Part 3: A parental call to arms

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

I hit publish on this when the phone rings. Not my mobile, which I expect to ring, but the home phone which we only keep connected because parents and in-laws tend to be averse to using their mobiles. My heart is in my throat as I have no idea who would be calling that number and why. I hurry to answer it.

After pleasantries are exchanged I am asked if I am Mum to Ms 5. I answer in the affirmative. “She just vomited” the voice on the phone tells me. “I will come and get her right away” I answer.

A parental call to arms. Regardless of the other dramas that might be happening, and my overwhelming compulsion to sit around feeling sorry for myself, I race to Ms 5’s school.

I park illegally and half-walk/half-run into the office. A kindly office lady brings my baby out. She is pale and shaking, vomit splatters the front of her school tunic. “There was red in her vomit, did she drink red cordial?” she asks kindly. “At a party yesterday, yes, red cordial” I reply, hoping that it is in fact red cordial and not a sign of something more sinister. She did attend a party yesterday, against better judgment she drank red cordial. But what if? I shut that thought down quickly. That is not an option.

I bundle her home. Bubble bath is run, toast is made and promptly goes cold. A fever has gripped my baby, we argue about medicine which she stubbornly refuses to take. She is now in bed, on my husband’s side, watching a movie on our TV. I am jumpy, every movement sounds like the beginnings of a vomit. I hear my phone making phantom noises. What if someone needs to contact me? What if what if what if

Plans are rearranged. No ballet for Ms 5 this afternoon, likely no school tomorrow either. Work commitments flicker on the edge of my consciousness. Lists and lists and lists of tasks to do. Time critical tasks. A husband in surgery who needs me. A child in bed who needs me.

I want to not be needed for five minutes. That doesn’t change the fact that I am.

I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick.

It isn’t even 2 pm.

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COLAs and DECRAs: a comparison of kindergarten and higher education

In February of this year my 5-year-old daughter started kindergarten. Starting school is one of those thoroughly ordinary and expected events in your child’s life that still manages to knock you sideways when it happens, not because of what it is but of what it represents. My child is independent, my child is brave, my child is smart, my child is growing up.

But this is not her story, this is mine.

On her first day of kindergarten Ms 5, Mr TSC, and the other kindergartener parents and their kids met at the school for a briefing. We all congregated under an outdoor shelter while teachers chastised us into silence, but then spoke far too quietly for most of us to hear. The gist of it was that our children were to enter into a new routine, that the expectations for them were to change. Likewise there was the acknowledgement that our roles as parents had shifted as well, but that we should rest assured that our children were to be supported and well cared for.

At least that’s what I think was being said. There were far too many parents and I was way up the back.

Then the expected routine was outlined. We were to drop our kids off at the COLA if we arrived before 8:30. If we arrived after 8:30 we were to take them directly to the classroom. Bags went here, umbrellas somewhere else. If x scenario was to happen then y was to be contacted. Information was spewed at us by a kindly, but harried (and again, softly spoken) assistant principal. We were told of SRCs and P and Cs. NAPLAN tests and Crunch and Sip. And I thought to myself WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT?

I would steal surreptitious glances at my fellow parents, hoping beyond hope that I wasn’t the only one lost, awash in a sea of acronyms and jargon. Being someone who prepares for every possible scenario, I had been arrogant enough to assume that when it comes to kindy I would have it in the proverbial school bag. Boy was I wrong.

Later I was talking with my husband about the proposed drop off routine. “What the hell is a COLA?” I asked. He replied (as if this as the most obvious thing in the world) “a Covered Outdoor Learning Area”. My husband in his long-term association with the building industry had been tasked with building many of them under the Australian government’s Building the Education Revolution school’s stimulus scheme. Revenue offered to government schools as a part of this scheme was often used to build, amongst other things, large concreted spaces with rooves. On the plans he would see this acronym and came to learn what it meant. Later I struck up a conversation with another Mum while waiting for Ms 5 to come out of school. I confessed in that conspiratorial way that parents are wont to do “I didn’t even know what a COLA was until yesterday”. She turned to me and exclaimed “oh thank god, I thought it was just me!”.

