Everyday life

A lot has happened in the world since my last post, and yet I’m writing from inside the same walls. In Australia, most people are experiencing COVID-19 through the disruption of social distancing, rather than proximity to illness and mortality. My condolences to those who have lost people close to them. Here, we are schooling at home, trying to maintain connection to the outdoors, worrying about family and friends, restricting our movements, feeling anxious when visiting the shops… For many, these challenges are compounded by job loss, pre-existing physical and mental health issues, and social inequality.

I am fortunate to enjoy the company of the people I live with, to be able to continue working from home, to have functional internet and enough room in our house. Even so I have felt enervated by enforced domesticity and lack of autonomy.

I have previously blogged about service, care and housekeeping (at work and home) as under-recognised work that is disproportionately performed by women. With a smaller distance between home, work and school, I’ve been thinking about the workloads that have increased: care work, housekeeping, life administration, and emotional labour.

Having a full house all the time means more time spent cleaning, preparing food, shopping and tidying up. Even pet care has increased, with our dog requiring grooming and an urgent trip to the vet this week (with twice daily medication, her infection is clearing up). What is on your mental to-do list right now? Here’s a sample off the top of my head: pick up medicine from chemist, organise online catch-ups with friends for the 7 year old, suggest alternatives to screen time, call doctor, write shopping list, plan for schooling, make telehealth appointments, make vet appointment, pay water bill, wash sheets, empty recycling, clean out drawers, book flu shots, donate books, post parcels, sign and return school forms, get quotes for repairs, put chickens away, buy slippers, read The Art of Life Admin

It keeps going in all its banality. I won’t be doing all of these things myself, but I am keeping a tally. During COVID-19 lockdown,  many tasks have additional steps and take longer than usual.

Keeping energetic children occupied while parents are working is usually outsourced to school, before and after school care, clubs and activities, vacation care, holiday camps and grandparents. Organising school holiday entertainment takes time. While there are good online activities available, the level of parent supervision depends on the age, temperament and needs of your children, and whether the activities cost money. My children have enjoyed a mix of paid and free activities, including hip hop, science, art and coding. This picture is my daughter’s Monet-inspired work:

IMG_3770

I am enjoying:

  • Helen Sword’s (free) Stay at Home Writing Retreat. Days spent writing are the stuff of fantasy right now, but the retreat meant I was able to finally complete this post! Small tasks: an abstract, an introduction to a report, a creative writing assignment.
  • Flat shoes and clothes that feel like pyjamas. Will I ever be able to wear ‘work clothes’ again?
  • Home-made soup using the ingredients from our mystery fruit and veg box delivery. My brother has just updated his blog of my mother’s recipes from the 1970s with minestrone soup. And simple, experimental meals; tonight’s dinner was a sausage tasting competition.
  • Homebound fun. We are playing a lot of board games, including The Spider’s Web: A Game of Escape, which we found in an op shop or garage sale some time ago and played for the first time this week.
  • Catching up with colleagues in our twice weekly tea room meetings.
  • Podcasts while exercising: Conversations, By the Book, Slow Your Home
  • Writing in my Passion Planner diary. As well as getting my to-do list on paper, I can chronicle my responses to prompts like: What was the most memorable part of this past month? Are you happy with how you spent your time? What are you most proud of? What or who are you especially grateful for this past month?
  • Finding the right books for a distracted mind. The Unread Shelf Challenge had me pick up Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend. I loved it for the focus on the inner lives of older women.

Despite these pleasures, our emotions are tumultuous. Looking at the emotions wheel, we are feeling overwhelmed, playful, helpless, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—and that’s before we get dressed in the morning! I am spending more time than ever trying to remain calm and supporting the emotions of others. Those with younger children and large families must be finding this a challenge. Self-care is more important than ever.

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.

Too many papers

This is the final post in a trilogy following the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. In my first post, I described the conference, its location, theme and keynote presentations. In the second, I highlighted four presentations that stretched my thinking. In this post, I want to share the four papers I presented with colleagues, and issue a stern warning to myself to present fewer papers at future conferences.

Four papers is too many. Having co-authors made it possible (enjoyable even), but  I talked too much, and listened too little. When I was listening, I was too keyed up about my next paper to listen well. One of my papers was on slow academia; practice what you preach and other idioms apply.

  • The solace of slow academia (or breathing room)

This paper was a blend of theory, autoethnography and practical advice.

Theory: Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray make uneasy bedfellows, but reading their work together allows complex ideas to be explored. I read Irigaray’s work on breath awakening selfhood alongside Judith Butler’s relational performativity and slippage of identities.

Autoethnography: Reading, thinking and writing about slow academia and academic activism has become a way to manage the demands of work and the challenges of caring for a sick child.

Practical advice: Listen to this 5 minute meditation before writing, have the same three goals every day, read poetry.

I am using the theoretical work from this for a co-authored book chapter on collective experiences on (non)motherhood and (non)academia.

  • Pressed for time: Doctoral candidates and early career academics’ experiences of temporal anxiety (with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks)

The presentation included photos of Eye Shen’s Counting Time I took last month at the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. (Sydney folks: I can’t recommend this annual event highly enough as a family outing).

In the paper, we used Jacques Derrida’s conception of time and deferral to explore the temporal anxiety experienced by PhD candidates and ECAs, particularly as sessional staff members. For example, a PhD candidate says:

It frustrates me very much because I don’t have the time. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to a conference, which I think is pretty dire. I should have a chapter that’s ready. I should have something published. I should be going to conferences and meeting people but I just don’t feel like I have the time to do it. I do feel like it’s rushed to try and finish in three years. I wish I had more time for the other stuff.

And an early career academic says:

I hope to find a permanent position that allows me to do more research and writing, which is where my prime interest is. At the moment I am a casual lecturer which takes all my time and is financially a catastrophe. I have many ideas for articles, presentations and organising a conference but no time to pursue these goals. The big question is how long one manages to ‘hang in’ before giving up.

Lilia, Vanessa and I are currently writing this up as a journal article. Although it generated some great discussion, it was a bit of a downer, so we need to work on a hopeful ending.

  • Who cares? Gendered care-work and the limits of care at the “friendliest conference in the world” (with James Burford and Jan Smith)
  • Meeting ourselves, meeting the audience and meeting a discipline? (with Jeanette Fyffe)

Jamie has given a detailed summary of these papers which is difficult to top. You can read it at the wonderful blog Conference Inference. Here is his thoughtful comment about the complexities of academics writing about academic work:

While some might see my topic choices as a form of morbid self-absorption, I’ve tended to see this as a desire to begin where I am. Often I find myself using my ordinary environment and practices as a platform for inquiry. I think this can be valuable, as inhabiting a role or position can bring with it lots of questions, and research can be a helpful way to open ourselves up to further curiosity and even the odd answer. Perhaps at a broader level this is something that higher education researchers are always doing, as we go about researching our own profession and working contexts.

Our paper on gendered care and community work at conferences is currently under review. Jeanette and I plan to write our paper as a journal article next year. Right, Jeanette?

The immediacy of the conference and its imperatives are fading. Everyday life and work are taking over. I am trying to hold on to ideas, or at least record them for later. I am also trying to keep a sense of place. My mind returns to an onsen with a view of a rainforest river in torrent…