What is it like to be pregnant…with twins…in grad school?

About two months into my pregnancy, my older brother D said “you’re so lucky you’re doing this in school, it’s way easier.” He wasn’t wrong.

Grad school (by which I mean a funded PhD program) is the perfect time to have kids in some ways. You have a flexible schedule and workload, and if, like me, you work in the humanities, your advisers tend to be extremely understanding and accommodating. In my case, because my university is embroiled in a contentious labor battle, my school administration also keeps throwing benefits my way – I get twelve weeks of fully paid parental leave, which can start at any point within the six months after I give birth (or adopt), and the university will now fully cover my dependents’ health insurance as part of my funding package.

But what makes grad school so forgiving to almost-new-parents is also what makes it difficult to navigate. Because grad school has an inherently flexible workload, it’s hard to actually reduce your obligations. When I was in elementary school my dad used to quote his “Law of Conservation of Homework” at me all the time: “Homework cannot be delayed or destroyed, it must be completed.” That’s still true 20 years later. Just because I have a flexible workload doesn’t mean I can get rid of my work.

I did a lot of planning to make this semester a good time to be pregnant – while the rest of my cohort is taking their oral exams and preparing their dissertation prospectuses for approval now, I passed my exams back in mid-November and defended my project at the beginning of December. That meant that leading up to mid-November I was reading an entire book every weekday and meeting with one of two advisers every other week (I had completed the other reading lists in the previous semester). I was also meeting with my advisers to formulate my dissertation project, and in the three weeks between passing my orals and defending my prospectus, I wrote a fully footnoted 30-page article justifying the project. Prior to taking my exams, I also had to pass written language exams in Latin and German, which I took an embarrassingly large number of times – each exam is two hours, and I was taking an exam each week on average. To ensure that my dissertation wouldn’t completely fall off track because I was going to be taking a semester off to have a baby, I still applied for outside research funding back in the Fall, along with the rest of my cohort, and I did it while preparing my orals and prospectus. In the end, I applied for about a dozen fellowships and grants. I needed to be sure that I would have something, because that semester of paid leave I’m getting doesn’t come out of nowhere – it’s a semester of my fellowship from my university, my precious guaranteed funding, which I will have to use during a time that I won’t be able to do very much work. So, I might have it easy this semester, but that’s because I did all the work for this year in the first half. On top of the work I was doing preemptively, I also had the normal work of grad school, the projects I had taken on that would give me a better chance of finishing my degree in a timely manner and succeeding in this crazy job market. Among these, I presented at a conference in a different part of the country and, along with a handful of my cohort, created a public history project and secured funding for it. I also taught a class (which included attending two lectures a week, a weekly meeting with the professor to plan lessons and address problems with students, preparing material for and teaching two discussion sections, and grading all the work of those students). Thankfully, I was not enrolled in any real courses of my own, except a grant-writing seminar for which I read and commented on two 20-page articles written by my peers each week and spent two hours discussing them.

I was so stressed from that workload, in fact, that I developed severe acid reflux last summer. For context, last summer I was taking an Arabic course to brush up on the language and ensure that I know it well enough to do research – it was an eight week intensive course covering a full year of material – and I had to miss three days of class in the middle to present at a conference in the UK. I was also planning out the coming semester, including reading for my oral exams and hunting down all the grants and fellowships I was going to apply for, which is a massive task in and of itself (these things aren’t just laid out in some orderly way, because that would make fighting over these scraps too easy). I also discovered during this time that I have a medical condition called PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), which is a criminally under-studied condition that can affect fertility. The process of dealing with the acid reflux and the PCOS was an extraordinary stress on its own – for a few weeks during the summer, my doctor put me on a medication to treat PCOS that made me debilitatingly nauseous whenever I ate simple carbs, except I didn’t know that’s what it did. These continued throughout the Fall right up until my exams – I had an endoscopy three days before my oral exam to investigate bleeding caused by the acid reflux.