Jargon can be defined as “unnecessarily technical language which provides polysyllabic replacements for perfectly adequate simple words“. Acronyms are a form of jargon, obscuring simple concepts behind codified letters, which then become part of a new language which make sense according to their own internal logic. I am not saying the abbreviations and language that was used on that first day of kindy don’t make perfectly rational and logical sense to the people who work in primary schools, or that they aren’t useful as signifiers, just that they didn’t make any bloody sense to me. The end result was that I felt like an idiot. and in order to hide my apparent idiocy I kept my ignorance to myself.

Anyone who has worked in higher education would agree with me when I say that it has its own internal language which you need to learn. Much like my daughter’s primary school, tertiary institutions create and adhere to language and logic of their own. Some acronyms are relevant to higher education providers across Australia (SSAF, DECRA). Others are more institutionally specific (TELT anyone? How about SMAH? Should I ask TEL or ITS?)

If you are a staff member at a tertiary institution, deeply embedded in the discourse of higher education, think back to being a student starting out in this space. Sure many of these acronyms are useful, and jargons can make sense, but their use is exclusionary. As a new student I remember being faced with acronyms for everything from staff members, to faculties, to support services. In orientation these were thrown about with such abandon that you would be forgiven for thinking that this language must be the norm and that you are an idiot for not knowing. I internalised that, as many students do, but used it as incentive to learn and become a part of the institution. I fear that not everyone has that resolve, and students who face extra challenges in accessing higher education don’t really need additional barriers put in their way. If higher education is already challenging for you then feeling like you don’t know your LD’s from your LLS can be a real pain in the A.

Similar problems exist for staff working in higher education. Mysterious internal workings are obscured in outdated websites and policy documents nobody reads. The person you talk to for annual leave is different to the person who arranges maternity leave, they both work in departments which are acronymed but you’re not sure what it is as the website hasn’t been updated and neither work after 3 anyway. The person who supports the phone is different to the department that supports your computers, and who the hell do I ring when video conference isn’t working? This environment fosters a great deal of self-sufficiency in higher education staff, and breeds a particular resilience in casual staff who often can’t, or don’t know how to access these support services and administrative staff at all. But it also divides the staff between those who know (or know someone who know) and those who flounder their way through the murky internal systems unique to their institution, taking six months to find out information that could have taken them five minutes had they have known the appropriate acronym to input into Google.

This critique isn’t unique to the tertiary sector, or any of the institutions where I have worked. This sector just happens to be the one I know best. But that day at my daughter’s school it hit me: it has taken me over a decade but I now have a passable understanding of the langauge and internal of higher education. For a long time the language and internal workings were foreign to me, and functioned to make me feel like an outsider, even after working as a casual (sorry ‘sessional academic’) for so long. I was familiar with the practices of higher education sure, and was more than comfortable with teaching and research, but I didn’t know the language. I could visit higher education, but it wasn’t my place.

Next time you refer a colleague to ITS, or a student to “the hub”; think about what you are asking them do, and what assumptions you are making. Not everyone knows to stand under the COLA until 8:30. Extend your institutional knowledge to your colleagues and students. Orientate your staff (particularly your casual staff, especially your casual staff) in the support networks and departments they should be aware of. When creating new departments and programs and roles, think about ensuring the transparency of the role, and the accessibility of the services to the people who need it most. A link on a website or a byline in an email isn’t enough: people need to know what it means. I extend that kindness to staff and students I know because know what it is to be the foreigner confused by the language of the locals. It makes you feel like an idiot, and worse, it makes you feel like an outsider.

Meet me under the COLA at 2:30 and I will tell you all about it.

