Friday, 15 March 2013

Accepting 'good enough' mothering, 'good enough' academic work, and the 'good enough' alt-ac career

Quite a few things have been happening in my offline world that have halted the time I've had to read others' blogs or to write for my own. In short, my mother who lives in the US and who was a long-term smoker has finally been diagnosed with lung-cancer. There is a close family history on her side of this condition and her smoking parents and siblings did not do well out of it. Unfortunately, the addiction was too difficult for her to kick over the years. In spite of the deaths in the family with lung cancer she couldn't give up soon enough. There also seems to be some question for her oncologist, over the stage of this cancer as it is apparent in both lungs, but with biopsy indicating two different kinds of cancer. She looked forward to her first chemotherapy treatment, hoping it would begin to do its work, but a few days later she became very, very unwell. Making a long story very short here, she ended up having a bad allergic reaction to the drug and almost died at several moments in the time that she was in ICU. So, my time has been taken up with many phone calls to the US, talking with my sister, Dad and a close cousin (the son of my mother's sister who also died of lung-related condition after she had a lung removed years ago to treat her lung cancer).

I am 49 now, 50 in June, and my mother has only just turned 68. These days that's considered on the younger side of older age. She was a teenage mother when she had my sister and me and life hasn't been easy for her. But she worked hard and later in life got her high school diploma and then finished nursing school, the respectable occupation in the US for many working-class women like her. It's hard not to project into the next few or several months, but what I'm hoping is that she can enjoy this spring and summer and reflect on her life with some good memories and have a sense of satisfaction that she made the right decisions about how she wanted to live.

Looking at other things in my life at the moment, I'll say that I've had some emotional challenges with my thirteen year old daughter that are actually so intense and personal that I think I will need to keep silent about the details. But going through some of my worries around her right now, while also worrying about my mother, makes me wonder how indeed my young, working-class mother ever survived at the time when my older sister was putting her through emotional hell during a time when my young Dad would have been completely unsupportive and mostly absent. Mom always told me that she tried her personal best at the mothering job and that was all she could do. This is where I see the value in D.W.Winnicott's assessment of  'good enough' mothering. I can be pretty hard on myself, always looking at the areas where I'm lacking as a mother. In reality, I'm sure what I've been doing is 'good enough'.

. . . . . . . . . . .

So how does all of this tie in with the post-ac side of things in my life now? In this midst of all of this personal stuff, about a week and a half ago, I received an email from a local academic contact where I used to work, who passed on a message from another academic in my field. This academic apparently, she said, wanted to get in touch with me about contributing to a collection that he was editing. Could I please get in touch? It was quite a strange experience reading this email. I re-read it several times, feeling a bit of a physical change at the same time. I felt a bit like my heart was racing faster with a sense of excitement at one moment yet also I felt a bit sickish in the next moment. I didn't know what to do with it all. A large part of me felt honoured that this person had read my work and thought me worthy of contributing when there are so many other choices out there to consider. My mind wandered and I questioned what I might write about and I then had visions of myself on my days off work getting books out of the library and sitting in my office and mulling over the ideas. I wondered if there was some older material I could salvage. I even saw myself meeting this academic and others at a conference having a laugh and going out for a meal afterwards to talk over new and exciting ideas in the discipline.

Well, I have to confess this flight of fancy didn't last very long. The reality soon hit me and I asked myself if I could realistically manage such a feat, and even if I could manage this after being out of the game for this long, would I actually enjoy it enough and find value in the exercise. The quick and short answer was, 'No'. I felt relieved that it didn't take too long to get my head out of this temporary haze and see that there was nothing in it for me. I assured myself that I needed to keep my new alt-ac head clear of all of this and look forward in another direction.

My next challenge was whether I should be 'polite' and respond to this academic and come clean. I felt if he had taken the time to enquire about me that I should at least, respectfully, respond. Being me then and knowing my tendency to complicate or over-think everything I do (it seems sometimes), I wrote a considered response that, I guess, tried to capture some of what it has been like to have to 'leave academia'. In short, I summarised that I had to exit the field at a time of major cuts in Arts and Humanities, and knowing that I did not have the flexibility of my younger post-PhD contemporaries to apply for posts across the country or beyond, etc.

I received a nice and respectful reply. While it left me feeling a little embarrassed I guess I felt this academic was a useful outlet for my 'coming out' of academia. He sympathised with my position and shared that he was struck with the academic situation now in which three recent colleagues from his department were made redundant. He saw less and less support from higher education institutions and understood completely why some academics were finding other alternatives.

I was embarrassed because he revealed that my contact person who passed on the message to me, actually got the story wrong. He didn't want to contact me to contribute a chapter at all. He wanted to get my author's permission to use an extended quotation/passage from a piece I wrote as he is intending to write about it in a new book he will publish in a few months' time. He attached the chapter for me to read to check that the context was acceptable and offered to send me a copy of the book when published. At that point I experienced another range of feelings. Wow, my work was applauded by him, referenced in the same page as other long-standing pros in the field. Over the last few months I was reminded that others had referenced my work as well. In some ways, I confess, I felt, yet again, that sense of failure of not doing more worthy work beyond this point.  But again, this feeling didn't last too long. There is a huge part of me that is pleased I left the field at this stage before reaching an over-exhausted state of collapse. I've left a small mark and that's that. Indeed, I guess it feels like this mark is 'good enough' for me, personally - I've done the best I could for what I and my circumstances are capable of.

I will confess that I experience various emotions around my current alt-ac job at the moment. I am heading the start of what I see is a nice little research project at the moment. I've put an academic research proposal forward to one of the faculties in the university for ethics' approval (and received approval) and I'm excited about the later prospects and outcomes. There are other aspects of the work that I'd rather do without and some things that come up regularly can be quite irritating. This is the normal state of affairs for any job though, and I think if I can keep this at the forefront of my mind, then this work will be absolutely just fine, another example of something in my life that is 'good enough'.


  1. so sorry about your mother - it is so hard to think about anything, really, when a loved one is sick like that.

    Your experiences with the confusion over a request to contribute really struck a chord with me. i earned my phd in 2004 and am only a few years younger than you (and have an almost 13 yr. old daughter!). I have been down this road several times - feeling such conflicting emotions about the value of my past work, my failure to continue it, fleeting moments of wanting to restart it, and ultimately reminding myself of why I left the academy after 3 unsuccessful years on the job market. while i'm sorry you've been through all that, it's nice to hear i'm not the only one who occasionally still gets tangled up in all those emotions!

    1. Hi, As my note to Cameron says below, apologies that I haven't replied to your comment sent back in April as offline life took preference over the blog. Yes, there is a great comfort, I feel, in coming across others who have experienced some of this conflict post-PhD. If I ever run into people who have gone through the PhD experience and are doing something outside of academia (especially older women like me) I feel a quick empathy and connection without too much having to be said. I hope things are going well for you now - it's a process!

  2. Hi,

    I have a quick question for you regarding your blog, but I couldn't find your contact information. Do you think you could send me an email whenever you get a chance?




  3. Hi Cameron,

    Thanks for your interest int he blog and apologies that I missed your original comment when your tried to post it - I've got a bit busy and have forgotten to check into the blog! Will send you message soon.