Less than two weeks remain until my big fellowship application is due – the one I’m banking on to rescue me from the dwindling life of my latest short-term contract. If I get the fellowship, my position should finally be secure. If not, I’ll need to scrabble together another fellowship or short-term contract, or try to find a different position altogether. All of this is happening in the context of the mind-blowingly large number of pounds I have just set up as a monthly standing order to Joshua’s new nursery starting in February, and the stark fact that after childcare fees, the mortgage and the other household bills, there are only a few pence left to rub together for anything else. An interruption in salary, no matter how short, is simply not an option.
No pressure, then.
I’ve been thinking a lot, first, about how much work I’ve been able to get done on maternity leave and second, whether in fact that’s actually been a good thing. The answer to the first question is: quite a bit. I’ve seen two papers through to publication, and I’m working on a third, fiddling with figures, tweaking text, and liaising with a few researchers who are finalizing the data. I’ve sat on a study section for the Swiss National Science Foundation. And every day this month, I’ve chipped away at the fellowship, both on my computer at home, and during the occasional jaunt into town to chat with my PhD student and various collaborators (pram and all).
But is this really a positive thing, with a new baby to look after?
Grant vs grant
Given my musings, this article by Dr Rebecca Braun, published last week in the Times Higher, was pretty timely. Briefly, she describes an academic’s view of maternity leave, how the work itself doesn’t stop even when it probably should, and how that makes her feel. One passage in particular really got to me:
Each time I have sat at my computer over the past seven months, I have thoroughly resented the demands my job continues to make on me. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of carrying out the tasks nevertheless. This has of course led to feelings of extreme guilt, as my older children have asked why they have to go to after-school club when I am on “eternity leave”, and my youngest has been left to grumble in her cot for longer than was fair. I have not had time to go for coffee with other mothers at the school gate, and I have completely failed to be any better at staying in touch with friends and family. My work, by contrast, keeps on demanding and attracting my attention.
The “grumbling in the cot” bit resonated with me especially strongly. Now don’t get me wrong: I spend an enormous amount of time with Joshua. I feed him every three hours, change his nappies, read and sing to him, take him for long walks in the woods, lie on the carpet batting his hanging toys towards him and making his mobile spin. But when he naps, I leap to the computer and crunch out as much as humanly possible until he starts to stir again. I sneak around the house on tiptoe, hardly daring to breathe, so that I won’t wake him up. And sometimes, just sometimes, I let him grizzle a bit while I finish up a particularly troublesome sentence or image manipulation.
Does this make me a bad mother? I hope not. I also let him stew sometimes so I can prepare my lunch, do the laundry, tidy the kitchen or take a shower. It’s all about maintaining a balance between being a mum and retaining my sanity. I won’t deny that sometimes childcare gets a little boring: the other day, I caught myself trying to liven up proceedings by working out how to play Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana on Joshua’s squeaky toys. But other times, especially after a long day, I will gladly sit on the sofa for an hour or more, absolutely content while he snores gently, a heavy, warm and miraculous weight on my chest, the light fading and the rain pattering against the window glass. I could probably be scribbling notes for a Gantt chart or proofing text at the same time, but I don’t need or want to. I know he won’t be so small forever, and I don’t want to let it slip away.