‘In many ways I have found maternity leave to offer some of the valuable aspects of a sabbatical.’
The following post is my response to a recent article on the @GnHigherED Academics Anonymous column. Before I go any further, I must stress this is not a sideways attack at the person who wrote the column. I am not in the business of public (or private) attacks against my fellow academic primary carers. The author clearly had a very positive experience both in terms of early motherhood and the time afforded by her employer to go through this transition. And that’s great.
My issue with this post, and clearly one of numerous respondents on my twitter feed, is the underlying message that mat leave offers a period to catch up on the research activity that so evades us when we are working. The author refers to the luxury of having the choice, not the pressure to work. I’m not happy with what this implies.
I do not speak from a position of bitterness, I speak from a position of experience. Those who know me personally, or have read my PhD blogs about motherhood during fieldwork and writing up, will have heard me joke about my PhD Babies. In the past I have referred to my two bouts of academic maternity leave as my strategy for completion. It always made me chuckle, but this article has given me pause to reflect.
I worked through my maternity leaves out of necessity. I could not afford to complete a PhD in Anthropology, with a years’ fieldwork and a year’s writing up. I too was fortunate to be in full-time employment whilst I studied with generous provision to leave when I became pregnant on two occasions. My PhD babies are now in school, their early months a distant memory – they appear to have suffered for nothing. I however realise that for 3 of my 4 children I spent their first years barely surviving and on many occasions ambivalent about their presence because I had a deadline to meet. It took me just as long to get to an age where I had the confidence for HE as it did for me to decide I wanted a family. I did make a choice, but choices come from limitations not freedom.
I strove through the 6yrs of my PhD and motherhood, because my first mentor in HE informed me she had decided to forego having children because she didn’t believe in academia you could be successful at both. I wanted to prove her wrong.
This anonymously written article has touched many nerves on social media, and in doing so has served to highlight just how many women do not have a positive experience, and return to work seriously disadvantaged and behind their male or child-free colleagues. Working on maternity leave for a large amount of the population is born of fear and necessity that their careeer opportunities will be stunted by the demands of caregiving. There are clear problems with how one becomes a ‘successful’ academic (via over-production and free labour) and the support available to make a family in a healthy and economically viable way.
This is a *deeply* harmful article, perpetuating a commonly-held idea that mat leave is time “off”, when for most women it is a time of huge emotional and physical re-adjustment / healing / exhaustion, that certainly does not leave “space to read widely” FFS.
— Katherine Foxhall (@historikat) February 9, 2018