Silent sufferings

This poignant post is by Dr Cathy Ayres, who completed her PhD in the School of Sociology at the ANU in 2016. She’s worked as a research training nerd at the ANU Research Skills and Training unit, and she is now happily working as the Senior HDR Coordinator in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. She tweets from @catherinetayres.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERANear the end of my PhD, my partner, an early career researcher, was being honoured by her professional society with a career award. We travelled interstate to a conference and to attend the fancy conference dinner together, where she was to deliver a short speech on stage in front of a couple hundred of her colleagues.

About half an hour before the dinner, we received a call from our fertility specialist diagnosing my partner with an ectopic pregnancy, which is a very difficult and potentially life-threatening form of miscarriage. We are in a same sex relationship, and the journey to get to the point of pregnancy had already been legally, practically, and emotionally complicated.

At the conference dinner, my partner schmoozed with the best of them. Her hand was shaken, her photograph was taken, and she was engaged in vigorous conversation the entire evening. She got up on stage, accepted her award and delivered a spectacular and uplifting speech, which received warm and enthusiastic applause. She was the picture of grace under pressure.

There are a lot of fantastic blog posts around that discuss the trials and tribulations of starting and balancing an academic career with family responsibilities. There are some really fantastic online communities for PhD mums (which, incidentally, is the kind of mum I came from) and although there is a long (LONG) way to go, it generally seems like we as academics are getting better at talking about and recognising the challenge of being academics and being parents.

Despite this progress, the process of starting a family itself – the pains and anxieties that can come along with trying for, or losing a pregnancy are still shrouded in stigma and silence. But this is a huge issue that affects many of us.

In Australia, around 1 in 6 couples seek medical assistance for fertility issues. This can range from a little bit of advice on practicalities, to managing high-risk pregnancies, to IVF treatments. It’s particularly pertinent for a lot of PhD students and early career researchers because, as I’m sure lots of us have been reminded, this is prime baby-making time.

The thing is, fertility assistance is inherently inconvenient for PhD students and researchers. There are timings and cycles that have no respect for tight deadlines, teaching responsibilities, or the need to travel for interstate or international conferences. There are often cocktails of hormones that make it virtually impossible to continue operating at your normal social and intellectual level. There are blood tests every two days before work, there are bad news phone calls (made more difficult in open plan offices), there are sometimes surgeries, there is often physical pain, and there is always, ALWAYS emotional tribulation.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how Universities can be – or become – workplaces where hopeful parents (or, indeed, anyone else struggling or grieving) can say to their colleagues or supervisor “I’m having a tough time personally and I’m not going to be as productive or as sociable as I usually am” and the response is “I’m really sorry to hear that. You don’t have to tell me anything more, but I will listen to you and try to support you if you would like me to”.

As a PhD student, I’ve been lucky enough to have a supervisor who responds like that. In my work on the side, our very own Thesis Whisperer was my supervisor, and she most definitely responds like that.

Sadly, I’ve heard and read story after story of colleagues and supervisors (both men and women) not being so understanding, whose responses have ranged from dismissive mumblings of “you’ll be alright” through to bullying (usually) women into explaining precisely what it is about their reproductive system that is causing them excruciating emotional and sometimes physical pain being “inconvenient”.

Trying to start a family is just one example of silent suffering. We can equally think of death, health issues, relationship break downs, or stressful family situations as parts of our lives that will inevitably, in some way, impact upon our work.

These parts of our lives are often private, and it should always be up to an individual (or couple) involved as to whether they disclose these kinds of experiences to colleagues or supervisors. I’m not advocating that we all start wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but I do think we need more conversation about how these inevitable facts of life can best be handled in a University environment.

This particular issue of baby-making heartache is wrapped up in complex gender norms, equity issues, and University policies. More generally, this is about how we as individuals respond to each other in moments of vulnerability.

This is about more than just being “nice” if someone discloses difficult parts of their private life to you. This is about developing skills that enable you to be a supportive and understanding colleague. This is about beginning to recognise compassion and empathy as essential skills that should be learned, developed, and prioritised as much as research, writing, and time management.

It won’t stop the silent sufferings many of us endure, but it may make it a little more bearable to know you have the support of your colleagues if you need it.

Editor’s Postscript: I’m very pleased to announce that Cathy and her partner Sophie are now expecting their first child in late 2017. I’m knitting something I hope will be finished by then!

