When I was little I grew three lemon trees which I named Socrates, Aristotle and Plato (I had just read Sophie’s World). These days I’m teaching their ideas to undergraduates…
This third year as a single mum has been the most busy, and the most successful at work for me so far. My daughter has turned into a proper big girl: life with a 3-year-old is so much easier than with a baby or toddler.
This year my daughter has learned
to dress herself
to put her own shoes on
to recognise her own name
to recognise letters and name them according to what they represent in her letter puzzle
to come to my bed when she wakes up in the middle of the night
to go to the toilet on her own and wash her hands
to cut up food
to use scissors, a hole-punch and sellotape
what the post office is for and how exciting it is to send and receive letters
how to complain loudly about the bus being late and then choose her favourite seat when it arrives
several nursery rhymes and Christmas carols
going to ballet school
My year has brought the following accomplishments:
a tiny semblance of a social life
getting onto people’s radars at uni to be considered for jobs and feeling part of the ‘big people’
my first semester teaching literature to undergraduates
being praised by my supervisor for the feedback I gave my students for their essays
an internship at a small-but-influential literary organisation linked to my university (a particular highlight was attending an event and being told “this is x, have you met?” when x was someone who has written and been mentioned in academic texts I have read, and also an MBE and all-round impressive person)
suggesting a book review to a major journal on the spur of the moment, and having it accepted for publication
finishing a chapter of my thesis
presenting my research at a small conference in London
securing funding to attend as well as presenting my research at a major international conference in a Mediterranean country in the middle of the summer, mingling and networking for 3 days in a 5-star hotel, exploring the island and coping fine with the heat
Next year will bring:
hearing back about my abstract submissions for 3 conferences (2 UK, 1 international), 1 competition and 1 publication
submitting a proper article to a proper peer-reviewed-and-everything journal
my 2nd semester teaching literature to undergraduates
running a conference with 3 other students
hopefully the completion of 2 further chapters of my thesis
saying goodbye to our lovely nursery and its community
SCHOOL! and thus the official end of my daughter’s baby years, going to uni together, doing spontaneous fun things on weekdays, knowing she’s only a 5-minute walk away when I’m working, waiting at the uni bus stop with all the students, etc etc…
It’s been a good year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been majorly hard at times. I still have the feeling that my life has gone down completely the wrong path and there is nothing I can do to change it and direct it towards what I actually want. If you imagine the events that led to my becoming a single mum as an explosion (which is how I still see it), basically I’m still feeling dazed with tinnitus ringing in my ears. But at the same time, I have felt a new level of freedom through finally getting some results from my research, going out occasionally, and generally taking part in life. I feel slightly less ‘needed’ by my daughter. Of course she still needs me and I usually enjoy looking after her, but it’s all so much less intense now that she can do most things on her own, goes to sleep relatively easily, and because she is generally hugely intelligent and lovely (shameless bragging alert). I’m crossing my fingers that at the end of 2013 I’ll be able to report a similar list of achievements, and with my sanity still somewhat intact.
Merry Christmas, if you celebrate, and if you don’t, have a great winter break!
This is a shocking article about sexism at UK universities. ‘Rape-victim themed fancy dress parties’, seriously?!
I don’t take part in student union events because at almost a decade older than most people there, and with all the responsibilities and experiences that having a child brings with it, I would feel like their grandma. I am ashamed to admit, though, that my university has previously had a ‘pimps ‘n’ hoes‘ event, and it didn’t really seem out of the ordinary.
These kinds of attitudes are not just limited to the student body though: ‘mansplaining‘ is alive and well in my department, particularly for people (read: women) like me who are perceived as not very confident and professionally inexperienced due to age or lack of opportunities.
Just as worryingly, a junior academic in my department recently related their experience of evaluating applications for a lecturer position together with a senior academic: this senior academic, upon pulling an Israeli Jewish applicant’s CV out of the stack, apparently exclaimed ‘oh no, we don’t want any Jewish people’. When they realised that the person they were talking to was actually also Jewish, they quickly added, ‘oh, you’re ok, we just don’t want anyone like this, they’ll probably be all political’. As this exchange took place fairly recently, it seems that not much has changed since an Egyptian UK academic sacked two people simply for being from Israel.
A mixture of guilt, obligation, stubbornness, annoyance, ‘it’s-not-fair’-ness, and general argh! at the world.
I have been accepted to do an internship at a separate organisation based at my university which is relevant to my PhD. This is great news, especially as I thought the interview went extremely badly.
As part of this internship I will be working with the person who is also my second supervisor. She got in touch to set up our first meeting about what I’ll be doing, and I sent her a list of my daughter’s nursery times, implying (I thought) that it would make sense for her to pick a time within these hours. But she didn’t.
She doesn’t have children, and she only knows a little about my situation, so I don’t know if she thought the times I sent her were merely the most convenient for me rather than the only times I am actually available. The email was very short, and I don’t know this person well enough to judge whether she might be annoyed at my limited availability and thought ‘well, she’ll just have to make it work!’, or if she simply didn’t read my email properly.
Either way, I had to delicately let her know that she could either choose a different time or I’d have to brig my daughter with me, thus risking looking unprofessional before I’ve even started the internship. I briefly wondered (agonised!) if I could make it work another way.
