Pregnant at HBS: Two Students, Four Lives, Five Classes

Pregnancy is a beautiful thing. It’s a time when a female transforms from a woman to a mother. Her innocence is transferred, and her eyes are awakened to the dangers of the world as she takes on the responsibility of raising a child. The process of discovery is begun anew as she begins to see and feel new life.

Being a student at HBS is also a transforming and wonderful experience. We are learning much about our career-selves and begin to see the world as though we are the case protagonists that we will one day become. The parallels between parenthood and management are many; the decisions to be made will have high stakes, and the outcomes will no longer impact our individual selves. So what must it be like to go through these processes concurrently? There are many brave souls who have done it, and a few that are doing it now.

I recently interviewed two students who are currently handling these metamorphoses with style. Meet Marleta Ross (OC) and August Fern (ND).
HARBUS: I know that pregnancy is physically taxing, so how have you managed to keep smiling while sitting in class for hours, preparing cases, and working on projects this past term?

ROSS: You will never understand the toll pregnancy takes on a woman physically unless you go through it yourself. It’s more than just having a stomach that seems to grow to mammoth proportions. There are emotional highs and lows… and yes, a lot of fatigue! What has been key for me getting through classes and the workload this year has been discipline. Because I couldn’t predict how my pregnancy would go (i.e. will I be really sick, very tired, or need to be on bed rest?) I made sure that I started off on the right foot. I was on a pretty strict schedule for when I read my cases and did my prep for each class. I didn’t have the luxury of procrastinating and waiting till the late hours of the night to start reading.

FERN: I have to prioritize my time, since I don’t have as much energy as normal. But school comes first. I’ve avoided signing up for lots of extra activities, especially anything that will take time next semester, which is a real change for me. Normally I want to be involved in everything! The second most important thing (which applies to everyone) is to make sure I still get regular exercise. My workouts are a little lighter than they used to be, but they keep my body functioning as normally as possible.

ROSS: I would also say that a positive attitude is necessary to get through this time. My goal is to graduate in June. Not graduating is not an option in my mind; therefore I attack my classes and my experience at HBS with the attitude that whatever comes my way-I will just have to handle it.

HARBUS: When I found out that my oldest son was due during my last semester at MIT, I immediately made a plan so that I would still graduate on time. My academic advisor was skeptical, but I found the administration to be surprisingly supportive. What has been your experience with the faculty and staff here at HBS?

FERN: I haven’t thoroughly tested this one. Most people have been supportive, but I’m waiting for the new semester to begin to speak with my professors for the spring term.

ROSS: My experience with faculty and staff at HBS has been very positive. I immediately talked to Pat Light, Director of MBA Program Support Services, about my situation once classes started. She assured me that I wasn’t a trailblazer and that quite a few women before me had successfully gone down this same path.

I was living in the dorm this past semester and had to find an apartment before the baby was born. Pat helped me prioritize all the things that needed to be done. She also gave me some good ideas on how to get an apartment for next semester. I ended up working with the HPRE immediate occupancy hotline. SFP was my first choice but it just seemed impossible to get an apartment there. Although I did get an apartment at Peabody Terrace, I don’t feel I was given any special consideration because of my pregnancy.

The jury is still out on my experience with HBS professors. My baby is due in February and I have been fortunate to have a pretty smooth pregnancy thus far, so I didn’t need any special consideration from professors. I haven’t gotten any grief about eating in class or frequent trips to the rest room!

The real challenge will be this next semester, when I will need to take some time off to recover from delivery. Quite frankly, I will be very tired and won’t have the stamina that I had last semester. I will have to make arrangements with my professors on an individual basis.

HARBUS: That’s exactly what I did, Marleta. I took six weeks off from class, although I handed in all assignments and kept up with the readings. I worked with each of my professors to work out additional assignments to make up for the missed class participation since I was at Sloan. My biggest problem though, was finding childcare. What resources are available here at HBS for students with newborns?

