Last week I was feeling a little down-in-the-mouth. It was just before the start of term in Oxford, and so my inbox was filling up with circulars about upcoming seminars, invitations to drinks evenings, notices about upcoming dinners… Most of which I can’t attend.
In pretty much all ways I have a very privileged life – I’m going to say that straight up now. My husband has a permanent job at a good law firm. It’s the kind of law firm where you don’t make megabucks but you do interesting work and you mostly get to leave by 6pm, which in lawyerly circles is pretty humane. I am just starting the second year of a three year fully-funded fellowship that pays a respectable salary. We now own our own home and we have a lovely one-year-old daughter. A few years ago, post-PhD, my husband struggling to find legal work during the recession and when I was just struggling to find academic work full stop, this life would have seemed like a rosy dream. I love it and am very lucky.
However, I live an hour away by train from my place of work. Factoring in getting to and from the station, it’s a two hour journey each way that off-peak costs £36.60 for a day return and over £75(!) during peak hours unless bought significantly in advance. As nursery shuts at 6pm on the dot and it’s a 15-minute walk from our house, I normally do the pick up, and my husband does the morning drop off. One or occasionally two days a week during term time (less during vacations) I come into Oxford, stuffing some teaching, meetings etc into as few hours as I can, relying on the good will of my in-laws or the ability of my husband to sometimes get out of work early to make sure our daughter gets picked up and put to bed. The rest of the time I work from home.
I mostly really enjoy working at home. It gives me a lot of flexibility, although it does require a good deal of discipline (that I sometimes lack!) to stay focused. But I admit that I do sometimes feel a bit isolated and removed from university life. Before I had a baby, I would quite often stay over one night in Oxford, taking advantage of the college’s reduced rate for members to use guest rooms – a real perk, I know. But from late pregnancy – when I was suffering from SPD and increasingly limited in my mobility – onward, this became impractical. Now it’s something I can only really do for special events like conferences.
We live in Birmingham for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s where my husband’s work is based, and given his lengthy hours in an office, it makes much more sense for us to live near his work, since I have a mostly-research job and so need to be on-site far less often. It’s also far, far cheaper – I just did a quick google and the median rent in Oxford is £1599/month. The median rent in Birmingham is £702. We were able to buy a home for well under half the price of the average house in Oxford – the median price of which is an eye-watering £485k! Finally, Kieran’s parents live only thirty minutes away from Birmingham, which is very handy when we have a small child. Moving there was a very simple decision, and I don’t regret it for a minute.
But I do get lonely sometimes. Academics have a reputation for being introverts. Quite a few are! But liking books and your own company (and perhaps, like internet photo memes, enjoying wearing sweaters and looking wistfully out of a window while stroking a cat) doesn’t necessarily an introvert make. I get a lot of energy out of social encounters. Last week I realised the only people I had spoken to that working week besides my husband and child were the nursery staff and cashiers at supermarkets. Then this week I’ve come into college twice and been invigorated by conversations with many different colleagues, enjoyed meeting new students, and felt inspired by contact with fellow medievalists. But it’s not something I can afford to do – timewise or financially – very often.
I know quite a few academics in my situation. Many people can’t afford to live in the cities in which their universities are based, or need to make compromises on location to best suit the needs of all their family rather than just themselves. Many of us, even though who live near our workplaces, can’t make events that are regularly scheduled to start at 5pm when we need to pick up our kids or perhaps undertake other caring responsibilities. I’m sure a few of you have also looked over the seminar lists and events calendar for the new semester and realised that attending any of them will take planning and negotiation with your partner/spouse/offspring. I think this is something that universities should taken in account – many assume that their employees will live nearby, and many departments still schedule their events as if it’s still 1950 and if you’re going to a seminar you’re either a bachelor or your wife will be taking care of the kids and the dinner while you enjoy academic discourse and port.
This is one of the reasons I love the internet. I will admit upfront that I fritter away too much time on inconsequential things online – but as well as providing me with huge numbers of useful resources for my work (seriously, research for me would be so much harder if I had to go to an actual physical library every time I needed a book, rather than using my Oxford login to access e-texts), it has also given me an academic community. This was really useful to me during my maternity leave, when I felt very far removed from my work and colleagues. But it’s perhaps even more vital to me now, when I’m grappling with research and I don’t have people to just pop into the SCR for a coffee and a brainstorm with. and hey, at least with Twitter you know there’ll be someone around at any hour, timezones be damned!