France, the French & the Second World War

a historian blogs about research, teaching, motherhood and other stuff

Month: November, 2016

The Language of Motherhood

I recently discussed the struggle of choosing a next research project, but after I finished my book, my next research project actually chose me: motherhood. I went into labour the day after I pressed ‘send’ on my final manuscript (and all the photograph authorisations etc. etc.). It was a fast and furious delivery which involved a nervous Uber taxi driver and a lot of swearing on my part. I was delirious from pain. It felt like being hit by a bus over, and over, and over again. And suddenly, he was here. Without my glasses on I only saw a back smeared with white and heard a cry. ‘Is it a boy?’ I asked. We had not wanted to know. ‘Yes, it is’ the doctor said.

The next few weeks are a bit of a blur. Every parent will say that. But my historian’s instincts made sure that I kept some notes – on paper, on my iPhone – of what I was feeling. Already, I was turning my entry into motherhood as a research project, archiving details of him but also of myself. Amassing information but not really knowing what to do with it. A book for him, for when he is older; a family album. Archiving feeds, ‘firsts’ (smile; banana; museum; movie; pub; tube ride) and daily life. But also archiving information – what to do when he won’t sleep? When he won’t eat? When he cries all the time? When his eye looks wonky? What toys to get? How to engage him? How to make him sociable? What should I look out for? What should I do to help him become the most brilliant possible version of his already brilliant self?

As you do for any research project, I started with a literature review. I read Gina Ford and I read Laurence Pernoud. The Sleep Whisperer and the The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan. I googled everything on and I downloaded the What To Expect app. I asked my NCT friends questions on a weekly basis and I had one phone appointment with a sleep consultant. I came to the conclusion that Gina Ford is not as inflexible as many make her out to be, and that a lot of the theories of early motherhood overlap.

The two best books I read were Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (2004) and Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality by Rebecca Asher (2011). They were less about what to do with my baby, and more to do with me, a new mother. Giving birth made me feel empowered; becoming a mother made me feel quite lost, like a stranger in my own home. For the basic ‘how to keep your child alive and not totally distressed’ I began to rely almost only on my NCT friends, the Babycenter website and the one phone conversation with the sleep consultant; but Stadlen and Asher helped me navigate the first few months in a much more transformative way. They helped me reflect on the transformation of my identity – be it voluntary or involuntary – as I was now responsible for a tiny human. And they made me even more conscious of the huge gender problems that women face in the twenty-first century.

As the intensity of the first weeks began to subside somewhat, I began to relax into my new research project on motherhood. I realised how little I had known about the human body, and how fascinating it was to actually witness the development of sight, sound, smell, taste and understanding. I was shocked that the rational decisions I’d made prior to the birth (I didn’t need to breastfeed; going back to work would be fine; I’d make sure we did 50/50 parenting) had suddenly lost all relevance. I was horrified to discover that my biological nature shaped much more of my self and my life than I had ever wanted it to.

But one thing always kept coming back: the language of motherhood. Becoming a mother was about learning a new language, a new space, a new sense of time. Age was counted in weeks, not years. Spaces were either baby-friendly or they weren’t – the rest did not matter. All of this was accompanied by a new vocabulary: slings, Sleepyheads, Bugaboos; vests, babygrows, sleep suits; reflux, baby acne, teething. I became engrossed in this new discourse, so alien to anything I had ever known.

I soon became acutely aware, however, that this language undervalued women so much. Terms like ‘baby blues’ and ‘baby brain’ were thrown around casually by everyone, not least mothers themselves. Although it seems harmless, this vocabulary  was in fact reinforcing long-held stereotypes about women, belittling their experiences and silencing their real voices and potential.

First, Baby Blues. It is considered normal to ‘feel emotional and irrational’ in the first week after the birth of the baby due to the sudden crash of hormones. To ‘burst into tears for no apparent reason’; to ‘feel irritable or touchy’; to ‘feel depressed or anxious’. This is called having the ‘baby blues’. It is when these emotions continue for over 3-4 weeks that one can then talk of Post-Natal Depression. But if the latter is a serious medical term people instantly recognise, the former is a funny play on words which implies a brief period where you just don’t feel like your 100% self. You’re ‘irritable’ and ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’ – you know, those words which are used to describe women when they are on their periods – or women just generally.

During the first two weeks of his life, I saw my baby die a thousand deaths; I cried as I secluded myself in a room to pump breastmilk every two hours of day and night; I could not sleep more than 20 minutes straight because I had to hear his every breath for reassurance; I could neither walk nor sit because of the pain of the stitches; wearing a bra or t-shirt was excruciating as the cloth scraped across my bleeding nipples; I lost my appetite, runny cheese and wine being the last things on my mind; I sat surrounded by congratulations flowers and cards and thought ‘when will this all be over?’. It was not all bad – I remember laughing at the knitted boob one lactation consultant forgot at my house. I remember the first time I said ‘I love you’ to my son when he was 8 days old. I remember thinking he was so, so beautiful and perfect. But I felt the other stuff too.