All this lead-up to say that clearing my schedule for the Spring was not just a matter of taking a pregnancy test and putting up an “on vacation” sign. I was lucky that I got pregnant very easily, and (I have never said this before about anything in my life) I was blessed with twins. The first few weeks were very easy – I had almost no noticeable symptoms and I was on winter vacation. Pregnancy even made it easier for me to eat, something I’ve struggled with not only throughout grad school but going back to my childhood (connected, surprisingly, to a lifetime of acid reflux). But then around eight weeks I was hit with a vengeful bout of morning sickness that still has not subsided at week 22. And suddenly I couldn’t eat anything anymore, drinking water made me sick, I was exhausted as if I was constantly sprinting, and all my muscles became painfully sore. These are normal symptoms of pregnancy. They feel like a stomach flu, but unlike a stomach flu, which might last two weeks, these don’t go away. And when I complained to my doctor about them, or to other women who had been pregnant, I was told to just ride through it and “enjoy the opportunity to rest”. I was also told that it would get worse (with the implication that I should stop complaining) and that it would all be worth it in the end.

So began the difficulties of actually being pregnant. I didn’t need to be told it was going to get worse, and I didn’t need to be reminded that all this pain was going to give me two children. This is the kind of ridiculous abuse we pack on pregnant women, as if once we’re in it we need to be convinced to keep going. I wanted this, I expected some of the physical difficulty, and I still want it. But the “suck it up and stop complaining” mentality just made it harder to manage. I came up with a ridiculous routine to manage the vomiting – the second I woke up in the morning, I had to immediately eat a handful of cheese crackers before literally rolling out of bed (I threw up if I sat up) and without drinking any water. I drank a glass of whole milk, followed by a piece of toast (sometimes with butter, more rarely with peanut butter). By about three hours later, I could manage to eat a real meal, at which time I could drink about half a glass of water, enough to help me swallow the horse pill that is a prenatal vitamin. Around 5pm I would be so tired I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so at this point I would shower (because if I showered in the morning I threw up), eat dinner (a potato or extremely bland chicken, because vegetables made me throw up), and go to sleep. I suffered through this routine through month four, because I was told that the nausea would go away in the second trimester and that my nutrition was mostly taken care of by the prenatal vitamin. During this time I gained no weight and I missed a good bit of class because I still threw up half the time. When I could finally justify to my doctor that this was not morning sickness (and I was not throwing up often enough for it to be considered “severe” morning sickness, which would mean vomiting more than twice a day), I started taking over-the-counter acid reflux medication every night before I went to bed. I still throw up occasionally, especially if I’m anxious or I haven’t eaten recently, but I now go about a week or two between episodes instead of a few hours. This is pregnancy in a nutshell – it’s a trying physical experience that is normalized to the point that women are discouraged from getting real help. Even once I started the medication, my doctor was reluctant about it, and I got a lot of guilt from my mom, because there is an idea that anything you put in your body can harm your fetus. And while it’s true that this tiny little life form is defenseless and can be really negatively effected by otherwise normal things, most of the justification for denying pregnant women medicine is that no one does clinical trials on pregnant women (for obvious reasons) so most drugs that are probably safe just aren’t rated as such.

This process of dealing with the nausea and vomiting emphasized to me that the hard part of pregnancy wasn’t going to be the physical symptoms so much as the guilt. Constant guilt. Is what I’m putting in my body going to kill my babies? Can I really take another day off? Should I be eating that to provide sustenance to myself and my children or should I be avoiding it because it potentially carries life-threatening bacteria/will make me develop gestational diabetes/will poison my babies? Shouldn’t I be working out more? Shouldn’t I be sleeping more? Doesn’t everyone think I’m just using my pregnancy as an excuse to take a vacation?

