February 2012

Post 47.

I’ve spent this Carnival home with Stone and Ziya, my first Carnival at home in many years. It’s been wonderful. I’ve been dog tired and jetlagged, life has been hectic and these last couple of days has given me time to rejuvinate and spend time with them both, without rushing. Today was one of those days I was glad to be home with the hours stretching ahead. Zi slept well, ate well and on time, played, coloured, walked, talked, read and breastfed, and I got a proper afternoon sleep, one of the rare luxuries of new working motherhood. The rest has been vital to me to as, following up on my last post, the Professor I just met gave me until Friday (!) to send him a publishable paper. Goddess alone knows how I am going to do that between Wednesday and Friday, but I’m going to try and I need the energy to do so. I’m heading back to work on Wednesday feeling calm and good, something I really needed. I don’t know how I’ll do successful working motherhood with another baby, but that is off the cards until after tenure, that’s for sure.

I’ve been thinking about Lynette’s words about wanting it all and, instead, having to come to terms with what is possible. It’s true, it’s like I want the career I would have had without being a mother. Yet, I’d like a family and I haven’t come to terms how the trade-offs work. I am also annoyed at the trade-offs and aware of how much work it takes to transform them. Take tenure for instance, the fact is that women who make a baby should be given a two year reprieve from being assessed for tenure. If I had had that, I wouldn’t be feeling the pressure I do to match up to expectations (my own and others) that really don’t reflect the reality of my situation. In some places, women do get a year, but the truth is that two is really more fair.

In the first trimester, I simply could not function as I used to. It wasn’t a choice. I was exhausted. Like valium-unable-to-keep-my-eyes-open exhausted. One time after needing to sleep for what seemed like three days straight, I asked my doctor for a ‘sick note’ I could take to work to justify my absence. I got that classic reply, ‘but you are not sick’ and was refused a note. How do other women cope? Apparently, they just do. I did too, but it was like there was no acknowledgment, in the public sphere of work, that a pregnant working body simply cannot function as a normative working body does. Yes, I wasn’t sick, but what was I to tell my boss? I was sleepy? No! I was pregnant, something that falls between ‘able to function at work like a machine’ and ‘sick’, something for which you could get no note, something you could only negotiate individually with your employer in the hope they understand, something you might not yourself anticipate or understand, but something that slows you down, makes you cut back and cuts down your time and capacity for balancing it all, including writing.

The thing about that first trimester is that you don’t look pregnant and you might not want to tell the world – or your office – yet. So, the escape of later semesters when you ‘look’ pregnant can’t be relied on. At that point, people can see a baby and their concern is fleshed out by that visibility. Unlike later months when you can get doctor’s leave – usually to protect the health of your baby, in your early days you appear like any other woman’s body and have no excuse. It’s like the time on a plane when a flight attendant asked a woman who wanted to change seats, ‘how pregnant are you?’, as she assessed the validity of her request. Sitting there, I thought, you are either pregnant or you are not. It’s funny how without the baby to visibly justify your condition, your needs become so less valid. Really, women should get the right to a set number of days of pregnancy leave throughout the nine months, including in the first three when it can be worse than later on.

My second and third trimesters were better and in the third especially I put in full long hectic, frenetic days. But then I felt my baby was past the vulnerabilities of the first trimester when no woman can simply push forward as she might otherwise without wondering if it will have any repurcussions for her body, womb or baby inside. I also had a super easy pregnancy where I could work without unrelenting exhaustion, pain, nausea or who knows what else other women go through. And, like me, those women have to somehow just manage and make it, often in conditions much less negotiable and more demanding than my own, in a body that is growing another human being, a body that cannot be compared to a male body or non-pregnant female body. It’s life and women everywhere get on and do it, but that doesn’t make it okay.

So, you’ve got this body that for nine months, in various ways, can’t be pushed as you normally would. Then, you’ve got the first year of the baby, perhaps exclusively breastfeeding every two hours or so night and day as I did, for the first six months. When was I supposed to be writing then? Women do it and it’s definitely possible, but should it be expected? And, I couldn’t even get my brain together when Zi was still waking up at 11pm and 2am and 5am as she did up until about November. I’ve gotten maybe ten full nights of sleep since she’s been born, most of them when I’ve gone away to a conference, somehow still returning tired at the end. I’m supposed to work, mind my baby, not sleep and write? This is why altering assessment for two years, and not just one, makes sense. It cuts women some slack, recognises the reality of their bodies and that of their babies, and simply acknowledges that, obviously, there is no other way to level the field. The only other option is to continually make women choose between their families and their livelihood or to make the standard higher than they can reach. I guess this is the place where I feel I am.

