Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour

gandme“Slow down,” my mother said, watching me gobble down my lunch. “You don’t have to hurry.” But in these handful of weeks – eight tomorrow since my daughter entered the world – I’ve learned to do most things at a run. My daughter Grace is very rarely at rest; right now she’s napping, but that never lasts for long, and even in her sleep she thrashes, purses her lips, stretches her small fat arms above her head. So although my dad had Grace on his knee, letting me for once have the use of both hands to eat, I swallowed down the meal as if poised once again for flight.

What turned out to be only a week before I gave birth, I wrote a blog post on the transitional time of late pregnancy. I wrote then, in reference to medieval texts of pregnant or recently postpartum women set adrift, as well as my own pregnant state:

Because there is only so far that the support of one’s maidens (or nowadays a birth partner, midwives, doctors) can take a woman: in many ways, the journey through childbirth is one that is taken alone. What perhaps those women hoped for – what we all hope for – is passage through a storm to calmer waters, and then the safety of shore.

This isn’t the place for labour stories. In most ways, my labour was very straightforward, and so uninteresting to people who aren’t me. I did give birth in water, though it wasn’t the kind of zen experience you see in positive birthing videos, where everyone is in soft focus and the mother seems to drift like a contented hippo beneath warm water. No; for all I was perfectly safe, I felt more akin to my calumniated queens, tossed on stormwracked seas. It was the most intensely physical experience of my life, and I think in some ways I’m still processing it – what my body had to do, what it is capable of, how it has left me now – and will be for some time. There’s little space for quiet reflection in these newborn weeks, and so what thinking I do beyond survival mode – feed, clean, sleep – takes places in snatches, and those thoughts are often left as unfinished as the half-drunk cups of tea that litter the house.

I wanted to come back to the blog with an interesting post all about women’s work and the work of labour and how our physical bodies and our academic bodies are sweatily entangled, and that the gulf between the expectations of our profession and the realities of women’s lived experience is often very deep. But right now I’m a little too tired for profundity, and just glad for this brief snatched moment where I have a mug of tea beside me and a keyboard in front of me, knowing my child is safe in the next room. And very glad that I, unlike many of my friends across the pond, do not have to now gear up my still-worn postpartum body for a return to work, do not have to tearfully pump enough milk to feed an ever-hungry eight week old baby while I’m at the office, do not know that’s my only choice if I want to keep my job. On my return to work, I will have to worry about things I raised in this post – the cost of childcare, and the subtler but no less significant cost of what being a mother may do to my career progression – but at least for now I’m provided with a generous maternity package that means I can do my current work without worrying about paying the bills.

Because it is real work. Liz Gloyn has blogged eloquently on the challenges of recent motherhood and being an ECR, of the pressures both external and internal to keep on doing academic work even when on maternity leave. Because academic work, of course, is a vocation; doves descend and call us to God’s plan for us to write on medieval sex or classical drama or bioethics or whatever, and surely the mundane physical work of rearing an infant shouldn’t detract from that.

I’m making some different choices than Liz has done, which doesn’t mean that mine are better – morally or otherwise! – than hers. There are a couple of time-sensitive academic commitments I will meet in the ten months I am officially away from work. And I may do a couple of things just for the pleasure of them, because I do truly love what I do. I’ll also keep blogging here, when time permits. But I have made the decision not to feel obliged to do anything to do with my paying job until mid-June 2016. This labour I’m currently doing is, quite frankly, much more challenging than any other job I’ve done, and it’s got a far steeper learning curve. It is immensely rewarding, and it is also very tough, both emotionally and physically. As a friend said: your boobs have a full time job! (Sorry to any of my students who are reading this and are now left with awkward thoughts about my boobs.) Never mind the rest of me. Women are expected to work around their bodies, and the children that are often treated as an extension of their bodies in a way they are not for fathers. Women apologise for taking a day off when children are sick, for missing a deadline because they have been vomiting so much in pregnancy that even getting to a desk is almost impossible, never mind actually writing, and very often I hear academic women sounding sheepish about not getting the draft of their book finished when they were on maternity leave. Because gosh, what else were they going to do with all that time? That sort of thinking is the product of a culture that thinks our work is all about our minds, and that we should work around our bodies, not with them. It’s why academia can also be a terrible place for disabled people to find accommodation, or for people of colour to fit in. Our industry supposedly doesn’t care about the pettiness of the body. But in treating the body as if it is petty, it means that only the very privileged have the space to think.

About menysnoweballes

Feminist medievalist, teacher of history, consumer of pop culture. Lecturer at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Blogging in a personal capacity.
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43 Responses to Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour

  1. I really struggle with the fact that I’m not ‘doing enough’ apart from raising my children. So many times people will say to me, ‘you have FOUR CHILDREN’ and I think, ‘yes, but…’ and recently, I’ve been trying to reroute my thinking to that. I do have four children, and I am the person they look to for so much, from basic needs to more abstract stuff. The other things can wait. They really can’t. I’m still going to do all those other things, but it’s just going to take me longer.