Pregnancy is hard, physically and emotionally. Twin pregnancy is harder. There are more doctor’s visits and tests and ultrasounds. There is more of the pregnancy hormone in my body, making my symptoms more intense. There is more baby, more amniotic fluid, more pressure on my ligaments. There is more to be worried about in the future, in terms of time and money that goes into caring for these children, in terms of how I’m going to raise them and let them know they are loved. And there is less of everything else, including people around me with relevant experience. It was my choice to get pregnant in grad school, at an age when few people I know are even thinking about children. But even among those people I know who have children, most of them are much older, so their advice is 30 years old (which makes a big difference when it comes to medical wisdom) and very few of them have twins. Twins run in my family – my grandfather was a twin, I have two sets of twin cousins, and three of my cousins themselves have twin children. But even then, what do I ask, what do I say? Unless these other twin-havers happen to be around while I’m experiencing my most recent bout of round ligament pain, there’s nothing comforting for them to tell me apart from “yes, I had that too.”

Month four of my pregnancy was when I learned to stop listening to these voices and start doing what worked for me. I cancelled most of my extracurricular obligations – a talk I was supposed to give, volunteer work I was supposed to do, the public history project I had helped to launch. I just didn’t have the stamina to show up to these things. I missed a few meetings with my adviser and a few of the lectures for the class I teach for – I was honest about why, and tried to work out strategies to prevent it in the future, like going to bed before I had finished everything I wanted to do in a day. I offloaded most of my domestic responsibilities to my husband. I can’t walk very much or carry more than ten pounds, so I needed him to do basic things like buy groceries or return library books for me. When I walk next to someone, I constantly remind them to walk slowly, especially now that my joint stiffness has caused me to pull two muscles in my hips. I got permission from my doctor to eat whatever I could keep down, which allowed me to finally gain weight – this was a major concern after it appeared that one of my fetuses was substantially underweight and I clearly had no energy. I plan a single objective each day, and some weeks I shuffle those objectives for days until I get something done. Sometimes I just have to sit and do nothing except relax and stretch my tired body. I’ve hurt myself a lot during this pregnancy – I broke a rib early on because I was sick and coughing and couldn’t take medication, I pulled muscles in my stomach from trying to carry laundry and groceries, I pulled muscles in my hips from trying to walk at my normal pace and for the typical 3+ miles that I’m used to. These injuries don’t prove that I’m less lazy, they prove that I don’t have the fortitude to sit and do nothing and listen to what my body needs. So now I follow the rules I set for myself and I hurt myself less.

Pregnancy has caused a lot of stress, and at various points that stress has grown into depression. I feel alone often – alone in my body, which can’t do what I want it to do, and alone in this experience, which doesn’t look so bad from the outside. I feel alone when people can’t tell I’m pregnant or tell me how skinny I still look, or when they tell me I don’t have it that bad, because these things wash over my difficulties. I feel alone when my peers tell me that I have it so easy now that I’m done with all of my requirements, because they don’t acknowledge how much work I had to do to get here and that I did it without a community to do it with. I feel alone when I tell my husband that he needs to clean something for me or massage me or just sit with me, because he doesn’t understand why I’m sad. And I feel alone because my friends are off living their own lives and don’t understand why I decided to do this now when I could be enjoying my youth. I feel alone looking ahead to my research year, when I have to choose between doing the work I’ve spent years preparing for or spending time with my children.

There’s nothing easy about having children in grad school. But there is time, and that counts for something. There is time to sit for my second two-hour anatomy scan, feeling Babies A and B roll around and stretch, watching them suck their thumbs and yawn, hearing their constantly strengthening heartbeats. I get to wake up in the morning to these “kicks” in my ever-growing belly, and I have time to place my husband’s hand on just the right spot to feel a tiny hand poking under the skin on my side. People around me ask me how I’m feeling and what they can do to make things easier for me. My doctor’s office is nearby and my funding package pays for my insurance.

Being pregnant with twins in grad school is difficult, physically and emotionally. It is stressful and lonely. But it is also secure, and it gives me time to appreciate the experience.

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  1. Pingback: Working Hard – On anxiety, laziness, and imposter syndrome – Robin Writes

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