Only the Lonely: on my decision to parent an only child

The Doctor leaned over the desk towards me with an earnestness that was touching. “You really need to think about this” he said “your fertility will start to decrease after you turn 35”. He then leaned back in the chair and tented his fingers, gazing into the middle distance “mind you, that doesn’t make it impossible, it’s just something you should keep in mind”.

This interaction doesn’t come across as striking until you take into account why I had visited this doctor in the first place. I went to him regarding my toenail fungus.

Almost from the earliest days of bringing my now 4-year-old daughter home from the hospital, it had been asked of us when we were planning to have another. This I now understand is not a unique experience, and has become the default question for almost all new parents of healthy children. I said “never again”, the way many new and first time mothers probably say it. I meant it though. And 4 years later I continue to mean it, for so many reasons.

Now my pregnancy and birth were both high unpleasant for me, both physically and emotionally. I suffered from extreme vomiting and was on the verge of dehydration for five draining months. Lifting my head from the pillow became an event worth celebrating, and the term “morning sickness” made me angry and reesentful. I didn’t have “morning sickness” I had entire life sickness and it left me physically drained. Unfortunately after my so-called “morning sickness” subsided, I went into a bad emotional space. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself as having repetitive, obsessive, and highly distressing thoughts that I had brought specific harm to the developing fetus. Overall I missed out on the glowing pregnancy stuff and instead was catapulted straight into hormonal, vomiting, obsessive, crazy-lady hell.

The internet also isn’t short of horrific birthing stories, so I won’t add mine to the list. Suffice to say my daughter was diagnosed with IUGR of unknown cause at 34ish weeks, and I was induced at 37+6 in order to accommodate for my obstetrician’s upcoming Golf tournament (this is not a joke, this is an actual thing that happened).  The whole event was a clusterfuck of epic proportions and the only good thing to come out of it was my tiny 2.495 kilo baby. However this was not the end of my nightmare. While I have heard it said by some Mothers all of their fears were swept aside when they held their tiny bundle of joy in their arms et. al. my own experience was that my fears and obsessions only took hold of my life and I was hospitalised for OCD and depression when my daughter was around 6 weeks old.

I never glowed. I never nested. I never counted tiny fingers and tiny toes. I never debated the benefits of one brand of car seat or pram over another. Instead I cried and vomited and at my lowest moments I thought about taking my own life.

You don’t see that on the cover of Mother and Baby magazine.

There isn’t a glowing redemption story. I never really had a moment of clarity wherein I experienced “the true beauty” of motherhood, or any such thing. I did some counselling, took some medications, and slowly came to terms with the idea that maybe I was wrong about the things I had invested so much emotional energy in. Life goes on. My tiny baby grew into an average sized child, I got some “Mum” friends to whom I partially owe my life, and eventually my life started to resemble something vaguely normal. My daughter and I went on play dates, swimming lessons, all the stuff that parents and children apparently do, and while there have been some dark moments, it all didn’t feel as foreign and dark and soul-devouring as it perhaps once did.

Many of my daughter’s little friends now have younger siblings, 1 or 2 years old. My daughter wants a sibling, she tells me so regularly. She loves to play with her baby dolls, I watch her as she watches other kids play with their siblings and I feel like shit doing it. I feel like the worst Mum in the world. Feeling like shit becomes the default emotion of a parent I have since learned. Child last to get picked up from Daycare? Feel like shit. Child’s speech not developing at the expected rate? Feel like shit. Child asks for a sibling you aren’t able to give them? Better believe I feel like shit about that.

I could physically have a child, and I feel very lucky for that. I am very sorry for the people who desperately want children and are unable to conceive them. My heart breaks for those people in fact. When my GP was advising me about my declining fertility that was coming from a good place. I wasn’t offended, although given the context I was a little surprised. But society expects multiple children. Bring 2 or 3 children into the world and nobody will question your decision. Claim that you only want a single child and you will be asked to explain that decision again and again. The only child confessional has become a genre in and of itself. So this is my contribution to the genre. It isn’t an easy decision, and I am not always even comfortable with having made it, but it is the only one I am able to make.