As I talk to more and more working mothers, I come to appreciate their choices and sacrificies, what they have chosen to let go of for their children or their sanity and the potential drag on their career they come to terms with. I now understand those women who come to conferences and don’t go to all the panels, because when else might they sleep, dance, write, take a walk or not have breakfast standing up at the kitchen counter. I understand more how women give up on being terrified about what it says in their assessment, because they have chosen not to work on weekends, that time the private sphere deserves for itself. I’ve just not quite understood as yet what all this means for me, amidst all the circumstances that are individually mine.

How to come to terms with the new you that can no longer do what the old you worked so long and hard to be able to do? How do you know what’s the right place to set the bar? What does it mean to not want it all? Knowing that I won’t be seen as ‘behind’ where I should be would really help. I’ve mentioned it to my union but, as with everything else for women, so much work remains to do.

Post 46.

Choices. You have to live with them, both the good and the bad ones. What you decide is a good or bad choice only comes with hindsight, and hindsight isn’t neutral. Rather, it the voice from the present that assesses the past, coding it in ways that make sense in the now, ways that may not make the same kind of sense later on. In this, the struggle is to honour those choices for what they say about who you were, what you valued, what you had to learn. The struggle is also to be realistic about what you can ‘fix’ or what you can do to shift the trajectory your choices set you on.

I guess it’s a struggle to think about the past while not dwelling in it, to think about the present as it empowers you to mediate the past and future, and to think about the future while recognizing that you can only get so far, so fast.

I think about this a lot as I’ve been assessing my trajectory as an academic and trying to understand exactly how I found myself here today. I could say I spent too much time in my early years doing outreach and activism, but what passions and lessons and connections would that ‘too much’ be dishonoring? Here I am now with all this past activism in hand, a baby to give time to in the present and tenure ahead. Sometimes, I wish I had just gotten my book out so that I wouldn’t be caught in the work-family balance as I am now, sometimes I know that things unfold as they should. It’s rare in my life for me to think that where I am isn’t exactly where I’m supposed to be. And, really, I’ve got the myriad of voices in my head with all sides of the argument.

The voice of the wonderful woman who told me yesterday that what you do represents how you become yourself, and that your path can’t be devalued. She also told me to be careful of wanting it all because maybe some things have to give and, in the end, looking at one’s mortality, you have to know that you kept to the things that most mattered. There is the voice of the US Professor who said to me, yesterday as well, “send me a publishable version of something you have written in two days from now (!), I want to see what peer reviewed journals we can send it to”, just because – completely out of the blue – he’s invested in me getting tenure on time too. He said he’s seen my story amongst too many ‘women of colour’ academics who spend the early years on political work, the middle years on children and the later years two steps behind their male and childless peers who pushed ahead while they didn’t.

Then there’s that overall lesson I learned about not knowing the reasons things happen until you do. When my dad was kidnapped in 2006 (something I’m saying publicly for the first time here), he escaped by hiding and running through the forest throughout the night. At some point, he came to a house, virtually by itself at the edge of the trees and he called out to those inside, saying his name and that he was a kidnap victim and asking for help. The man who came outside, answered by saying his name in return, with familiarity and in surprise. They had known each other for three months in 1963 when my dad worked in the Treasury. I’ve never forgotten that story. Did they meet for that short period, forty years before, so that on that dark night of terror my dad would almost miraculously find, in that first person that he met, someone who already knew his name?

This is why you can’t second guess your choices. You never know when you will find out why they make sense, you never know when you’ll come to value exactly that thing you chose to do at that time, you simply cannot foretell why you will come to honour your past and your passions and the simple ups and downs of mistakes and successes.

I’m trying to keep this in mind as I push ahead, try to stay focused rather than feel overwhelmed, and figure out how to manage, though I’m really really tired, as if I could work as I used to. I guess that whether my past choices were right or not is irrelevant. All that counts is the decisions that I make now. The rest I just have to trust and let unfold. Who knows how I will have differently reassessed my choices forty years from now, when suddenly they may make total sense in ways i could have never anticipated.