My friend and colleague Ann Hill has contributed a blog post for me today, inspired by the conversations we have had about managing our academic and mothering practices. Dr Ann Hill is a member of the Community Economies Collective, and has conducted research on food economies in the Phillipines. She is currently working on a large project called Strengthening Economic Resilience in Monsoon Asia.
Let’s begin with a quick test.
Is academic mothering practice
- a curse
- a lifestyle
- a blessing
- all of the above?
I pick ‘d’. You too? I translate ‘all of the above’ to mean ‘it depends’. It depends on the day you ask me as to whether the ‘I’m feeling grateful I am a mother and an academic’ glass is half full or half empty. But it also depends on the narratives that guide me. I’ve been thinking a lot on those narratives this year and this piece is a first attempt to articulate them.
I don’t consider myself a ‘blog lover’ in my own writing and reading practice BUT I am drawn to the blog space of my friend and colleague Kelly Dombroski. For me it is a space that validates my own struggles as a mother and early career academic and a space that inspires collective thinking and conversation about how to navigate the journey healthily, with fun and playfulness. This blog and Kelly’s peer mentoring propels me to be less serious, less stressed and less of a perfectionist in my work but also to feel as if I can do more than ‘just cope’ simply by rethinking my attitudes, expectations and priorities.
I have always felt that any journey is made easier by that simple reminder that we are not alone in our experiences and in our efforts. In relation to academic mothering, Kelly and I are part of a ‘hybrid collective’ of sorts to use a term we have both employed in our research in China, Australia and the Philippines. We met when we both had significant baby bumps. It is an immediate obvious talking point when you collide in the small space of the kitchen while making your tea, back then, it was the tearoom of the Australian National University’s, dynamic Human Geography Department, sometimes referred to among its old inhabitants as ‘the good old days’. While a few years later Kelly moved on post the collapse of our Department and a round of ANU restructuring (round one during the course of my own PhD), I stayed on for various reasons to do with family life and my scholarship conditions. But we stayed connected in various capacities, supporting one another through our PhD thesis completions (hers at The University of Western Sydney) and in our work as part of the Community Economies Collective (see www.communityeconomies.org) and the Community Economies Research Network (CERN) that formed in 2010.
Last week as it happened Kelly was in Sydney for research meetings (visiting from her now home of Christchurch/ University of Canterbury). We met up with another mothering academic who hails from ANU, Katharine McKinnon, and others at the monthly CERN meeting. We were talking about a project proposal Katharine, Kelly and our community economies colleague Stephen Healy are formulating around birth and health care more broadly.
Early in the morning over coffee and during the lunch break ‘the three mothers’ gravitated toward talking and sharing the ongoing mothering journey, much of which Kelly describes so aptly in her blog. It got me thinking a lot about my own journey and some narrative shifts I have been making over the past year since my own household of 2 adults and 2 children split into two single parent households sharing child care. I’ve called them ‘old’ and ‘new’ thinking modes, but needless to say I oscillate, and my thinking on most things is often somewhere on a complex continuum. But what I have realized with renewed vigor is that we all have to determine ‘what is right for us’ or ‘what it is good for us to be’. And, the fact that this sense of what feels right for me in my life circumstances is very different from the next person’s is both inevitable AND okay. In this sense perhaps sharing my story and my shifting narratives is an exercise in adding more articulations to mothering academic possibilities. So here goes.
Guilt: I’m not the mother who sews costumes for my children’s book week parades. I can’t sew at all in fact. I’ve never decorated a ‘themed cake’ myself. (I have paid a friend to make a Thomas the Tank Engine cake that was amazing!). I resist children’s parties especially elaborate ones. (I did organize them for my boys when they were younger). While I hate the pressure and expectations of social events, sporting and other extra curricula activities, I struggle with avoiding these things altogether. They seem important social markers (be they problematic ones), of my mothering success and of my children’s social development. Around work it is a juggle. One can feel guilty for opting out of activities due to work and guilty about not working when opting in, trying to check email on the sideline while keep one eye on the sporting event. I’m sure we have all been there.
Divided heart: Often I find myself simultaneously wrestling with a theoretical argument in my work, making school lunches and snacks and listening to my child read or tell me about the latest I-pad game. At present we are in the ‘Terraria’ craze. I’m trying to pack everything in but it’s really taxing doing that. I’m not a good multi-tasker really, no matter what people say about women being good at that. I find it stressful and I feel divided to my own and my kids detriment.
Wanting it all: I want to be a good mother, a brilliant academic, a community minded person, a carer of my extended family. Really if I am honest I expect myself to be good at all these things and I set high standards that are unrealistic.