ROSS: I am still trying to discover what they are. I do know that there is a room available in Aldrich for mothers who are nursing and need to pump during class time. Harvard University has an Office of Work and Family that provides you with lists of potential baby sitters, daycare centers and other supplemental support staff.

Since I live in Peabody Terrace now, I plan to make use of the Harvard University shuttle, which takes students back and forth from their housing to all Harvard University campuses. This service is available to all students, not just those with newborns. But they don’t make scheduled pick-ups. You have to wait until a shuttle is in the vicinity.
I am going to try to work with HBS on a temporary parking solution on campus for next semester. We’ll see how that works out. Another thing to mention is that HBS medical insurance (Massachusetts Blue Cross /Blue Shield) covers the student for all OB/GYN (pre/post natal) and pediatric care, which has been a big relief. I’m sure there are many other resources that I’m not aware of.

FERN: I’ve learned that I can have audiotapes of classes that I miss. I was surprised by the lack of resources; many large companies offer more-my husband’s company even provides a hospital-quality pump for breastfeeding mothers. Companies also offer early childcare options since most daycares don’t take babies until they are at least two months old, or they offer priority placement on daycare waiting lists.

We applied for SFP childcare several months ago but are not guaranteed a spot. There’s also flexible scheduling in the workplace. If our morning break was 30 minutes instead of 20, I might be enough time for a quick feeding or pumping session.

HARBUS: So do either of you plan to take next term off, or will you have your babies and continue with classes? I actually was able to take my son with me to some of my classes. I sat in the back of the classroom and nursed him, and I stepped out when he was inconsolable or needed a diaper change. It worked out well for me.

ROSS: I plan to continue with classes next semester. I never thought to ask if my infant would be allowed in class with me. (I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure). The challenges are far greater when you are a mother and a student versus the male students whose spouses are expecting or have recently given birth.

There is the issue of fatigue. I don’t expect to get much sleep after the baby is born due to the relentless feeding schedule that babies keep. My husband lives and works in New York, so I’ll be the sole care provider for the baby during this time.

Having a strong support system will be key to making this work. My sister-in-law will be coming up to Boston to help me with child care while I am in class. Breastfeeding the baby will be a challenge with my class schedule. Therefore, my goal for this next semester is not to overload myself with tough classes and to strike a balance between classes w
ith papers and exams.

FERN: I’m planning to have Section D increase by one member next semester! Actually, I never considered taking the term off because it would mean taking an entire year off. This February, I will have a baby, and in June 2003, I will graduate from HBS. I look at it as two immovable activities that will just have to work together.
I think it’s good practice for when I’m out of school-you can’t just put life on hold because there’s a really big project at work. I’ll be leaning heavily on my family to make it through this semester, which is tough since they live in California.

HARBUS: And how have your classmates reacted? I remember that my classmates thought that I must be nuts, and that I couldn’t possibly graduate on time. At the same time, when my son was born, they provided a ton of help with picking up problem sets, getting class notes, and babysitting. And I was able to pull it off! It really took a village…
FERN: Here I have only good things to say! I’ve already had numerous offers for babysitting, and we still have a month and a half before the baby arrives. Everyone has been super-supportive. I know it’s not one of the factors in the crazy algorithm used to assign sections, but it’s also been great to have two mothers in my section. When you or Olga [Vassuikova] ask how I’m doing, I know you can really identify!

ROSS: Overall, my classmates have been very supportive. I think they realize on some level how challenging this situation is. I’ve received many offers of help with regards to moving out of the dorm, referrals for apartments, offers to get me food and numerous offers to babysit once the baby is born. I appreciate this so much-it helps me keep upbeat. Knowing that I have my classmates behind me motivates me to succeed.

HARBUS: Thank you for sharing your stories, August and Marleta. We wish you both all the best next term and Marleta, we’ll be cheering for you at graduation!