Voices from the living past

“I think that a mother owes this to her children: to keep in contact with the rest of the world.”

This is the comment of a woman university student that was aired on Australian television in January 1961. My father shared the re-released recording from the ABC program A Woman’s Place. Questions include: Do the two lives of working and caring for children go together? Should women get the same money for doing the same job? Do you expect to find prejudice against the career woman? Could a woman be head of a large organisation?

The answers of the students vary — it wouldn’t be good television if everyone agreed — but their realisation of the challenge of “two lives” is evident. (One thing that has changed, at least to my ears, is the Australian accent, itelf a topic on RetroFocus with responses to Do Australian have a bad accent? in 1961 and 2019).

In another snippet of 1960s television from ABC’s RetroFocus, Australian passersby respond to a (male) university professor’s claim that housewives lead a dull life. One woman replies: “I don’t think it is dull at all … [They] invariably enjoy their game of tennis, bowls or golf.” More than one man suggests there’s a bit of “fun and games on the side.” In response to the question, “Never considered going to work?” an elderly woman replies, “God heavens no!”

A few years after this aired, when my university was new, an article entitled ‘The Mums of Macquarie’ appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 19 July, 1967. The article read:

More than 150 married women have gone back to study at the new Macquarie University … taking up courses that had been interrupted by family life … There has been many a resignation from neighboring tennis groups and lunch clubs, a Girl Guide captain has abandoned knots and hikes and returned to books, and it is not uncommon to see women with grocery shopping on one arm balancing a basket of books and papers on the other.

The magazine included this image of children at a lecture:

One of my favourite book bloggers, Whispering Gums, recently posted her reflections as a 1970s feminist, and commented about attending Macquarie University:

I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) … in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference. Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts.

Whispering Gums finishes her post in a way that is apt here, by quoting Germaine Greer: things have changed, but not enough.

For a bit more on the history of learning and teaching at Macquarie, I recommend listening to this audio recording by my colleague Karina Luzia (the transcript is available here).

I have already blogged about the article Vanessa Fredericks and I co-authored, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years. We highlighted a Burns, Scott and Cooney (1993) article called Higher education of single and married mothers, also focussed on Macquarie students. They wrote:

As university teachers, we are well aware that many of [our] students are single and married mothers, who face the particular problem of integrating study demands with family responsibilities and often, with the demands of paid work as well. The present study was triggered by the experience of the first author in teaching a third year unit, in the course of which I became aware of the life crises being endured by two single mothers, one a sole Parent Pensioner, the other self-employed. As well as financial and child care difficulties, both had health problems, one had an adolescent son in trouble with the police, the other had major responsibility for a seriously ill parent, and both were in litigation with apparently vindictive ex-husbands. Students other than mothers do not usually suffer from this kind of constellation of problems (p. 189).

You can read the full article (open source) here, but for the purposes of tracing the voices of university student mothers, I will highlight the voice of one participant:

Well I have three children. I felt I owed it to them whilst attending college to still give them the same amount of attention and support in both their sport and education areas and maintaining the home. And I was very determined I would never be later for an assignment. And I never was, not one day late. But it was a great strain. I got by on four hours sleep at night some nights. For a long period there five hours was a luxury. I never started to study until the children had had some quality time, which meant I wouldn’t open a book to rewrite lecture notes (and I always wrote every lecture again when I got home, so I’d understand it) so it was probably ten o’clock at night when I started, sometimes midnight … I got very tired. Quite cranky, actually.

For the voices of contemporary student parents, I recommend the work of Marie-Pierre Moreau in which students discuss a lack of time and money, and the challenges of balancing family, study and housekeeping. Tired and cranky. That’s something that hasn’t changed!

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.