For the interview, which lasted all of 12 minutes, my daughter’s dad took an entire afternoon off from his busy job. He’d been off work for a few days the previous week due to illness, and taking further time off risks making him look unprofessional, plus his work is of such a nature that it tends to pile up when he’s not there, so that when he gets back his stress increases. Added to this is that our relationship is not brilliant and quite unequal in terms of power distribution, so I usually feel uncomfortable asking for favours because I can’t think of a favour I could ever do him. So this was a big ask. For the sake of 12 minutes.
Doing this again a week later is not an option. I could book an extra nursery session (if one is available, that is), but £30 is rather a lot for a few minutes of meeting, and it would mean putting my daughter in nursery for longer than she’s ever been. Sure, it wouldn’t kill her and she would probably have fun, but £30 when this is most of my weekly food budget? No.
Then, as I saw a fellow student mother wander past me in the office, I considered asking her to play with my daughter in the postgraduate kitchen as they know each other from the music group we used to attend. But I don’t know her that well, and I don’t know if she’d ever ask me for a favour. And getting indebted to other people only sets the precedent that even if something takes place outside of nursery hours, I will make it work somehow, so next time I’d have to ask someone else for help again because surely nursery times are only a preference . When it’s fixed events like conferences or interviews, I will make it work if possible. But when it’s a two-people meeting and I’ve made it clear that I am only on campus at specific times – no. Not anymore. Not after a 12 minute interview that involved a rather sarcastic comment from one of the interviewers and made me feel a bit rubbish.
I have a daughter. That means I have responsibility for another person. Not a dog or a cat you can put somewhere on their own. A person who also deserves to spend time with me. I want to be involved in university life, but I can’t change nursery times at the drop of a hat, and I just do not have a network of people that allows me any flexibility. So those are the times I am available. Take it or leave it.
*Sung to the tune of ‘I’m a Believer’
When my daughter was eight months old, the other PhD students in my department insisted that I attend a bi-weekly research seminar. Our university had recently started a new initiative of postgraduate research training, and they were keen to bring me into the fold from which I had been absent for over a year. I kept getting secretly annoyed that they weren’t able to see that there was no way I could attend seminars without childcare, until they said ‘you can bring your baby, we can hold her for you when you’re talking’.
The first time we went was an autumn afternoon, and after meticulous nap-, toy- and snack-planning, it was great to be back where I felt like I belonged. I didn’t even know what I’d been missing, and I felt revived after that seminar, as well as proud of what I and my daughter had achieved together. (When I was new to mothering I lived in perpetual fear of public crying and wriggling, so a 2-hour university event was a challenge.) I also realised that this group of childless academics of various ages, nationalities and convictions had made one of the clearest feminist statements I’ve experienced first hand. If I ever finish my PhD, it will be in no small part thanks to them.
My daughter and I went to the seminar every other week for two-and-a-half years until my daughter decided she wanted to use her new talking skills to make herself heard in the seminar. It was not necessary for anyone to ‘hold her’ (the idea of trying to confine a baby who was enjoying crawling all over the place made me chuckle) as she was usually happy to play or cuddle with me. Even the occasional hunt for dropped crayons, Duplo-clattering or surprise smelly poo didn’t disrupt proceedings (or perhaps the gagging took place while I was out of the room changing her nappy). We spent our final seminar together with her on my hip, eating a banana, taking her own ‘notes’ and looking at my work on the big screen while I presented my research.
Now I have been asked to take over running the seminar, which is a lovely progression. I’m officially a ‘convenor’ on all the paperwork, with no idea what that actually means. Hopefully I can do a good job and make people feel as welcome and accepted as I felt.
Do something that is difficult. A real challenge. It is true: if you have little or no confidence/self-respect, you will allow people to treat you abysmally. Doing something difficult will make you see yourself with new eyes.
You can only change yourself. You can’t stop other people treating you abysmally, but you don’t have to take it. My strategy is to reduce contact time drastically: if your interaction is reduced to 2 mins pick up and drop off time, there are only 4 minutes in which to think ‘what a bastard’ per day! This is my strategy, and I know that I only do things this way because of my psychological makeup. You might be built differently so that other strategies give you that ‘yes, life is ok this way’ feeling.
Also: sit out your feelings. A relationship breakup is a loss, and you will probably undergo some sort of grieving process. Don’t force yourself to move on to the next stage too soon. In my case, I noticed a clear distinction between different phases. First I was incredibly sad. Then angry. Then denial started in the form of thinking it wouldn’t be pointless to go to couples counselling or on a joint holiday. Then bargaining: if I can prove that I can be extra nurturing and supportive and don’t need any emotional responses to anything ever, surely then you’ll have to be nice to me and help me fulfil my dreams of a functional family. There is no chance when the other person is just going through the motions. I think now I’m veering towards acceptance. Mostly thanks to that big challenge, and a hint of the old pissed-offness.
My university agreed to give me money to go to a conference abroad. My supervisor thought I was worth the effort of writing a statement in support, and good enough to go as a representative of my department. The organisers of this very big, prestigious and important conference (which took place in a 5* hotel!) thought I should present a paper on my research. They thought I would be good enough.
I’m thinking perhaps they were right. Not the misguided fool who wrote “I have polished your ego to the point you actually believe the bullshit I said to make you feel better.”