Maternity leave: a request for strategies and advice


pregnant-belly.jpgThis letter came in across the transom in the H-WOMEN digest Monday night:

I have a question that deals not so much with scholarship as with academic
life.  I would very much appreciate hearing how other women in higher
education — and their institutions — may have managed having a baby
during an academic term.  I am currently pregnant, due February 10, right
in the midst of Spring 2009 semester, which runs from mid-January to early
May.  I am entering my 5th year in a tenure-track position, and am in good
standing. However, the university where I am employed does not have an
official maternity leave policy for faculty members.  We all teach a 4/4
load, and the courses I will be teaching in the spring have already been
added to the registrar’s page, though I’m sure it would be possible to
change days and times.

I realize that I am of course entitled to 6 weeks unpaid leave via FMLA,
but my husband and I cannot go without my paycheck.  I will have to work
out the details with my dean and I am curious to know what others have
done in similar situations.  I would like to have a few good possible
plans in mind before I meet with the dean.

This is a real request for ideas to take to the Dean–although I’m sure the vast majority of us think it’s ridiculous that any university would still not have some kind of a maternity leave policy at this point, let’s keep the laments to a minimum and the helpful advice and suggestions to a maximum.  At Baa Ram U., at least in the Liberal Arts College, people giving birth or adopting a child are now entitled to a one course release from our 2-2 load, in addition to maxing out whatever accrued sick leave time one has.  (I believe that it’s typical even for newish Assistant Professors to have 6 weeks of paid sick leave for a vaginal birth, and 8 weeks total to recover from a C-section.)  This of course still doesn’t solve the problem of who might cover or teach your courses during your recovery–that is still unfortunately handled by the pregnant individuals themselves, who must rely on the kindness of colleagues–and that’s a terrible burden to put on an untenured person especially.  It’s one thing to ask a colleague and teaching assistants to sub for one or two classes–and quite another magnitude of annoyance to have to worry about covering four classes! 

Coincidentally, yesterday I ran into a male colleague in another department, and heard a tale of woe about his last academic year, which was marked by different surgeries followed by other surgeries meant to fix infections and other problems caused by the initial surgeries.  He told me that he wished he had taken the whole first semester off (he’s got a wad of accrued sick leave), because 1) he pushed himself too hard to get back to work because 2) he really disliked relying on the charity of his colleagues to cover his classes while he recovered.  (Why can’t the Dean keep a little pot of money to distribute to hire emergency adjuncts to take over and teach for a month, or two, or for the rest of the term, without forcing us to make decisions on the fly while ailing, and burdening our already overworked colleagues?)  Although we are hired for our minds, those minds are unfortunately embedded in human bodies, which are subject to traumatic injury, decay, and transformation.  Given that fact, my suggestions to this maternity leave question are, in no particular order:

  • Find out what paid sick leave you’re entitled to–it should be decent, given that you’ve been there 4 years.  That may help you decide what kind of relief you’ll need, and when.
  • Since you’re married, your husband should investigate what kind of parental leave his job offers, and how to go about taking advantage of it.
  • Suggest to the Dean that you be offered a one- or two course-release next spring.  (After all, it doesn’t cost 25% of your salary to pay an adjunct to cover a course–sadly, they can probably get that done for $3,000.)
  • If you’re not already signed up to teach a seminar course or two (or other such course that meets only once a week), see if you can change your schedule in that fashion.
  • Consider offering to teach some summer classes, in order to “pay back” courses, if they’re unwilling to grant you one or more course releases, and see if you can do it over the following two summers rather than just next summer. 

If you, dear readers, have dealt with this issue before, or if you have knowledge as to how this has been handled at your university (productively or otherwise), please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.  (I’m also picking up the Bat Phone to see if Ann Bartow and her coven of legal experts can help!)

UPDATED 8/14/08:  H-WOMEN has posted some interesting, angry, and helpful replies to the above query, although I don’t see too many strategies that haven’t been suggested here and in the comments below.  See here for a collection of replies, and see also Catherine Clinton’s thoughtful and sad commentary on the lack of progress for academics on this issue over the past twenty-five years.  Sigh.

UPDATED 8/15/08:  H-WOMEN has seven more responses–these range into more personal reflections, some of which are more useful than others.  See especially Susan Yohn’s post on the personal versus the political, and also her thoughts from the perspective of a department chair.  She offers both practical advice for now, as well as urges us to take political action on this issue.  Sounds like we’ve got an old-fashioned Consciousness Raising going on right here on the internets!

0 thoughts on “Maternity leave: a request for strategies and advice

  1. Hi Historiann,

    I’m glad you have framed this as a broader health issue that affects everyone. I had an unexpected illness mid-semester that led me to take the remaining two and a half months off. I had loads of accumulated sick leave. My colleagues covered my courses — I think they may have received overload (i.e. credit towards a course off) for doing this but I’m not certain.

