Just a quick one, in the midst of class-planning and funding-drafting, sparked by various things I’ve seen online and heard in meetings and conversations over the past little while. Those of us in academic employment are mostly approaching the new academic year having had very limited rest or research time over the summer. Many people feel dread about the approaching term, as they wonder how to once again juggle homeschooling with teaching online, or who are worried about having to go back into classrooms, or (like me!) are working hard and fast to get materials ready because any minute our children’s schools may suddenly shut due to suspected COVID-cases, as is happening all over the UK at the moment.
There are a lot of things we can’t really control right now. But I think we can sometimes be our own worst enemies, too. This isn’t our fault exactly – the culture of academia encourages overwork and self-sacrifice. But we risk burnout anyway, in these unprecedented times. I want to encourage you (and me!) to reflect on ways we might be unconsciously making that worse for ourselves by taking on more than we need to, or by always putting ourselves last on the list of people and things that need attention. Here’s a story:
I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine (who won’t read this, I don’t think!) with a very demanding job in education and a hectic family life talking about how after a busy week she had planned to have a nice long bath with a book. She ran the bath and got in, and her small child sat outside the locked bathroom door, crying and begging to come in. Her husband tried to get them to move away, but they were insistent that they wanted to be with their mommy. So she unlocked the door and kiddo sat quietly and happily on the floor next to the bath. She framed this as a story of being flexible and recognising that her child will only be small for a little while and that if it meant so much to them to do such a small thing, it was a good and healthy thing to do.
Maybe it was. But you know what? I’d have cheered if she’d said “I put on earphones and waited for my husband to take our beloved kid downstairs to play, because I am not – cannot – be the only source of comfort for them, and I deserve this hour.”
There are for most of us lots of very complex structural problems that prevent us taking baths – literally or figuratively! We don’t get much chance to just sit quietly and immerse ourselves in our own needs, even for a half hour or hour. But if circumstances align to make it possible – your spouse is at home and can look after their own child, a meeting is suddenly cancelled, leaving you one startingly unscheduled hour in a busy week, someone asks you to set a deadline rather than imposing one on you – please, be kind to yourself. As I’ve argued elsewhere, kindness takes courage – in this case to resist narratives of what it means to be a “good” academic (or parent, or whatever) and just to let yourself breathe. We will need whatever scraps of peace we can get in the months to come. Do yourself a kindness. Take that bath.