Ecosystems of work, study and relationships

Eduardo Kobra's Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014

Eduardo Kobra’s Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014. Because: relationships. And New York.

How do you do all the things?

I’ve made the conscious decision to be there for my kids while they’re little.

My husband is actually great. He makes the kids’ lunches on Fridays.

I can’t go for that promotion. I’m planning to get pregnant / I’d have to put my kids in after school and vacation care / My husband works full time.

I wish I had the support you do.

How does your husband cope when you’re away? Poor guy!

It’s not the role I wanted but I’m so lucky my work has allowed me to come back part-time after having children.

Wow, you’re amazing!

These are some of the comments that I’ve heard said to myself, to other women or by other women. Meanwhile, my husband has had comments directed his way such as:

How do you cope when your wife is away?

How did you manage while your wife did her PhD?

I bet you haven’t eaten a good meal in months.

Do you get your wife back now?

So it’s Daddy Daycare today?

Wow, you’re amazing!

There seem to be assumptions at work about both the nature of the PhD and the gendered nature of work, study and home. In this recent vlog, Professors Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead talk about the relational aspects of the PhD experience. Tara talks about the online blogerature that links doing a PhD to divorce or relationship problems. I wonder why that is.

Maybe it’s because the PhD can feel like a lonely experience. It is a hard but wonderful slog that happens inside the head and on the keyboard of the candidate. It must be difficult for a partner or family member to understand what is actually happening for the person conducting research. Conversely, the PhD takes the candidate away from their partner or family or friends while they thrash about with their research and their thesis beast. I imagine that relationships can suffer and people in the candidate’s life can feel abandoned, left to their own brand of loneliness while the candidate furrows their brow in seemingly indulgent internal struggle, disappearing into inner worlds, or like I did, off to cafes to think and write.

The PhD also happens over a long time. Years. Sometimes three years and often longer. Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years in some cases. And one thing that is guaranteed across such a project is that life will happen. And get in the way. Inevitably, challenges will arise outside of the PhD, whether that be around health or finances or children or career or loss. In my three year candidature, I had some very tough personal times that had an impact on work and study, and on me personally. Life events can put a strain on our delicate ecosystems in which all our commitments interact.

I like Tara and Steve’s approach of supervising the PhD candidate’s whole life, including their web of relationships like partners and children. It takes a holistic view of the PhD, framing it as a collaborative work, rather than a lone journey.

Gender also seems to play a part in common comments about study, work, and their impacts on relationships. Why the frequent assumption that when a husband goes away, wheeling his case out the door with reckless abandon, all is as it should be, while when a wife goes away, she must fill the fridge and freezer with nutritious groceries and organic meals, pre-organise all child care arrangements and tape her itinerary and a list of important phone numbers to her husband’s forehead? Why the oft-joked-about assumption that a husband would struggle to run his own household or look after his own children? My husband and kids have a great time whenever I travel. Granted, they eat more chips and play more iPad than when I’m at home, but I am waved off and welcomed back by smiling faces, just the same as my husband when he goes away.

There are some who have fun with gender assumptions. On Twitter, the @manwhohasitall account makes fun of gendered comments often directed at women, by re-framing them for a male audience. This article on how to avoid a ‘manel’ (all male panel) gives some of the excuses used to exclude women from presenting and paneling.

Jacqueline Lunn here talks about the culture of women feeling grateful for part time work. I can certainly relate to the notion of being appreciative of being allowed flexibility in my workplace, rather than advocating for my bigger dreams, especially when I first returned to work from each of my maternity leaves. 

But I also acknowledge that working part time was a choice. I deliberately sought the time and flexibility that would allow me to do good work while being a good parent. I couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, have accepted an amazing full time position while my children were pre-school age as I wanted to avoid using before, after school and vacation care if possible. I’m also well aware that my choices are highly personal and privileged. They have only been possible because of the support available to me, in the form of my mum, my husband, friends and bosses. That my husband runs his own business has meant that he has the kind of flexibility not often offered to men in the workplace. Why so few cries for men to ‘Lean out!’ of the workplace for a more balanced life and enriched relationships with partners, family and children?

The choices my husband and I have made are far from perfect; that is, they’ve involved compromise and prioritising. But they are what has worked for us at various times. They have been fluid and shifting choices, as situations evolved. 

Our individual and collective ecosystems of relationships, work and study are delicate and mercurial. My hope is that individuals, partners and families are increasingly able to make the choices that work for them at any given time, without being bombarded with judgement or assumptions from others or media.

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One thought on “Ecosystems of work, study and relationships

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Except to say that it gets worse as a postdoc, the PhD seemed like a breeze compared to this slog! I just hope that somewhere in our evolving and as you say very delicate and dynamic ecosystems, there is an enduring sense of meaning and love (for ourselves, our families, our work…) that will anchor our children, and that at the end of our struggle our daughters will not face as many challenges as we do. I shudder to think of the comments that would have been made just 30 years ago…

    Like

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