There’s no room for self pity or acknowledgement that it’s ‘bloody hard work’: When I think it’s all too hard I am reminded by others quite quickly that I ought not to feel sorry for myself or see my situation as something worth special compassion. After all there is always something in life that warrants a struggle. If not trying to start an academic career with young kids, aging parents, relationship breakdowns, a death in the family, far more stressful senior academic work loads, teaching loads, full time employment, all of which I appreciate and some of which I have also experienced in the past few years. It is true that life will always throw up challenges for us all. But that we should toughen up and get on with it without much validation and sympathy, I’m not sure.
Sacrifice/ Martyrdom: I am really relied upon in my family unit to keep everything together and I need to just keep juggling all the balls. If I relinquish some control of the household to cope with my academic work load the wheels fall off and then there’s so much more work for me to do to fix things.
Less is more: I currently work at University of Western Sydney in a 0.4 post- doctoral position with some occasional paid research and teaching work making up about 0.2 and my own unpaid writing another 0.2. I realize for myself, for now, to make my mothering academic life work I need to rigorously pursue part-time work, just to do the things I love, like the book writing project I have just begun, and being emotionally present to my kids.
Celebrate flexibility and embrace the on-going ethical negotiations of home care practices: I am a co-parent with my children’s Dad. We regularly help each other out and negotiate anomalies in our usual care routine to support each other’s career development and we are committed to healthy co-parenting. Typically I have my children at my home Sunday evenings to Wednesday evenings (and every alternate weekend). I work from home Mon to Wed around school routines and try to limit office days and research meetings to Thursdays and Fridays. My current job enables me to do this and is a very supportive and flexible workplace environment. Plus Skype and email makes it all so much easier.
When I’m in a writing project, like now, I wake religiously at 5 and tell my kids that if they wake before 7/7:30 please read, ideally stay in bed! I have a supportive wider family that helps with care when I travel, at least a few weeks each year, and a very supportive school environment that tolerates ‘late’ pickups and really shows genuine care for my two boys aged 8 ½ and 11. I have a cash-in-hand occasional carer who willingly helps out when I need her to. My closest ‘blood relatives’ are too far away to drop children off in an emergency so my geographical commitment with my children’s Dad is that we need to stay living within half an hour of one another. But also as we share care each week we are in agreement about living nearby. For now I am living in Goulburn, a long but manageable commute from Sydney; this is a necessary condition of living near the current work of my co-parenting partner in Canberra but it also it enables me to survive well on part-time income.
In the next few years when I’m looking at next academic jobs, and ideally tenured ones, it is likely I’ll have to move and then negotiate this move and care arrangements across two households and depending on where I move we will have to think of creative lower cost housing solutions. I’m feeling positive that this will be possible. I have appreciated the value of fathering care alongside my own and I think my co-parenting partner does an incredible job of playing his part around his own full-time work. Our case suggests it is possible to co-parent healthily and to both enjoy meaningful work endeavors and career development in some shape and form around child love and care duties.
Advocate for job and load sharing opportunities: I wonder why the formalized job-sharing mode isn’t considered more? I’d love to job share with Kelly or Katharine McK or many other academics I know. When I was a high school teacher people did this, so I wonder is it something to explore more? In the immediate term, I can see so much value in working in collectives, ensuring that many hands make light work by gifting and sharing resources, projects and writing. My current 0.4 job is research only so it makes it easier to manage that load with writing projects, field work and some guest lecturing. But when I look for tenured teaching/ research jobs I honestly can’t see how I could take them on right now fulltime. But it would be wonderful to think on how two people at 0.5 each could share a load!
Love what I do: I feel very fortunate I love my current work. It helps no end to keep the soulful and passionate elements of the hard slog of life alive. I am reminding myself to always balance the inevitable obligation and duty tasks of any job with fun and creative ones to keep the fire in the belly at least on slow burn.
Continue to value family time and self-care: I was reminded recently by a colleague to prioritize family time and self-care. Of course we know this to be true intellectually but it is easily forgotten in practice. Ultimately the work of self-care, of holding our own hand in the tough times, is what enables us to do the rest of it with wellness. What I am trying to do with my kids is have fun, at least while they still want to talk to me and hug me! I say this tongue in cheek, aware I’m heading into the teenage years. Who knows what will happen then? Also I embrace that I don’t want to structure my children’s free time. I probably let them play on their i-pod and i-pad for too long sometimes when I’m working but I’m trying to be less stressed about ‘right parenting’. Instead of beating myself up about things, I’m trying to keep balance, which I hear Kelly advocating for too. Today, for example, despite having so much on my plate, I have scheduled to stop work by school pick up time, to go to the local pool, not for swimming lessons, just for fun and health.
Thanks Kelly for the opportunity to contribute to your blog and for continuing to think about and practice academic mothering alongside me.
No food in the house this morning, so had to leave early with my eldest to go buy something on the way to school. Pleased that our local supermarket offers pre-packed lunch food such as sandwiches and sushi in the chiller — seems I’m not the only one needing this help!