People say it could be different next time, that I don’t know. Maybe they’re right, it’s impossible to say. But all I know is that I have joy in my life right now. I am working, and planning for the future. Ms 4 and I have so much fun together, and she is the funniest person I have ever met (she calls spaghetti “twosghetti” and speed limits “speed lemons”. That is ADORABLE). I am sorry that my child doesn’t have a sibling to play with, but if her options are a sibling, or a desperately ill mother, then I know what she would choose. I am choosing to be the mother to an only child, and if that makes me selfish then so be it.

The argument you can’t win because you have it with yourself: on combining parenting with casual academia

I returned to university tutoring when my daughter was around two years old. I had actually been “out of the game” so to speak for four years, due to a self-imposed exile wherein I took a cut in pay (in return for job security) and worked in the community sector. The academic and community sectors share a lot of similarities, which is probably what made the transition an easy one for me: both are poorly funded,  or funded in such a way that the money doesn’t always end up where it should. Both purport to assist disadvantaged people and hold themselves to lofty ideals, both more often than not, fall short. There may be a blog post brewing about my experiences working in the community sector, should you feel compelled to read it.

Ok, now we have that tl;dr out-of-the-way: my return to tutoring. I had not worked as a casual tutor (TA/academic dogs body) for four years. I can’t even remember if anything specifically prompted me to email a contact I had within the faculty, but my educated (haha) guess is that my motivation was largely mercenary. He was amenable to the idea on the proviso that I would receive an offer only after the current lot of PhD candidates had been exhausted. This was a bruise to my ego but I accepted what I was offered, and ended up with one first year class.

I arranged with my mother-in-law to take Ms 4 (then Ms 2) for the morning while I taught. I launched myself into creating innovative activities and lesson plans, motivated not only by my own need to feel like I’d done a good job by the students, but also to prove that hiring a PhD dropout was not a huge mistake to make. I invested my time and energy and resources and by all accounts (and based on glowing student feedback forms) it was a success.

Fast forward to now. I seemed to easily transition from struggling to get offered one class, to having two or three a session. My daughter was put into daycare for three days a week in order to facilitate my increasing involvement with the faculty. I took on research assistant work, and was employed in learning platform support with the IT department.  I was bringing money in again, my mental energy was being targeted towards something productive, rather than obsessively monitoring my daughter’s developmental milestones and possible hazards in her immediate environment (thanks Google!), and I was working towards something…. ay, there’s the rub. I was/am not working towards something bigger at all. I am spinning my wheels, in a holding pattern, treading water. While my other casual colleagues lament the non-existence of full-time academic positions (a position which I sympathise with), I quietly continue my teaching, beating myself up that their plight is not my own, that really I should just be grateful for whatever I happen to receive. Adjuncting/casual teaching is supposed to be a temporary measure, something you do to sustain yourself on your journey towards a full-time academic career. This is increasingly not the case for people who have completed their PhD’s, so what does that mean for me, for whom casual teaching is, at least for the moment, part of the end point?

I love teaching and interacting with students in an academic context. Obviously I do or I wouldn’t do it. However the position I am in as both a parent, and non PhD academic, means that I don’t feel I have the right to be critical of the changing conditions I am experiencing in the same way that my colleagues do. It also seems that  many aspects of casual academia are increasingly incompatible with parenting, and yet here I am bashing away at the square peg, not quite wanting to believe that it won’t fit into the round hole I am forcing it into. Upon reflection, the main issues I personally experience are:

