Working, writing, PhD-ing through grief and loss

This is very personal post, and it carries a trigger warning of the loss of a parent/loved one.

I am writing this from a friend’s couch in Durban, near where I grew up. I have been here for almost three weeks, I came here from my new home in England because my mother is dying and I needed to say goodbye. This is unbearable and impossible: how do you say goodbye to someone you are not ready to let go of? But the focus of this post isn’t actually this awful thing that is happening; the focus is on what it has been doing to my mind and my ability to actually cope with all the other things that don’t stop, like work, parenting, supervising, and writing.

Many students, supervisors, researchers, lecturers experience grief and loss in some form or another and cannot just take a year off to process everything: they have to keep showing up, writing, researching, marking, teaching, reading student work and offering feedback, counsel, and care. And this is mightily hard, and not just because of the emotional toll that grieving a loss takes. It has a mental toll as well. I have been reading quite a bit recently about what grief does to your brain. For the last several weeks, I feel like I have been descending further and further into a brain fog I can’t seem to shake. I walk into rooms and can’t recall why I am there; I put things down and can’t find them again; I open my email to do one thing, end up getting distracted and then can’t remember the thing I opened the email for. Not even my lists are helping. I feel scattered, half-here and half-somewhere else. It’s hard to trust my brain right now, which is scary for someone who relies on her brain to make sense of the world and her place in it.

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This is all very normal, though, for a person who is processing a loss or, as in my case, an impending loss. A colleague said to think of my brain a bit like a computer that is doing a lot of background processing that isn’t obviously visible but takes up a lot of the CPU’s energy. That feels about right: there’s just no space in my brain for much of anything ‘thinky’: I can tick over on the basics or just above basics, but anything new is too much – new reading, new writing, things I have to really think about and process deeply. According to neuroscientists, this brain fog is part of what is termed ‘grief brain’.

‘Grief brain’ is basically a process that can last up to a year, sometimes longer, which allows your brain the time and space it needs to help you move through the most immediate and painful parts of loss. The process essentially sidelines your prefrontal cortex – which you use to make decisions, remember things, be a functioning person out in the world – and allows your limbic brain – which is your more primal, survival functioning – more freedom than it usually has. Essentially, in order to help you survive as you grieve, your brain temporarily rewires itself to mute painful memories and thoughts so that you can actually function in a day-to-day sense: you can cook, get dressed, see friends and family, and begin to carry on. As this process becomes less about survival and more about living again, your brain begins to filter back the memories and thoughts of your loved one, and you can begin to come to terms with the loss and how to shape your life around it as you move forward.

But, when you are in the midst of grief, with your limbic brain in the driver’s seat, you may experience life as if in slow motion – you live for a time in a fog of confusion, disorientation, and maybe even delusions (what Joan Didion termed ‘magical thinking’). Understanding that this is not only normal, but your brain’s way of helping you survive and recover from your loss is helpful. I can be less frustrated with my forgetfulness and give myself time to process all of this. I can try to be brave and ask for time at work because I can understand more clearly why I need it; I can tell myself it’s okay to not be able to do anything that feels meaningful (i.e. my research and writing papers) rather than telling myself to ‘buck up and soldier on’. I can also offer people who are brave with me – colleagues, students, peers – this same support and kindness as they work through their own grief.

This is important because grieving is not limited to loss through the death of someone you love. Many people are grieving loved ones, friends and colleagues lost to Covid-19. But they are also grieving lost time, lost experiences, lost moments with people they love in places they love. They are grieving a world that may never really come back to us in the form it took before March 2020. We need to be kind to one another and to ourselves maybe now more than ever. In academia, this is hugely important given how unkind an environment many universities feel like to staff and students alike right now. Part of that kindness, I can see now, is understanding that grief is not a process that progresses neatly through clearly defined stages (the 5-stage model of grief has been pretty much debunked by newer research). There is no easy or clear end to it either, especially when you have to make peace with a different life than the one you had before, with profound loss.

