Animals in Academia

The following is the first part of the Acknowledgments of my dissertation.

One night when I was putting my then 3-year old son, Anagnostis, to bed, I had to explain to him why I couldn't hug him to sleep, and instead had to work on my laptop on the chair beside him. I explained that I was writing a special kind of book called a dissertation, and that sometimes I wasn't sure what to write. He had some sage advice: "If you get confused, I can help you, Mama. I can tell you what to write. You should tell them about animals. That's what you can write." I promised him that I would try, and so I begin these acknowledgements in an unusual way, with some musings on being an animal in academia.

Writing this dissertation while being a mammalian mother has been a greater challenge than I could have ever imagined. My pregnancies were, thankfully, uncomplicated from a medical point of view, but exhausting nonetheless, as they are for all women. With my son I had to recover not just from pregnancy and labour, but also from surgery, as he was born by cesarean section. I nursed both my children, and pumped when they were in the care of others. At every milestone I would feel like I'd finally "recovered" until I hit the next stage: when the postpartum period started to be measured in weeks, not days, and then in months; when I stopped needing to pump; when I stopped nursing; when they got out of diapers, etc. At each milestone I would look back and realize how tired I'd been trying to get to that point, and how compromised my energy had been.

One is not supposed to talk about being in the trenches of motherhood at the gates of the Ivory Tower. Do I betray my fellow academic mothers by publicly admitting how tired I was? How tired I still am? I didn't understand the myriad ways one could be tired until becoming a parent: physically exhausted, emotionally drained, spiritually weary, and even (shh!) intellectually lethargic at times. It is a kind of tiredness that coffee can help, but does not eradicate. Extra sleep helps, but is often interrupted, and the aches you get from the funny positions you assume because of all the extra limbs poking you make you wonder if it was worth it. But if you speak of this, you are admonished to sleep train, and if you don't sleep train, then your commitment to academia is questioned, and regardless of what sleep philosophy you adhere to (for nowadays everything in parenting is a "philosophy"), you will be judged, and you will doubt yourself, and it turns out that you will lose sleep regardless, either to your children or to your worries.

But talking about the exhaustion is, I think, okay. Lots of people joke about it, and seasoned parents tease you that you'll sleep again in 18–x years, where x is the age of your youngest. Being tired is some kind of badge of honour in our society: how busy you are, how tired you are, how much you can do with the resources of your brain, in spite of the limitations the mammalian body places on you.

It is less okay to talk about what it means to embrace the mammal and human selves, and truly reconcile those aspects of our identity with the aspiring-to-be-great identity. I was lucky in that I had no trouble breastfeeding my children, and my mammalian instincts (which only revealed themselves to me when my first was born) found it the easiest course. So I breastfed both children until they were toddlers, and it was not out of adherence to some inane parenting philosophy, but rather a pragmatic decision based on what was easiest at the time. Also, it was pretty much free, if you don't count all the extra food I had to consume. I guess I shouldn't have been shocked, but I was unsettled when other human mammals disapproved of this decision, pointing out that I could drink more coffee if I wasn't nursing. Anyway, it isn't important what fools say, so I won't waste more time on them.

In fact, the hardest part about writing a dissertation with children is that children provide an outlet for apathy. When writing isn't going well, and edits are boring, and you're sick of your topic, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to slog ahead. When faced with the choice of toiling through the seemingly interminable and isolating slog that is euphemistically called "ABD", the beautiful faces of your children shine ever brighter, their laughter is that much more infectious, their little hands seem that much more in need of yours. And, unlike other temptations against productivity, spending time with your children never feels like a waste of time, because it isn't a waste of time. I cannot count the number of days where the only reason I had for dropping them off at daycare, instead of spending the day playing with them, was that daycare was paid for, and I couldn't justify throwing the money away.

Of course, apathy is one fault that academics Do Not Have. Academics are forgiven for being tardy, slovenly, rude, and worse, but apathetic? Never! Undying passion and hunger (meant, usually, I think, in the metaphoric sense) are the hallmarks of Proper Academics. But this is a lie. It is true that passion and hunger are our fuel, but we are human, and we get bogged down, and sometimes don't care about a Thing. Even if that Thing is our livelihood and our passion. My point is, the difference between a child-free human trying to live out their aspiring-to-be-great identity and a parent is not that one hungers and the other doesn't. It's that when the hunger falters, and it does for everyone, the parent always has a good reason to walk away; moreover the parent will always be fulfilled by that moment, and the decision will have felt like the right one, at least until the guilt and the longing for intellectual stimulation settles in. And if, by good fortune, non-metaphorical hunger does not threaten the children, or if another kind of employment promises more joyous time with the children for more money, then is it any wonder why parents choose not to finish?

In fact, it is. Being a parent is not inimical to academia, or research. What becoming a parent does is cast a harsh light on problems already there. And so, if I may be forgiven a Moralizing Aside in the middle of this story to give some advice: whether you are an advisor or an advisee, do not despair that the aspiring-to-be-great identity has been smothered under the diaper-changing, tear-wiping, possibly food-dispensing identity of human parenthood. As with all things, This Too Shall Pass. In the interim, working within the new constraints is much more productive than pretending they don't exist, and certainly more moral than acting as though they ought not exist.

This brings me to another interaction I had with my son a few months later, when he was almost 4. After a particularly rough period trying to make progress but failing, I was talking to my husband about wanting to quit, when my son came into the room and asked what we were talking about. I explained, "Do you remember how I'm writing a book? Well, sometimes writing it is very hard, and sometimes writing it is so hard that I don't want to do it anymore. So sometimes I think of quitting. What do you think I should do?" He took the question seriously, thought for a minute, and then responded, "I think you should not stop writing the book, and you shouldn't think about that, because that's what work is all about".

Which brings me to the best part of juggling everything that goes with being a mother in academia: In my children I see my values and goals reflected. I see the person they think I am, and strive to be that person. So for all those times their little hands and faces and laughter tempted me away from my work, and for all those times their tears hurt my heart when I dropped them off at daycare, the fact that they exist and that what I do shapes their view of the world is a constant reminder that who I am is much more than a hungering, passion-filled, aspiring-to-be-great brain, and that when that drive falters, I slog on because "that's what work is all about".

In the next bit you will find a proper acknowledgments section, where I thank all those people who have influenced and helped this dissertation, written in the conventional way. But here, in my story about Animals in Academia, I acknowledge my mammalian children, Anagnostis Sebastian and Athena Vasiliki, as the greatest hindrance to my progress, but the ultimate reason that this thing got done at all.


© 2018 by Christina Bjorndahl.