Back garden of a semi-detached house in rural England. MUMMY is in a hammock, sides pulled up in a vain attempt to hide herself and try and do some work on a Sunday—always a tricky day due to the closure of libraries and over-crowding of cafes—whilst her family amuse themselves indoors with loud activities. YOUNGEST DAUGHTER follows her outside and tries to get MUMMY’s attention by performing tricks on the climbing frame and engaging her in conversation that she knows MUMMY will find hard to resist.
An adult male voice shouts from the interior.
DADDY Your mother is working. I told you not to pester her.
YOUNGEST But she’s just reading!
(The adult male retreats, satisfied that he has done his job. Plus, someone’s got to do the housework.)
YOUNGEST That’s a book you’ve got Mummy, not work.
(MUMMY does not look up.)
MUMMY Sometimes work is reading a book.
(YOUNGEST DAUGHTER comes closer to inspect the book, unsure if MUMMY is telling the truth.)
YOUNGEST Is that like a kind of book that is homework? Like I have to do?
MUMMY (Eyes still on the book) Yes. Exactly.
YOUNGEST (Jumping on the trampoline) Except you don’t have anyone to help you. You help me with my homework don’t you?
YOUNGEST Maybe I can help you with your homework.
(MUMMY looks up, hopeful that perhaps her daughter has understood her need for quiet.)
YOUNGEST I can help you by talking to you.
MUMMY Well, even though I like talking to you, it’s actually quite tricky for me to concentrate on my work and talk to you at the same time.
(YOUNGEST DAUGHTER ponders this, whilst clambering to the top of the climbing frame. MUMMY settles back into her book for a brief moment of silence, until…)
YOUNGEST Mummy, you don’t like the film Zootopia do you, because they sing that song “Oh My God, Look at Her Butt.” I mean you like that film, but you don’t like that bit because you don’t like that song and you don’t like me singing that song. That’s right, isn’t it Mummy? (a sort of rapping) ‘Oh my god, look at her butt.’ Whoops, I’m not supposed to say that am I? Mummy, look at me on the monkey bars. Look Mummy, look at meeeee!
(MUMMY retreats to the bedroom.)
You have been very much on my mind over the past seven years as I’ve been trying to complete a PhD. I thought of you often as I travelled here and there, searching for a moment of quiet with my laptop, my books, my thoughts (which, even in quiet places, are never quiet themselves). Your steadfast ghost has watched me bent under the weight of a too-heavy rucksack, transporting me from one life to another, from mother to academic to writer, but never quite leaving one and arriving at the others, like a train shuttling between stations that have no available platforms.
I have worked in wonderful places. I have worked in ridiculous ones. These places include: the bed I share with my husband. The kitchen table, positioning my laptop between artwork, school notices, and sticky substances that I forgot to wipe. The living room, accompanied by feelings of guilt that my children are engaging with television instead of me. My eldest daughter’s “Lego desk,” which she has, dear soul that she is, temporarily vacated, as she senses I am on the verge of tears in trying to get my dissertation finished before a looming deadline. My village’s parish council office—a dispiriting and freezing space with the smallest window imaginable and only an abandoned plant pot for company. But it is blissfully quiet, and I am very grateful that a friend took pity on me and allowed me access on the weekends. Poolside during swimming lessons. The wildlife reserve in between dance lessons. The balcony of the Royal Festival Hall in between meetings. Café after café after café. My mother’s condominium in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as she takes care of the girls for a few days at her lakeside cottage. Having an entire flat to myself is bliss, but my heart breaks every time I hear my children’s voices on the phone. Then there are the libraries. The small local libraries, where one competes with stressed out secondary school students for space. University libraries – they all smell the same, and none of them have sufficient work space, so I end up on the floor, laptop balanced precariously, sometimes observed by my own students, the look in their eye suggesting that if I were a proper lecturer, I wouldn’t be sitting on the floor. Canadian libraries, which I visit in the “holidays”—some beautiful, some cramped, some with wonderful views of the water, which both offer relief from the computer screen and engender feelings of resentment that I can’t be out on a boat or making sandcastles with my family like everyone else in the world.
