Find out about your department and university’s maternity/family policies. Find as much detail as you can. Print it out. Document where you found it. Leave no stone unturned.
Well, if you’re at a school like mine, not many people will know anything about a maternity policy for graduate students.
You see, my university does, in fact, have such a policy guaranteeing 6 weeks paid leave to a student with an RA or TA. This is a University-wide policy, which means legally, no department can “opt out” or tell a student trying to use the policy that they simply “cannot fund it.” However, this did happen to me.
When I tried to find information out from HR – they didn’t know anything about the policy either.
You see, when I researched my school’s maternity policies before starting my degree, I just found the information about the policy on the university websites. I found that a) such a policy existed, and b) I would be qualified to use it. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to use it for political reasons. Or because the people who in theory should help me, would know nothing about it.
So I’d suggest calling HR and graduate representative groups and talking with your financial office person and anyone else with actual authority over your life and pay, if this is something you plan on pursuing. Maybe you have a Fellowship so it doesn’t matter (smart! Do that! If you can at all swing it, do that!). Maybe you have a partner making enough money it doesn’t matter. Also a fine plan.
For me, it mattered. I needed my benefit for my health insurance because, oh that’s right, I was having a baby. A rather spendy health event here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
And when I brought up the maternity policy to my advisor (when I was 8 weeks pregnant) I was met with strong resistance. First, my advisor and director were both shocked that such a policy even existed. Doubtful, even that I was speaking the truth. They needed hard evidence to see that it was, in fact, a real thing. Even still, I was strongly encouraged to “take the semester off” – which amounts to me paying out of pocket for 1 credit of continuing enrollment (side note: get yourself qualified as “in state” as soon as you can upon arriving at your grad school), paying the full premium for my health insurance (normally paid by my department as part of my RA or TA), and forgoing my stipend (not a huge chunk of money, but was necessary to pay our bills – soon to increase exponentially with the addition of a child).
To say this was stressful is an understatement.
It was incredibly infuriating to be met with resistance from both my advisor and my director; to have both of them suggest that I’d be mentally unable to perform my duties so soon after birth anyway; and to have both of them so blatantly ignore and deny a benefit I was legally supposed to have. Could I have sued? Yes. I sure as hell could have. Could I have forced the issue at the Dean level? Oh yes, I could have. I talked to a Vice Dean anonymously and she was furious. I just had to say the word and she’d have twisted their arms into giving me my maternity benefits as they were supposed to.
But to what end?
This is where being a graduate student can put you in a horrible in-between status that leaves you with tricky options. You’re not really a student, but not really an employee either. You’re in between, so HR doesn’t know how to help you. Typical student support venues are not for you. And you have the awful conundrum of needing your advisor (and potentially your director, an eminent researcher in your field) to give you a good letter of recommendation at the end of this whole PhD gig. Not only do you need a positive working relationship for the remainder of your degree – you need them to sign off on helping you get a job. It’s a terrible position of powerlessness to be a pregnant graduate student, when your department pulls this shit. And I’m quite sure my story is not in isolation.
In the end, my husband took a better-paying soul-sucking job so that we could do as my department wished. I didn’t sue. I didn’t force the issue. I paid for 1 credit, my health insurance, and took no stipend the semester my son was born.
And then they had the audacity to expect me to continue working on my degree toward the end of that semester, because it would be “good for me.”
The outrage is not describable, I can tell you that. And the thought of leaving and starting new in a different department occurred to me more than once. But remember, I was already 3 semesters, all my course work, and one milestone in. Escalating commitment. Plus, I couldn’t be sure another department wouldn’t be as bad or worse. Remember also, this was the advisor who initially told me she’d be supportive when I told her my plan to have a child while completing my degree.
So, my advice to you, is if you will need to take advantage of any family leave or maternity policies: get crystal clarity on what the policies are. Educate your department and mentor about such policies before you are pregnant. Make it quite clear that you plan on using these benefits. And hire a frickin’ lawyer. Don’t let them back you into the corner in the first place, where your only option is to acquiesce. Start out on the offensive, and hopefully it’ll go better for you than it did for me.
And finally – if your story is (unfortunately) more like mine – try to find a way to appreciate the time off with your new baby anyway. It’s hard when it wasn’t it on your terms. I let that fact steal some of the enjoyment of that time for me. I regret that a bit.