High Tides/Low Tides

A good friend once called me an endotherm, which is pretty much the coolest thing I have ever been called. We were discussing things we enjoy, swimming in cold water for me, cycling up mountains for him. Endotherms adapt to change by maintaining their body temperature, independent of their environment: not changing is key to their survival. They thrive in cold weather. Swimming now in October, in water that is changing its temperature daily, I started thinking about my own changes, and how I need to adapt if I am to thrive.

This has been a week of change on my PhD journey. It’s taken 18 months between wanting to do a PhD, and actually starting one. Last week I finally left my job, after a five month resignation period, a job I have been in for nearly ten years. A long time to be doing anything, really, certainly the longest in any job I have been lucky enough to have. In that time people I love came and went: the birth of my son, the death of my father. I did a lot of growing up in that job and learned how to (sometimes) balance the changes that came along. High tides and low tides.

But right now, this week, I feel like I am swimming between the tides. I’m neither one thing nor the other, and although this change is short-lived, it’s brand new. It’s a strange change, too, no longer owning the job title I once had. When people ask me what I do, I have to think carefully before I answer. My work identity has changed, too.

So what exactly does change when you step out of one life and into another? How do you exist between the tides as you become backwash? Life as an almost PhD student has comprised mainly of me walking a lot and reading other people’s PhD’s. I have read Sara Ahmed’s and c n lester’s incredible new books, and drawn up study schedules to ring fence the forty hours a week the PhD needs. I promised I would still see my family at the weekend, and made my friends promise to count me in for Christmas drinks. I once again have an NUS card, something not in my possession since the early 90’s, and my once former purple staff card has changed to a new, blue student one. The house is decluttered to ward off future procrastination, and my pens are lined up.

This may not be the longest blog, but it’s an important one, one which will help to remind me how I felt about the changes ahead. Perhaps it will serve as a measure of how I adapted to my new environment, and thrived on the changes I made.

Swimming between the tides, I will remember to be grateful for them. 

Summer is over, and I’m starting a PhD

I am a door mat, and a people pleaser. There are worse things in the world to be, of course, but we doormats tend to be low in confidence and ready to apologise for everything and anything. We’re not terribly good at self-promotion. We are concerned mostly with being nice (to) people. We say ‘we’ a lot.

So let me be honest from the start (and sorry about this). This blog is going to be a place for me to improve on some of the above. Some self-promotion without ditching the nice, some getting used to hearing my own voice on the page. A chance to see if I can make a success of this PhD opportunity.

Because this is an opportunity, a massive, in your face, what have I done to deserve this, who do you think you are opportunity.  A little self-validation might be handy right now.

So this is me, and this is how I got here.

I am a 44 year old woman, with a partner and a 7 year old son and we live by the sea, near Brighton. A straightforward life with the usual highs and lows, a second class degree in Classics from an average university. I’m straight, I’m white, I’m cis-gender and I’m middle-class. I am the poster girl for what should be avoided if feminism is to be truly intersectional.

I started working at Brighton University in 2008, as a senior administrator. I had my son in 2010, took a year off on maternity leave, then went back part-time. No longer wanting to seek a more senior position within the university I decided to do an MA, with the vague idea that it might do me some good and help me to stop disliking motherhood so much. When my son started school in September 2014, I started a part-time MA in Gender Studies at Sussex University, kindly funded by a staff fee waiver from Brighton University.

My whole universe shifted during the very first module, Feminism, the Law and Society, and I don’t say that lightly. Everything I thought I understood about feminism was shattered. I am sure many have felt the same way, the slow realisation that things are not equal, sister, and that the patriarchy is not only alive and well, but thriving, thank you very much. I went home, furious, tearful. I made a list of all the hard words. I felt like a terrible person for not appreciating how hard things are for so many people, for communities and marginalized groups. After all,  I have gay friends, I support LGBT rights, I’m raising my son in a progressive environment. I’m politicised, right?

No. I was miles from home.

I cried a lot. I promised to work my fucking arse off. I met Alison Phipps who was the best thing that ever happened to me and made me want to work even harder. I read everything I could get my hands on  and I met even more phenomenal people, students, academics, and activists, both on-line and and in-real-life (I’ll be writing about this in a future blog, ‘A Feminist Cast of 1000’s’).

And I began to realise that the MA was not going to be enough.

As I edged towards my dissertation, the PhD dream intensified. I had a research topic which seemed original, and working at Brighton University gave me the massive advantage of being able to knock on the doors of people I already knew. People like Jayne RaisbouroughKatherine Johnson, and Nigel Jarvis,  whose work I already admired. I spoke to Brighton Doctoral College and to PhD students, to get the real skinny on how hard it really is, how they balance it with working and kids, with day to day life. They all reassured me it would be fine. Katherine and Nigel agreed to supervise me.

I submitted my dissertation at the end of the summer 2016, and in the autumn graduated with a distinction: just. But it was the incentive I needed to push the PhD application, and after a huge amount of proposal writing, edits, re-writes, long phone calls, revisions, a gruelling interview and an unsuccessful application to the ESRC, I was given a full-time, fully-funded place with Brighton University. I handed in my notice at work in May 2017 and went for a lie down.

None of this would have been possible without the tireless and intensive support of Katherine and Nigel, nor Alison’s reference and encouragement. And I am forever indebted to all of the students on the MA course who carefully and kindly shared their experiences with me, most of whom were half my age and twice as smart.

These blogs will be embarrassing, honest, often imperfect and misguided, open to criticism and guidance, no doubt anxious and angst-ridden. But each one is a big deal for a doormat; as Kristin Hersh  sang, being a doormat is ‘good, honest work.’ They will change and evolve, and may even become about something entirely different: swimming, walking, the weather.

Summer may be over, but I’m far from sorry.