Maybe I am superwoman, after all

A few months back, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my first few months as a Professor. I titled that post “I am not superwoman”. And I was right, mostly. But there were things I’ve not talked about publicly, things that traditionally and culturally we keep private. When you bring them into the frame, they start to paint a different picture. So maybe, just maybe, I am superwoman, after all…?

We were approaching the end of the academic year. Everyone was fractious after a tough semester. Some weeks earlier I’d had a fairly fraught conversation with the Head of School about the lack of admin support for some major roles we were undertaking in the team; I knew his hands were tied by the system, but it was having a knock-on effect on junior staff, and I couldn’t let that fly. Somehow we all just about made it to the end of the year. But for me, something was happening I couldn’t quite work out. It was during the final degree exam board of the academic year. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I made it to the end of the meeting. It happened to be my 35th birthday. And I was in the middle of having a miscarriage. The rest of the day, and most of the night was spent in various clinics with various medics and nurses whose faces told me the grim news I didn’t really want to hear. It was brutal, physically and emotionally. Countless women have been through a similar thing, and will tell you how, like me, your hormones take some time to catch up with themselves after an unexpected end to something that was supposed to last many months more. Over the next few days, colleagues very kindly stepped in to cover my workload for me, as we finalised all the post-exam-board paperwork and released results to students. But there was one work commitment I had to cancel altogether as I was unable to travel. I was supposed to be externalling a PhD viva. I had to cancel the viva. I could only imagine how awful it must have been for the doctorand to have their viva cancelled – so much effort and psyching-yourself-up goes into viva prep, and they had to put all that on hold because of me. (I am eternally grateful to the fabulous researcher whose viva this affected – we were able to reschedule for a couple of weeks later; my first day back at ‘work’ after my miscarriage). The knock-on effects also meant that I had to press pause on a major grant bid I was co-writing with a colleague in France. We ended up submitting the bid several months later, about 3 weeks later than planned in all, just as the new academic year was starting. It felt… momentous and draining all at once. But life went on.

I heard the outcome of the grant about 7 or 8 months later – we’d been successful! I was overjoyed, as it was my first major grant. But I suppose it felt doubly rewarding to have some success in my professional life, where I was struggling for success in my personal life. I was in the midst of going through rounds of tests to find out why I was struggling to conceive after my miscarriage. Doctors take ages to put you forward for tests; it takes ages to get a referral letter; it takes months to get an appointment with a specialist. A year or more was going by and still we had no real clue what was going on. But I kept focused at work, got the grant project underway, appointed a fantastic team, and started to make significant progress with my new book. At the same time, I was turned down for promotion. I was told that my major grant didn’t count towards my promotion case (I still don’t understand why). I was told not to talk too much about my grant success in case it might upset other people who didn’t have one. I was told that because I had my grant other people were having to take the strain of my workload. It made me feel pretty raw. I was successful but was being told I wasn’t. In the meantime, I was called by another university asking if I’d consider a role with them. My instinct was to say no – I was in the middle of tests at the hospital, I’d finally got my referral letter through, and didn’t want to disrupt that process, given how long it had taken to get an appointment in the first place. But I ended up being called for an interview, and I decided to go – as practice. My husband had also just started a new post 3 hours from where we lived, but closer to the new place I ended up being offered a job at. And it was a significant promotion, to Chair.

I accepted the new job. In the very same week, we found out the outcome of the hospital tests. The picture was not great for me… We were offered a one-time-chance-it-and-see round of IVF. And there was no option but to go ahead with it – if we waited any longer, we’d lose our “place” in the system because once we’d moved house and jobs, we’d go to the back of the referral queue at a new hospital. So at the same time as house-hunting, carrying on with my normal day job, and my husband being in just the first few months of his new job, we also started all the IVF process. Anyone who has been through it will know that it means a lot of trips to hospital. A lot of injections and probes and tests. We’d been told from the outset not to expect great success given my prognosis. But we did pretty well, we got as far as we could, and were in the midst of the infamous “two-week wait” to find out if it had worked. The day I got the negative result was the day we moved house. My in-laws came to collect me and the cat, and I left my husband to deal with the removal men, the solicitors, and all the stressful logistics of the move. We were both in pieces, but unable to do much about it, given our lives were packed up in boxes as we moved to start our new life – not quite the one we’d envisaged – in a new city.

I ended up being pretty ill after the IVF with a nasty infection that took some major drugs to zap (I missed the graduation ceremony of one of my former PhD students as a result). I was drained physically and emotionally, once again. We didn’t have any of our friends around us, because we’d just moved to a brand new place. But we cracked on with unpacking, decorating, gardening, and making the most of what was in many ways an exciting new chapter in our lives. I was still technically employed for a month by my old university, and I had to go back and do the whole admissions cycle for them (a bizarre experience talking to stressed teenagers who’d just missed out on their hoped-for A-level results and telling the “yes, come and study here… though I myself am leaving…”). A few days later, I started my new job as a Professor. Three weeks later, I submitted my full book typescript to my publisher. It was three months behind schedule, but it was done.

When I look back over the past 3 and a half years or so, and see that I managed to secure a £600,000 research grant, write and publish a 90,000-word monograph with OUP, be promoted to a Chair at a high-ranking University, and that I did all that whilst negotiating a miscarriage, a failed round of IVF, and a house move, I realise that maybe I am superwoman after all. My successes are tangible; my failures seem less so. I know I had to let a lot of people down along the way. I know there were things I just never quite got round to doing, emails that never got replies, tasks and roles I ended up doing a less-than-perfect job of. But maybe, just maybe, that’s ok, given everything else I’ve done and been through. The thing is, I suspect my experience isn’t that different from that of many other women, whether in academia or not. Trying and failing to have children is not much talked about – why would you? It has a major effect on partners and husbands too. We’ve ended up in a place we didn’t expect to be, it’s not how we’d hoped our lives would turn out, but even though it’s still not ok, we’re starting to be a bit more used to it. And to feel lucky and privileged for all the things we have managed to achieve along the way (anyhow).

And so, to Richard, for everything.

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