Motherhood, tenure-clock, and the Next Big Grant

On August 19, 2021, Valeria’s case made headlines in the Spanish media. Valeria was born sleeping, like my first daughter, Agape. Agape (Αγάπη) means love in Greek. Valeria comes from the Latin ‘valere’, which means to be strong. Despite what the title suggests, this is a story of love and strength.

When Valeria’s father, Antonio, asked for a paternity leave after the birth of his daughter, he got a nasty surprise. He had no right to a paternity leave. If Valeria had lived for at least 24 hours after birth, Antonio would have this right, but now that she didn’t, the Social Security system responded negatively to his request. The parents were left devastated. I know the feeling and I can tell you what it feels like. It feels like being punished for having the great misfortune of losing your baby.

This discriminatory law changed very recently. On December 10, 2021, the High Court of Justice of Cantabria issued ruling 838/2021 that extends the right for a maternity/paternity leave to all parents. It sounds good, no? Before ringing the bells of celebration, let’s see how the ruling continues: to all parents of a foetus that is born at 6 (or more) months of gestation. 6 months. 180 days. I gave birth to my second daughter, Alba, at exactly 181 days of gestation. I was very lucky, Alba lived. An extremely preterm baby, with all the implications this carries in COVID times, but she lived. Not only she lived, but she is thriving. She is now smiling and waving to me as I write these lines. Am I thriving though? No. I am unprotected by the law, and this heavily affects both my life and my work.

Alba was born at 181 days. If I had given birth only some mere hours earlier, I would — for the second time in my life — have gone through a dramatic delivery that quite possibly would have left me without any rights. Not just maternity rights, without any type of rights. Agape, my first daughter, was born sleeping at 20 weeks of gestation. After I lost her, I had to go back to work. You see, I didn’t hit the 180-days target, so no maternity rights for me.

I did take some days off after giving birth to Agape, because the infection that ended her life was threatening mine too. However, once chorioamnionitis was no longer causing me troubles, the Social Security system looked the other way. Straight back to work. Agape has never even existed for them, she was just a stillborn foetus. She is not just a foetus for me, she is my first daughter. When people ask me if I’ll have a second child, I’m always quick to correct them: I have two daughters, Agape and Alba.

Let’s think about the 180-days mark. Since I didn’t meet it, I face certain consequences. For one, I do not qualify for a maternity extension of the eligibility period in major grants like the ones awarded by the European Research Council. I cannot document a maternity leave for Agape, because the Spanish law does not give me this right, so I cannot request the relevant extension from ERC. Sadly, it does not matter that the consequences of losing my first child have affected my ability to work in ways far crueller and more severe than an actual maternity leave, which is spent in taking care of an infant.

Second, topics like stillbirth, miscarriage, pregnancy complications, and painful periods that don’t let you work are largely a matter of taboo. Women are not supposed to talk about these things. And that’s the problem: Not being able to be our true self at work or having the feeling that there are no policies that protect us when we face such issues is cognitively and physically depleting.

Talking about policies, I have already documented the story of Alba: Taking care of a minor that has serious conditions (extreme prematurity is among them) gives working mothers the right to reduce their working hours. I am a Ramón y Cajal fellow, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. When I asked for a reduction of my working hours, I was told that sure, I can reduce my hours, but neither my grant, nor my tenure-clock can be extended. In other words, I lose my research project, with all the repercussions this carries for future grant applications. It’s publish or perish in academia. After Valeria’s story, my story made the Spanish headlines too.

When I was told that I must choose between taking care of my preterm baby, Alba, and keeping my grant, I said no way, I will not bend to this injustice, I will not lose my grant, but I will also not risk my daughter’s health by sending her to a pre-nursery school. I was in a privileged position to say so. I live many miles and countries away from my parents or any other family member, but I’m lucky enough to have a good mother-in-law. She kindly stepped in and volunteered to take care of Alba some hours every day, so that I work as much as I can. It almost always goes down to women’s unpaid labor, right?

I gladly accepted her offer and went back to work. And this is how the absence of dedicated policies that protect our rights matters: If my mother-in-law does not take care of Alba, I literally cannot work. My partner earns more than me, despite the fact that I have a PhD and he has just a BA degree. Given the pay gap, the stability of his job, and the instability of mine, if one income is to be lost, this must be mine.

As I said, I was lucky: I could go back to work for the past month, after the end of my maternity leave, thanks to the kindness of my mother-in-law. Like Blanche DuBois, I depend on the kindness of others. But sometimes others can’t help us anymore, we need official policies and rules that protect us and our working rights.

Today the calendar shows February 2, 2022. This story would have been dedicated to Agape, who was born sleeping on February 20, 2020. Agape is the Greek word for love. I have loved her so much that no other name seemed fitting. But precisely because Agape means love, this story is dedicated to Marisa. Marisa Garcia, a woman you probably don’t know, a woman few people know. Marisa Garcia, a next-door-woman. Marisa Garcia, my mother-in-law, whose unconditional love and unfailing support keeps Alba, Agape’s younger sister, safe.

Marisa Garcia was just diagnosed with metastatic cancer, affecting the lungs, the liver, and the bones. While there are treatments, this is far from a rosy picture. If Marisa can’t take care of Alba and if Alba’s prematurity does not allow us to take her to a pre-nursery school, I must stop working to take care of her. That’s why having the right policies matters.

I promised you a story of love and strength, didn’t I? I always keep my promises. Even now that Marisa is hospitalized and in extreme pain, she worries for me, for my work, for my projects, and for my grant applications. She keeps asking whether I have made enough progress, whether I can make the deadline for the Next Big Grant, now that she can’t take care of Alba. The answer is that I probably can’t, but I lie to her and say I can.

This is a story of love, and as such, it is dedicated to Marisa, and to the unpaid and often unrecognized labor of all grandparents who take care of their grandchildren.

Marisa, my Next Big Grant will be for you and thanks to you.

I promise.

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash



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