Academic motherhood – new thoughts

Last night, whilst I was trying to convince the Tiny Terror (in his mind, he was starring as Andy from Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures) should lie down and go to sleep rather than trying to find dinosaurs, I stumbled across a Twitter conversation about academic motherhood and trying to navigate it that was kicked off by Rachel Moss.  I’ve also had various ideas swilling around in my head about getting rest and holidays, and decided to take this morning to finally jot everything down.  I’ve called this academic motherhood because I am an academic and I am a mother, but there are, of course, other flavours of academic parenting and caring, and please feel free to add your comments below.

Academic parenthood is exactly what I expected and also exactly not what I expected.  On the expectations side, I expected to have less time.  I expected to have to be more focussed.  I expected to be tired.  I was.  There have been some unintended benefits of this.  Parenthood on the back of years of early career commuting means that I have no fear of an early start to a long day.  I have learned all manner of unintended life hacks, such as how there’s no need to bother with blow drying your hair if you have air con in your car to speed up the drying process.*

Here’s what I wasn’t expecting, or have had to make up as I go along:

  • When’s the best time for conferences for parents: well, there’s a campaign to end weekend conferences, but I am going to strike a controversial note because I freaking love weekend conferences.  I can just run off to a conference knowing that the Big and Tiny Terrors will just hang out together over the weekend, without them having to try to get to and from work and nursery in an orderly fashion.  On the other hand, I can perfectly see why other people with children would rather get conferences over in the week.  I’ve yet to go to a conference with childcare, or actually, to take the two Terrors with me.  I’ve not been anywhere exciting enough to entice the Terrors to come with me/the Big Terror hasn’t already been to, and there is the balance – even with childcare – of conference and home time.  It’s also actually easier for me to claim that time back in the week, particularly with summer/early autumn conferences.  The moral of this story is: we’ll probably never ever find a time for a conference that suits everyone, but conference organisers can look at what they offer in terms of childcare or family-friendly fare, and consider alternating conferences between weekend and weekday, for some starters.  And I have really loved being able to follow conferences and workshops on Twitter or watch clips on YouTube of plenaries when I’ve not been able to go in person.
  • Flexible working is not what you think it is: Pre-Terror, if I wanted to work all night and sleep all day, no-one would have batted an eyelid provided I did the teaching I was supposed to do, went to all the meetings I was supposed to be at, and got my publications out and the grants in.  Post-Terror going to nursery, my day has to revolve around nursery drop-off and collection, as well as the traffic in the Medway towns, which means that I do a core 8.30am-4.30pm day.  So, yes, I don’t have any fixed working hours by contract and could ask for flexible working if I needed to, but it’s somewhat irrelevant at the moment as I’m fixed by nursery.  And therefore by the circadian rhythms of the Tiny Terror, who needs to be vaguely in sync with this day.  However, I suspect it will really come into its own when school starts.  I don’t work evenings or weekends unless I have or want to.
  • Summers don’t happen for me – yet: they don’t happen for me yet because I currently pay full whack for a full-time nursery place over the summer (we do get grant funding of 15 hours per week, but it is only for 38 weeks a year, i.e. the school term).  Therefore, this July and August I will be forking out more on childcare than I will be on my mortgage in order to keep the Tiny Terror at nursery. Whilst we are going on holiday, and I’m planning to get some additional rest in, this is the penultimate year that I don’t have to try to work work around school holidays.  So I plan to get my money’s worth (and my book written) this year, see what happens next year when school is on the horizon, and to basically roll with school holidays when they reach us.  I’m actually really, really looking forward to the school holidays.
  • I bl**dy love weekends: any conference has to be an excellent conference to get me to it at the weekend.  It will need to offer some combination of: a) friends I’ve not seen for ages; b) the specific intellectual input/feedback/contacts I need at that point in time; c) a bath in the hotel room I’m staying in; d) some form of time-saving in offering access to archives or library collections that I need to get hold of. I love weekends, I love evenings, I love bank holidays, I love holidays, I even love a rainy day on a staycation.  It’s not that I hated them before, it’s more that this free time, with or without anything to do, is just ace.
  • Things that feel like more work can actually help balance your workload: I signed up for the Aurora programme a couple of years back, largely because I was half-interested in academic leadership.  I was half-interested because I was on something of a downer about myself and life in general (see this post).  I was genuinely worried that taking part in this would mean a tsunami of additional work for me to do.  On the contrary, getting out to these days, talking to women from other universities and thinking about what I actually do at work/others do really made the difference.  It gave me a chance to think about doing things in different (better) ways.  It also helped to boost my confidence, too.
  • I’ve genuinely been surprised by how much I’ve managed to do: That’s not meant to be a humble brag, folks, or an attempt to run down my pre-child self.  I didn’t have much of a yardstick, in fairness.  I’m not sure, when I was pregnant, that I really envisaged what life with a three year old would look like.

