Radiant (Academic) Motherhood

482085_10150938497481315_370670516_nMotherhood is rarely radiant, in my experience (apologies, Marie Stopes) so most of us aim for manageable, I think. The tendency for women in academia to avoid having children seems to be changing (at least among my friends) but it is still a fraught issue, especially as they say that for every child you have you don’t write a book. Statistics show that women tend to do worse in REF performance because of maternity leave and flexible working, which can lead to slower promotion. As in many careers, it can be difficult to be a mother and a professional.

As the sometimes proud and sometimes exasperated mother of a two-year-old, I have had a lot of conversations recently about ‘academic motherhood’ – how do you actually do research? How long is it possible to have off work without impacting your career? How do you give a lecture when you’re seriously sleep-deprived? Actually, I don’t really have answers to these serious questions: I had a temporary position when my son was born, and went back to work one day a week when he was three months old, and I don’t feel that it’s been too difficult for me. Fortunately for me, and him, he loved nursery from the start, and has generally been a cheerful child who likes to eat and sleep (plus I have a helpful husband). Going back to work that early was ideal, for me: I love my job, and the teaching and research are very important to me, and a day a week meant I could keep in touch whilst spending plenty of time with my baby. Then I got a permanent job, and starting working two days a week when he was one, three days a week now he is two, and plan to build up my hours once he starts school. However, the fact that this works well for me is predicated on my not minding that I use my spare time – Edward’s nap times, evenings etc – to catch up on work, especially research, that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Apart from the endless bugs due to the germs he brings home from nursery, I swear Edward knows when I have to teach the next morning, as those are the nights he keeps us awake – not always crying; sometimes he just mutters ‘Tractor, tractor, tractor’ for hours (on those nights we turn off the baby monitor). I have had to carefully wipe porridge off a student’s essay that he got hold of, and as for the milk dribbles down my dress that I don’t spot until I walk into a lecture theatre… So apart from the sensible suggestions (good childcare that can be flexible, ruthless organisation, attempting to maintain a work/life balance etc), these are the things I have learned:

  • Keep a decorative scarf in your office for covering up the milk/breakfast dribble that you are constantly covered in (actually this is generally useful, since I tend to be clumsy with coffee).
  • Speaking of coffee, it is often your only way to get through lectures on little sleep. My work consumption of coffee has tripled since Edward was born.
  • Night feeds are a great time for reading, which is easier on a Kindle than on a book you have to turn the pages of.
  • If you have to read something, read it aloud in a soothing voice to your child. Up to about 18 months, they are happy to hear anything you have to say. This also works for timing your conference papers.
  • Have to-do lists everywhere. I didn’t suffer from ‘baby brain’ and refuse to believe that one is bound to (I was warned I’d never be able to give another lecture due to its effects!) but your life is suddenly much more complicated. For the first year, we had lists on the fridge of the contents of ‘Edward’s nursery bag’, ‘Edward’s overnight bag’, ‘Mummy’s work bag’ etc.Little person big ideas
  • Encourage their interest in your subject as young as you can. My proudest parenting moment so far was when Edward asked for a bedtime poem instead of a bedtime story. The poems of AA Milne are his favourite, but he’s partial to a bit of Tennyson and even Shakespeare, though sadly less keen on Christina Rossetti.
  • If you go away for a few days to a conference, they will hate you for about 48 hours when you come home, no matter how lovely the toy sheep that you’ve brought them. It passes, though. And it’s good for them to bond with Daddy…
  • Students (to my surprise) love babies – I’m sure I didn’t when I was their age. Sometimes they even ask to see photos. Also, my understanding of literary metaphorical childbirth has deepened considerably.
  • If one of your areas of interest is gender, having a child offers a wonderful opportunity to study the socially constructed nature of gender closely.
  • As they get older, you get to read some great books with them. I have avoided some of the more dubious early children’s books (‘Ev’ry corner hath a snake’, in Jeremy Taylor’s seventeenth-century description of hell for toddlers, for example) but I have loved revisiting Paddington and am looking forward to many childhood classics.
  • Go to the pub sometimes, and forget that you are either Mummy or a lecturer!

NB I don’t really have any ‘proper’ advice to offer – this is all rather tongue-in-cheek!



  1. Great photos! This was a lovely post, combining both down-to-earth and more philosophical about the bigger picture, as I am sure your everyday life must be.

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