Sunday, 10 December 2017

The grant and the strawberry: a bundle of joy and strain (and so much joy!)

Hello reader,

It was week zero when news of the grant came. I was sitting at my desk in the office, alone, writing emails and shifting rapidly inside my head between the term’s teaching, research and admin. When the email dropped I literally started shaking. Once I opened it and read the news I was ecstatic. I had just landed a 2 year AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellows grant for research on memory and mobility in the Brown Atlantic. The title: “Women of the Brown Atlantic: Real and Imaginary Passages in Portuguese 1711-2011.” Three years of work and preparation had finally paid off.

But as I descended from the clouds of jubilation, I couldn’t even share the news on social media. I felt excited but also humbled, and mostly fearful of the task ahead of me. Going through the application documents I marvelled at the meaning(lessness) of what I had achieved. As I read the title of my grant, I did not particularly believe that I was a leader in the making. I felt leader-ish at best. How on earth was I going to deliver all this in two years? When were my partners and mentors going to find out that this is, indeed, an insane project and I’m not fit for the job? Yes, for the next two years, I didn’t have to worry about getting any funding for my research, and maybe this would even translate into more good news about a possible early promotion, which was very cool. For the next two years, I could take a deep breadth: everything would be alright. For two years. And then the chase would be on again, and the pressure to apply for new grants would come back with a vengeance.

I felt nauseous.

In fact, something was happening to me. To my body, that is. I can only describe it as a sort of mutation glimpsed daily through the corner of my eye. I was experiencing a lot of tiredness, like I had been hit by a horse tranquilizer. Term hadn’t even started and my body was already feeling like it was week 10. I initially attributed it to my mind’s inability to rise up to the Leadership Fellows challenge. But no, reader. This was something else entirely. Things were about to get even more, uh, interesting. Turns out I was not only a grant holder, I was a pregnant grant holder! Now I had to be both a productive and reproductive leader, all at the same time.

No pressure.

It was an interesting discovery, learning that, whilst my mind was totally focused on the perils of getting what you want from the AHRC, my body indifferently hosted a little strawberry (every week they call it a different fruit or veg) with limbs.

The strawberry, soon to become a prune and then a lime in my belly, according to the wisdom of the latest apps, is the most accomplished example of the force that I believe drives us: what my mother would call miracles, what I prefer to call luck. A single sperm, out of three hundred million, somehow found a passage through me and survived, while MILLIONS died trying to cross over, and, choosing the right corridor containing the fertilized prize, surged against motions without getting trapped, attaching itself to the prize, and somehow – SOMEHOW! – my body didn’t reject the resulting bean. What are the odds of that happening? To a 38 year old? So, you see, the strawberry is already teaching me important life lessons. 

Take your prize, recognise how lucky you got, and get on with it.

How can I put it into words? The whole situation suddenly felt, let me tell you, liberating. More exactly, the passages between the grant and the strawberry were liberating. Through them, a passage to Portugal was crystallising. Short term, I know. But long term has its perils. It’s the bridge I was looking for. Non-permanent, but real. A route transporting me elsewhere, inside my body and in my imagination, and outside it, through the ocean, through the skin, away from Brexit for a white. Expanding, like the universe.

But what if?

What if I end up only half-doing everything, once the little strawberry arrives? Until now, I thought my dedication to what I do was undying. Now the little one inside me, comfortably tucked away in the darkest regions of my belly, will soon be a totally helpless human being, demanding constant attention, and a lot more. I hold a permanent lectureship, so I am entitled to paid maternal leave, and most importantly, I don’t (think I) have to worry about losing my job. I have all the support in the world from my family and colleagues. But what about the rest? How will I be able to travel to conferences and archives with a little one? Have I got what it takes to be both a forward-moving Leadership Fellow and an academic and a mother? Will I have the energy? I could carry the child with me everywhere in the beginning. But how will my colleagues, project partners and students react to that? Will I be taken less seriously? The feminist inside cannot but conjure the image of an inevitably stalled career ahead.

These and other questions come to me usually just before I fall asleep, which totally defeats the purpose of enjoying every hour of my current childless life. I can still spend more than three hours writing a lecture on Virgem Margarida, read more than a few pages of fiction before going to sleep for 8 hours (though now with lots of trips to the loo), and attend conferences in London without having to worry about child-care. Once the little one arrives, all of this will be gone.

It’s an incredibly wonderful thing, being lucky. But I confess I feel a bit lost, despite all the wonder and excitement. Having strong academic role models who are also mothers is a great source of inspiration, but somehow it is not enough. Where are the babies and the children in academia? I see them only when I go to my colleagues’ family-friendly parties. At 9pm they vanish into thin air and become invisible to me, only to return surreptitiously in reading week, now much bigger, holding their parents’ hands, in student-less corridors. Where do they go, and why do they go, academic parents of the world? Where are the spaces for mothering and fathering in academia? Where are the crossings, the passageways?

Everything will change, they say. As I dive into the Brown Atlantic in search of the real and imaginary passages of women, my child will inevitably dive in with me, as we look for answers – and passages – together.

This is probably my first letter to you.

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