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Robert Neubecker

I had a miscarriage during my first year as a professor. Here’s how I coped

The phone rang 30 minutes before my talk. It was a familiar number—my fertility doctor’s office—and I picked up, expecting a nurse to tell me that my pills and injections were ready for my next treatment. Instead, the nurse asked me to hold for the doctor, who told me I was pregnant. It should have been joyous news, but he quickly tempered my enthusiasm by telling me that, given the results of other tests, he wasn’t sure the pregnancy would go to term. I felt a complicated wave of emotions: relief that our fertility treatment worked, anxiety at the prospect of starting my new job pregnant, worry that I’d have a miscarriage—and stress about my imminent talk.

My husband and I had started fertility treatments during my postdoc years, unable to conceive on our own. The process was exhausting. I had to go into the doctor’s office a few times per week for blood tests and appointments—all before my hourlong commute to work. The costs stretched our finances. I began to convert every price tag I saw to a portion of a doctor’s visit.

During the same time period, my professional life had started to fall into place. I completed my postdoc and landed a faculty job in the same city where we were living. When the doctor’s office called that day, I was 1 month away from starting my new position and changing my email signature to “Assistant Professor.”

Somehow, I managed to give my talk. But as I delivered my practiced monologue, I was having a very different conversation in my mind. I tried to imagine taking maternity leave during my first year as a professor. I also fretted about the viability of the pregnancy.

Follow-up doctor’s visits didn’t yield positive news. The pregnancy would almost certainly end in a miscarriage. I contemplated termination. But because we’d had such a tough time getting pregnant, my husband and I decided to wait to see what happened.

Over the next month, my appointments for blood draws and invasive ultrasounds increased to nearly every other day. During one appointment, we heard a heartbeat. My stomach sank all the way down to the stirrups holding my feet. It was painful to hear that heartbeat—because it provided a glimpse into the excitement of pregnancy that I knew would likely be cut short. We left the office still waiting for the supposedly imminent miscarriage.

But I wasn’t waiting at home. I was waiting during my first faculty meeting. I was waiting in the lab while teaching interns how to prepare samples. I tried my best to silo my personal and professional lives. As time wore on, though, the barrier between “waiting for miscarriage Logan” and “shiny new professor Logan” became less and less distinct. I was worn out physically and emotionally.

It was a macabre preview into parenthood as an academic. I found myself constantly struggling to balance my career goals with my personal life, which featured many more doctor’s appointments than visits with friends. I missed deadlines and meetings. I had trouble focusing. And I cried in my office, worried that I was already failing as a professor—feelings intensified by hormones that would bear no fruit.

Then, roughly 7 weeks into my pregnancy, I went into the doctor’s office—and this time there was no heartbeat. I’d never experienced such a visceral combination of sadness and relief. I swallowed two doses of the abortion pill and waited for my pregnancy to be officially over.

It was a macabre preview into parenthood as an academic.

I dealt with my grief, in part, by speaking openly with trusted colleagues, including my postdoc adviser and others who’d known me for years. And I’d had time to prepare. Difficult as my experience was, I can’t imagine how someone feels when a miscarriage catches them totally off guard, or it happens for the second, third, or eighth time.

Ten months have passed, and my husband and I are still working with the fertility doctor. It isn’t easy to be open about my personal struggles. But I know many academics are in the same boat: starting their first faculty appointment while trying to start a family, and dealing with the conflicting emotions that even a better outcome can bring. I want them to know they’re not alone.

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