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 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.
Through reading blogs and thinking about feminism in relation to motherhood, I realised something, and I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t notice it before. Since my daughter was 8 months old, so for over a year, we have been attending a seminar at the university together. It all started when I was strongly encouraged to come along by a fellow student. I actually felt like she was pestering me and like she didn’t understand that with a husband who worked 9-5 and no childcare I just would not be able to attend a seminar. She discussed things with the semi-official seminar leader, also a student, and he sent me a very kind email explaining that I would be very welcome to bring my daughter, and that everyone would be willing to cuddle her while I presented my work.
Since then we have been attending this two-hour seminar every other week during term time together. It takes a lot of organisation: precise nap-timing, lunch-timing, packing snacks, toys, books, nappies, wipes, practising my non-chalant ‘why yes of course I’m on campus with my baby’-face… and crossing my fingers that my daughter stays acceptably quiet during the seminar. When my daughter turned 18 months, she started going to nursery, but the seminar happens to be on a non-nursery day. As I have gotten to know the people better, I have relaxed slightly, and now I find them a lot less intimidating. Since we started going to the seminar, several people have finished their PhDs, so now there is only a very small group of us. They always comment on how well-behaved my daughter is, they talk to her, ask about her and are generally lovely. (And my daughter really enjoys going to ‘nooni’ [uni] with mummy.)
But their demographics are quite surprising: there’s the recently separated childless Dr Martins-wearing goth bloke in his 50s who supposedly has never cooked a meal in his life, the ex-schoolteacher childless lady in her 50s, and the childless carefree students in their 20s and 30s from multiple different countries; all extremely academically minded. So then I realised that what they did and continue to do is actually quite advanced and feminist. Although the seminar is organised and led by a student, we do serious work and discuss complicated theories. Not really a place in which you would expect to find a toddler, or expect anyone to explicitly invite a toddler. But without their generosity, I wouldn’t be able to go to the only seminar which is offered for students in my discipline, and before my daughter started nursery it was a lifeline – adult company, interesting discussion, hearing others’ comments on my work, learning more about my subject. Without it, I would have been a lot less motivated and a lot more lonely. I think I really have to keep going with my PhD so I can thank these generous and kind people in my acknowledgements.