Writers who explore grief and grieving like Joan Didion, Joanne Hichens, Helen Macdonald, and Lisa Shulman will tell you that experiencing profound grief and working through it changes you in ways you may not expect or see coming. In the loss, there can be growth and learning, opportunities to find gains and newness – new hobbies, new experiences, new people. You may well become a different version of you. But this is not an easy, linear or predictable process. For me, in this in-between space right now, my main preoccupation is how to find the space in my busy brain to write, to create, to meet my commitments to my students and co-authors without letting them and me down. How do I do this when my mind just can’t sit still enough to focus on ideas and words that keep slipping past me? How do my students do this if they are also in this place? How do I support them, support myself, write through the grieving, fog and sadness? I’m not sure I know. But acknowledging this feels important, especially out loud to people beyond myself.

It feels important given where we all are in the world right now – and some of us are really struggling to make peace with and sense of the last 19 months – to acknowledge that it’s okay to not be okay. And that being not okay won’t last forever, especially if we can support one another and create and hold spaces for people to be where they are and work their way through it, knowing they are not alone. If you are in a similar space, I see you. You are not alone. And you – we – will be okay.

Corrections and revisions: same thing or different?

For any piece of writing, especially something substantial such as a report, a paper or a thesis chapter, there is going to be more than one draft. This means there will be feedback from others, reflection on your own about what works in the writing and what needs further work, and time spent reworking, revising, rewriting, editing and proofreading. Corrections and revisions. For more experienced writers, I think the difference between these two acts in writing are perhaps clearer than for less experienced writers, such as postgraduate students. Two separate conversations with two of my own students recently pointed me to this: both spoke of getting to the corrections and sending me fresh drafts, when I had not offered very much at all by way of corrections and was mostly looking for more significant revisions. I wondered, then, how academia in general uses these words: Are corrections seen to be the same thing as revisions? What do supervisors mean by these two words and why (and how) do we need to speak about this openly with our students?

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Let’s start, perhaps, with the basic meanings of these terms and what they imply as work for writers. Revisions (see this very useful post by Pat Thomson on this) can imply minor to significant amounts of work for writers. Regardless of the amount of work, the point of revision is to re-think, re-read – perhaps read more than you already have – re-write and even re-organise your writing. It involves active engagement with your ideas, with feedback from critical friends/supervisors/reviewers; it involves both mental and emotional labour because it can be hard work to hear that your ideas or argument do not work, that your evidence and explanations are not persuasive enough, that your thinking is not as clear to your reader as it seemed to you. You need to motivate and cajole yourself into going back to a piece of writing you want to move on from to do this ‘more’ work that is asked of you. So revisions are hard, and many times, revisions suck.

Corrections, by contrast, imply less of this active thinking and engaged work. To correct something is to fix it, and usually in writing feedback this implies a global find and replace exercise to make, for example, your referencing format or use of quotation marks or spellings consistent and uniform across your text; it can imply correcting the usage of a technical term, editing your writing to correct typos and grammatical mistakes. Corrections can be done without much emotional investment or brain power, although seeing stupid mistakes you have made can be frustrating! Corrections, if I am doing my job well as a supervisor and critical friend, are not what I direct writers to first, unless it really is the only or main thing they need to focus on to improve their text. Corrections should not be focused on in feedback at the expense of guidance, questions and suggestions about the ideas, the structure, the argument, the theory or research methodology, the findings and assumptions, and so on. In writing development practice, revisions are called ‘higher order’ or primary concerns; corrections are usually ‘lower order’ or secondary and come after the more substantial revisions have been made, usually over a few drafts.

When I tell my students that I am sending them feedback, unless we are pretty close to the final draft I assume they understand that what I am asking them to engage in is a process of revisions. But I have come to realise recently that some of my students, particularly those new to postgraduate study and these long and involved writing and research processes, are not always clear on this. Often, when they say ‘I’ll do the corrections’, they do literally mean that they will try their best to ‘fix’ their writing and will look for the errors and fixes and do these first, with less time spent thinking about the deeper, and more necessary, revisions. If I get a draft back within a week on which my feedback focused on the need for new reading, thinking through the links between different concepts or ideas, adding significant explanations, elaborations or new reading/references, I am always worried that the text has been approached in correction mode, rather than revision mode. It’s not always the case: sometime a student or writer has time and can spend a few days solidly working on and thinking about the revisions. But usually, the text comes back with many of the original concerns still relevant; with the revisions still need to be properly thought about and effected.

