Motherhood and work
January 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
I’ve written this post, in my head, so many times and in so many different forms over the last months.
A version where I wrote about how a particular mix of circumstances (a baby coming, a ‘budget tightening’ at the university, the privilege of a well-paid partner) meant that I would probably be leaving academia, probably for good.
A version where I wrote about my mixed feelings about gaining the security of an ongoing position amidst the insecurity of academia generally, and the job losses at my university specifically.
A version where I ignored all this complexity and just wrote about what I published last year, what I’ll do this year.
I found out that I was pregnant in July, the same week that I put in my application for an ongoing position that I dearly wanted. The two felt deeply linked. Job security would mean maternity leave, a path to come back to.
It was ‘too early’ to tell people about the pregnancy (an idea that felt strange to me: if I had a miscarriage, I wasn’t sure I’d want to carry that sadness and loss in private). I thought I’d wait until I knew whether or not I got the job – I was still in the first trimester anyway, and it felt like so much was at stake, I’d hate to have even a shadow of a doubt that my pregnancy affected the job application.
The application process dragged out. I spent the first trimester exhausted, wanting desperately to lie down on the floor by the middle of each work day, wanting to tell people that I’d like to take on less of that extra work that academia offers in such abundance (especially to women). A tension between knowing the ways in which feminine embodiment is constructed as weakness, and the power of feminist narratives about the importance of acknowledging our embodied selves. (My tired body, not weak, but growing a whole new potential-person.)
I look for spaces in academia to think about and write about the issues that matter to me. I’d been thinking about parenting, and about motherhood specifically, for years before my partner and I decided to try for a baby. Thinking about the ways in which academia is constructed around particular bodies and career patterns: still the norm of a white, cis, heterosexual male with few caring responsibilities, someone who’s cared for (usually invisibly) by others. Others, often women, who do childcare and other reproductive work, who take on more of the caring labour of teaching, who empty the bins and vacuum the offices. Thinking about reproductive choices, and gender inequality, and capitalism, and racism, and this bundle of other factors that structure our experiences of motherhood.
It felt strange to be silent about the ways in which that thinking tied to my own experiences, or at least to only discuss it in much more private spaces. I was thinking a lot about the politics of mothering, particularly as set out in the powerful essays collected in Revolutionary Mothering. I was noticing the split between my experience of pregnancy and my male partner’s, including that he talked to his manager about it very early, and thinking about Andie Fox‘s reflections on the micropolitics of parenting and gender roles. I felt a deep resistance, during those early months, to people calling this spark inside me a ‘baby’ (seeing the ways in which that language is used by people controlling reproductive choice). Having tried to learn more about trans people’s experiences of the world, I looked for ways to push back against assumptions that there would be an easy, definite answer, to the constant question: “Do you know what you’re having?” (A baby, probably. Maybe a kitten. But we’re pretty sure it’ll be a baby.)
All of this felt artificially separated from my academic work. It felt odd to have this area of analysis, something that felt so deeply consuming, and so interesting in so many ways, needing to be put out of the way, particularly given that Internet Studies as a field often seems so given to a certain kind of openness in connecting analysis to personal experience.
I got back from travel, including attending a conference where I felt terribly disconnected (perhaps because of this sense of much of my thought and experience needing to be tucked out of sight), and almost immediately had a meeting where I was told that the fixed-term contract I was on would not be renewed in 2017. I still had no idea whether I’d even made the shortlist for the ongoing position.
I spent more time considering what I would do if I didn’t get the job. With the baby coming, it seemed like the uphill battle of finding job security within academia would be even more challenging, and even more unlikely to be successful. It felt ridiculous to plan research for 2017 not knowing whether I would be in a position to carry on with my work. I felt uncomfortable coming in to work with the awkwardness of the job application looming, and with my pregnancy feeling increasingly visible.
In the end, at the end of the year and with the holiday shut-down rapidly approaching, I did make the shortlist, and did get the job. I’ve spent much of the time since then trying to re-engage with my research, after all that soul-searching about what I might do instead of academia, trying to work out what comes next. It feels hard to plan for the arrival of a new human, who I haven’t met yet, who may sleep or not sleep. It feels hard to know how I’ll feel about mothering.
Many people say that mothering fundamentally transforms you. That you won’t want to be apart from the baby. That you won’t care about work anymore, anyway. That, in fact, you’ll be failing as a mother if you want time apart from the baby. (Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone say this about becoming a father.) Other people say you’ll just be the same you, but much more tired.
I don’t know exactly how I’ll feel. I’m excited to meet this new person, and scared, and worried about all the structures that shape how we parent and how children grow up. This experience has already shifted my focus, as I think more about mothering as a political act and the balances we walk between managing within existing institutions and changing them. This post has been the first attempt to start more publicly sorting through this tangle of ideas and experiences: I imagine that there’ll be more, as I go along. And some silences, too, hopefully of the comfortable sort – silences that come not from uncertainty, but from cocooning and growth and taking time to explore new spaces with a new tiny human.