Tears and Smiles

There is always some trigger for blogposts, sometimes from the news, sometimes from one’s daily life. It is rare that my trigger is someone else’s blog but so it is today. This blog is written by a person who I happen to know was encouraged to start writing her own blog by reading mine, so it is probably an appropriate circle-closing to take her recent theme and develop it in my own colours.

The person concerned is the Australian crystallographer and structural biologist, Jenny Martin, who now directs the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. She writes movingly and persuasively about many matters academic, but earlier this year she lost her mother   – as I had some months earlier. She, like me, was silenced in her blog writing by the event: in her case it has taken her over six months to write again, longer than my personal gap although there has been more than one ‘intermission’ in my case. Now she has written about the strength her mother gave her and the messages she received as a child which she has carried on into professional life as she discusses the ‘failures’ which do not normally show up in a CV.

I would like to take a different aspect of grieving to use to pay my respects, once again, to all my mother taught me. One that is much on my mind at the moment as the new academic year has got underway. The need to subsume one’s own feelings in order to get on with the job. Or, as I tend to think of it, as acting. When my mother died in May 2016 I dropped everything I could so as to cope. But there were things I did not feel I could escape and I had to learn to put on a mask and smile my way through dinners and committees when all I wanted to do was weep (literally and metaphorically) or simply stare into space. I kept going with exam marking, knowing that not to do so would have caused all kinds of problems for the department, even though much of this had to be done even before the funeral. To make it worse, I knew that in previous years at the time of another family death I had ended up having to remark papers because my rawness had made me such a fierce marker (but not this time).

My mother, like many of those of her generation who lived through the horrors of the Second World War and the deaths of loved ones, did not believe in giving in to one’s emotions. I don’t ever recall seeing her cry, even when her own parents died, although she may of course have done that in the privacy of her bedroom.  That was all part of the stiff upper lip mentality it is so easy now to mock. But there is a time and place for grief and personal mourning; when entertaining a major college benefactor is not the moment. And so, within just a couple of weeks of my bereavement there I was smiling across the dinner table and fooling the collective diners that all was well within my Churchillian world. Since then I have continued to smile, to act, until it has become second nature. I think, as a Head of House (to use the Cambridge term), that is my responsibility and, at times, my burden. But as the memory of a summer vacation, pleasantly empty of the prescribed accoutrements of a college life, fades and formal dinners, speeches, committees and general social interactions take over, I have to take up that mantle again and shed any grieving memories for long enough to ‘perform’.

Having, all my life been told I was ‘too emotional’, that as a woman I should never show any signs of tearing up; having been told I couldn’t ever be a good poker player (not that I was trying) because what I feel is so transparently obvious, it is ironic that in my later years I have become so adept at this. It is what my mother would have wanted – although I’m sure it’s not what she would have expected of her younger daughter who tended to be so easily read. It is a skill that I don’t regret. But rather as Douglas Adams (I think it was) wanted an ‘off’ switch for children, an idea with which most parents would most probably agree, so I think I want an ‘off’ switch for my poker face once I retreat from the public eye. The trouble with the stiff upper lip is that it is so hard to let it go. Those who remember the criticisms levelled at the Royal Family in the wake of Princess Diana’s death will know being uptight can get you into all kinds of trouble if you choose your moments wrong.

I wrote previously about the need for compassion in the hurly-burly of academic life. One may expect students occasionally to need a box of Kleenex but I have appraised staff members who break down as they talk about the challenges they face in work-life balance or issues regarding their children. While tears on the conference platform are inappropriate, I have no issue with a lecturer who is struggling and let’s their mask slip when being appraised. But I’m not sure a College Master who burst into tears when welcoming the Freshers at their Matriculation Dinner would be quite such a good idea. At this time of year, my personal thoughts must be put back into their personal Pandora’s Box.

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4 Responses to Tears and Smiles

  1. Jenny Martin says:

    Beautifully written Athene, so much of this hits home for me. And thank you, I doubt you realise the huge compliment you’ve paid me.

  2. Bill Harvey says:

    Leaving the academic world was the best thing I did for myself. At the time I was spat out by the system my wife was 25 years into MS and beginning to lose the plot. She had just embarked on a PhDat the end of a successful part time MPhil but found she couldn’t gather thoughts any more. She was, though, still in a measure of denial and to some extent that was her right. No one ever asked why I had become less research active after a move but it had turned into a perfect storm. A lab that was much less well equipped than it appeared for a start.

    17 years working as a consultant, seeing people still get money for studying minutiae when the broad picture is obscure and uncared for is frustrating but I just have to work out the broad picture for myself and it remains fun. And having ex students, even occasionally, tell me how much I contributed to their success, is a Jonathan Jo Moment. As is people paying me with a smile and a thank you.

    But yes, maintaining a mask for other people’s sake is hard. especially as my wife’s decline continues and she becomes ever more dependent.

  3. Ursula Martin says:

    Dear Athene, That is a beautiful and affecting post. Thank you. Ursula

  4. Alice Bondi says:

    So many resonances, particularly having to somehow manage my own work in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death – having been away for the previous three weeks I couldn’t take more time out. My mother and yours were clearly of a generation, with my greatest conflicts with her arising from her insistence on the ‘appropriateness’ of never showing emotion. But yes, it can be very useful to be able to put on the mask and get on with what needs to be done – but knowing when and how to take it off is just as important. Thank you for this.