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This misunderstanding stems, in my experience, from a few concerns, two of which can be openly addressed in supervision, at the outset and on an ongoing basis as needed. The first is the transition from writing as an undergrad to writing as a postgrad. Writing as an undergrad seldom involves drafting. Typically, an assignment is written once, assessed, and you move on to the next one. At senior levels or in specific literacy development courses, you may write one draft, receive formative feedback and then write another ‘final’ draft, but multiple drafts of one piece of writing-thinking is not a typical feature of undergraduate study. Moving from seeing your writing as assignments-for-marks to developmental pieces of thinking is a huge shift, then. If you have be trained to get your writing ‘right’ in one or two goes, the idea of having to take more then two goes can seem really odd and unsettling: why can’t I just write it and have it be right? Why do I have to keep answering questions, reading, thinking, rewriting – what’s wrong with me? We need to talk to postgraduate students differently about writing, as fellow writers. Show them a folder for a paper you have written, or your own MA or PhD folder for chapters. Talk them through your own writing-feedback-redrafting-finalising process for papers or chapter you have written and are writing. Don’t assume they know what revisions are and what to do to move constructively from one draft to the next.

This links to a second concern that can and should be addressed in supervision: working with feedback is, in itself, a literacy practice that needs to be learned and can be taught. Do your students know what a question mark in the margin of their draft means when you put it there? Do they know what you are questioning, and why? Do they know what to do with questions you ask them in comment bubbles, or with a comment like: ‘This is unclear’, or ‘Irrelevant information’. Do they know what your feedback language means, how the words and phrases and form of feedback-giving you choose to use communicates your expectations of their writing, thinking and argumentation work? You can take a supervision session to actually open this out for discussion with students: This is how I give feedback, this is why I choose to give my feedback using this form or method, this is what I expect you to do with the revisions and redrafting. You can (and should) make it okay for students to ask questions, and especially at doctoral level, to disagree with you or speak back to the feedback, because they are expected to own their writing and the argument they are building. Making this a process of learning, a pedagogic or teaching moment (or series of moments as the case may be) enables you to have necessary conversations that can help your students get to know you as a supervisor and help them understand how to make the shift from their prior level of study to their new level. More than this, these conversations can enable your students to develop a meta-level understanding of the processes that go into building a sophisticated, layered argument that involves many steps, and often a mix of literature, theory, methodology, analysis and cohesive and coherent thinking and writing. For doctoral students who will go on to supervise and mentor other students in their career, this meta-learning is crucial.

Revisions and corrections, then, are not the same thing. Assuming your students know what each of these acts involves, what the difference is in terms of your meanings of each of these acts in your feedback, and how to respond in their ongoing reading, writing and thinking work can lead to confusion and frustration for both you and your students, and your students may struggle to make the progress everyone desires. Rather, make the time to open up a conversation about what writing a thesis is all about, and the thinking work that goes into it, and the time that thinking takes. Link this to drafting, and normalise the idea of writing and thinking as practices, not skills; they take work and time and effort, and need feedback and revisions to improve. Then talk about how and why you give feedback, and maybe use this an as opportunity to revisit the way you give feedback to your students – this is an area where I am always learning, and where small changes can make a big difference to how students feel about and approach their research. The point is to talk about it, invite students to ask questions and take ownership of their writing, make the work of writing and thinking more visible and shared. Writing is a social practice, not a solitary act of applying skills, and the more we show this to our students, the more able they are to embrace the process and the work that goes with it.

Academic mobility: Nomads, migrants and adventurers

I have been really absent on this blog for a while now, much to my chagrin. I really enjoy writing these posts – they are, as I have commented before, a form of scholarly therapy for me, and an important creative outlet as well. But, Big Things have been going on in my personal and professional life and I just have had no energy, headspace or ideas to spare. But, I am learning – always learning – that if I want things that are important to me to be things I can actually do, I have to make time for them deliberately. So, here I am.

The Big Things centre around me getting an amazing job, one I have worked towards for a long time now. The catch, though, is that this job is in another country. So, the last 4 months have largely been consumed by obtaining visas, packing up our home, and relocating ourselves and our cats from the south of the world to the north, with several complicated steps due to the pandemic and all the travel restrictions that have been in place. It has been stressful, anxiety-provoking, exhausting to say the least. That the job is actually as amazing as it sounded on paper, and my new colleagues as kind and helpful as I hoped they would be, makes the professional part of this whole process exciting and energising. But the personal stuff has been all-consumingly hard. I miss my home, I miss my books, I miss my garden and the beach. I miss things that are easy and familiar. I miss being trusted as a known citizen and person with a credit history and a track record and full rights and recognitions. Being an immigrant is a big thing to get my head around. And I have to acknowledge as I write this that I am a very privileged immigrant. I can’t imagine how hard it is to do all of this when you don’t speak English very well, or have friends and networks in the new place already, or have to move away from, rather than with, your close family.