    My colleagues who have had children have either taken a leave without pay (for an entire semester if they have time their pregnancies that way) or used accumulated sick leave if they deliver mid-semester. Not sure what their departments did to cover courses though.


  2. I actually negotiated with my chair to only teach one of my three courses during the fall semester my daughter was due, and make up the other two the following summer. I forfeited my 6 weeks paid leave, but only teaching one course in the semester she was born (and that course was a seminar that only met once a week) was much better, especially since she arrived 6 weeks early.

    What I find even more difficult than negotiating the course load is the other stuff. I was lucky to have colleagues who immediately stepped in to take over my advisees, my service work, and all my other obligations, without resentment. I’m not sure how one navigates these issues. There doesn’t seem to be any policy, whether one needs extra time for a newborn or for illness.


  3. ej–what do you mean you forfeited your 6 weeks of paid leave? Did you lose your accrued leave time, or did you just not take it because you were still “on the clock,” as it were?

    And KC: Right on. In fact, posing reforms about this as an improved strategy for sick leaves, rather than just maternity or paternity leaves, may make people more supportive since it won’t be just about a particular group of people at a particular stage in life. Since we all inhabit bodies that do and will break down or suffer trauma, why can’t there be institutional strategies that minimize the begging and volunteer work that’s required of the ill/recovering person and her colleagues?


  4. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Maternity leave: a request for strategies and advice

  5. Historiann-we get 6 weeks paid maternity/paternity leave, but since I just negotiated a different teaching schedule, I never took my 6 weeks.

    Fortunately, I still have leave time up the wazoo in case I ever need it for anything else.


  6. This isn’t a legal answer, just an anecdotal one, but some schools allow “banking” – teaching in the summer and or an overload to get release time or at least a reduced load later, without income reduction.


  7. Possibly starting to set up a visible little “baby space” in a vacant nook or alcove in the dept. suite–with the implication that this is the Plan-Z alternative–would get some flexibility going? I think we really (over)much sacralize the notion that college courses have such an inherent unity to them that they virtually can’t just be handed off mid-term to somebody else without disrupting their astral emanations or something. But it happens in every other workplace in the land as a matter of course.
    If your lawyer goes “on trial,” you deal with somebody else. If Jake the body guy down at the shop is fishing in Alaska, somebody else works on your car or you wait. Since a central ideological part of the looming assessment revolution comprises an attack on the idea of the faculty “ownership” of courses, maybe this will change. That attack is a bad thing of itself, but maybe it will have fringe benefits?


  8. I don’t have great negotiating advice on maternity leave since I’ve (a) only received bad advice on negotiating maternity leave and (b) negotiated very badly for myself, leaving me with seething resentment and a lack of clarity about exactly where to direct it.

    Whatever you do, my (bad) experience is that it’s far, far better to overestimate how much time you want to take rather than to underestimate. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a semester of paid leave. That being said, it can be risky since “men never seem to need time off the tenure-track to have a baby” (I know, I know). Something that I had to learn the hard way — two pregnancies and two different schools — is that no one will ever appreciate the fact that you came back quickly and sacrificed your family life to alleviate the burden on the institution. No one. Ever.

    I wish I’d had the whatever-it-would-have-taken to same “shame on you” to all the senior faculty women who said, “I breastfed while I graded exams; you’ll get through it.”

    Grrrr . . .


  9. This is really important:

    “…no one will ever appreciate the fact that you came back quickly and sacrificed your family life to alleviate the burden on the institution. No one. Ever.”

    You might also check to see what sort of paid *disability* leave you have – this is sometimes different from and (maybe) in addition to sick leave.

    You might also talk to the business office / HRM before you talk to the dean. They (if they are on their game) will be aware of solutions, at least in terms of how leave is calculated etc., that the dean is not.

    For example, by state law, my university can give partial sick leave. That is: if I have accrued 6 weeks of paid sick leave, and I have an illness or health issue such that I can work part time, but for the convenience of everyone, need to have that schedule for the entire semester (i.e., part time all semester as opposed to 6 weeks gone and then back full time), the 6 weeks of leave can be broken up into hours and spread out over the semester.

    I did this once because of an injury, and my own school didn’t know it could be done and couldn’t have told me.
    I knew about it because the HRM office at another state school did. My school was then glad to find out, because it was more convenient for them and it was useful to know about.

    Illustration: In my case what I needed was one course release so I could have time to make physical therapy appointments (in the second half of the semester) and have time to compensate for my slowness, given that my right arm (I am right handed) was in a rigid cast from fingers to shoulder for the first half of the semester.

    One course was considered to be 12 hours a week, and 12×15 is 180, and 180 divided by 60 (our work week is defined as 60 hours) is 3, so I only had to take 15 days of leave to get released from one course.

    It worked out nicely – the course I was released from was a multisection one a lot of people teach, so one of the instructors got paid overtime, out of the general fund, to give my section of it in addition to hers.


