France, the French & the Second World War

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

Category: Motherhood

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.


Strikes, Archives and Maternity Leave – rethinking relationships to academic work

One of the main arguments I make in my first book is that, far from being willing strikers, French railwaymen – cheminots – were hesitant to strike. Even in the late-nineteenth century when they endured terrible working conditions, they were reluctant to strike, down tools or sabotage their machines. The fact that the cheminots loved ‘their’ machines was a major reason behind this reluctance which endured for decades. Until the Second World War, they largely preferred to use alternative means to advance their professional situation. But even after the war, the ‘unanimous support’ for strikes within this professional milieu was anything but certain. Involvement or abstinence from strikes has been a deeply fractious topic throughout cheminots’ long history, showing the rifts and tensions within this community.

Cheminots’ historic attitudes to strikes reminds us of the complexity of the relationship between workers and their work. Jonathan Saha recently blogged about this, reminding us that the affection workers can feel for their work (which, in this case, involved elephants) can seriously effect their approach to and attitudes during strikes.

Academics experience a similar tension between them, their work and the politics of academia. There is a tension between the passion many of us feel for our research, and the conditions in which we work on a day to day basis. Indeed, the latter were the subject of strikes on 25-26 May. These strikes were about addressing fundamental problems within our profession, problems linked not only to salaries but more importantly attitudes to both work and workers. Pay gaps and the casualisation of academic work are serious and glaring issues. Pay gaps continue to affect women and minorities, whilst short-term, casual contracts exploit post-doctoral researchers who often have to forego a lot of personal, familial and/or financial stability for no promise of any job security.

I therefore fully supported the strike – but I did not go on strike. Why ? The short answer is : I was on maternity leave. So I couldn’t ‘strike’ as such. The long answer is more complicated, however, because I was actually working on 25-26 May. Indeed, after almost 10 months of taking care of my son, and on the verge of going back to work full time as of 1 June, I had found a few days where I was able to guarantee childcare and fit in time in the archives in Paris. On the Monday night I was giddy with excitement. On the 5h40am Eurostar the next morning, I was still too excited to sleep and worked all the way to Paris. The trip lived up to its expectations: already on the first day I found some amazing photographs and speeches linked to the Friendship and Merci Trains. I scrolled through boxes relating to Colonial Prisoners of War to keep gathering material on race in Vichy France. I enjoyed dinner with old friends in the evenings to wind down from intense work days.

But as I was having a grand old time in the archives, my thoughts kept wandering back to my colleagues, in the UK, on strike. The issues at stake were very important to me, but here I was, in the archives, doing research work. And then it really hit me: not only am I still working during a strike I support, but I am actually working WHILST STILL ON MATERNITY LEAVE.

Why I organised this research trip whilst on maternity leave is an important point to explain. (1) I was going back to work on 1 June and needed to spend my annual departmental research allowance by July 2016 (2) the week of 24 May was the only time where I could organise fulltime childcare for 3 days (3) I love research, so is it really ‘work’?

I wish this was the only time I had worked on maternity leave, but it wasn’t. Between 25 July 2015 and 1 June 2016,  I found myself working between my son’s nighttime feeds because my proofs and index needed to be done. I worked with my French editor who was managing the French translation. I accepted a job as reviews editor for a prestigious journal, which was a great opportunity to work with great colleagues and a great journal. I gave a lecture and supervised dissertation students as part of my Keeping In Touch Days. Anyone who has a baby will know these things were no small feat.

No one forced me to finish my proofs or write my index on maternity leave. No one forced me to do a research trip. The fact that I have a permanent job and am no longer on probation makes me one of the lucky ones. But the constant, intense pressure to produce as a doctoral and post-doctoral researcher hovers over you at all times. Whilst in the archives I realised just how much I had internalised – and normalised ­– this pressure. How it had led me to think it was OK to still do work whilst on maternity leave. How it had made me think that ‘doing what you love’ is not really ‘work’.

I want to underline that doing work-related activities whilst on maternity leave helped me to maintain a sense of normalcy in this crazy new life that is being a parent and a mother. It was a choice that I accept and often enjoyed. But the amount of effort I put in to work around my son, around my carpal tunnel syndrome, around our new family life, was also an extraordinarily difficult thing to do – and this part of my work will never, ever get recognised or valued.

As such, there is a huge risk of working on mat leave : by doing it, I was also silently accepting a system where our work repeatedly and regularly gets undervalued. As the strikes were going on in the UK, and I was having fun in the archives, I became painfully aware of this fact. Our work culture is deteriorating, and our work as individuals and as a community is de-valued. By working on mat leave, I was contributing to this.

So my first archive trip to start my new research projects was as much about the projects themselves as it was about re-discovering my relationship to my work. The complicated tensions between the personal, the professional and the political in academia became intimately entangled. Whilst I do not regret anything, I realised that, sometimes, downing the tools you love is important to show what needs to change.