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All of this has, of course, got me thinking, mainly about academic mobility and how so many academics and postgraduate researchers move around the world every year in search of new opportunities, PhD scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships, jobs. I have several colleagues who have relocated for various academic roles and reasons: fellowships, short academic exchanges, sabbaticals, permanent roles. I have moved in the past to undertake a Masters degree (10 months abroad) and also with my family for a 6-month sabbatical (Lovely Husband’s). In some cases, the move is pretty easy – you are helped with accommodation and setting up a bank account; there’s a network or space set up and waiting to welcome you. This removes a significant source of stress and time. Also, if you’re on a fellowship or sabbatical, you know you have not left your home for an indefinite period of time, maybe for good. It’s just a break from regular life – an adventure. This also removes a huge source of stress, which is having to make peace with a massive life change, really committing yourself to learning new systems, making new friends, creating a new home somewhere else.

Academic mobility is a significant feature of modern higher education. Until perhaps two or so decades ago, there was, anecdotally at least, less movement of academics – there were fewer postdoc fellowships around, for one thing, certainly in the context I have moved from, and there was more of a sense of getting a great role and climbing the ladder of your academic profession in one university, maybe two, rather than actively looking for new roles in other contexts and universities and going for these. Now, though, there are many more opportunities to study abroad, to take up shorter and longer-term fellowships, to find new and different roles in your own or other higher education sectors. I have noticed a significant increase in movement just in my own scholarly community over the last 20 years that I have been working in higher education.

This is likely partly linked to larger trends in higher education: postdoc fellows, for one thing, do research and teaching work, but if you can hire them on short-term contracts and convince them that a postdoc is an excellent career move, you can hire quite a bit of relatively inexpensive labour. Academic work is becoming increasingly precarious around the world, with growing proportions of researchers and teaching academics on contracts, rather than in permanent or tenured roles. Universities run like businesses now, thinking in terms of cost-benefit analyses and bottom lines, and this precarity combined with increased numbers of doctoral students exiting academia with PhDs and hoping for academic work (which means increased competition for relatively fewer positions) means that you probably will have to move to secure work that you want to do, that links to your research, that will be meaningful and support you (and probably also a family) financially.

But the whole idea of work has also changed, and in many industries there have been changes in the ways in which we work, particularly in terms of changing roles and even changing career paths. In academia, I have noticed a growth in conversations about alternatives to academia, about leaving academia for other kinds of work. Much of this seems to centre around the toxicity in academia: the intense competition for jobs, funding, PhD studentships; the long hours and inevitable burnout; ongoing and unresolved gender pay gap and equity issues. So much of this – the overwork and burnout especially – has worsened over the last 18 or so months since the pandemic started, and there is as yet no clear end in sight. So, just in my network there are more visible conversations happening that involve different ideas of mobility, both within academia to new universities, new roles, new countries, and also out of academia in to different parts of the private or public sectors.

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I never thought I would be an academic migrant, much less an adventurer. I thought, after finishing my studies, I would find a great job, dig in and climb the ladder. Moving home, moving my kids from their schools and friends, leaving my friends, asking Lovely Husband to move and possibly also change jobs: this was all much too much. So much easier to just plant roots in one place and nurture them. But that great job didn’t materialise the way I had hoped it would: academia changed and the possibilities I did have meant precarious contracts or moving. I opted for the former, and have spent the last 7 years cobbling together a full time job from several different pieces of contract teaching and consulting. And it worked pretty well for the most part. But, over the last year I have realised that I do want more: more scope to innovate and create, scope to have an impact and make real changes, scope to grow myself as a scholar and researcher. And, in spite of many changes – especially around pushing so many more academics into precarious contract roles – academia still rewards permanence, tenure. It’s hard to get access to the opportunities if you’re not ‘on staff’; why should they invest in someone who can take their labour and go without even having to give formal notice? It’s a crappy Catch-22: you can’t really grow and progress with institutional help unless you have tenure, and you can’t get tenure unless you’ve done the growing and progressing. So, in the end, the only real choice was moving. There seem to be more people like me moving, migrating, and thus more people doing additional physical, mental and emotional labour which can take a great deal of time and energy that is not then fully available for other academic work, like thinking, reading, writing, research.

