a student at the Jamia Hamdard Institute of Molecular Medicine (JH-IMM), recounts her physical and emotional roller-coaster of experience embracing pregnancy and motherhood while pursuing a PhD degree; what helped her challenge the taboos and what more can be done by research institutions to support expectant mothers.

Enam Ph D Cafe6

Becoming a mother is an immensely satisfying feeling for many women. Pregnancy brings with it several physical, mental, and emotional changes, be it for a working professional or a homemaker. These changes become very difficult to deal with if the expectant mother happens to be a PhD scholar. Considering the level of dedication required for research, both physical and mental, choosing to be pregnant midway during PhD is often considered a taboo. 

Knowing all this, I still embraced pregnancy during my second year of PhD. Initially, I felt torn between feeling happy and sad. I was afraid that it might mean an end to my career. A news I would typically have rejoiced in had instead sent my mind spiralling into worry.

My biggest initial challenge was to break this news to my supervisor. It took me more than a week to gather the courage, and what unfolded next gave me an immediate boost. My supervisor’s encouraging and concerned approach let me breathe a sigh of relief.

The next nine months were not so easy. Initially, it felt like a seesaw – with constant ups and downs. I lived through a variety of experiences in my molecular parasitology laboratory — experiments interrupted by nausea, necessitating a multitude of quick visits to the washroom, terrible backaches induced by constant sitting, attending highly rewarding lectures and conferences, preparing for presentations that provoked a whole new level of anxiety, meeting deadlines, facing a few raised eyebrows from strangers, and receiving some amazing pregnancy tips from peers. With occasional kicks from the life inside me and an immensely supportive bunch of co-researchers, I sailed through those nine months.

However, not everyone has the same experience. Pregnancy is a phase that treats different people differently, and every woman has her own story to narrate. However, many of the challenges remain the same for all. 

There is a great sense of mental pressure. The pressure to perform, to be productive, and to stand out. The pressure to not be accused of incompetence, the pressure to prove that my pregnancy has not affected my work adversely. We also have to constantly justify to ourselves that we are pregnant physically but have the same rational brain. We might take a few days off to recuperate from the physical changes, but we are always in, mentally.

People often say that a PhD is not the right time to have a baby. I believe it is the same at every stage of one’s career for a working woman. 

In addition to the mental stress, the long working hours take a toll on the physical well-being of expectant mothers. Sitting in the same posture all day long, with feet flat on the floor, leads to pressure on the spinal cord and can be highly taxing, especially during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Unlike high-profile corporate offices, wherein subtle infrastructural changes like shifting the workstation of pregnant workers to the ground floor or providing a more comfortable seating arrangement can be arranged overnight, research laboratories with their limited resources cannot always afford to provide such facilities to their researchers. However, it would be good if the authorities can extend whatever accommodations are possible to make the expecting staff feel at ease, at least physically. If not, at least a common room is of paramount importance, to allow pregnant employees to lay their back to rest, for a few moments throughout the day.

On the part of the institution, expectant PhD students should be allowed to work in a flexible time frame, instead of their designated working hours, especially towards the third trimester. This approach would help them remain mentally at ease and also maintain their productivity throughout.

In most institutes, expectant female researchers are eligible for a paid maternity leave of six months, which is a great stress buster and confidence builder. Such policies boost morale and keep the research temperament alive, thus preventing bright brains from fading away.

In my experience, a highly supportive partner and family back home, some encouraging and helping labmates, and a motivating supervisor is the most perfect recipe to steer through this period, happily and productively.

People often say that a PhD is not the right time to have a baby. I believe it is the same at every stage of one’s career for a working woman. Once into the research fraternity, the onus is always the same. For me, it is always to contribute something through science for the well-being of mankind. It cannot be less or more. No time is the right time, it is on us to make the moment right for us, to stretch the extra mile, turning things in our favour. After all, all the extra mental and physical efforts result in the joy of motherhood, and that was worth the cost for me.

And I am here to prove it, into my fourth year of PhD, with a beautiful one year old daughter.

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