    And I hear you about the importance of maternity leave and proper support for parents in the workplace. It’s just beyond comprehension, the lack of assistance women in the US get, compared to so many other developed nations.

  2. Justine says:

    “That sort of thinking is the product of a culture that thinks our work is all about our minds, and that we should work around our bodies, not with them.”

    You raise a very interesting point. I’m surprised I never even thought of it that way despite the months I spent going off 4-5 hours of sleep a night, school, homework, work, and scarce a moment in between to cook anything to eat (and eating out all the time isn’t good for anyone).

    Academia is definitely a place where it is so easy to get wrapped up in your mind and forget all about your body. It’s good to read a post like this that makes you take a step back and think about what you’re doing to yourself! Sometimes that extra hour of rest will do you better than an extra hour of work.

  3. I’m so glad I randomly stumbled across this post – it’s so beautifully written! I find myself worn out, counting down the last 20 minutes before the weekend begins, finished with work for the week but still physically trapped. I can relate to so much that’s woven throughout your post, particularly having to pump to feed my child (which I’m doing at this moment actually). I had six weeks with my child before I had to ship her off to daycare and find a way to balance no sleep with the expectation that I be on my ‘A’ game after my six week “vacation.” Being a woman who works outside the home and who is also a mother is tough. I hope you’ve found balance in the last few months since this post! Your daughter is adorable!

    • Thank you so much! I’m sorry you had to return to work so soon. I was still a physical mess six weeks postpartum and could not have coped!

      • This was beautifully written and your story really hits home with me. As a midwife and a mother of 7 children, I have lived the challenge. I see on a daily basis women trying to do it all. It is the rare exception when a mother is financially able and mentally prepared to do the work at hand of growing a baby, giving birth, and then caring for the child during the critical childbirth period. My guidance as their midwife does not over ride our cultural expectations. I am in the US and there is no maternity help for families. You are correct. I see the tears and the stress as the return to work date approaches. My heart breaks for these families. Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. I will pass this on to my clients.

  4. breedskool says:

    Lovely!!!

  5. elsandra says:

    Such a beautiful post!

  6. What a wonderful blog. Thank you for your words.

    I, myself, am a new mom (well, just over a year) and have been unable to find work here that pays enough to cover child care. So I’m staying at home and a few times a week, teaching yoga. Although that’s mostly for my own sanity. The job hunt continues, but boy, it is frustrating.

    So many good points. I hope that here in the US, our parental leaves will catch up with the rest of the world’s.

    Wonderful that you were able to find the time to write. That struggle is all too real.

    Again, beautiful blog. I’m glad I found it.

  7. I love this (and see I am late in finding it)! I am a young scientist venturing into academia (hoping to start my PhD in March) and I’ve spent the last few months reading blogposts that showcase the negative and the positive about academia. I am childless, but that is a temporary state at my 25 years of age… This is really great to read because I am all about supporting women and other minorities in the sciences.

    As the commenter above me stated, it’s sad what little support women have in the USA, but sadly, here in the USA, we seem to be far behind other developed nations in terms of human rights and respect!

  8. Pingback: Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour | Welcome To femi babalola Site

  9. mumaspirit says:

    Lovely post. I am about to return to work next week after 6 months off to have my baby. I don’t want to go back especially as my commute is around one and a half hours each way on top of an 8 hour day, however bills have to paid which statutory mat pay will not cover. I feel so sad at the thought that I will only see my beautiful daughter for 1-2 hours a day before she goes to bed😦 it really breaks my heart but all I can take from it is a new determination to find a better paid job closer to home.
    There is so much pressure on us as women and much judgement too. People think that I am “choosing” to work and leave my daughter but our employers’ policies do not allow for us not to return if we choose to take the occupational maternity leave and some of us don’t have partners who earn enough to pay for everything and quite frankly I wouldn’t want my partner to pay for everything.
    Anyway enough from me as I could go on about this subject for ages lol

  10. Noor Elhayat says:

    Every time I read a post about pregnancy or maternity I think to myself:”why! I don’t have kids yet” but I love to read about the human experience as itself is enriching. Giving birth in water! Wow that must have been such an experience!
    Your words are so real and I love that. I love your picture with your baby too. Thnx for sharing!

  11. thebeetmama says:

    So much of mama hood has its challenges, thank you for this read!

  12. thelly says:

    Thank you for this post. It is always refreshing to hear/read other peoples honest experiences. I find that other mums I know appear to juggle the children, work, home and a social life without breaking a bead of sweat. I on the other hand have 2 children and find it hard to work 3 days, my social life has dramatically reduced and I only have time for make-up at the weekends.
    Refreshing reading

  13. Pingback: Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour | odds 'n ends

  14. Jane DoDo says:

    “But in treating the body as if it is petty, it means that only the very privileged have the space to think.” – Articulated perfectly.