I would love to tell you how exciting this move has been and how energised I feel. I can’t do that yet. This move has taken a huge toll, emotionally, financially and physically. I have had to leave my older son behind because he cannot get a dependent visa; I have left a very ill mum behind who is not doing well; I have left wonderful friends and a beautiful home behind. It has really struck me how incredibly brave academic migrants are, all the more if they have to move alone, leaving partners, children, family behind. Academic mobility is premised on opportunity, on exciting growth and development, and can indeed offer this. But I think we also need to acknowledge how hard it can be and how much headspace it can take up trying to get settled into a new space and place. As a doctoral educator, this is something I’d like to acknowledge, especially as it pertains to helping international students as they settle into a new space, a new researcher role, a new research culture.

Part of research culture making has to include an acknowledgement of the additional labour academic mobility can create so that we can more consciously and deliberately include students who are far from home in their research communities, and help them to manage all this additional labour as they also take on a new research project, new supervisors, and new academic demands. This has been meaningful for me: having colleagues who acknowledge that I need extra time and headspace to settle, which has helped me not to put undue pressure on myself to be settled before I am; having a small community around me to offer me advice, help, a shoulder to whine on when things are just too hard and I want to go home; having people to remind me to be patient with my impatient self so that I manage my stress. I think those of us working with academic migrants can be more mindful of how much work goes into moving countries, universities, homes, whether these are our students or our colleagues and peers, and in doing this, create more supportive researcher development and collegial cultures in academia.

“Take my advice but don’t follow my example”

I have not done very much writing recently unless you count many emails and feedback on other people’s writing, mainly students and peers whose work I have been examining, being a critical friend on, and reviewing. I have been pretty terrible at being any kind of example to my students of how to make time to write, basically. I am currently supervising a few part-time students with full-time lives and teaching a new round of my writing for publication course. As such, I have a great deal of advice for my students about how to carve out time, make reasonable, achievable writing goals, and generally put their writing closer to the top of their ‘to-do’ lists. I pretty much insist that they do this so that they have writing to send me for feedback. Am I taking my own advice, though, and being an example? Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now, I could argue that this is fine, actually. My time is quite justifiably taken up with supervision and teaching, and the ever-present admin and emails that come with that. This online life is nowhere near to being over, and being present in all these online ways takes up more energy than it seems like it should. So, I can have and dispense advice about all sorts of academic things I do not actually need to take or use myself (because I have taken it in the past, which is where it comes from). Right? Well, I am thinking lately the answer may not be so helpful if it is ‘yes’. I think I probably need to start taking some of my own advice and putting it into practice, rather than making excuses for not doing so, however reasonable these may seem or be at the time.

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See, I have learned over the last few years especially that too much time spent on other people’s writing means less and less energy for my own writing. And the less time I have for that, the less time I spend reading and thinking and generally feeling stimulated as a scholar. The more I start to feel like a workhorse for others and after a while I start to feel a bit resentful and cross that they are all writing and I am not. Let me be clear: this state of affairs is no one’s fault and this is not about blame. But, I think many academics – teachers and supervisors – feel like this: like they are there for everyone else but not so much for themselves. And it’s easy to say that this is on us, that we have agency and power and can change this and make more time for ourselves, our own writing, thinking, reading and scholarship. I have said that. But the reality is harder.

