An unintended and prolonged absence has occurred and like missing anyone you’re fond of, I’ve definitely missed my blog. Life for many of us seems to have a somewhat annoying habit of getting in the way of what we perceive as far better plans. In fact so often I have to resort to my Antarctic fieldwork or alternatively laboratory science motto “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Parents will relate to this concept as well because in the past tense, it can frequently be a summation sentence of a pretty ordinary day.
This first blog under the new title of Parenting by Instinct should be a joyous blog full of the celebration of a new beginning- like new growth occurring, the chance to celebrate a new season, the slight nerves mixed with excitement of doing something for the first time.
I should be using this first PbI blog post to discuss any number of new pieces of science that parents should know about – such as a recent study that showed that even small lies from adults to children may result in the child then becoming more dishonest (and I wrote an article on it here). Or another study showing that the gut microbe make-up doesn’t settle for up until the first three years of life and this has implications for breastfeeding duration.
I will write about these eventually but in the meantime for the last couple of months my world has been somewhat rocked. It seems incredibly ironic that my last post was about Embracing Change and as it turns out just a few days before change was so forcibly on top of me.
I wrote in that post about this kind of change and even the effect it is having in my city: “Change that’s not driven by internal ruminations and is instead imposed on us is frightening and the change and associated stress that my home town people are experiencing is leading to a new vulnerable spanning my age group.”
The university where I work has been under financial stress for many reasons, not the least of which have been multi-faceted earthquake related effects. These have had sustained and considerable impacts on the staff that work there. Exhausted after a very intense year of restructuring all of our undergraduate qualifications (on top of more direct earthquake effects) and aware that the ‘change proposals’ were being announced across Faculties, it was a strange combination of complete surprise and yet non surprise to find a letter on my desk telling me that there were impacts on my position from these proposals.
Twenty-four hours later in a meeting with my Dean, supported by my mother at her request and where the room seemed to come in and out of focus, I got to hear that they propose to disestablish my position. With some 15% of academic staff in our Faculty proposed to go, 10% of staff overall and potentially as an unintended outcome 42% of women academics these are big changes on the cards.
These last nine weeks have flown by in a roller-coaster blur. Confronting me at every moment of the day is the prospect of phenomenal change in the supposedly secure world of tenured academia. It’s been a long time, these two months, spent drifting in limbo land, working through the stages of grief for the existence I immediately exited the second I saw that ominous envelope.
I’ve never experienced feelings of stress on this level before and it doesn’t seem in keeping with my character, except that this particular stressor is sitting now on layers of significant stress from new parenthood, and many, many direct and indirect earthquake effects, all building up over several years like compound interest. Others in my city can no doubt relate to this.
It’s given me a sensitive stomach and the low point perhaps was eating the tiniest bit of a pretty average meat pie my daughter had been eating en route out of town last week, which within seconds had me violently throwing up all over myself in the car- I was even slightly more contained than that when pregnant with nine months of debilitating morning sickness. What followed was an unintended, uncomfortable and unpleasant drive home to get changed and clean the car before setting off again. Driving past the offending bakery today brought back the association and history nearly repeated. My daughter said “Oh poor Mummy, even driving past the bakery makes you nearly throw up”! It’s good at least that we can laugh about it and she has been developing fantastic empathy skills, frequently doing all manner of nice things for me because “Mummy’s lost her job” (although I haven’t yet).
Mental space has been filled with trying to find the strength to mount a response to maintain my position in some form and at the same time to think what else the future might hold. Is this an opportunity for change that may indeed be a welcome visitor, that might propel my life in a different direction? I’m not entirely ready for that aspect- too exhausted surviving the now, but it’s always in the back of my mind- possibilities being considered and ideas formulating.
Many people, far too many, go through the prospect of redundancy as I am. In my situation, my job is nothing close to a job- it’s far more of a vocation, a considerable part of my identity. Being a scientist is something that is intrinsically a part of me, inescapably part of my fabric.
So too, is being a mother. And throughout this beyond-stressful experience as I wait to know my fate and having temporarily re-found my calmer state, I’ve been thinking about whether there are similarities of this experience to an aspect of parenthood,
In many ways, it’s a little like adjusting to life as a parent. One striking difference is that in general the birth of a child is a wanted event, whereas the prospect of loss of a job tends not to be. However, both situations are full of difficult, challenging surprises. Both involve going through a form of grief, or they should do.
Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment, especially in the modern world, where there isn’t typically extended family existence. At the same time as celebrating the new life you have created, ever so gradually finding your mothering or fathering rhythm, and finding the pure pleasure of moments spent gazing at the miracles of daily development, there is, or there should be, some level of grief to deal with the life you left behind.
And to fully engage in the parenting space, it’s essential that this process of mourning occurs. It may not even be registered consciously and I would hope for most parents it wouldn’t resemble anything of the grief I’ve felt with respect to my job these last weeks.
Some parents however, don’t complete their mourning journey, think their child must squeeze itself into their life that should largely carry on as before, but this places them stuck in the denial phase of grief unable to fully commit themselves to embracing the change that is in front of them.
