“Slow down,” my mother said, watching me gobble down my lunch. “You don’t have to hurry.” But in these handful of weeks – eight tomorrow since my daughter entered the world – I’ve learned to do most things at a run. My daughter Grace is very rarely at rest; right now she’s napping, but that never lasts for long, and even in her sleep she thrashes, purses her lips, stretches her small fat arms above her head. So although my dad had Grace on his knee, letting me for once have the use of both hands to eat, I swallowed down the meal as if poised once again for flight.
What turned out to be only a week before I gave birth, I wrote a blog post on the transitional time of late pregnancy. I wrote then, in reference to medieval texts of pregnant or recently postpartum women set adrift, as well as my own pregnant state:
Because there is only so far that the support of one’s maidens (or nowadays a birth partner, midwives, doctors) can take a woman: in many ways, the journey through childbirth is one that is taken alone. What perhaps those women hoped for – what we all hope for – is passage through a storm to calmer waters, and then the safety of shore.
This isn’t the place for labour stories. In most ways, my labour was very straightforward, and so uninteresting to people who aren’t me. I did give birth in water, though it wasn’t the kind of zen experience you see in positive birthing videos, where everyone is in soft focus and the mother seems to drift like a contented hippo beneath warm water. No; for all I was perfectly safe, I felt more akin to my calumniated queens, tossed on stormwracked seas. It was the most intensely physical experience of my life, and I think in some ways I’m still processing it – what my body had to do, what it is capable of, how it has left me now – and will be for some time. There’s little space for quiet reflection in these newborn weeks, and so what thinking I do beyond survival mode – feed, clean, sleep – takes places in snatches, and those thoughts are often left as unfinished as the half-drunk cups of tea that litter the house.
I wanted to come back to the blog with an interesting post all about women’s work and the work of labour and how our physical bodies and our academic bodies are sweatily entangled, and that the gulf between the expectations of our profession and the realities of women’s lived experience is often very deep. But right now I’m a little too tired for profundity, and just glad for this brief snatched moment where I have a mug of tea beside me and a keyboard in front of me, knowing my child is safe in the next room. And very glad that I, unlike many of my friends across the pond, do not have to now gear up my still-worn postpartum body for a return to work, do not have to tearfully pump enough milk to feed an ever-hungry eight week old baby while I’m at the office, do not know that’s my only choice if I want to keep my job. On my return to work, I will have to worry about things I raised in this post – the cost of childcare, and the subtler but no less significant cost of what being a mother may do to my career progression – but at least for now I’m provided with a generous maternity package that means I can do my current work without worrying about paying the bills.
Because it is real work. Liz Gloyn has blogged eloquently on the challenges of recent motherhood and being an ECR, of the pressures both external and internal to keep on doing academic work even when on maternity leave. Because academic work, of course, is a vocation; doves descend and call us to God’s plan for us to write on medieval sex or classical drama or bioethics or whatever, and surely the mundane physical work of rearing an infant shouldn’t detract from that.
I’m making some different choices than Liz has done, which doesn’t mean that mine are better – morally or otherwise! – than hers. There are a couple of time-sensitive academic commitments I will meet in the ten months I am officially away from work. And I may do a couple of things just for the pleasure of them, because I do truly love what I do. I’ll also keep blogging here, when time permits. But I have made the decision not to feel obliged to do anything to do with my paying job until mid-June 2016. This labour I’m currently doing is, quite frankly, much more challenging than any other job I’ve done, and it’s got a far steeper learning curve. It is immensely rewarding, and it is also very tough, both emotionally and physically. As a friend said: your boobs have a full time job! (Sorry to any of my students who are reading this and are now left with awkward thoughts about my boobs.) Never mind the rest of me. Women are expected to work around their bodies, and the children that are often treated as an extension of their bodies in a way they are not for fathers. Women apologise for taking a day off when children are sick, for missing a deadline because they have been vomiting so much in pregnancy that even getting to a desk is almost impossible, never mind actually writing, and very often I hear academic women sounding sheepish about not getting the draft of their book finished when they were on maternity leave. Because gosh, what else were they going to do with all that time? That sort of thinking is the product of a culture that thinks our work is all about our minds, and that we should work around our bodies, not with them. It’s why academia can also be a terrible place for disabled people to find accommodation, or for people of colour to fit in. Our industry supposedly doesn’t care about the pettiness of the body. But in treating the body as if it is petty, it means that only the very privileged have the space to think.