Academic Caroline Wiedmer, in Motherhood and Space, writes, “Space and narrative not only coexist in a complicated symbiosis. Each also inheres in the other. While literary narratives employ space to develop character, further plot, create mood, and contextualize stories, material and symbolic spaces in the world that surrounds us—offices say, or hierarchies or academic systems—might be said to constitute a type of narrative as well; a narrative, which in its symbolic import, in the lived practices it entails, and in its imbrication with the social imaginary, shapes our perception of the world.” The narratives I weave as writer are woven into my own real-life narrative, the one in which I inhabit spaces which sometimes problematize and de-legitimize my various identities, and at other times enable me to transcend job descriptions.
Of course, there are many different types of space – physical space, social space, psychological space, and these all weave together in our own narratives of identity. Philosopher Michel Foucault described a type of space which seems particularly relevant to the mother-academic-artist: the heterotopia. It is a space which exists in the real world while at the same time containing other spaces, meanings, times, etc. For example, my bed, in the bedroom I share with my husband and often use as a place to write, is heterotopic in that it exists physically, but it is also at once a lovespace, workspace, sleepspace, sickspace, and motheringspace; it exists in the time before children and the time after and contains a thousand memories. It is a space, like most of the spaces I inhabit, which belongs to me, but to others too. Foucault wrote, “The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself a heterogeneous space. […] We live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.”
As I write this, the space I inhabit is a complicated one. I sit at a desk, a space designated for serious, academic work, yet I gaze out on a back garden filled with play equipment and my children’s laundry hanging on the line. The bookshelves that surround me have works of philosophy, performance theory, playscripts (including my own), and Goodnight Moon. The computer I write on—itself a kind of space—contains the evidence of my life: thousands of hours of research, notes, and musings, drafts of creative work, educational apps, the kids’ school projects, and family photographs. It is a messy space for a messy narrative in which I am academic/artist/parent. I can only embrace these identities collectively, because the spaces I inhabit never allow me to embrace them singularly. And, truth be told, I don’t really want to identify as only one of those things. But it does mean that I never feel fully academic, fully an artist, fully a parent.
You know these places. Not only have you been with me, but you, too, were a wanderer, until a distant aunt’s inheritance and marriage provided you with a space you could call your own. Isn’t it ironic how one has to have money to earn money? You too were a haunter of libraries. The glorious British Library, which was housed in the British Museum in your time but has since moved up to the Euston Road to its own quarters; it remains a place of light and refuge, but also retains the feeling that you and I don’t quite belong. In your time, it was because you were often the sole female inhabitant. Now, the reading rooms seem filled with both men and women in thought, people on Facebook, people who can have a casual one-hour lunch with colleagues, instead of scalding their mouths on a coffee and inhaling an overpriced sandwich in an attempt to not give over too much time to physical sustenance. These people are serious academics and serious artists.
Serious academics can take their time over books. Serious artists don’t have to borrow the trolley because they try to fit so much into a rare library day they can’t carry all the books they have ordered. Serious academics don’t have to make a quick dash out of the expanse of the Humanities reading room to answer a call from childcare to tell you that your daughter has vomited all over their floor and you need to drop whatever it is you were doing and come and get her, even though you have only just arrived and the train takes an hour.
Virginia, I can enact a helluva performance in the library. I can costume myself in a way (something a bit edgy, a chunky scarf perhaps, and hair that has been tidily arranged, rather than ingloriously scraped up into a “mum bun”) that suggests this day is a retreat from a university office or writer’s garret, rather than the playground. And maybe, just like gender theorist Judith Butler suggests, the repetition of these performative acts might actually make the actor herself forget that she is a mum, just for a moment. But something still feels amiss. It’s a bit like you pondering the “queer old gentlemen […] with tufts of fur upon their shoulders” at Oxbridge and the “effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition” upon your feelings of legitimacy. Thanks to my academic qualifications I can have a coveted British Library “reader’s ticket,” a card which allows entry to the reading rooms and precious access to their treasure trove of books. But even though my smiling face on my ticket tells me I belong, I don’t believe it.