Without going into too much detail, the last four months have been intense on a personal and professional level to say the very least. I have been offered and have accepted a ‘dream’ job but that means I have to move countries; my mum has had unexpected medical issues that have meant a complete change of lifestyle for her. There has been so much noise in my head caused by all of this and the admin has been unreal – hours on phones and email and the Internet, asking questions and finding answers and filing complaints and claims. And on top of all that, the marking and teaching and examining and reviewing keeps coming in and needing to be done. And, of course, parenting and daughtering and partnering has to happen, too, and in very present ways. So, my brain goes: ‘Where am I supposed to make time, let alone find the emotional and mental energy, to write things that contribute to knowledge’? And it answers: ‘There is none right now, let it go, dude. That can come later, just survive now’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing your limits, creating boundaries, saying ‘no’, caring for your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout helps no one, least of all you. I can’t help my mum or my family with zero energy on any front. But, see, this pandemic life has created quite a few of these moments of ‘Leave it for now, try again later’. And the thing that I most enjoy about being an academic is the thing that is constantly at the top of the ‘Leave for Later’ list. My writing, my scholarship. What is taking up the Now is admin (so much admin), emails (don’t get me started) and other people’s writing. I am not on the list. My work, my ideas, my writing, is not on the list. And, actually, that’s not cool with me. It’s not good for me and it is not good for my students, because being a good teacher and supervisor is bound up in and shaped by being an active thinker, reader, writer and researcher. I don’t think I can really be either; I need to be both.

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But, how to be both right now in this time and space where there is too little time and not enough space? How do I work on being more of an example and less of a cautionary tale? How do I feed my scholarly soul so that I have more energy for other people’s writing and ideas, which is actually a big part of my current and also new job?

I think this has to be my focus now. I tell my students not to start the week saying ‘I’m going to write all the things!’ I tell them, ‘Start with 25 minutes today on something productive: some freewriting, some planning, a bit of reading, some editing – whatever gets you a step closer to your writing goal. Cross it off for today, pat yourself on the back and tomorrow, try that again. Make small achievable goals you can reach to build your confidence and momentum. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would your friends and peers. Don’t be mean to yourself but don’t take it so easy that you get nothing done day after day and then sink into a pit of despair, feeling stuck and too scared to write’. I think this is actually pretty good advice and it is widely shared by writers who know their stuff.

I can take this advice. I can try this tomorrow, before all the marking and examining and emails. I can put myself in the Now and leave some of that stuff for Later.

Musings on self-care

I’m up relatively early this morning and I am kind of feeling like I could write something for the first time in a long while. So, here I am. I have been quiet on the blog for a while. Lots of Big Things happening in the work and life departments, which mean lots of hours between 1am and 4am trying to get my brain to be quiet enough to let me go back to sleep and lots of mornings which see me stumbling into the work day tired, sluggish and just over it all. I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, in light of all of this, about self-care and all the different meanings ascribed to this notion. I don’t feel, most days, like I am doing a very good job taking care of anyone, never mind myself, but I am aware that if I don’t start trying to look after myself a bit more consciously, things are unlikely to get much better any time soon in this regard. I have been musing about what self-care is, what it could be, and what I can do about that for myself. I think, pandemic notwithstanding, that most of us could probably benefit from more time and energy spent on ourselves, that we could all learn to take better care of us.

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Self-care is understood in a range of literatures to encompass physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and in in this article, the author addresses each of these areas, arguing that taking care of ourselves in all five areas is key to developing resilience and the ability to cope with both everyday life stressors and more acute stress (like a harsh set of comments from a supervisor, or a meeting that goes badly). If we’re not sleeping, we’re not coping. But, to be able to sleep, we need to find ways to calm our minds, we need to exercise (even just a little bit), we need to eat decent food and take in the calories our bodies need. I am not good at any of these things right now. I am drinking too much coffee and eating sporadic and not always very nutritious meals (apart from dinner, mostly because I don’t only have to feed myself). My brain is always going and because I am tired, meditation is super-hard, and because I am tired, I can’t be bothered to cook oats if there’s a cereal bar and a banana that require no cooking, and because I am tired, I don’t want to go to Pilates or walk my doglet. For me, right now, part of my self-care is making myself take a walk even if it’s a short one; it’s boiling two eggs instead of a bowl of cornflakes or a cereal bar; it’s taking my thyroid and iron tablets before I drink my coffee so that my body actually absorbs them (and not skipping them altogether); it’s going to bed before 10.30pm, so that I can get some proper sleep in before the inevitable brain circus at 3am. And it is hard. I have to consciously make myself take care of myself.

