Academic Maternity Leave : The shame game

It is a milestone week. My baby is now past the six week mark. We saw our wonderful wise midwife for the last time professionally and were transferred into the care of our medical centre. I took my son for his vaccinations, somewhat more anxiously than with my older three: a Facebook friend had called people who vaccinate imbeciles and could not understand how people could be so wilfully blind. Which for some reason hit what Brene Brown calls my shame triggers.

For Brown, shame emerges when we are confronted with other people’s perceptions of us that differ radically from how we would like to be perceived. Motherhood is a huge shame trigger for many women, and so is work performance. I’ve posted previously about a major work fail that happened when I was distracted with mothering, but my friend’s comment hit a different note.

Perhaps it is because I am a researcher that accusations of being an imbecile over a matter of health research grates so bad. What if I am not as good a researcher as I believe, despite having access to all the published scientific papers and Cochrane reviews, despite having an intimate knowledge of the politics and economics of research funding, despite teaching ethics and knowledge production to science students? I know there is vaccine injury and what the risks are compared to the risks of disease in the work I do and the places I travel with my family. I have witnessed the ongoing struggles of children who had whooping cough as babies and I have lived in places in the world where the infant mortality rate approaches 25%, from almost entirely preventable childhood illnesses. I have heard from parents whose children seemed to begin to display symptoms of autism around the time of vaccination and I’ve heard the stories of autistic folk who cannot understand why people think autism is worse than tetanus or hepatitis. I have heard people ridicule anti-vaxxers and heard people ridicule vaccinating parents. I have seen the internet articles arguing against the efficacy of vaccines and doctors revealing the conspiracy, and indeed, they have an internal logic that appeals to my anti capitalist tendencies. How do I sort through a wealth of information of varying quality on a matter of deep personal importance without becoming susceptible to shame?

I’ve done my best and decided to vaccinate. But I hovered over my baby for two days through a fever then an upset tummy, cuddled him through all his sleeps while editing a student’s thesis with one hand. My maternity leave draws to an end and I must find a way to continue my work alongside mothering, both of which are neverending sources of both pride and shame. When I forget to do a work thing or do it less than perfectly, I imagine everyone sees me as totally flaky. When I don’t turn up for a parent thing or social thing or I make a parenting decision different from my peers, I imagine everyone sees me as a hard-assed working mother neglecting her children’s health, school and social lives.

The reality is, academic maternity leave is not really leave at all and especially not a holiday from ever present work and mothering shame. Brene Brown suggests that we build resistance to shame, however, by recognising the triggers then developing critical awareness and compassion. Fortunately for academics, our job is critical awareness and fortunately for me, a large part of my job is about critical awareness of the social, political and economic systems that shape women’s lives. So here I am again, fourth time round, still analysing and researching myself… perhaps this is why maternity leave can never really be leave until we learn to be compassionate with ourselves.

You can read some of my earlier publications on academia and maternity by using the tags to navigate.

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