  15. Good post. I don’t have children but my sister does and I see her try to hurry everything too.

  16. Pingback: Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour | Netarash

  17. Reblogged this on SobiUziPsychology and commented:
    This is a very interesting read

  18. This is a very interesting read. As a mother to three girls under the age of 8 I have finally taken the step to return to academia currently studying my first year psychology degree. It’s hard to fit going to university and then coming home to do the coursework and prepare for presentations. It is something I’m juggling but so far so good ..x

  19. Tiffany Lane says:

    This really hit home with me! Today is a day where I am struggling with my daughter being away at the sitter and I am at work with nothing to do. I keep thinking days like today could be spent watching her sleep if nothing else. I was asked by my company to return to work after just 4 weeks being off and was treated like a dog because I wasn’t released by the dr until week 7. I had an emergency c-section, with and a very rough recovery, and post-partum to add to the already crazy stress levels. I returned with massive amounts of work to do, more bills than I knew what to do with and the most awful gut-wrenching feeling of “someone else is raising my child”! Somehow all of those issues didn’t matter as I would cry in my office and would get questioned by everyone wanting to know what was wrong with me. I think the moms that “act” like they have it all together in public give the moms who actually struggle a bad name. We all struggle, it isn’t easy by any means, and I am so glad that there are more woman out there willing to admit that! Thank you!

  20. I love this post!! I’m feeling the immense pressures of returning to work, mainly because that’s what society deems as respectable.

    I think it’s so unfair that careers can be delayed or penalized because a Mom wants to stay at home and raise their child(ren).

    My husband and I are facing that difficult decision now.

    Perhaps it was due to my emotional roller coaster of a pregnancy, but I feel like it’s my duty to remain at home and be with my daughter. However, when people hear that’s my goal once my maternity leave is up they look at me like I have 2 heads.

    I’m happy to stay at home and maintain this beautiful life we’ve built instead of rushing back to the office.

    I greatly admire a parent that can return to work so smoothly, I just wish the same feelings were felt towards parents who choose to stay at home for a few years. That decision is equally as admirable.

    • he4gvu says:

      Well said, “I’m feeling the immense pressures of returning to work, mainly because that’s what society deems as respectable.” We all tend to accept manipulative groupthink, even against our innate understanding. Being a mother is a primary responsibility and privilege. I don’t think there’s any higher calling, yet many won’t accept it as a valid answer to “what do you do for work?” With all of our readily-available labor saving household amenities and indoor plumbing, why do we feel the need for work which distances us from our children? I greatly admire you for stating, “I’m happy to stay at home and maintain this beautiful life we’ve built instead of rushing back to the office.” Do so, and enjoy it!

  21. egbertstarr says:

    While not untrue, I don’t understand how this ties into your discussion of pregnancy, birth, kids, and, motherhood: “It’s why academia can also be a terrible place for disabled people to find accommodation, or for people of colour to fit in.” Can you explain?

  22. blogger530 says:

    I am so glad I have come across this post. What makes me wander is the unfairness in the whole situation. Those with other half’s may agree to disagree that most of the childcare is usually left to the mom. The burden is big as we struggle to balance everything to suit our lives. Posts like this one gives other mothers and assurance they are not the only ones.

  23. So glad I stumbled upon this! I wish I could write as beautifully as you do. I personally have taken a year off from work while my husband is deployed. Those who have to go back sooner are such strong women. Being a mother is mentally and physically demanding.

  24. messyhope says:

    My kids are all now teenagers and I still eat on the run and try to balance everything. I don’t think we every settle into a routine, but rolling with the waves as opposed to being smashed by them is the goal lol

  25. Pingback: Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour – ajudaroproximo

  26. Paintwriterblue says:

    Im a first time mom to be and this is super encouraging, I have two more months until my baby boy comes, and I won’t be working, and I feel a little unless and looked down on by my husbands family. I do want to work but we would like to raise our child by the two of us instead of a daycare. Its amazing the expectations of society on mothers.

    • he4gvu says:

      My degreed wife and I chose to make do with less total income and have her stay home to be a full time mom. We both highly value that work. 35 years later, we know it was the right choice. We now have an amazingly tight family and 5 grandsons. You can do it too if you make the choice.

  27. Pingback: Set Out Running: Academic Bodies, After Labour – shikhazenblog

  28. bmj8 says:

    This is a fantastic article!

  29. misscaramoan says:

    Reblogged this on misscaramoan and commented:
    this is reality!

  30. Pingback: On being a productive academic mother | Classically Inclined

  31. I love this post 😀
    I have 5 babes
    beautifully written
    All moms should read this ❤️
    Thanks for sharing

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