May 14, 2014 — Sunday was my fourth Mother’s Day—and in addition to my family, I celebrated the fact that one of the largest public university systems in the country has finally adopted a parental accommodation policy for its several thousand doctoral students. Crucially, this policy is sex-neutral and applies to both birth and adoption.
When I became pregnant in early spring of 2010, my university had no accommodation policy in place for pregnant students. Not only would I have appreciated a policy that allowed flexible exam deadlines; I would have appreciated knowing I’d be able to hold onto my job teaching undergraduates.
Many pregnant PhD students either hide their pregnancies or try to time their due dates for May and June. Unfortunately, I was due in November. One administrator cautioned me not to tell HR and recommended I solve my own problem by paying a friend to teach for me. The chair of the department where I taught told me I might have to resign.
I was terrified at the prospect of losing a semester’s worth of income. I found myself wishing I’d kept quiet and sprung my news on my boss and colleagues in the fall semester, when it would have been too late to pull me from the classroom.
At the time, I was stressed out and overwhelmed. But two years later, I was ready to take action. I was in touch with a grad student who was five months pregnant and had the courage to take on the system when she experienced the same support vacuum as I had. We arranged to testify about our experiences before the student government. Our fellow students were supportive and an ad hoc committee was formed.
We weren’t sure how to approach the issue from a legal perspective: had the university violated Title IX, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the Americans With Disabilities Act? We didn’t want pregnancy to be thought of as a disability, nor as strictly a women’s rights issue; we wanted accommodation for all parents, not just mothers. Our first meeting with the administration was not promising; they seemed uninterested in finding common ground.
But we kept going. We researched existing policies at other large public university systems. We developed and administered a student survey. We drafted language for a policy suited to our system. We continued to meet with the reluctant administration.
Finally, this spring—a year and a half after we’d begun pushing for change—our university agreed to adopt an accommodation policy for a two-year trial period for its “pregnant and parenting students.” The policy is generously worded and addresses deadline extensions, insurance coverage, and salary.
I sobbed with relief when I read my university’s dull, businesslike announcement of its new policy. Among other things, I’m thrilled that it states that students and administrators should make arrangements “as early as possible.” I hope it will serve as a national model.
I got some nice things for Mother’s Day this year: lilacs, personalized stationary, and a surprise picnic excursion. But the best gift I got was the knowledge that my colleagues and I fought to change something fundamentally unfair—and won. I’m proud of the example I set for my daughter and the fact that our victory will benefit hundreds, if not thousands, of families like ours.
Even in large, bureaucratic institutions, change is possible. But it won’t happen without will, effort, and determination.