Reflective Practice

The First Trimester: Accommodating Students (and Faculty)

Photo by Domiriel:

By Alicia Andrzejewski

I haven’t been writing because of nausea and sickness—I’ve thrown up three times so far, not as much as other women—maybe I’m being a baby, but I absolutely cannot function. I wake up incredibly anxious over all the work I’m not doing… I need to take baby steps to really push to be with the discomfort and continue to work. I’m typing this in bed as we speak—there’s a lot going on—a lot of work ahead of me. 8 weeks on Thursday, 9 weeks next Thursday. My mom said it started going away at 10 weeks and completely gone by 12—I hope that’s me, I really do. I would love a productive winter.

—from my notes during pregnancy, Oct. 11th, 2016

I’m almost twelve weeks postpartum, but I still remember standing on subways and buses ready to keel over, debating whether I should announce I was pregnant (I never did). I can still smell the breakfast sandwiches and early lunches brought into weekly meetings by colleagues, smells that overpowered anything being said. I’ll never forget running from the computer, where I was desperately trying to prep for a class, to throw up into a trashcan because my husband was in the shower in our tiny bathroom.  

Any woman who has been pregnant will tell you that “morning sickness” is a misnomer—most women experience varying degrees of nausea throughout the day in the first trimester, some well past the 12-week mark, and some up until the very end of their pregnancy. For me, the nausea was often worse at night, after a long day of commuting, teaching, and coaching, struggling to eat when I could. Well-meaning family members, friends, and colleagues told me it was temporary, that it would pass, that it would all be worth it, but these encouraging words, however true, didn’t change the fact that getting out of bed was a daily struggle, let alone functioning effectively as a college instructor.

For those reading who are pregnant and struggling, here are some things that helped me during my first trimester, which I share in the hopes they may help you, too:

  1.  On bad days—sugar, in the form of ginger ale, hard candy, and Bottle Caps (pro tip: order a large shipment of movie theater boxes). I sucked on hard candies and “preggie pops” a lot: in the shower when I got up, on public transportation, and any time I was feeling nauseous and couldn’t bear the thought of a healthy snack. Placebo or not, they helped me through a few hard days.
  2. On better days—trying not to let my stomach ever get empty, as hard as it was to choke food down, and keeping healthy snacks on hand.

As a sidebar: I remember my sister, who became pregnant six months after me, texting during her first trimester about how sick she felt. I suggested she carry around cut-up cucumbers and hard boiled eggs in her bag. She responded, “I need to do better, eat better” and my heart sank. I had already forgotten the disabling nausea—that during those early weeks I couldn’t even force down pizza, or watch Bob’s Burgers, because that was the show my husband and I watched while eating dinner.  (Even now, the thought of Bob’s Burgers makes me nauseous!) I had forgotten all of this in an energetic, late-pregnancy moment and recommended hard boiled eggs  to a woman in her first trimester. To make up for it, I mailed her a big box of candy later that week. The moral of that story is:  Ignore any advice that stresses you out. Sit down with Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know, have a cup of coffee (or whatever tastes good to you), and give yourself a break.

  1. A prescription from my doctor for an incredibly expensive nausea medication I would never have been able to afford if my insurance didn’t cover it.  (I wasn’t even aware this medication existed until my first appointment, 7 weeks and 5 days into my pregnancy. Most OBGYNs won’t see women until they are 7-8 weeks along, and I was already experiencing nausea on an almost daily basis by 6 weeks.)
  2. Yoga classes, which I felt guilty about, given my work and writing obligations. (My thinking: “if I add up all the time I spent getting to and taking yoga, that’s [x] hours this week I could’ve should’ve been working on my dissertation.”)
  3. Perhaps most controversially: telling colleagues I was pregnant as early as six or seven weeks. There’s a good reason many women don’t tell: up to 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. It’s a normal yet devastating biological process, one that most women want to keep private. My research is on the feelings of shame and failure that surround “failed” pregnancies, so I wanted to practice speaking out early, but I also understand why womenespecially those who have experienced miscarriages and/or pregnancies that did not end in the birth of a healthy childwant to be more cautious.

To be clear,  these strategies allowed me to just barely function in those early weeks. So, for those who are interested in supporting their pregnant colleagues and students, know that by the time you notice (or are informed) your colleagues are pregnant, they have usually fought through one of the most difficult-to-navigate parts of pregnancy. There was never a time I needed someone to give up their subway seat more; needed to sit down, take bathroom breaks, or hold class online more; or needed kind and encouraging words more, than when my baby was the size of a poppy seed. For the most part, pregnant women suffer in silence, making it through as best they can.

True, it was my choice to become pregnant and thus, I suppose, my responsibility to figure out how to make it through the day while meeting the expectations of my employers, colleagues, and students—not to mention family members and friends. But dragging myself through that first trimester—often on subways, usually with plastic bags on hand, just in case—drove home the fact that, there is very little institutional support for pregnant instructors, as well as our students; as independent and hardworking and professional as I was, I needed academia to be a little more kind until I got back on my feet. I remember a pregnant student once asking me during class registration time which professors I thought would be most accommodating to her during her last trimester. I gave her some names.

We do not, and cannot, know the extent to which students strive to meet our expectations—the expectations required of them. Perhaps policies that anticipate and even allow for these private, daily struggles would offer more of our students the opportunity to succeed. One step I’ve taken to this effect is to build in extra credit opportunities for all students, regardless of circumstance (here’s the language I use in my syllabus). This way, my students do not have to explain to me why they need to make up a missed blog post or reading quiz, and, who knows? In the seven years I’ve been teaching at the college level, a woman in her first trimester might have felt a little more supported knowing she had a chance to make up work without having to disclose that she was six weeks pregnant. As Thomas H. Benton speculates in a Chronicle article about students’ recourse to dubious excuses, rather than honesty, “Maybe if I were a more open and approachable professor, with a longer history of generosity and kindness, fewer grandmothers would have to die.” And, perhaps, more students struggling through their first trimester would feel a little more accommodated. 

Baby is 16 weeks today; the size of an avocado. The nausea is finally lifting.

—from my notes during pregnancy, Dec. 8th, 2016

Alicia Andrzejewski is a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.

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