Falling completely into parenthood doesn’t mean that all of one’s former life is lost though, nor one’s identify and nor should it- there’s no such thing as a complete life switch- rather life is a jigsaw puzzle at times, and bits fit in and out as required. It’s more fluid than that too- who we are today is different to who we were yesterday and who we will be tomorrow. Our environment and circumstances are constantly moulding us.
For me in the last few weeks, more than at any other time in my life, I’ve needed to find some space for myself and to engage in some self-care. I’ve had to continue to turn up at work, to honour teaching commitments, supervision of students, attend meetings and of course continue to be a mother.
With so much pressure ,self-care has been a necessity. This is important for mothers and fathers too. However, I think the societal pressures that seem to dictate that me-time needs such high elevation of status in the forms it is often promoted it should take are not always what is required. Self-care and me-time can be simple and it doesn’t even need to be without children; at least not in my book, as it seldom is child-free (see more here in The rubberband effect: building and maintaining resilience).
A cafe trip for a hot chocolate, time spent in the library slowly choosing books, gym and yoga time, a few minutes a day of meditation/breathing, the joy of cooking a lovely meal, watching a movie or a favourite programme, an afternoon snooze, an early night, gardening, a catch up with friends with or without kids all rate high for me.
But the most restorative thing is getting up high- driving to the mountains or more easily climbing up the hills in my city. There’s something that feels fantastic about working hard and then being on top of something, seeing a vista that is grand and sweeping- all the way from mountains to sea and over the city, connecting yourself back to home. It’s a form of conquering and feeling a profound sense of vitality, of connecting with the primal urge to be at one with nature and also of getting away from it all. I always do these trips with MissBB but a few weeks ago and early on in this potential job loss situation, she was in childcare and for the first time in her existence I was having a de-stress day at home without her.
So I walked up the hills on my own and strangely it felt so difficult. I had no one to carry as I usually do and so I should have bounced up, but without the distraction of four-year old chatter I was left to concentrate on the steepness, the deep breathing, and my own thoughts about the future and it was hard. As much though as it was challenging I really felt a sense of achievement and it did give me precious time to reflect. I missed my girl though, and all I really wanted at the top was a hug from her. My life is enriched by her presence and I see no real need to miss out on that. At the end of the day we’re social animals.
At work my existence for these weeks has largely been filled in a sense socially as well- lots of intense discussions about my situation, albeit from concerned colleagues, but those same conversations have sucked the life force out of me, leaving me feeling an emotional exhaustion that even beats the newborn phase.
Sadly, I’ve also experienced colleagues treating me like I have a communicable disease: I’ve had doors shutting on me, people walking away and not talking to me- them being afraid of what to say, worried I’ll burst into tears on them. There was also a truly demoralising on an other-worldly level departmental meeting that ultimately saw me exiting but I teetered on giving an impassioned speech before deciding I would tackle inaction and apathy another way. And in the end it worked: the submissions to support me and the proposition I have put forward have been really amazing, and touching.
How many parents out there can relate to these same kinds of experiences in their role as mums or dads? Feeling isolated, shunned perhaps for many reasons, and when people know you’re having a hard time choosing to be absent rather than supportive? Or in contrast some truly devastating conversations that lead you wondering whether these people know the harm they are causing with their ill-chosen words, or missing words?
When we become parents we’re frequently accosted by offers of support and advice and it can be exhausting to listen to all this babble and to know what to do with it. So much depends though on the attitude that we bring to listening. People come to these discussions believe-it-or-not usually from a place of caring and as much as it can be shattering and bewildering, sometimes it’s good to take on board what’s said and see how it fits. Stick up for yourself if you truly need to. But know too that in the process, listening can help you shape your own story and your own values, even if you disagree with what’s said. I’ve certainly found the discussions with colleagues helpful at work, as tiring as they have been, because they’ve let me work through my story and my plans and given me valuable outside perspective.
We’re used also when adversity strikes (again) to hearing the supposedly reassuring “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. This is indeed true to a point but to be fair I think there’s a limit. There’s only a certain number of challenges before I feel the character cup is pretty much overflowing and I think that many of us, including myself, that live in this earthquake-ravaged city have had a truly disproportionate number of adverse situations to face in the last few years. As an educator however, I know in reality we are always learning but it sure is hard to stomach that concept sometimes, literally!
In amongst all this challenge there was a day of pure fabulous-ness and a reminder that even in dark days that there will always be moments of total sunshine, especially if you work hard to create them. For us it was a day of chasing the Royals. Here’s a teaser picture. More on that in the next post.
As I wait to hear about my job, I’ve been reflecting about what I want my life mission to be. When I reached the top of the gondola on my walk, I met a young woman who had taken the gondola up and who was incredibly impressed I had walked up all that way. She told me that I, a complete stranger, inspired her. It was incredibly touching. She didn’t need to go out of her way to talk to me and more than that nor did she need to offer that personal piece of herself. What she gave me was a precious gift- of words. Words are easy to throw out of our mouths- but words that make a positive difference in other’s lives – they’re treasure.
What I want really is pretty simple: to inspire and to be inspired. I achieved both that day on the hills. Being a mother to a fabulous four year old too, who views me as her greatest role model and in turn inspires me every day, is a pretty good step in the right direction, whatever ‘job’ I end up doing.