This is something else I have been reading about in regard to self-care: it’s not always pleasurable or easy, and it’s not necessarily about beauty products, mani-pedis and spa day (although, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a massage and a facial right now, and so would my tired skin). In this article, the author argues that when we persistently link self-care to massages, spa days, shopping for a new outfit or taking time away from our daily lives we frame self-care as indulgence and as a luxury. Not only do we have to spend a lot of money we may not have on this version of self-care, we also locate this care externally, in things. Rather, as several more critical pieces on self-care argue, we need to start internally, with ourselves, and we need to understand that self-care is necessary, not indulgent, and everyday more often than involving any form of luxury. Self-care often takes discipline and it is not always glamorous or pretty. Over the years, for me, self-care has looked like going to Pilates even when I want to stay in bed, going to therapy even when I do not feel like talking to my therapist, taking my pills when I don’t want to, going to the doctor to get the pills in the first place, closing the laptop and saying ‘no’ to work because I actually know I need to rest (even though the work never does). And this takes work – some days not so much, some days a great deal. Self-care is about working out what “you need to do to thrive” and not just survive, and then doing that as consistently and consciously as you can.

This reading led me to a more radical understanding of self-care, one written about by Audre Lorde when she was being treated for breast cancer. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote about being a black woman, a poet and a lesbian, having a single mastectomy and refusing a prosthetic breast. She wrote about the kinds of advocacy she engaged in to defend her decisions against well-meaning others, against the medical establishment, against society – a society that did not care for her in the ways that she chose to care for herself. In this article, the author makes a thoughtful link between us and society: if society does not care for us, then we need to choose to care for ourselves, and these acts can be radical, like choosing to work a 40 hour week and taking the weekend off; choosing not to answer email or be available for work in the evenings; choosing to take your vacation time and leave your phone and email and work at home; choosing not to take on extra projects because it’s expected of you or its what everyone else is doing; choosing to say ‘no’ when no is the best choice for *you*. In an academic – and more general – work culture that has made a virtue out of being available to everyone all the time, that equates success with loads of research papers and grants and memberships and being ‘on’ all the time, that valorises living to work instead of working to live, many of us struggle to keep up. Research has already shown that working mothers’ research “productivity” declined significantly during the first year of the covid pandemic (if productivity is understood as papers published and grants applied for and not as home-schooling their kids and keeping their families safe and alive). In this culture of over-work, then, choosing not to overwork can be recast as a form of self-care against accusations of laziness or not being ‘committed’ enough to be successful. We need to redefine success and we need to redefine work-life balance, especially for those who are already starting from further back and need to run harder, faster and further just to keep up.

Photo by Miriam Fischer from Pexels

Most days these days, being any kind of successful at my work and my life does require disciplined self-care – taking my pills before my coffee, sitting at my desk to work instead of on the couch so my back doesn’t hurt, walking the dog and being outside, tidying up so my house is not an unmanageable tip, eating Proper Food. But, even though I am grumpy about it, I know I’m coping because I am trying to do it most days. I would not be coping at all if I was not trying to look after myself and care about myself as much as I care about my kids, my partner and my cats. And I also realise that I am able to buy heathy food to make for myself, that I live in a house that is near a park and the beach, that I work in a role that allows me a measure of flexibility with my time, that my kids are older now and pretty self-reliant, that my partner is supportive and does most of the cooking. I am, in many ways, privileged enough to do this kind of self-care without having to really struggle (to afford the food, the medication, the time). What of those who are not so privileged, who do not have support, enough money, a safe and warm roof over their heads, safe spaces to exercise in, flexibility at work? How do they build resilience, create their best lives, thrive?

I think perhaps each of us, in our own corners and in our own small but visible ways, can start redefining ‘productivity’, ‘success’ and work-life balance. Instead of just not answering emails after 5pm or on weekends and not explaining why, I can explain that I choose not to do that because that time is to unwind, to connect with my family, to do non-academic things. I can valorise that, instead of being always-available. I can help my students to make different choices about their work-life-PhD balance by talking to them about how they work and when they work and not just about what they’re working on; I can offer advice on strategies I have used to maximise my writing and reading time without taking time away from my kids and the rest of my life; I can encourage them to rest and not make that a taboo. Maybe there are other ways you can do this in your work space, to disrupt or at least put a question mark onto practices that have become taken-for-granted in many ways around publishing, teaching, meetings, email, “productivity”. Not only can we find more time and space to care for ourselves in doing this, we can also advocate for those around us who have relatively less power to speak out against work and study practices that diminish rather than build our resilience, that make us feel like failures when maybe, as Lorde argued, we are not the ones who are actually failing.