I felt so belittled when I googled ‘post-birth not sleeping not hungry’ and saw that they described it as the ‘baby blues’. It sounded like the title of a cute little country song – a far cry from what I was actually experiencing. This infantilising and patronising term is a perfect example of how womens’ experiences are downplayed – in this case as mothers – by professionals and institutions.

Second, Baby Brain. This is when you are pregnant/had a baby and your brain instantly goes to mush. You forget everything, become ‘oversensitive and less able to focus on logical tasks.’ There are actually many debates  about what happens to a woman’s brain when she has a baby – does it grow bigger? Does it become forgetful? Does it stay the same? (See the The Guardian, The Atlantic, Huffington Post for some examples).

The answer is that after a woman gives birth to a baby, and then to the placenta, her brain then finally slips out. A tiny balloon gets inflated and put in its place to keep the skull from caving in. She may never see her original brain again, or best case scenario it will take a long time to grow back. The balloon then partially disappears, squeezing into tiny corner.

This is certainly what it feels like sometimes. As an academic I felt particularly sensitive when hearing women say they couldn’t wait to go back to work to ‘use their brains again’. The idea that mothers should work so that they can ‘use their brains’ is offensive to all mothers who take some time off to take care of their baby in those first few months/years; to all those mothers who choose not to return to the workplace; to all those professionals (mostly women) who devote their life to childcare.

During that first year, I was acutely aware of just how much I was using my brain. I was learning an entire new language, an entire new way of life. Calculating formula; timing feeds; learning how to burp correctly; how to treat baby eczema; how to sterilize bottles; how to help a tiny human survive their first days in the world; how to understand the difference between spit-up and reflux. The last thing I learned was German and that was 3 hours a week – and I found that hard to keep up with on top of work; now, I was learning 24/7. My brain was working constantly, and that’s why I was forgetful. Because when you’re overworked, that’s what happens.

I was delighted to go back to work because I love what I do, who I work with, and the individual freedom that comes with it. But to ‘use my brain again’? No. I will never let anyone suggest that I did not need to use my brain to think when raising my son in his first year. Motherhood requires you to use your brain and body differently. The physicality of motherhood took me by surprise, for sure. But there was also a continuity between my maternity leave and academia: I networked (with new mothers); researched (child early development); organised events (baby yoga). The two were not mutually exclusive.

By implying that maternity leave or stay-at-home mums are not intellectually stimulated, we are downplaying the extraordinary skills one develops as a new mother. We are undervaluing women’s role in the home, but also in society. We are prioritising a clearly linear career trajectory, over one which is more flexible. The language of motherhood must change in order to keep fighting the gender imbalance of contemporary society.


Where to next?

I’ve been writing drafts of posts to publish about various things : trip to archives in late August ; a yellow star ; the language of motherhood ; national identity in academia ; historians and online research ; the Horror of Trump and what it means to my students. This has produced a total of zero published blog posts since Friday 24 June – that fateful day when Britain woke up with one of the worst hangovers ever. Now, since 8 November, the entire world has a dreadful hangover – every morning we wake up and wonder – is it true? Did it really happen? I still shudder. I’m angry. We all shudder. We should all be angry.

But where to next? I wonder this about the more global, tolerant, open society built in the twentieth century – what is happening to it now? After Brexit and Trump, I don’t know. But whilst I try to figure this out, might as well get back to work. To research. But the same question arises: Where to next? [skip to paragraph 11 if you are limited in time]

The problem is an old one: as soon as you finish the PhD you are expected to embark on a new project. That is mostly wishful thinking, since turning your thesis into a book takes a hell of a long time. But it is also necessary – thinking of a new project helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but also think about how you see your self, your career, developing in the future. What new directions do you want to take?

Over the years I’ve felt torn over that very question. I elaborated a total of three post-PhD research projects over the years. Martyred towns was the first one – I wrote a chapter on that in a volume I edited with Alison Carrol. But I realised that whilst this was an interesting topic it was not really something I felt too passionate about. Because that’s it, isn’t it – the next research project is a second chance at doing something you like way more than your doctoral thesis.

