This post replaces my usual one about progression. We all need to find our feet right now, so I’ll post an update later in April.
The spaces in which we live, work and play are inherently gendered – from our homes to our offices, the changing rooms at the gym, to our mannerisms and ways in which we introduce ourselves, our pronouns, and the clothes we wear. Thinking about the gendering of space is nothing new – feminist geographers and urban theorists have done it for decades, most often in ways which consider the profound consequences for women, such as limiting access to education and healthcare. These consequences, writes Petra Doan can be understood as the tyranny of gendered spaces, and they intrude into every aspect of where we live, often constraining the behaviours we display. As I write this during the first week of lock down, sharing a space with my partner and now both home schooling our son, I am intensely aware of how my own behaviour is changing, constrained as it is by the increased number of bodies in the house, and for longer periods. The lines between home, work, and play have become blurred, and all of us are sharing our pockets of private space with each other, in new ways.
I’m in the final stages (at least I hope I still am) of my PhD. I work from home most of the time, partly because I need to be there for the school run, and partly because I prefer a peaceful and quiet environment. My office is our loft, a space that was for years full of boxes of mostly forgotten items: my partner’s band t-shirt collection, photo albums (remember those?), golf clubs and, since 2010, outgrown baby clothes, toys and toddler craft that you can’t quite part with. Before starting my PhD, I had found new homes for these mementos, and turned the loft into my own little paradise. Our loft is light and bright, full of books with a sofa to read on. Some of my favourite objects live there – a soft toy octopus and a piece of green sea glass among them. There are soothing lamps and candles and a bunch of tulips on my desk. The walls are painted the colour of the sky just before it rains, all these sensory delights designed to keep me here, to keep me working on my PhD, you understand.
Those who share their homes, especially those who share them with children, recognise the importance of occasional distance: a corner of the kitchen, the garden, the bath. In this space I am not a mother or a partner or a daughter. I’m Abby, who’s doing a PhD.
Paradise has been temporarily lost since the schools closed. My partner has set up his office on the kitchen table, and I now share my office with my son for the sham we are calling home schooling. This has been the most significant change for me, and one I am grappling with, often not as generously as I would like. It is no longer the quiet, peaceful, tidy retreat it used to be, where things stayed where they were left, and my good pens were safe. There is now an extra table for us to work at together, which I lug to one side each morning so we can, along with the rest of the world, do 30 minutes of PE with Joe Wicks. My printer will never recover from all the worksheets I am pointlessly generating.
His stuff is everywhere. There are pens, Lego, pebbles we’ve collected from the beach on our rationed daily walk to paint on; schoolwork, playing cards, some needlework and crumbs, crumbs, crumbs. There is a big fat envelope from the school containing seven weeks’ worth of home learning, but I spilt coffee on the first sheet on Monday and haven’t looked at it since. My son, like many children has a short attention span and fidgets and prefers Heart FM to the sound of the starlings pattering on the roof when he works. In five short days my workspace has become part playground, part school, part cafe. Gone is the carefully organised desk, because he quickly decided he preferred my desk to his, and my swivel chair is the icing on the home learning cake. My workspace smells different, it looks different and it’s no longer where just Abby works: now it is where Eddie and Mum work.
I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently, as it features in my own research, and the public/private divide. But I’d been thinking about other users of spaces, rather than my own existence in it. For this reason (and many others) I’d never make a decent ethnographer; I’d rather be invisible. We mistakenly, sometimes, consider our homes to be sanctuaries, retreats from the outside world. Yet they are too often prisons, unhappy and broken places, places so diverse that it’s impossible to say what ‘home life’ is really like for everyone. I spend a great deal of time thinking about those people now trapped in unhappy spaces, with no escape on the horizon, their margins shrinking. I think of homes with no gardens, no outdoor spaces to rely on, now that even the emptiest of playgrounds have been quarantined. I try not to remember how post-natal depression took over the early years of parenthood, when the days stretched relentlessly ahead, and nothing was a joy, when worry about development, stimulation and socialisation became all consuming. What I am trying to remember is that crumbs on my keyboard are insignificant and daily spelling tests don’t matter. But I am grateful when he leaves me to do maths with my partner downstairs.
Staying home and staying safe has now become a public health order, a government directive no less. How we use our homes now that we must remain in them, as a matter of life or death, is undoubtedly going to change how we feel about them. Will be love them more or less? As frustrating as some days are going to be, you can bet I’m going to miss my son doing star jumps next to the piles of books I had planned to read this week. Sharing my space with my son is an intimate act of necessity, and I am seeing a different side of him, and we’re seeing a lot more of each other than we have since the pre-school years. All the good stuff (the octopus, the swivel chair) is here, and I’m pleased he wants to share it with me, if only for these perks and not because he’s impressed with my home-schooling style.
I’m not one for nostalgia or whimsical thinking. I admire those who are using this time to slow down and see the joy in the smaller details. Sharing our space even with those we love is a constantly shifting negotiation, and I hope that we can all find a balance over the coming months. But I can’t help but wonder how everyone’s mental health is going to look over the coming months, and if we’ll ever grasp what we’ve all gone through, publically and privately, in the years to come.