Inspired by research on childlessness

My grandmother died giving birth to my mother, who herself struggled for life in her early days. In her mid-60s, and in the midst of grieving her daughter, my great-grandmother was handed this tiny babe to care for and mother. Her world must have unrecognisably shifted in those days and weeks.

Pregnancy was not kind to my mother before I was born either. Living in remote Goulburn Island, in Arnhem Land, my mother was hospitalised for the month before giving birth to me. We struggled for life, she and I, but survived this seemingly dangerous time.

So, I never grew up with romantic pregnancy or childbirth stories – I never knew there was potentially a ‘glow’ until years later reading other women’s stories.

I barely knew any of the family stories until I was old enough to ask what had happened to my mother’s family. That is the beauty of childhood in a way – although ‘beauty’ may not be the right word – you normalise everything around you as what life ‘is’ until you’re old enough to realise that your family (and your life) is not the only one in existence.

I have learnt that, in my family, the first girl pregnancies can be tricky, and potentially deadly.

And I also carry a little grief as well for what my mother missed, the stories she has never known, and the stories she may only ever partly know. My great-grandmother sounds amazing – feminist, strong, and big-hearted – but she was of a different generation, where exclamations of love were not so freely and easily and exuberantly expressed. My mother never knew the type of family she created for me and – as I’ve remembered more as an adult, understood more, and not just accepted as a child – I’ve realised just how much creating this type of family was a learning for her. And how much she surrounded us in love, just in case something happened, that we always knew she loved us.

So, while I grew up surrounded by the social presumption that girls became women who then became wives and mothers (as most little girls do), it never felt very relevant to me and my life. I would grow up absolutely but motherhood seemed like a foreign country, which has safety warnings attached. A place I heard about, but somewhere I never made any active plans to visit. Other women went there.

They felt braver than me.

And it seemed like a very foreign land for many, many years. I knew of ‘motherhood’ but it never entered my thoughts in anything but a fleeting way and always about someone else.

I only started thinking about it as something to do with me a little while ago, and only when a man I was dating, who was already a father, started talking about a family with me. This was the first time it didn’t make me nervous or wake up in a cold sweat. Or wonder whether he secretly wished me dead – goodness, how a fear can linger ghost-like at the shadows ready to submerge you at crucial times. The relationship didn’t work out but the sense that I could actually be a mother – that it’s not an entirely ridiculous notion – has remained. Not overtly, not as something that ticks or screams – but something simply there sitting at the edges, along with other hopes and wants and desires attached to life. I think about motherhood in the way that I think about one day becoming a ‘proper’ writer or opening a cake and whiskey shop or moving to a windswept cottage in Ireland – something that will be an amazing adventure and full of baking (everything is always going to be full of baking) but something that, if I didn’t, would be OK as well because life happens in odd and mysterious ways. Everything is an adventure.

Except, sometimes, it doesn’t feel that easy. As I creep towards an age where motherhood may no longer be an option, I’m beginning to think about making sure I’m OK with never being a mother. Because, unlike a cake and whiskey shop or an Irish windswept cottage, motherhood still seems to be attached to female worth and those who are childless are judged negatively – just as those who are mothers but who aren’t perceived to be doing a good enough job are also judged negatively. Women never seem to win, no matter what, when it comes to social disapproval about the use of our reproductive organs.

And I will be OK. And I almost went on to justify why I would but then having to justify my worth if I end up being childless feeds into the whole problem.

I will be OK and I will have a wonderful life – with child or without.

And normally it’s so easy, I don’t have to think about being OK about it; is just is. It’s like before. A foreign land I’ve not yet visited, but I’ve now looked at a brochure.

Yet sometimes, just sometimes, it’s harder because I feel forced to justify. Tiny things said by people, tiny implications – larger ones said by media and government, larger implications.

Sometimes it feels as though being childless signals that I must be too ambitious – too choosy (about the father) – too career-driven. That being childless means I lack compassion, selflessness, and love. I’m either too much or too less. An adult-sized Goldilocks, I am never ‘just right’.

And if I am too ambitious and career-driven, then exactly how magnificent must my work appear in order to be perceived worth being childless? In a world of Instagram-filters, it’s amazing what my world can look like from behind a screen. Everything is as pretty as we paint it.

Sometimes it feels as though I am painted as an intruder in a family space, because where do I fit? And in this liminality, I become the aunt/godmother favoured in department stores and boutiques because I will buy the expensive organic clothes and the hand-carved toy animals – or the deeply inappropriate toy that makes noise just as the baby has fallen asleep. Here I am frivolous because everyone knows actual parents buy practical and serviceable things – my lack of knowledge is highlighted.

Mostly though it’s because I don’t like the strict pink/blue gender divide, and refuse to buy into it exclusively until the child in question is old enough to ask for pink/blue specifically. It’s always easier to buy non-strictly-gendered things from more expensive brands. I am my god-daughter’s feminist god-mother, which is quite fun actually.

Sometimes it feels as though I am pitied for the too much and the too less and my frivolous lack of fit. I have always had love in my life – in this way, I have always been blessed – yet sometimes it feels as though all this love is worth less than the love connected to motherhood. I refuse to believe though that there is a hierarchy of love – any love is a beautiful thing, worthy of being treasured.

This is only sometimes – most days, my brain is too busy thinking about the grants and articles I’m writing, the students I’m teaching, and the books I’m reading. Wondering that Laks really wants to eat her body-weight in beef every night, and whether there is something to watch on the ABC.