It’s a pity that, generally, blogs seem to be one area of academic writing that can be pushed to the side because of other forms of work taking precedence (not least ‘proper’ writing).  And time for blogs certainly gets pinched when you are trying to keep up with academic term on the one hand and a child on the other.  This is a pity, as we probably could learn a lot of from what others have to share about their experiences (and I am looking here at a couple of contributors to that Twitter convo with older children, whose advice I am squirrelling away for the future!)

* Please note that I make no claims as to whether or not this life hack will leave you looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards: I’m guessing my colleagues are just too polite to tell me if this is the case with me. 

 

To thine own self be true

On Weds 3 May 2017,  I saw my GP and began the process of weaning myself off citalopram.  I’ve been taking this SSRI since the summer of 2014, when I went and sobbed at the same GP about how I was at the end of my tether.  I had had a meltdown the previous evening about my husband leaving the fridge door open.  It wasn’t about a fridge that our landlord probably needed to replace as it was starting to leak.  It was the final straw in months and months of trying to keep absolutely everything together through my exhausting routines of checking everything and doing everything just so.  I took no pleasure in checking, double, triple, quadruple-checking that I’d locked all the windows, turned off all the sockets, there were no taps dripping, that the oven was off, that all the burners on the hob were off, that the fridge door was  shut, and that the front door was locked when I did eventually leave the house.  And if I had to drive the car anywhere, then a whole new routine of checking had to be done, making sure that I’d turned off the lights, that the handbrake was on, that I’d straightened the wheels or turned the wheels towards/away from the curb if I was on a hill, that I’d left it in a suitable gear if I was on a hill, that I’d locked the car.  This is, of course, if I’d been convinced that I would be able to park wherever I was going.  Fundamentally, these are all the kinds of checks that responsible adults should really engage with at some point in their daily lives, as y’know, leaving your car to run down the hill isn’t particularly cool, for example.  However, my mind was in knots at the possibility of all the catastrophes that would befall my family and ALL BE MY FAULT if I did not do everything to my exacting standards every single time.

Yes, Dear Reader, I am recovering from OCD and a fair dollop of post-natal depression.

I first got into worrying about washing my hands when I was a teenager anxious about my GCSEs.  By the time I was in my early twenties, the compulsion had morphed into terrors about leaving the iron on, or that I’d not locked the flat up properly.  Once I started my PhD and left behind ironing work shirts, locking the flat up was my compulsion du jour.  The need to check everything waxed and waned, depending on how stressed I was.  I felt a fool as I returned over and over to my flat to check that I’d actually locked the door and done everything I needed to, wondering what on earth the neighbours must think, but still I did.  As I grew older, and after some particularly traumatic incidents in my life, the checking got much, much worse.  Then, it was no longer a case of ‘just’ checking the front door, but also a whole range of things that could bring domestic disaster, from the possibility of coming home to a flood because I’d left a tap on or caused a fire from not switching all the plugs off.  Even if I did manage to get where I wanted to go (and I didn’t always), numerous evenings out and holidays were marred by repeated terrible thoughts about what I might be causing through my neglect.

Whilst my checking malarkey continued through pregnancy, the absolute shock of the Tiny Terror’s arrival took everything up several notches.  I went to my local hospital for what was supposed to be a routine check-up to make absolutely sure that my pre-eclampsia scare a couple of days earlier was just that, only to be saying hello to my little boy two hours after I arrived.  I have no quibbles about how I was treated at any stage of the process, because it was excellent, caring and supportive.  But my fear was off the scale, as I suddenly faced the reality of my son being in trouble and needing to be born there and then, which meant a crash c-section (and yes, I’m a needle-phobic, so whilst I’d got used to blood tests through pregnancy, the thought of HAVING A SPINAL was running-round-in-circles-after-my-own-tail terrifying on its own).  I was, simply, scared out of my wits.  And my compulsions went into overdrive.  Perhaps not unsurprisingly, breastfeeding totally failed for me, and bottle-feeding opened up new vistas of guilt and horror at the harm I could do through not following sterilising and preparation routines to the letter…

And so, eventually, I found my way to my GP, who was amazing then and has been ever since.  I’ve been extremely lucky with supportive colleagues, and having access to cognitive analytic therapy through our Occupational Health services at work.  I also have a very supportive husband, family and friends.  Although I have put a lot of work into recovering, luck is the operative word here – the happy accidents of the GP I happened to see on the day, the fact I work where I do, and all the rest.  It’s really not enough to just be aware of mental health in the abstract, we also need to be aware that, on the ground, the services aren’t always there – or if they are there, as accessible as they need to be.  And this brings me round to the title of this blog.

