A few weeks ago I was reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business. This book builds on an Atlantic article she wrote about why she quit working for Hilary Clinton to return to engage more fully in her family life and it had obviously struck a chord with many readers. This book expands on her thesis that attitudes towards caring have to change if women are not constantly going to be faced with the ‘can she have it all?’ conundrum or the presumption there has to be a choice between career and family. It is a thought-provoking book, although undeniably American (remember there is no statutory maternity pay in the US, colouring their working climate, a point she highlights in the book).
I don’t intend to discuss the book in depth but, even as I read it, I was struck by what she wrote about her mother and more particularly her two grandmothers. These were two very different women, both born into very different times, one in the US and one in Europe. Each in their own way held back by their generation and circumstances; each hugely significant in the impact they had on their children and grandchildren. To quote just a little of her comments about one of them
‘I still wish that she had had a much wider range of choices about how to live her life. But I now see a women who made it possible for my grandfather to tend countless grateful patients, raised two successful children who have each contributed to the world in their own way, provided a critical safety net for several of her grandchildren and brightened and improved the lives of many people.’
A few days later I was reminded of these words as I sat by my mother’s bed in hospital as she slowly slipped away. At 91 she was more than ready to go, but it didn’t stop it hurting (nor will it). My mother, of a similar generation to the women Slaughter was writing about, had likewise not had much opportunity – or even much education – to make a great deal of her life, but she was going to make damn sure her children had more education and were able to do more (if we wanted to) without ever giving us the sense that she was living her life through us. Or, in the words from Ecclesiastes that I used to have to sing as a dreary chant at my school’s Founder’s Day year after year
‘And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been…Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.’
Those words, drummed into my non-religious mind throughout my teens, resonated as I sat at that last bedside, as did what Anne Marie Slaughter wrote. They were comforting. (My recent silence on this blog will now be understood as the silencing of my voice as my grieving started; I have no idea when my voice will fully return but I suspect it may be a while before the words flow easily again.)
One doesn’t know the consequences of one’s actions or one’s words, but one should always be aware that the consequences may indeed resonate down the years. That same care that parents and grandparents show to their family’s young folk is something we in academia should recognize as a responsibility too. You never know whether a careless dismissal of a young enthusiast will permanently scar or if a supportive comment may help someone on their way. A conversation you may not remember having can perhaps have more significance than you attributed to it at the time. Again recent reading brought this home to me forcefully, when I read – quite by chance – on the Institute of Physics’ blog an article about a recently appointed PVC in Sheffield discussing his career path. I was completely astonished to read Nigel Clarke attributing to me advice I certainly don’t recall giving!
‘When I started my first academic appointment back in 1998, I was overwhelmed by the demands on my time to prepare new courses, write grants to generate research funds, and to generally be a good citizen for my department. I had been a member of the IOP’s polymer physics group throughout my time as a PhD student and as a postdoc, but when Athene Donald suggested that I should become more involved with the group, my immediate thought was that this would be yet another activity for which I didn’t have enough time. Thankfully, Athene put my name forward anyway.’
So, folks, beware that conversation in the bar may have long term consequences (since I have never collaborated with Nigel nor worked in the same university, propping up the bar after a conference dinner seems the most likely venue for this conversation). One can only hope it is for good not ill.