Sharing space

Last week I participated in the conference Beyond Mothering Myths? Motherhood in an Age of Neoliberalism and Individualisation. With a partner recovering from foot surgery, children on school holidays and a busy time at work, my attendance was partial and interrupted. Those presentations I did attend were provocative and affecting.

Lilia Mantai and I presented (on behalf of co-authors Jayde Cahir, Gail Crimmins, Janet Free, Karina Luzia and Ann Werner) a paper entitled Living with and letting go of motherhood and academia: A narrative in seven voices. Here is one of the seven voices (which might be familiar to regular readers):

Twelve years ago, when I was a PhD student, my daughter was born. Following a life-threatening placental abruption, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Last year, her seizures worsened with the onset of puberty (“Mum, don’t say that word”)—thirty to forty a day, lasting up to twenty minutes each. She was unable to attend school for half the year. She spent a lot of time on a beanbag in my university office on the top floor of a brutalist concrete building, with walls painted a horrid pale apricot. But the view of remnant turpentine ironbark forest is spectacular. I keep the windows open, just a crack so the birds don’t enter.

She missed the school trip to Canberra while she was sick, so we visited as a family. At the  National Art Gallery, we entered The Breathing Room by Patricia Piccinini. An audiovisual space of multiple screens, like entering the insides of a strange fleshy creature. The creature is similar in colour to my office. Sometimes it panics and its breathing and heartbeat roar. Sometimes it sleeps.  The room was both comforting and disturbing in its intimacy. A bit like being and having a mother, I thought.

Now, her epilepsy controlled by five medications, she is going on school camp for four nights. We have an A4 size blister pack with tablets in individually sealed compartments. The packet promises “peace of mind for relatives, carers and loved ones.

The presentation was an edited version of a forthcoming book chapter on motherhood and academia. The other voices in the chapter make for a diverse collection of first person narratives that illustrate complex and conflicting identities. We wrote the narratives in response to a prompt to think about ‘breathing room’ in our identities along a continuum as researchers/non-researchers, academics/non-academics, writers/non-writers, and mothers/ non-mothers. Our chapter is entitled ‘Breathing Room’ and I will share details of the edited collection when it is published.

One of the things I enjoyed about the conference was the way participants, predominantly mothers and children, inhabited and changed the space of the university. Bec van Dyke shared some beautiful illustrations of the conference:

via Twitter @becvandyke

As well as children playing on the floor and public breastfeeding, there was a large knitted sculpture of a placenta:

via Twitter @Polly Dunning

The placenta makes for an excellent metaphor for creating a shared space for mothers and children in the university.

In Je, Tu, Nous, French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray  interviews biologist Hélène Rouch about the complex role played by the placenta: “On the one hand, it is the mediating space between mother and fetus, which means there is never a fusion of maternal and embryonic tissues. On the other hand, it constitutes a system regulating exchanges between the two organisms.” In contrast to commonly held views, the relationship is not one of “fusion (a … mixture of the bodies or blood of mother and foetus)” nor one of “aggression (the foetus as a foreign body devouring from the inside, a vampire in the maternal body)”; instead, the placenta is an organ that is formed by the embryo but behaves independently and relatively autonomously (Irigaray, 1993b, p 39).

In the provocatively titled “The Promiscuous Placenta”, Jane-Maree Maher describes the placenta as “the point of communication between pregnant woman and foetal entity, allowing for and recognising their difference” (2001, p 202). She continues: “The placenta … offends and refigures bodily integrity and boundaries, it allows for at least two to work together at the site of one, while preventing against a collapse into singularity” (2001, p 202).

Imagine two subjects—let’s call them the ideal academic and the leaky mother—in a shared (university) space.

Related image

Image: the University of Sydney law school, location of the conference.

You can read more about the placenta project online, and see more of the conference on Twitter #beyondmotheringmyths.

Out the back door

Image source: Judy Horacek. (Love her work).

This post is drawn from my experiments with academic writing practices in a recent book chapter: “Academic Writing from the Depths: An autoethnographic and organisational account” in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions (edited by Louise Thomas and Anne Reinertsen). In a previous post, I described why I enjoy writing book chapters (which ‘count’ less than journal articles in metricised academia): I relish the chance to play while writing.

