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.

Staying optimistic

When I mentioned to my kids last Friday morning that it was board game night, they both cheered. This response kept me happy all day. Playing together has been enjoyable for all of us. There have been other benefits: I am finding it easier not to win, something I have enjoyed most of my life. I emphasise that I am not letting go of winning (merely biding my time).

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I am playing Junior Scrabble and Junior Monopoly with a different primary goal in mind: how to help the youngest player (6) compete against a determined-to-win older sister (13). (Hint to other players: order of play and seating arrangements are key, but two players working cooperatively can undermine a single player whose strategies include hoarding the ‘good’ letters. Note that once I shared this insight with the teen player, she combined strategic cooperation with a determination to win, an unbeatable combination).

Is this an analogy for academia? Isn’t everything? To name just a few on social media: broken chairs, lego, vending machines, and Game of Thrones.

The spark of joy that lasted all day (my cheering kids) matters this week. My usual joie de vivre has been fleeting and delicate. Hence this post: I have needed to work at optimism. Call it what you will—optimism (not the cruel sort), resilience, durability, perseverance, grit (as it is named on the Australian Qualifications Framework review discussion paper). I mean the thing that keeps me feeling, on the whole, more positive than negative about my work, myself and my university.

For a more academic version of this, with lots of references, here is how colleagues and I describe engagement with work in a recent paper on early career academics:

Engagement is a state characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli,Bakker, & Salanova, 2006), opposite to burnout, which is characterised by reductions in motivation and productivity, as well as cynicism and exhaustion (González-Romá, Schau-feli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The extent to which workers perceive their organisation cares about their wellbeing and values their contribution, both now and in the future, influences engagement in workplaces (Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Vandenberghe, 2009). Support can be demonstrated through a range of rewards, benefits and flexible work arrangements, along with a supportive culture with clear and reasonable expectations for workers (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2017; Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Van-denberghe, 2009; Saks, 2006). In addition to increased engagement, job satisfaction and wellbeing, perceived organisational support also increases workers’ affective commitment to their organisation along with objective performance (Kurtessis et al., 2017).

Universities are not always caring institutions. So what did I do to re-engage myself, to renew my ‘vigour, dedication and absorption’ in work and my ‘affective commitment’ to my university? First, I disengaged. I took a day off work. Mid-week, I spent a day alone doing things I like. I loved it, and would like to do it more often.

On my return to work, with colleagues commenting on how relaxed I looked, I arranged future coffee and lunch meetings to catch up with people whose company revives me. I focused on tasks I enjoy. I looked for the positive and I read Humans of Macquarie on Instagram. Here are brief excerpts. You can read the full posts, and see photos on Instagram.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I never knew why; I felt really bright in primary school but it kind of faded into dullness when I hit high school and I just kind of drifted for a few years. I struggled a lot with mental health and identity issues. I was finally able to open up, and I started developing into my own person when I found real, meaningful relationships with other people (Sam, Psych & Education)

 I suppose my biggest fear was just being a filler person. You know, that kind of person that although in every practical sense lives a decent life, untimely ends up as just another tally on the population counter. University I feel has been able to subside that fear by exposing me to opportunities and incredible people, giving me some direction in my otherwise messy life. (Alysha, Anthropology)

My mother was barely in adulthood when she decided to go to New Zealand from Fiji and pursue further studies, against the wishes of her conservative Hindu family. She’s now one of the most high-ranked Registered Nurses at her hospital. Here’s where I come along: a cheeky brown kid in year 6, about to conclude my ‘About Me’ speech. I told my class that I WILL become a Barrister. The teacher chuckled, for according to her I had many imperfections. Like my mother, I refuse to accept the perceptions of others. (Krishna, History, English & Law).

These stories are nourishing.

Postscript: My teenager told me to write this: she is growing into a strong, determined-to-win, brave and courageous hero. Her greatest strength is her ability to creatively ‘ship’ Harry Potter characters. (Here’s Urban Dictionary on shipping for the uninitiated).

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.

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?