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:

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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.

This is self care

Self-care is critical right now.

Three years after a change management experience in which I felt like a shunted  carriage in Thomas the Tank Engine, I am once again at the mercy of a university restructure. This time I have managerial responsibility for others who are facing redundancy. Supporting them is a good distraction from my own woes, but self care is critical if I am going to maintain health and energy during this time.

In and experimental paper (paywalled)—Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resistSiobhan O’Dwyer, Sarah Pinto and Sharon McDonough write a poem entitled 

Self care: a manifesto

Eat apple pancakes smothered in Nutella.

Practice yoga
Watch The English Patient
Turn off email notifications
Walk…
Wind wool around needles
Survive a spin class
Go to the movies in the middle of the day
Exist.
Write a list of self-care activities
Publish it in a good journal
Encourage your colleagues to reflect on their own self-care
Resist.

This post is a snapshot of what I am doing to prioritise self-care right now, specific to my context: career stage, available resources, caring responsibilities, working conditions and temperament. It is vital that self-care is not seen as the appropriate response to manage complex systemic problems. Universities are frequently workplaces that undercare for their staff. The solution is not to individualise care. Staff do not need workshops on how to manage their time or adopt mindful practices as the only response to role overload and workplace stress.

In the introduction to Mindfulness in the Academy, Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough (2018) write:

[We] question suggestions that academics in any university developing mindfulness and compassion practices should simply ‘cope’ with systemic factors such as the stress of poor resourcing, excessive workloads, or aggressive behaviour from colleagues … We do not solve the systemic problems that exist in higher education as this problem solving cannot be done individually. We write this book from a perspective that encourages us, and readers, to examine how we can look at ourselves as individuals within the environment and how might we disrupt those environments through mindful actions and formal or informal mindfulness practices.

The need for individual self-care in universities makes institutional care imperative.

That said, these are my current self-care practices.

1. Focus on health

This depends on your age and your physical and mental wellbeing and ability. For me, it has meant scheduling preventative health checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, cervical cancer screening, breast check, dental check up, eye test). I am also following up with specialists to manage my specific health conditions (including Hashimoto’s disease, increased risk of glaucoma, and chronic pain managed with an implanted neurostimulator).

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I exercise daily with an app that means I can workout at home while the kids get ready for school. My phone counts my daily steps, and I have started to log the food I eat to encourage wholefood choices. I recently sought the advice of a dietician and exercise physiologist to manage having the metabolism of a peri-menopausal woman. (To put that another way: my six year old’s calorie needs are much higher than mine).

2. Reflect on priorities

Self-care can be uncomfortable work. I have been asking myself some challenging questions:

  • Does this matter?
  • Is this what I want to do?
  • What can I control?
  • What do I need to do to look after myself today?
  • What would an ideal day look like?
  • What is getting in the way?

This year I have been fortunate to work with a coach as part of a professional development program, who has helped me think through these questions. (You may not have these resources available to you, but find out what is on offer. At my university, six coaching or counselling sessions per year are available to all staff, including casuals, and their immediate family members).

I’ve focussed on the things that sustain me and contribute to my wellbeing—spending time with family, outsourcing home tasks (such as online food shopping), going outside and reading for pleasure. I’ve identified what detracts from my wellbeing, and I have set myself specific tasks (which are works in progress):

  • Schedule two half-hour slots per week in my work calendar for unstructured time
  • Rearrange my morning routine so that I don’t check work emails first thing
  • Take a daily iron supplement
  • Make time to text friends at least twice a week
  • Give my parents a thank you present for taking the kids to daily swimming lessons during school holidays
  • Read from my TBR (to-be-read) pile before buying or borrowing new books

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3. Get help and support from others

Self-care is not an individual pursuit.

Putting your own needs first, however briefly, means letting go of things you usually control, requesting help, relying on others, saying no to things, knowing work has to be done by someone else, leaving work undone, asking for more time. During a stressful time at work, the company of like-minded souls is more important than ever. And the retreat of time with family and friends, and the nourishment of time alone, are crucial.

4. Enjoy yourself

In the midst of workplace upheaval, I’m looking forward to many things in the coming weeks and months:

  • getting a dog
  • lunches with old friends
  • young adult book club (for adults only). This month we’re reading boarding school books
  • seeing collaborative research writing (completed over many, many years) submitted for publication
  • visiting a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Sydney without the kids
  • going to the beach during January school holidays
  • receiving Narelle Lemon’s mindful self-care cards
  • the next book(s) on my shelf. I was going to list just one, but who am I kidding? Let’s make it the four I can’t decide between next: The TestamentsThe Old Lie, Imaginary Friend, and Girl, Woman, Other
  • visiting Japan Supernatural at the NSW Art Gallery
  • discovering the Australian bird of the year. Will it be the endangered black-throated finch?

Not too many work tasks made the above list, but I will look for enjoyment there too.

Radical self care

It has been quiet on the blog front. During a busy time at work and in life, not posting has been an act of self-preservation and radical self care:

black-and-white stencil of Audre Lorde speaking, with quote above in black text

Here are two extracts from Mindfulness in the Academy that explain what I mean (with thanks to the editors for sharing their work with me).

From Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough in a chapter entitled ‘Mindfully Living and Working in the Academy’:

Selfcare in the higher education context is often a dirty word; that is something we don’t talk about, it is something extra, often dropped in the fast-paced nature of work requirements (Berg & Seeber, 2016).

From Monica Taylor and Emily J. Klein’s chapter ‘Tending to Ourselves, Tending to Each
Other: Nurturing Feminist Friendships to Manage Academic Lives’:

We embrace the feminist ethic of care drawing from the work of Lorde (1988) and Ahmed (2014) and have adopted “self-care as warfare” as our mantra … Caring for ourselves, each other, and our colleagues and students is a politically disruptive activity within an academy which devalues such practices (Mountz et al. 2015). We understand that our own self care is part of the work of caring for others.

And a note to mindfulness skeptics, who hate the way in which self-care is co-opted by neoliberalism, I hear you. More on what self-care has looked like for me in a future post. In the meantime, look after yourself.