Last week I experienced experimental writing from the other side: as a reviewer of a work that defied the conventions of academic texts by including poetry, song, and art, and using unexpected styles, fragments, narratives, metaphors and allusions. It was an uncomfortable position to occupy, especially for an academic reviewer. I have been mulling over this difficult (but enjoyable) reading experience all week.

In the wonderfully metaphorical essay “Birds, Women and Writing”, French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous (2004) refers to opening “the back door of thought” to the “nether realms” (p 169), a dangerous place where the unthought, the risky and the impossible can be imagined. She suggests that writing comes from “deep inside” this space:

It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and closes it like a door. This does not mean it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think. Somewhere in my stomach, my womb. (2004, p 172)

In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous (1981) coins the phrase écriture feminine: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing … Woman must put herself into the text” (1981, p 246). This process of écriture feminine has two aims: “to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project” (p 246) Luce Irigaray (1993) uses the similar term parler-femme (speaking as woman): “I am a woman. I write with who I am” (p 53).

Tracing her inner reveries about women and writing, Cixous finds herself thinking about birds, swarming outside threateningly and joyfully like ideas. To understand the association, Cixous (2004) turns to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, where birds are unclean, forbidden for human consumption, otherworldly:

Let those birds be “abominable”: I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive (pp. 168-169)

Birds on campus. © Jennifer Vu. Image source: Grapeshot magazine.

If you seek to join the exalted company of writing women, if you go outside towards the birds, if you enter the “nether realms” of the unthought and the impossible, Cixous (2004) writes: “you no longer belong to the world. Out there we shall be in the company of swans, storks, and griffons” (p. 171). This space is “somewhere in that most evasive of countries without precise address, the one that is most difficult to find and work with, and where it is even difficult to live without effort, danger, risk” (2004, p. 169). When writing, I follow Cixous: inside, into the depths of embodied writing experience; and outside, towards the birds, into the university.

(I recommend Rowena Murray’s ‘It’s not a hobby’ and Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space if you want to think about these ideas of writing and academic work).

I walk the campus. My favourite place is a remnant turpentine ironbark forest that clings to the edge. On the way, I watch the birds. The masked lapwings, who lay their delicate eggs on the ground and defend them energetically, occupy the grassy areas of the campus; large ibis and brush turkeys dominate spaces frequented by students; and in a feat of defensive cooperation, one duck couple have managed to keep a dozen ducklings alive. Like Cixous, I relish the outside:

Those who belong to the birds and their kind (these may include some men), to writings and their kind: they are all to be found—and a fair company it is too—outside (2004, pp. 168-169).

© Patrick Wiecks. Source: Australian Geographic Wildlife on Campus.

What do you find when you open the back door of thought?

Always interruptible

I’m halfway through reading Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History (published elsewhere as Mother is a Verb). This was initially homework for the academic identities cultural history project—each member of the team read a different book (there’s a cultural history of almost everything you can imagine: sex, food, weather, places, objects, actions)—but I have become deeply immersed in this book.

The author Sarah Knott is an academic, historian, feminist mother. The book combines history, specifically motherhood in the UK and US from around the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and memoir (Knott had her first child while researching and writing the book). This is history with a ‘small h’ based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The focus is very much on the sensory, the “tactile experience” of caring for infants in the past. I can almost smell the close four-room house during the Depression era, where wet nappies were dried in front of the fire without being washed.

One of my favourite children’s books, now sadly out of print, is Marion Halligan’s The Midwife’s Daughters. I bought it over twenty years ago at Better Read than Dead in Sydney’s Newtown (when the bookstore, and I, were young).

“When I was a girl,” says the midwife, “back in the Old Country, the mothers took the nappies off the babies and hung them in front of the fire to dry.”

“What!” say the daughters. “Didn’t they wash them first?”

“No they didn’t,” says the mother. “Back in the Old Country”—she means England—”it was damp and cold and hard to wash things and harder still to dry them so you took the nappies off the babies and hung them on the guard in front of the fire to dry and put them back on. Not the pooey ones of course.”

“Yuk,” say the daughters of the midwife, wrinkling their noses. “The smell! The smell of old pee!”

And the poor little babies, wearing those stiff and stinky nappies! Their poor little bottoms got red and raw and they cried in the damp, dark houses, they yelled and screamed and roared, and the houses got smaller and colder and darker for all the noise of the sore-bottomed babies howling in them.