‘To thine ownself be true’: something that has stuck with me since studying Hamlet for my A-levels.  I’ve kept very quiet about my own circumstances on social media because I was afraid of what people would think about me.  But then, I also see a lot of students who have mental health issues, and who are apprehensive about seeking help.  I always thought keeping quiet was a way of not burdening those students with my problems, but there’s a real difference between blathering on about your own problems to someone who is asking for your help and being a sympathetic ally.  I think it’s time for me to be a sympathetic ally.  I can’t run services, but I can speak to what it’s like if you get quality support, and help make noises for ensuring that providing them is taken seriously.  And also say to the world: I’m just one example of what someone with OCD looks like.

Rochester and Borstal in the First World War – reflections

My last post on this blog bemoaned not having enough time to do any blogging.  Over the last six months, I have done a lot of blogging – or rather, editing up other people’s blog posts – but it has been over on the blog for Rochester and Borstal in the First World War and also, in 2017, on Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees 1914-18.   Both blogs are the [partial] fruits of AHRC/Gateways to the First World War projects, which are about enabling community engagement with the history of the First World War.  I’ve really enjoyed my involvement with both projects, from getting stuck in on the research to working with volunteers.  But – I think these projects have also had a transformative impact on the way I think about the experience of the war, and also of doing research.  Not really one of the aims of the Gateways work, but an outcome nonetheless.

Before 2016, I never really saw myself as being an historian of the First World War.  Of course, it was something I taught as part of being a teacher of modern British history, and it has always been an important element of my research on the settlement movement, juvenile delinquency and legal advice.  From these angles, the war existed as a disruptive force, taking away many of the dramatis personae of settlements, boys’ clubs, juvenile courts and Poor Man’s Lawyer groups, and returning them in a different state, if at all.  One of the most poignant things I researched for my PhD was the Toynbee Hall scout group and their network, who pretty much marched up to the Whitechapel Recruitment Office together, with few returning.  War was a stressor, putting strains on people who were trying to change the status quo in their particular way.

What the Rochester & Borstal project has done for me is to bring alive the experience of leaving home for a conflict that, on the outset, looked like it would be over by Christmas, would provide lots of excitement and a chance to see the world beyond the Medway valley.  For many of them, it would be an escape or at least a change from a hard-pressed life. However, all too soon it would apparent that many of the young men would not be back by Christmas – or at all.  One street in particular – Sidney Road in Borstal – lost many of its young men to the war.  I shudder to think what it must have been like to see the telegram boy coming down that street.  In addition to writing the biographies, as far as we can, of these men and their families, I’ve also been pin-pointing the places they lived or were associated with on a Google map.  In this way, you see the neighbours who at different times, and in different services, go off to war; or ‘see’ the ghosts that you might pass every day.  I regularly drive (or rather, queue in traffic) along a stretch of road where several men lived.  The homes of others have disappeared, demolished for what would become the car parks for two supermarkets in Strood.  For others, I wonder what it must have been like to lose a brother, father, uncle, cousin, colleague, friend or son who volunteered in the first years of the war, and what it must have meant to receive your call-up papers after conscription was introduced in 1916.  Would you be afraid?  Would you be angry?  Would you be pleased to serve your country?  I don’t know.  We might know about those who were able to leave those thoughts behind on paper or in art, but for the specific men I encountered on this project… we may never know.

How have we found these stories, these places?  Through using the richness of digitised family history sources, such as Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk.  These sites are more geared up for the researchers who are building up a family tree, and are not without their limitations – machine-transcription for starters.  It’s also difficult to search by street, though not impossible.  But it makes a lot of the slog of archival research and particularly record linkage far more accessible – and also easier for people who are new to archival research to get stuck in.  And the ability to connect with family members who have dug up things or made links is priceless.  My dabbling in geohumanities really is just sticking pins on a Google map with a link to the person’s biography, but this visualisation is incredibly powerful in linking these pasts to one’s experience of the present.

So I will keep thinking about these men as I drive or walk past their homes, because I now know where they lived and I know what their lives were like.  And I would not have done, had it not been for this project.

On blogging (or not)

I’ve really not done a lot of blogging – certainly on this blog – since my son was born almost three years ago.  Whilst some parents are able to blog all the time, indeed some make a full-time career out of blogging about being a parent, for me blogging about anything that is somewhat personal is something that lags waaaaaayyy behind all the other things that I have to do in the mere 24 hours in a day.  It’s never been enough of a priority, and there are hundreds of blog ideas and drafts that have come to life in my head, only to fizzle out by the time I’ve got downstairs from putting my son to bed.