In her article “The Meaning of Home Workplaces for Women,” social ecologist Sherry Ahrentzen writes, “Being visibly at work between 9 am and 5 pm is an integral part of our cultural assumptions about work. Not being so can suggest we are unemployed or ‘keeping house’.” She cites an example of a woman with a home-based business whose family do not see her as “working” because she does not dress up and go out. Of course men sometimes work at home, but I think there is more pressure for women to undertake performative measures to ensure that others understand we are working. When I wear more formal clothes and makeup, and leave the house in the morning to attend to my lecturing duties, my children (and adult peers) understand that I am doing a job. When I am at home, or in a café, wearing jeans and trainers, they aren’t quite sure what I’m doing, despite the fact that I am sitting in front of a computer, and despite the fact that my husband also wears jeans and trainers to work. Thus, when I wear the costume of “mum,” I am often asked what I am up to that day. The answer, almost always, is work.
A friend, a dear, lovely friend who was not a mother at the time and had a busy life running her own business, told me once, in reference to my PhD studies and playwriting, that I was lucky that I could pursue my “hobbies.” That word, “hobbies,” has stuck with me, and I wonder if that’s how others view my work. Do they think I spend my days engaged in interesting pastimes, that I have placed my children in childcare and locked myself away in a rehearsal room on the weekends whilst my loved ones spend time together without me, so I can pursue my favorite leisure activities? And I also wonder if I had a dedicated space, somewhere not-at-home, a space which solely existed for me to do my academic or artistic job, and not my mothering job, would this even be an issue?
In A Room of One's Own, you wrote about nineteenth century female writers, asking what it was, apart from their gender, that these “incongruous characters” had in common, and why were they all novelists instead of poets or playwrights. The significant factor it seems was the sitting-room. It was the only space available to the women for writing, and they had to do so with constant interruption, hiding their work when someone entered. You argue that this setup is not conducive to literary forms that require intense concentration, like verse or drama. I would probably add a PhD dissertation to that list, but I guess not many women were writing those in the nineteenth century.
Another thing they—and you—had in common was, for better or worse, that they were not mothers. Had they been, would those novels exist? I don’t know. I do know that thanks to them, and you, and countless other women whose offspring were works of literature rather than children, I am here, sitting at my computer and writing, able to inhabit all those identities. And I am grateful.
And here’s the thing, Virginia. These heterotopias that I wander through, these spaces that create the narrative of not quite being one thing or the other, they also infuse and color my work. Just like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë’s writing was testimony to their position as sitting-room observer, so my research and my creative writing is imbricated with the many spaces of motherhood. My plays are colored by motherhood. My poetry, a fairly recent undertaking, comes back to themes of mothering again and again. My two girls were with me throughout the entirety of my PhD (which I regularly referred to as my third child). And my dissertation, like most things I produce, has an underlying current of not being precisely one thing or another. It also works the other way—my motherhood is steeped in the processes and spaces of play, theatricality, and joy that emerges from my creative work.
These are all Good Things.
A busy Student Services office, where MUMMY has been waiting in a long queue with her two DAUGHTERS, feeling out of place once again in a sea of stressed-out undergraduates. ELDEST DAUGHTER stands by her side, clutching an extremely heavy, blue-bound text. YOUNGEST DAUGHTER amuses the undergraduates by drawing dragons. The queue slowly edges forward until it is MUMMY’s turn to speak to the person at the desk.
MUMMY I’m here to submit my dissertation.
(ELDEST DAUGHTER drops the heavy text in front of the officer.)
ELDEST This is my mum’s PhD.
(YOUNGEST DAUGHTER runs up to the desk and gives the officer some scraps of paper with scribbles on them.)
YOUNGEST This is my PhD!
OFFICER (To children) Oh, I see, that’s nice that you’re helping your mum. (To Mummy) Congratulations, this is a big day.
MUMMY Yep. (Pausing, while she tries to keep it together.) They’ve been living with this dissertation since they were babies, so it’s only right that they help me deliver it.
OFFICER A mother and a PhD. That’s something.
(MUMMY looks at her two daughters.)
MUMMY Yes. It is.
1 reply on “Dear Virginia”
Karen Morash, you just won my heart!