In Mother, Knott’s narrative follows the experience of pregnancy, birth and early infancy. A chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, nighttime arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: “8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up.”

My son was small when he was born full-term: five and half pounds, or not quite two and half kilograms. I tracked his feeds on an app: time awake, left breast, time taken, right breast, time taken, time back to sleep. He fed slowly and, it felt, continuously. He doubled his weight in six weeks. I deleted the app about eighteen months later when, still exhausted, I looked back and realised that in his early days I had spent over eight hours in every twenty-four breastfeeding. Six years on, and far from those nights, I wish I had kept the record.

The book invites these recollections. Reading it brought back the experience of caring for newborns in a visceral way.

Image result for mother: an unconventional history   Image result for The Midwife's Daughters halligan

Of interest to readers of this blog, Knott also documents the intersections of academic work and pregnancy. On planning to have children:

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I am not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce, a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least, I think we both know—that surveys suggest men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women,

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

Indeed. The baby or babies don’t always follow your plans.

On the slowing success of academic mothers, there has been much written. Challenges for academic women, and mothers in particular, include maintaining research trajectories during career interruptions; proportionally higher teaching workloads; concentration at lower levels, in casual and contract positions; and contributions to university service, academic and domestic ‘housekeeping’, emotional labour and care within and beyond the academy. Further reading: Young and Wright, 2001; Williams, 2005; Grant, 2006; Toffoletti and Starr, 2016; Amsler and Motta, 2017. Titles include “I’ve worked very hard and slept very little” (Fothergill and Feltey, 2003) and “I just couldn’t fit it in” (Probert, 2005).

In Acker and Armenti’s (2004) “Sleepless in Academia”, Canadian women academics reveal late nights, obstructive institutional practices, and feeling “frenzied, fatigued and malcontent” (p 13).  In an article that was surprisingly vexatious to many, Australian academics Klocker and Drozdzewski (2012) ask: “How many papers is a baby worth?” The answer, after some deliberation, is approximately 2.4 depending on previous output. Ward and Wolf-Wendel (2004) sum up the experience of American academic mothers at research-intensive universities with the phrase “dark clouds and silver linings”. They identify four commonalities: (a) joy in professional and personal roles, (b) the “greedy” nature of academic and family life, (c) watching the clock, and (d) that having children puts work into perspective (2004, p 241). Oh, yes, watching the clock.

But the story is complex.

In an international comparison of research output, Aiston and Jung (2015) found that women average fewer publications than male colleagues; on the issue of motherhood, however, academic mothers produced more research output than women colleagues without children (although this differed across disciplines and countries). Examining why this data seems counter-intuitive, they suggest that one explanation for women’s under-performance as a whole lies in inequitable workloads.

Workload in academia is more complex than it first appears. In a study of Australian academic women, Dobele, Rundle-Thiele and Kopanidis (2014) demonstrate that workloads are equitable between men and women, but inequity is evident according to academic position. That is, women “outperform” men within their academic ranking suggesting that “women are not getting promoted on the basis of workload performance” (p 465).

While pregnant, Knott writes of work sliding away:

I am still working: sitting on the table at the front of the lecture hall, seemliness gone. Work is sliding away from me. There is a last set of students essays to evaluate. I stir myself to deduce final marks even though my ind shrinks away from the narrow lists of numbers and into the expanse of my trunk.

I never want pregnancy to be over. We defy mathematics: one plus one equals one. I am myself and not myself; I am eating for two. The relation I have to this extra life is not unlike that I have to my dreams and thoughts, which I can tell K or a friend, but which cannot be an object for us in the same way. I am happier than usual, though I cry easily.

I cannot wait for pregnancy to be over so I can feel normal again: hug my sweetheart, cross my legs. I bump crossly into older habits, only to find the way blocked by my body sticking out before me—hard belly on my thigh as I lean to tie a shoelace, a pull from my side on turning to check the front door is properly shut.

This is a luxurious tangle of feelings.

Finally, the title of this post. Always interruptible. I wrote this post, on and off, interrupted by the tasks of looking after children in the evening of the last day of a long school term. The relentless and formative interruptions of maternity constitute its main condition, suggests Professor of Psychosocial Theory Lisa Baraitser. Her books Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption (1989) and Enduring Time (2017) are now added to my reading list. But first to finish Knott’s Mother, after I’ve found some missing size six pyjamas and read some bedtime stories.

4859963    32580493