  1. Class sizes have blown out to double what I remember teaching a decade ago. This isn’t a deal breaker necessarily when it comes to teaching but makes a MASSIVE difference when it comes to marking time. I embark on marathon marking sessions where I lock myself away for a week at a time just so I can get my marking done in a ‘timely’ fashion. A two-week turnaround is seen as standard, and I pride myself on always getting them returned in this time. This is no small effort and takes sacrifices on behalf of myself and my family. Mr SC takes sole responsibility for Ms 4 during marking time, where I emerge from the home office only to find coffee and sustenance.
  2. Technology has made it so that I can effectively consult with students 24 hours a day, which is both tremendous and terrible at the same time. I answer emails all weekend, I am sitting on Twitter on the Friday night when an assignment is due, fielding all the questions answered in class but that noone seems to remember now it is crunch time. Now that the classes I teach operate through a learning platform (as well as Reddit, WordPress and Twitter) my consultation time has become moot. I’m never not available. I also need to take responsibility here, my overcommitment to these technologies functions to salve my guilt at being the drop out, at taking the teaching position off someone who could add it to their resume and use it in the future. However where once I would consult with my students an hour a week (if anyone even showed up), now I am available (and make myself available) at almost all times. The line between my personal and work life hasn’t been blurred, it’s been ground into the dust.
  3. The flexibility that blended learning offers is awesome, but that same flexibility also renders much of my labour invisible, and unrewarded in the financial sense. Marking assignments is acknowledged, uploading them to a learning platform is not. Scheduling a consultation time with my students is timetabled and recognised, checking emails on a Saturday night is not. Each individual tweet, and email, and Reddit inbox is no big deal in and of itself, but combined make for hours of labour, and mental energy, that are not on campus, not seen, and not recognised under the casual contracts that academics at my institution are offered.
  4. Casual contracts also leave no room for the ongoing expense of child care commitments. I have my child in daycare for two days a week, an expense that continues outside of the academic session. I maintain her position in the daycare when I am not working despite the ongoing expense because if I take her out, I risk losing the place altogether. I also do this in the hope that a) I will be offered tutoring in the next session and b) that the hours I am offered happen to fall on the days my daughter is scheduled to be in school. I accept all of the hours I can to fund the daycare expense during the times of the year I am not working, which means I accept more hours than I may feel comfortable with taking.

Margaret Betz in her brilliant post ‘Contingent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty‘ puts much of this down to “free floating head syndrome” within academia, which she defines as “the common failure to recognize academic instructors as real people with outside lives and responsibilities”. This is probably the most insidious aspect of academia which is also incompatible with parenting. This devaluing of the academic workload exists at many levels, students are guilty of it, but  so is the administration, and sometimes even the more senior academics for whom we work.

I don’t have answers. All I can do is reflect upon where am I am at this moment. I have stable employment on some non-academic projects right now that are really bringing me a lot of happiness, and colleagues who value my input. I have tried to rationalise my dual roles as academic and parent so many times and end up back where I started: in a shared office (only for a few hours a week mind), plagued with worry about how being a mother affects my role as an academic, and vice versa. I feel like I’m doing an awesome job and a terrible job at the same time. I get shit done always, but there are so many spinning plates now that I wouldn’t know how to stop one without the whole lot falling down.

There are a lot of factors at play here. I acknowledge my own feelings of inadequacy as also being at the crux of the issue. Combine that with a culture of casual exploitation, bills that need paying, and a 4-year-old who insists on receiving attention no matter how much marking I have to do, and I have ended up in a position I can’t rationalise, engaged in an argument I can’t win.

The Disneyland Dilemma

Disclaimer: I am not judging anyone for the parenting choices they make, these are just my thoughts on the role of memory making in parenting decisions. I have one kid, what the heck do I know!

“Memory is identity…. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Julian Barnes

Earlier this year I made what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable decision for myself and my family: I decided we were going to Disneyland.

There wasn’t a lot of forethought put into this decision. My husband and I visited Disneyland in 2008 after we got married in Las Vegas, and I enjoyed the spectacle of it. I thought the production values on everything, from the rides, to the displays, to the shops, were really very well done. Before having children I would probably have no compulsion to go there again, but it occurred to me while watching my 4 year old daughter, who loves Disney and princesses and all things ‘magical’, that she would really get a kick out of it. Furthermore, while international travel is hardly a light undertaking (I am The Smart Casual after all, not the Smart Full-Timer) this is something that is feasible if my current rate of employment is maintained throughout the year. I thought about it, I emotionally invested in it, and dang it, the Smart Casuals were going to Anaheim!