  10. Prof. Zero–thanks for the thoughts on disability leave–that’s a good one.

    And Tracy, thanks for stopping by to comment. I think you’re exactly right that no one at work will ever appreciate or even notice that you’re killing yourself to get back to work right after you deliver. I curse those senior women who were dismissive of your reasonable need for accomodation. (How nice that they feel it all worked out OK for them–but there are no guarantees. Some people end up on mandatory bed rest. Some of us have children who live in the NICU for a month or two. Some people have traumatic birth injuries that need to be repeatedly fixed because they’re not healing properly.) That’s just bullying in defense of their failure to change the system or become your advocates. And *please* don’t beat up on yourself. The system is clearly rigged to make it very difficult to request a maternity leave, let alone negotiate it all by yourself.

    Indyanna, I hear what you’re saying about our unique, irreplaceable selves, but I’m sure that most of us would be relieved not to have the responsibility of overseeing our classes from a distance while recovering from heart attacks/surgeries/childbirth/etc. I’d feel perfectly happy about being replaced without any sweat or anxiety on my part! (Hey–what do we pay administrators to do anyway? Like you said, it happens all the time in every other line of work, and yet the earth still rotates on its axis…)


  11. Prof. Zero: I’d be curious to know what it means to say that your U’s work week is “defined” as sixty hours? Would any employer admit officially that it envisions a non-executive category of its staff as being on-clock half again as long as the American average week has been understood for generations? In our state system we fill out mandated reports each semester estimating our time in various categories. We run up all sorts of law associate numbers (and maybe even work more than that). But since it’s just a self-reported estimate that disappears into the data hole, who knows what it means? Do universities typically put in print a quantitative definition of the faculty work week? If so, and it’s anything like 60, that might be a very useful number to have “out there” in the supposed public debates about the academy and its worth.

    (These numbers, of course, presumably include what we sometimes like to call “my own work…,” which I suppose we really ought to be paying THEM for the privilege of doing under their auspices, right? :))


  12. Another can of worms: Bringing babies to work. People feel like they ought to be free to do this, especially if they have their own offices, which is very understandable. But the noise/disruption factor sometimes creates a LOT of angry feelings in colleagues that can blow back later.


  13. (Doesn’t FMLA entitle you to 12 weeks of unpaid leave?)

    Can you make this into an “opportunity” for the graduate students in your department to take over a couple of your classes each, taking responsibility for teaching mini-units or whatever?


  14. The problem with the FMLA thing is that 1) not everyone can afford to take 12 weeks off without pay, and 2) semesters are usually 14-16 weeks, so getting the 12 weeks off still leaves you figuring out how to negotiate the other 2-4 weeks (perhaps the only situation in which quarters are superior to semesters? ;-D). Plus, if you can’t time your baby conveniently 😛 and the 12 weeks are divided between 2 semesters, it can be hard to navigate, too. (There was a column in the Chronicle sometime in the last few years about the growing tend of professors’ children all being born in the summer. Obviously planning doesn’t always work, but every academic mom I know has *tried*, with a planned pregnancy, to give birth in the summer.)

    I liked the comment from H-Women about UK policies. Canada gives you a year of leave. Sigh.

    Oh, profgrrrl just posted recently about how she worked out maternity leave for next spring, here


  15. Thanks for the updates, New Kid. The summer birth strategy is interesting. How many women arrive at late August cranky and irritable that they spent their summers nursing unappreciative and inscrutible infants, instead of writing a prizewinning book or doing research in a fabulous new location? (I’m just saying that there may be advantages to giving birth during the academic term, if you can work something out.)

    And MS: Thanks for stopping by to comment. TAs can be very helpful, but only if you have them, and since the person in question has a 4-4 load, I’m doubtful that she’ll have all that many at her disposal. But, it’s another variable to consider.

    Why can’t we just have a year off at 90% pay as Canadians do? And yet, their dollar is as strong as ours these days…


  16. I think this discussion demonstrates the relevance of disability studies/issues to ALL persons in academia — a good way of thinking of this is that in some ways we are all temporarily able-bodied (as some disability scholars have put it). Perhaps some of the activism regarding reasonable accommodations in this regard would be helpful.


  17. I favor the year off at 90% pay.

    On the 60 hours – well ours is in the faculty handbook and it is used to evaluate annual reports, calculate merit evaluations, and so on.

    A 3 hour course is theoretically worth 12 hours. If you are an instructor with no research, service, or administrative responsibilities, your course load is 5 3 hour courses per semester. 5 x 12 = 60.

    If you are a professor with teaching responsibilities defined at 50%, then you teach 5 3 hour courses per year. The remaining 30 hours a week are for research, service, and administration (if any). There are some guidelines about how many publications one should be able to get out in that time, too.


  18. God, I wish I worked at a real university. Here in the middle of nowhere NC, the community college thinks a 25 hour load (I am not kidding) is normal. My “other duties” are nonpaid (direct and costume a full length show every semester).

    Ok…enough bitching.

    I am due mid-semester.

    When I told the uppers, they said, “What are you going to do?” And I replied, “Have it.”



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