- Normalizing Disruption: Advocating for Reproductive Health in Academia
In March 2018, we shared a roundtable, “Spin Cycles: Issues of Women’s Reproductive Health and Wellness in Academia,” at the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC). The robust response to the roundtable encouraged us to share our experiences in the pages of Theatre Topics as a continuation, not conclusion, of the conversations begun at MATC.
The abstract of our roundtable read as follows:
The decision to grow one’s family as a woman in academia brings with it a number of logistical and conceptual challenges, from timing parental leave and managing new financial obligations to wrestling with anxieties over scholarly productivity, degree completion or promotion, becoming a parent, and the overall balancing of personal goals with professional ones. Recent books like Professor Mommy, Mama PhD, and Academic Motherhood provide helpful advice on family planning, tenure clock stoppages, and how academic mothers can achieve a satisfying and effective work/life balance. But what if not everything goes as planned for the aspiring or new parent? What is it like to teach, write, and make art in academia while dealing with the physical challenges and psychological fallout of reproductive issues including infertility, miscarriage, birth complications, infant loss, premature births, breastfeeding troubles, and postpartum depression? This roundtable seeks to initiate a dialogue on dealing with reproductive trauma while studying or working in academia, a topic largely unrecognized by even the most parent-friendly institutions due to its relative invisibility in the eyes of students, peers, and administrators; the diversity of medical issues it encompasses; and the enduring stigmatization of non-normative or undesirable outcomes in women’s reproductive health, from miscarriages to caesarian sections.
The language used in the abstract reflects our self-identifications with the term woman, not our belief that one must identify as such in order to reckon with these challenges. Indeed, we are glad to see capacious discussions of caregiving emerging in the field, including a panel at the recent ATHE conference on “Care in the Academy: Revolutionizing Our Experiences and Access,” convened by Janet Werther, and the formation of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). Both in our roundtable and in our collaborative writings, we are struck by the language politics around describing reproductive health issues, and the worthwhile difficulties of using language that is precise and also inclusive. In the individual essays, many of us choose to use the term mother to refer to our experiences with gestational parenthood; where it appears, it is a reflection of each of our self-identifications with the term and is not meant to be a universal or prescriptive descriptor. [End Page 59]
Here, we focus our essays on exploring somatic experiences of fertility, pregnancy, birth, recovery, and the postpartum period. They document experiences with conception, assistive reproductive technologies, birth trauma, premature birth, and lactation. While sharing our experiences, an omnipresent tension emerged between wanting to make these experiences visible so as to expand or perhaps eliminate altogether “normative” expectations and policies around reproductive health, and the profound vulnerability we feel at disclosing what are, for many of us, deeply private and often traumatic moments from our personal lives. We strongly urge others to join us, if they feel able, in sharing their experiences and continuing these conversations in public forums to aid in the de-stigmatization of reproductive health and wellness within the academy.
This sense of vulnerability is linked as well to a feeling that, in sharing our experiences, we are complaining. It is no accident, as Sara Ahmed points out, that “complaint” (from sharing a dissatisfaction to filing an official complaint) is often framed by institutions as contagious, “as a bodily condition, an ailment, an illness” that can infect the operations of the institution (n.p.). In our essays, we are indeed complaining about complaints. We are registering our dissatisfaction in the pages of this journal with how our disciplines and institutions create understanding and policy around a particular set of reproductive health complaints. We are rallying around Ahmed’s (“fragile. . . feminist and furious”) definition of complaint: “when we transform what we do not cope...