And having media and government narratives that valorise motherhood help no one, just as narratives that valorise childlessness help no one. Neither offers an infallible path to happiness. Both can be tricky to navigate and subject to the judgement of others; both at times are perceived to require justification. All of us share the risk of judgement for simply being who we are. Mothers may have a more consistently overt narrative but fathers are not so far behind in being judged for their performance. All of us then share the risk of not being good enough people, which makes the narratives then, the norms, seem all the more pointless? Why continue doggedly along a path that does no one any good?

I started this blog as a space in which to write that was different to my writing as a researcher. A way to think through thoughts and put them put into the universe to do as they will. For this reason, I write these posts often as a stream of consciousness – hence typos and rambling tangents – to write bravely and boldly from a resolution made at the beginning of the year inspired by the Edu Flaneuse, inspired always by The Space In Between. This feels a more naked piece to write but all the more reason to build my wings as I fall, close my eyes and submit. There’s no perfect solution to this, no right decision – just a peacefulness in whatever adventure brings, whatever the universe offers.

What do you think?

Do clothes maketh the academic?

The past fortnight has been a little strange. I’ve been entirely lost in that last of the grants and the beginning of teaching – drowning a little in trying to ensure both share focus with a mind that isn’t complete marmalade. It’s been OK so far…

But in this distraction – as my small cat continues to chew up all the toilet paper in a way to gain attention – I’ve been finding the oddest things to read. And these articles have argued, in their ways, that I’ve not been living up to expectations I either keep on forgetting existed (or didn’t realise existed in the first place).

All in all, it’s been a smidge disconcerting because, as I’ve been focusing on holding everything together in a vaguely balanced way, appearance ideals rear their – ugly is far too strong a word – boring head. Sometimes having to worry about what I look like – or disregard another article telling me what I’m supposed to look like – is becoming increasingly dull.

Even when the debates are deeply amusing.

Alvy Carragher impaled one such article – how a good woman dresses and behaves.

The usual lala about modest clothing and heels and makeup – and no doubt brushing your hair. I love Alvy’s blog – the way she sees things is brilliantly skewed. And, it’s true, it’s all the usual lala but it’s exhausting to continually have these polarized conversations where, on one side, women must love themselves for who they are and, on the other, are only lovable if they follow however many steps to look a certain way. It’s exhausting to those of us who are used to the conversation, used to dissecting it and ignoring it where it doesn’t suit. I wear loads of dresses and skirts but I also love my Skechers and am rarely fussed to brush my hair in any meaningful way.  I don’t own an iron and my style is essentially grounded in my refusal to iron. But we’re the lucky ones – those of us who can happily do that dissection with little thought. I worry about those women who don’t do that dissection so easily – those who will always struggle and those girls (children even) who need to learn that the conversation is one that can be dissected. The lucky ones need to become teachers of this because someone taught us too.

For all that the value of feminism is argued, it’s worth and it’s meaning, I will always be a feminist while we still have to tell little girls that they can be whoever and whatever they want, wear whatever they want, without worrying whether they’ll be girly or beautiful or accepted enough. While we still have to tell them, and write at length about it, and make specific art and advertising that highlights in big bold interpretive-dancing letters that girls can grow into whatever sort of person they want, whoever feels most true to them.

For me, that’s one of the important feminist fights.

But these swirling thoughts – buffering against the grant writing and the teaching this fortnight – were compounded by another article about what academics should wear, not a dress code per se but a suggestion of clothes to be worn so that you’re taken seriously.

Again, something else to be dissected – kept and discarded as relevant. Something I’d ordinarily laugh at and forget by my first chai. But it’s stuck in my head because I’m trying to work out whether what I wear really, truly, deep down matters in the basic aspects of getting good work done. Am I a better writer in a fitted dress than if I’m embracing comfy man-repeller pants and a cardi?

Obviously, the academic world would grind to a shattering halt without cardis so they always have to be on a list, if a list is what we’re writing.

During my PhD, I wrote absolutely everywhere. I dated a musician for almost my entire literature review, which was almost entirely written in various pubs while he gigged. If the mood strikes, I can write in underwear as easily as I can in jeans as easily as a conference dress. (This may be my tell as a researcher – I don’t own fancy going-out dresses but I do own dresses that I buy because I want to wear them at conferences). If the mood doesn’t though, if it’s a day where I delete more than I write and swear often and loudly at the screen, I could look like Ms Moneypenny in all her ironed, pencil-skirted, brushed-hair glamour and it wouldn’t make a drop of difference. And it’s still the case now – my clothes don’t influence how much I write, or whether it’s actually any good at all. My honesty does.

But that’s just me.

It may be different for others.

But I also wonder whether this idea of what an academic should look like speaks to a sense of lack that we sometimes feel, that I sometimes feel. That, for so long, there’s been a stereotype that academia is a fluffy, unreal job (which it is very much not)_and so we need to clothe ourselves in a style more akin to more ‘serious’ jobs. Is it a sense of the saying that you dress for the job you want, and that some people see this as a way of making academia more respectable in a sense? The cardis have to be sleek, rather than nanna?

For me there’s a difference between dressing for occasion – my conference dresses make me feel more confident because their special-ness gives them a little bit more power – and dressing for something you think others want, for something you think you should be. The first still feels playful – it winks to the person I am while I’m doing something that makes me feel more nervous. The second though, makes me feel as though I’d be dressing up, pulling on a mask to be a caricature of a ‘good’ academic. The style over substance.

Have I over-thought this? I’ve been over-thinking everything lately so this could well be the case. But in all the issues we need to discuss in academia, what we should look like feels like a distraction. And distractions only take our attention away from the things that make our hearts (my heart anyway) beat in this work.

What do you think?