My second project idea was on race under Vichy. My interest in the history of discrimination and exclusion, and my work with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, made me think that whilst there was a huge literature around antisemitism in Vichy France, there was not much written about the history of race and racism during the ‘dark years’. I started to outline a project entitled Being Black under Vichy which focussed on the experience of non-white people in the metropole. I did some preliminary archival research and found that there were some interesting archives which showed a kind of everyday racism which was bubbling beneath the much more visible discrimination against Jews. It fits in with the recent burgeoning of works on French colonial Prisoners of War. This could be an interesting project, for sure. I’ve also started thinking about the material in the National Archives here in London, and what it tells me about race, resistance and Vichy. Transnational approach to (race under) Vichy? Archives on my doorstep? Yes please, thank you.

All the while, a third project was ticking away in my mind. In the SNCF archives during my PhD I’d discovered some documents about a Friendship Train, and I later stumbled across a lot more information on a random archive visit to the departmental archives in Toulouse. The Friendship Train had arrived there in early 1948 to distribute food and dried goods donated by the American people to the hungry, war-torn French population. The documents were describing the train’s arrival and distribution process, but also its somewhat mixed reception amongst the community. I was immediately intrigued: why had Americans made these donations? what did they include? Had other communities in France received similar donations?

The story of the Friendship Train was intriguing in itself, and I began to collate more information through at the Jewish Distribution Committee archives. Independent researchers had done some creative and significant work gathering archives about the Friendship Train, not least Dorothy Scheele, so the internet became an absolutely necessary tool. I traced the train’s trajectory across America and then France, listing state and departmental archives I would have to eventually explore, as well as the libraries and archives which housed the personal papers of those involved in the train’s organisation. Slowly, a picture began to emerge – not of grassroots humanitarianism, but of ideology and Hollywood. And behind that picture… another story.

In thanks for the Friendship Train, the French people donated a Merci Train in 1948-49. The Merci Train was made up of 52,000 objects* given by the French people to the Americans in 1948. The objects were extremely varied, from extraordinary objects such as the bugle that sounded the 1918 Armistice, to ordinary handkerchiefs with small embroidered flowers. Divided into 49 adorned boxcars, they traveled in a ship across the Atlantic before each boxcar was distributed to an American state (as well as Hawaii and Washington D.C.). Celebrations, parades, speeches greeted these objects. Exhibitions were put on, collections were preserved, boxcars were left to deteriorate and then were renovated in the late twentieth century. Again, independent researchers such as Earl Bennett were fascinated by this story which features no where in the history books, and their work so far is so critical, so fundamental.


Archives Nationales: 552AP/263 – Fonds Privés Vincent Auriol. French Railroad car containing gifts from New Jersey, leading parade in Trenton, New Jersey.

But the Merci Train, much like the Friendship Train, is not what it seems to be. Portrayed as an act of French gratitude for American help during and after the war, it was actually a very conservative, politically-motivated, nationalist gesture. Research into Vincent Auriol’s private papers in the Archives Nationales, and into some digital collections found online, suggests that by gifting 52,000 ordinary objects to the American people, the French were saying more than just ‘thank you’: this was about war, memory, loss, nationalism, regionalism. And also gratitude.

To get any kind of firm conclusions on this, though, I need to delve deeply into this history of objects – what were they? who were they from? who did they go to? where are they now? This is quite exciting. Using new approaches, transnational objects and international archives, all the while relying on the internet to trace historical witnesses, I’m extremely excited about writing about the immediate postwar period in a broader geographical sense.

So there it is: my decision. I long ago decided not to follow my idea on martyred towns, leaving it for someone else to pick up if they so wish. But I am stunned that I spent one paragraph writing about Being Black under Vichy, and four on the Merci Train. I even made the effort of adding in a PHOTO with a CAPTION. Wow. It is clearly the book I want to write. I’ve got some material on being black under Vichy, but really this should be able to fill a couple of papers/articles. The Next Book will be the story of the Merci Train – the story of Postwar France in 52,000 Objects. 

That being said, getting to archives in France and America is HARD when you have a tiny cute little baby-human that you want to spend time with. And when you have teaching loads etc etc. But yes, cute tiny human. So in the meantime, I’ll turn the archives I already have, and future ones I will get, into groundbreaking pieces on race under Vichy. Ta da! Because work is important but I’m more and more convinced I need it to fit into MY life – not the other way around, which I did for so many years. Those days are over.

Pros and Cons of doing two projects simultaneously:

Cons: I’ll be too dispersed ; I risk not being sufficiently focussed on either.

: more intellectual stimulation ; life is short so fuck it.
img_3234Between Feb and May 2017 I’m giving three papers in NYU and London on ‘Race in the Resistance’ and ‘Postwar Objects’. I have no doubt that the feedback I get will shape my future research trajectory. In the meantime I better get cracking. But first: it’s the weekend. It’s been a long week. Time to forget about time and politics and work and play with my son, the Gruffalo.




* The exact number is not known, as independent researcher Alexis Mueller has underlined in a private conversation, but it is probably in this range.