What I was ill-prepared for however, was the reaction I got from others regarding this decision. In the course of conversation with friends and family I would bring up my future plans. While some asked questions of the more benign variety, a significant portion responded to this proclamation with some variation of:

“What’s the point of that? It isn’t like she will remember it anyway”.

This reaction really took me by surprise. I was prepared to engage in all types of discourse about the topic of international travel with a 4/5 year old. Some could argue that the plane ride would be too long, or that the time of year we plan to travel would be too expensive. Heck, someone could argue that the Disney universe perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. (My own thoughts on this is that because my daughter has only watched a few Disney movies, she is only familiar with the Disney princess as a fluid concept, rather than a gender limiting archetype, but I digress).

Instead it was being posited to me that the experience we would have in Disneyland was somehow not worth doing at this point in her life because when she grew up, she may not remember it. My initial reaction to this was confusion, but after some consideration I think I understand a little more why I really found this troubling:

1) Rather than Ms 4 having an experience in and of itself, it has become currency in a transaction. By taking her to Disneyland, I am effectively buying myself “good parenting credits”, exchanging hard-earned cash for a good time my child can take with her for life. However if I instead choose to take her to Disneyland at an age when she may later be unable to remember the experience clearly, then there is apparently “no point” to have gone in the first place. If we take this to be so, then what is the age at which she will reach peak memory recall? You could substitute just about any other experience for Disneyland within this transactional scenario and the problem still exists, if you argue that an event is only worthwhile if it is remembered, then we can save ourselves a lot of carnival rides and zoo visits as well.

2) I don’t agree that an event need to be remembered to have resonance in our lives, to “count” or be worthwhile. My Pa  was diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and died from this disease only a few years ago. After he was diagnosed his health deteriorated very quickly, and it soon became evident that he was losing all of his memories. He was a man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was also very clever, known for his ability to beat just about anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He had the most beautiful singing voice. Towards the end of his life, before he was put into palliative care, I would go and visit him when he was still at home with my Grandmother. When we would arrive he would invariably greet us the same way, by saying “Mother! (his nickname for my Nan) Just look who it is!”

He said this to cover the fact that he didn’t know who we were. While he was losing his memory, he still had the social wherewithal to try and hide it. But we knew. He was hospitalised and died a few months later.

This was a man with over 70 years of memories, most of which were gone, or confused, or hidden in the depths of a damaged brain. In the end he forgot me, and my daughter, and my Mum, and maybe even his wife. But his life was still well lived. It still happened. I like to think that even if he didn’t have his specific memories, of me, my daughter, of his time in the Navy travelling the world, he at least had the essence of those experiences, because what is the alternative? As Julian Barnes writes in his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (and in the quote featured at the top of this post), did he instead die before his body shuffled off this mortal coil? Did he “cease to be” as a result of ceasing to remember? And if so, what was the point of it?

My Pa went to Anaheim Disneyland once, he was stationed in the area when he travelled with the Navy. He told me that when he went there, that the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride was closed and that he was disappointed because it was the only one he wanted to go on that day, and it was closed for maintenance. I plan to take my daughter on this ride, regardless of the fact she may well not remember it. My Pa almost certainly didn’t remember any of these things at the end of his life. While Lewy-bodies is not an inheritable disease, a time may come where I may not remember our trip to Disneyland either. But it will happen. While the memories may fade, hopefully in the short time we are there, we will spend far too much on Disney memorabilia, take more photos than we could ever hope to print, and my daughter will have the most fun she has ever had. Maybe that can be the point.

a picture of my Pa and my daughter

a picture of my Pa and my daughter