So why does it come so far behind the many other things I have to do?

As mentioned in my last post, back in July, I’m stuck in the world of having a child who thinks sleep is for wimps.  He gets up at a relatively civilised time, but this means I’m up at ridiculous o’clock in order to get myself ready for the day ahead before he gets up and starts causing havoc.  Touch wood, he’s stopped napping at nursery, but if he has had a kip, he will be up until my bedtime.  Even if he hasn’t napped, an early bedtime is no guarantee.  And the clocks go back next month – who knows what new variants on sleep deprivation he will concoct.  I’d love to do the sort of swing shifts with picking up work once he’d gone to bed that I did about a year ago, but nah… why do that when I can veg out in front of #GBBO?

Them’s the breaks of having small children.  He’ll not do this forever.  He’ll do something else.  And then something else.  To paraphrase Alan Bennett, parenthood is just one fucking phase after another.

There are plenty of other things that have fallen by the wayside of having a small child.  Academic seminars have to be really worth it.  And I probably can’t stay for drinks: driving once I get off the train, but also the real possibility of an over-tired child waiting up for me.  I still go to conferences, but again, it has to be really worth it.  Weekend ones are ace, because no negotiations over nursery pick-ups are required.  The last time I went to a conference, nursery called as I was somewhere north of Birmingham to tell me that he had a temperature and needed to come home.  Cue feeling guilty, particularly when seeing a forlorn little creature on Facetime wanting to know when I would be home.

 

What of the things that are prioritised in all this?  For one, the REF-able stuff.  I had visions last September when I was on sabbatical of blogging about how my second monograph was going, but the reality has been more about writing the monograph.  Those blog posts have remained in my head.  Second, consultancy work and a community project have been occupying my time, because they are time-limited and there are things to deliver (if the community project has a blog that I’m already enjoying working on).  Third, there are the demands of work.  That’s not to say that the first two are not part of my job – they very much are – but they are less rooted in the physical and virtual world of the campus.  And rooted is the operative word here.  It is the being anchored in your classes and PhD supervisions, and in the needs of your students, which vary wildly from the easy-to-answer questions at one end of the spectrum to the problems that take you back.  It is in the things that need to be done to keep the machine moving, and the contentions and consensuses around that.

And so blogging drops down the agenda, despite the way in which it pops up in my mind as something good to do.  Perhaps I’ll feel differently about it when this series of Bake Off is over.

 

The sporadic blogger

A friend mentioning someone looking at my post on historians and NVivo reminded me that this blog has been in abeyance for the best part of two years, posts on the Rebus novels notwithstanding.  It’s not that I’ve lost my love of blogging or have run out of things to say – I’ve had a thousand blog posts composed in my head.  But I have a son who thinks having a nap at nursery means that he can stay up until past my bedtime, on top of all the things that I need to do at work and at home.  Blogging is one of those things that has fallen by the wayside.  The thousand posts will remain in my head.

Or, given that the Tiny Terror has decided that he might just drop his nap, perhaps I might get a bit of a chance to sneak a few blog posts out there…

 

So I read every Rebus novel out there…

As challenges go, setting myself the task of reading every John Rebus novel by Ian Rankin was hardly the worst one out there.  Some people set themselves challenges that require some kind of sacrifice or tough physical effort.  This involved sitting down and reading a series of books, sometimes on the sofa with a cup of tea to hand, but more often than not, whilst waiting for the Tiny Terror to lie down in his cot and go to sleep.

So what did I learn?  I already knew that Ian Rankin was one of my favourite authors, and John Rebus remains one of my favourite protagonists.  However, as I’d tended to dip into the series in and out since the late 1990s, depending on what books were available when I happened to be in a bookshop or library or hanging around at my parents’ house,  I’d not read the novels in sequence or at regular intervals.  I suspect that this is a fairly common way of reading series if you come to them once the series is in full swing and you are reliant on the vagaries of library and bookshop ordering.  Therefore, whilst I knew the characters, I’d not fully appreciated the development of character and plot over time.

Rebus is one of my favourite characters because he isn’t handsome, cool or thin; he is overweight, scruffy for most of the time, and drives an ancient Saab.   With the series running in ‘real time’, these qualities become more entrenched over the years.  Whilst there are intertextual nods to Life on Mars in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus’ status as an older police officer who will not or cannot retire means that as he ages, he stands out more as the Gene Hunt of Edinburgh.  But if Gene Hunt is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s, Rebus is a time traveller.