Related Posts

Parenting through a PhD (or 5 ways not to go insane)

The perils of PhD parenting


13 thoughts on “Silent sufferings

  1. reneesmit says:

    Dear Cathy and Sophie (dear Thesis Whisperer, please pass this on),

    My heart goes out to you and your beloved(s!). My bestest of best wishes to you and yours at this time. I wish I could send something as practical as a knitted something for the happy occasion, but it will have to be prayers and best wishes, as knitting is not a skill I have!

    I have a PhD currently under examination. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa, and came to this (academic life & the concomitant PhD requirement) rather late in life. My husband and I embarked on the absurdity of simultaneous PhDs 6 years ago, and now, at the ripe age of 57 and 60, we’re just about there: Dave has a month or two till submission, and I’m awaiting the final verdict. We had dreams of joint graduation (albeit in very different fields), but this might not realise: a June grad is a possibility for me (pending examination results), but he might not have enough time to submit and be examined. This, in the light of the past 6 years’ journey, seemed like a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions to me, but in the light of your situation, has shrunk into an appropriately smaller perspective!

    All the best for this extremely exciting time that lies before you as a family.

    Fondest regards,
    Reneé Smit

  2. Sara says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience on this topic! Thankfully I have finished my PhD (and am now pregnant) but unfortunately have no full-time job (only a part-time research job), which brings another aspect of stress to the situation because I won’t have maternity leave. Because of our age, my partner and I couldn’t wait any longer and conceiving took us several years. The stress of academia played a major role in the struggle (e.g. my partner and I were tested and there were no hormonal, sperm count, etc. reasons why we couldn’t conceive). I could never talk to my supervisor about this. I tried to talk to my supervisor once about my health concerns (I had stress-related health issues) and she just handed me more work to do and told me that if I wanted to be successful in academia I needed to work harder. So thank you for sharing your story and helping the challenges around pregnancy to be acknowledged! It is nice not to feel alone.

  3. Cmff says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post. My IVF journey was unsuccessful and our only (naturally conceived) pregnancy sadly coincided with my post neurosurgery recovery and was consequently lost. Normal life with all its ups and downs and challenges carries on running alongside our striving to become accomplished in our field (or simply get through the course). Thank you for opening up about a painfully challenging part of your journey.

  4. Tania says:

    Hi Cathy and Sophie

    Congratulations on making it through, what remains (albeit in the eyes of general public), a mysterious medical treatment that occurs behind closed doors in clinical environments. It is an incredible experience to go through and one that can only be truly understood by those who have lived it. Having been through IVF with multiple miscarriages and a delayed diagnosis of chromosome translocation I read with interest and reflected on my own IVF experience during which time I worked for a large law firm where work performance and achievement of billing targets ensured your continued employment. Now years later enrolled in a PhD program I wondered how I would cope if undergoing IVF in the academic environment. Unfortunately society does not appear to have matured in its views as I can see with much similarity the work issues and stigmatization you raised are a direct reflection of my IVF experiences all of those years ago. Sadly, at the end of the day, there is still much misunderstanding around infertility generally and this seems to occur regardless of the context or culture (academic or non-academic).

  5. Kate Riggall says:

    It’s inspiring to see women, especially women in a same sex relationship, succeeding in academia. I hope you continue to post about how you cope with the struggles of raising your child and maintaining your careers – I’d certainly love to read about it!

  6. madiirwin says:

    Congratulations on your pregnancy! I’ve been very lucky with a super supportive supervisor / supervisory team who, over the last 6 years, have helped me keep on track with my P/T PhD throughout 4 rounds of IVF, a miscarriage and the arrival of our son in March 2016. I hope to complete this year and would happily lend an ear to anyone in a similar situation. Thanks for the post.

  7. Kate R says:

    To Cathy and Sophie, I have goosebumps typing, I am so excited for you. Firstly I am so very sorry for your loss, just heartbreaking. How you both managed to get through Sophie’s awards evening just shows how strong and resilient you both are!
    I’m an IVF PhD mum myself, to a 9month old baby girl. 4 long, hard years, one miscarriage, 4 IVF cycles and 4 different surgeries we welcomed out little blessing in June last year. Throughout it all I’ve been doing my PhD part time while working full time. I’m currently on maternity leave and just getting back into my research now – when nap times permit! I’m very grateful to have had 2 PhD supervisors that have been supportive and understanding along the way. It really does make a difference, not only to your academic experience but also on a personal side by lessening stress related to studies and wanting to do well while finding a personal balance.
    All the best to Cathy and Sophie!!

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