The Difficulties of Unwanted Childlessness in Academia by Anonymous

Writing a book in academia and trying to become pregnant can be very similar. It’s like trying to get two babies, two very different babies at once. You need perseverance; you need an idea about a future in which you succeed in achieving your goal. Both are full of ups and downs, hope and set-backs. Both can be incredible exhausting, sometimes almost too much. There can be this feeling of not doing enough, not being enough: not writing enough and at the same time having a body that does not do what you wish for. Failing on all levels. 

Both can be lonely. Trying to become pregnant for me even more so than writing a book. I can tell friends and colleagues about the frustration of the writing process. I can complain that I don’t find the time for writing because of other papers, conferences or teaching. But I cannot say that I didn’t write as much as I wanted in the last three years, because I had several – unsuccessful – rounds of IVF and a miscarriage. Of course, there are friends and family who know and support me, but being an academic my life is full of colleagues/friends with whom I don’t want to share this. I don’t want to talk about my body. I don’t want to talk about my deepest dreams. Nonetheless, it is incredibly exhausting to remain silent. It feels like I am always telling only half the story. 

Academia and Motherhood

In academia we talk more and more about how unfriendly the system is for parents. How incompatible it is, especially for mothers during the pandemic. The current system is made for childless people, especially childless singles who are able to move around and work both day and night. This is a very important discussion, because if we stopped and created an academic system that is supportive for parents and families, we would move towards a system that accepts us as people, as parents, partners, family members, as human beings. However, at the moment, as far as I see it, something is missing from the debate: What if you don’t want to be childless? What if you try to become pregnant, but can’t?

“Do I want to have a child?” is a complex question for most people, especially women. Balancing this with a career in academia is even more complex. But we should not forget that it’s not always a question of wanting or not wanting a child. It can be a question of (not) being able to. Despite a growing number of fertility clinics, we seldom talk about what it means when you try to fall pregnant and fail. But it’s part of our lives, which includes our lives as academics. 

Trying to Become a Single Mother by Choice

I’m a childless single person and I think many of my colleagues assume this is a choice. That I prioritized my career over having a family. And indeed, I probably appear to be a high performing academic who loves her job. And that’s true: I do love my job. I love research. I love writing and I love sharing my research with students and colleagues. But I believe that I would also love being a mother. In our society we tend to classify people: A woman with a career in academia who is not in a relationship and who wants a child does not fit in the established narratives; and yet it is still questioned if a woman with a partner who becomes pregnant is really serious about her career. We cannot win.

I try to become a single mother by choice. And I do this, while writing my second book. I dream about dedicating this book to this unconceived child, as both journeys have become so entangled. But (while most of the time) I know deep down despite all recurring doubts that I’ll finish the book and one day I’ll hold the publication in my hands, I don’t know if I’ll ever get pregnant again, or if I’ll ever hold a baby in my arms. 

Constantly Checking my Priorities

At times, writing my book can be a source of strength. This is one thing I know how to do and I’m good at. It can calm me down, and give me a sense of control and security. Trying to become pregnant, on the other hand, shows me every day how little control I have. I can go to a doctor and prepare myself for another round of IVF. The rest is out of my control – a feeling that is difficult to accept for someone who is part of a system that puts in our minds the idea that you just need to try hard enough to be successful. This, of course, isn’t true, but the feeling is nonetheless ingrained. 

However, writing is not always a source of strength. Quite the contrary. At other times, trying to write the book just adds to the exhaustion and the feeling of failing and of not doing/being enough. It is a balancing act. And it’s a question of prioritising one’s own resources. Do I have the strength for both at the moment? Or do I have to focus on only one, while the other gets less attention? Which one? How do I explain to colleagues that I’m not as efficient as usual? That I’m constantly away on appointments or tired because of the hormones? I know, I don’t have to explain anything. But the feeling remains. In a way, the encounter with my colleagues mirrors my own guilty conscience.

And how do I explain it to myself, if I choose to focus for some time on the second book or on going to conferences, instead of doing another round of IVF; while hearing the doctor’s voice in my head, that I don’t get any younger and that my chances are decreasing? Every time I decide to do IVF I look into my diary and check if there are some important meetings or deadlines coming up. Could they collide with the treatments? How important are they to me? Where are my priorities at that moment? Trying to become pregnant – especially when doing IVF – is an enormous scheduling effort. The guilt of what could be or what might have been weighs heavily.

Finding my Voice

Writing a book and trying to get pregnant are not the same experience. But doing both at the same time, the similarities are sometimes overwhelming – and exhausting.

I don’t know how my story will end, if there’ll be a book and a baby. This is the reason I remain anonymous. I need to protect myself, my body, and my dreams. But at the same time, it has become incredibly important to me to have a voice and to talk about the difficulties of childlessness and of trying to become pregnant in academia. I’m an academic, but it is not my whole identity. I’m an academic who also wants to be a mother. I want to say to every academic who tries to become pregnant and feels unseen in this strange place that is called academia: I see you. I hear you. You’re not alone.