Rebus grapples with the new technologies that emerge over time:  pecking out text messages with his fingers sticks in my mind from the later novels.  One of the things I have enjoyed the most about the work I have done on juvenile crime is the ways in which technological change impacts on the things that we value and the way that we behave.  I was fascinated by the attraction getting things for free from outdoor vending machines held for interwar teens, or their interest in jumping into the back of grocery delivery vans for goodies.  There’s much to unpick here about the history of consumption, transport etc and how it impacts not only on our ‘social’ behaviours (the convenience of shopping and the ability to afford chocolate, toys etc) but also on our ‘antisocial’ behaviours, in terms of acquiring these things if we don’t have the money to do so (or don’t want to spend it).  Rebus is more concerned with violent crimes, but the acquisitive society shapes much of this.  As the novels progress, and Scottish devolution and independence become ever more pressing ‘real life’ themes, so Rankin explores the ways in which this impacts on the opportunities for both the under- and overworlds to make a profit from the changing political world of Scotland.  And then there are the ways in which those who don’t have the resources fare in this world.  Rebus also notes the ways in which the internet and social media have changed some aspects of our behaviour – the younger generation of police and criminals go about their business through computers, tablets and phones.  Yet there remains a place for the shoe leather and contacts form of policing that Rebus is more at home with – though even he knows how to use Google…

Given that there’s still some time before Even Dogs in the Wild comes out, I may well start again with Knots and Crosses and 1990s Rebus.  These are novels that stand multiple reads largely because they are not just about crime.  They are about Edinburgh; they are about the state of modern Scotland, but also its place in the United Kingdom.  They are novels about how linked in we are with the world around us, virtually as much as in the ways in which people move or are moved through the criminal underground, either for nefarious ends or because they are desperate and it is the criminals who offer them the glimmer of hope for a better life.  Anyway: that’s enough fangirling from me.  If you’ve not read any Rebus, why not start soon?

 

 

 

 

The imperfect parent-scholar

Being a parent and an academic is not particularly different from being a member of any other profession or trade and being a parent. Shit[ty nappies] happen, if you will. Small people wake you up at inconvenient times. Child care is expensive. And the rest.

However, both academia and parenthood share an emphasis on “perfection”: or, rather, the spinning of things to look perfect. In academia, it is the people who apparently never wish a thousand paper cuts on a reviewer, because they get their articles in “good” journals without any hassle and people throw money at them, all the time; the people who walk into plum jobs; the people who effortlessly churn out journal articles; the people… You get the picture. In parenting, it is the people who can breastfeed with ease, the people whose children sleep through, the people who are immaculately dressed after getting their toddler to nursery on time. In both scenarios, a lot depends on who your mates are. You could either get a post-seminar drinks in which you listen to how wonderful other people are, how they are doing the right things and you are not, or you could be drinking your wine with people who are open about the trials and tribulations. You could go to a baby/toddler group where everyone is doing everything “perfectly” in terms of feeding, routines and developmental activities, and you leave feeling anxious about why you haven’t started potty training yet; or you could have a laugh with other parents about whatever gross outrage your child has got up to recently. One option is more rewarding than the other.

Sometimes this presentation of perfection is indeed someone masking their own fears by painting them away, and trying to make someone doing something differently second-guess themselves. Sometimes, though, we make the mistake of painting perfection on others, because we assume that we are doing it wrong, and they are doing it right. Whatever the way to it, it’s not a helpful way of seeing the world.

I very much like Kirsty Rolfe’s idea of the “imperfect academic”. The “perfect academic” is a fluid ideal, ever being pulled in different directions as to what one should do. Same with our “perfect parents”. Teach more! Write more articles! Take on three admin roles! Always reply to emails as quickly as you can! Start a blog – no, make it five blogs! Agree to do everything! Make perfect cupcakes with your offspring! Never leave them in front of CBeebies! No sugar ever!

Thing is, there’s nothing “wrong” with any of these activities or ambitions. What there is wrong is assuming that all are equally important at all times, that one has to do them all at the same time and be good at all of them. Hence the importance of the imperfect scholar/parent. Nobody said anything about not being perfect as equalling crap: on the contrary, worrying less means there is more time for other stuff. Being good through to magnificent is possible. And meh is ok, too. Never mind aiming for perfection, just getting on with everyday working life is hard with a new little person, especially if, on your return to work after parental leave, you try and work at the same pace as before. It takes time to get used to a different way of working, which involves getting home at specific times and a set of compromises about what you can do. In 2015, I am going to be spending more time enjoying myself, and less time worrying about what I should be doing.