A PhD in Desktop Mothering
While deep in the throws of writing a Ph.D, someone kindly told my Dad (B.Sc., Dip. Ed., M.App.Sc., Ph.D.) that it involves ‘learning more and more about less and less until finally you know everything there is to know about nothing’. He also tells me that detractors have described B.S, M.Bs and Ph.D as acronyms for Bullshit, More Bullshit and Piled Higher and Deeper. We’re all familiar with charges of mickey-mouse academics, who live in ivory-towers naval-gazing but there are more of us than ever either deep in the pile or close to someone buried. What we’re finding is that these ever diminishing circles of specialisation usually happen right about the time that families expand, along with the demands of careers and mortgages.
I ‘submitted’ my own Ph.D 6 years ago, and can testify to the surreal process of trying to stay immersed in the pile while managing, as many women do, the shrieking reality of first babies. I was devising a theory of the camera and how it changed the way women were seen and saw themselves forever. I’d chanced upon the Flapper while wandering around the newly arrived journals in the National Library and soon realised she was accompanied in the 1920s by a coterie of girly types – the City Girl, the Screen-Struck Girl, the Mannequin-Vivant – who, like the flirtatious flapper, used their ‘glad-eyes’ to appraise the changing scene before them and strike a pose within it. Thousands of Australian women broke with decorum and sent their studio portraits into a rash of newspaper beauty competitions, hoping they had a ‘film face’.
But finding the spotlight in this very modern and Australian scene depended on a play of looks with many blind spots. Aboriginal women barely took a dekko. While researching the beauty competitions I found a swag of cartoons that showed them missing the cues of looking modern by mistaking petticoats for party frocks and pipes for chic cigarettes.
So while the topic was literally chanced upon, the motivation to write a Ph.D in the first place was maybe inherited, for my Dad wrote his perched on the foam family couch at a tiny round table, while trying to shut out the distractions of teenage daughter angst. Over 10 years, he now says, ‘sitting on a thistle’, he measured the effects of photochemical oxidants (ozone) and acid gases on Australian plants. On a rooftop in Royal Parade he’d fumigate his tortured eucalypts and banksias while Mum stretched out in the sun looking fetching, drinking beer and identifying species for him. ‘He didn’t know his wattles from his gums’ she says, ‘but he got the Ph.D’.
So absorbed was he that we played tricks on him, swearing like troopers in his ear without getting so much as a smack on the bum. A Ph.D becomes a world unto itself exiled from day-to-day life. During my internment I stuck two images on my fridge – Stuart Diver looking into the sky the moment he was rescued from the collapsed ski lodge on Thredbo, and the first images taken by a robot of the vast, horizonless Mars.
I was 6 years ‘in’ when I fell pregnant. As the baby wedged under my ribs I identified with her entrapment while desperately calibrating piles of 1920s material into a first draft. Three days after I handed it over she was born, a soon-to-be ‘Ph.D victim’ as someone charitably noted.
That’s when the real fun began. Over another two years I naïvely tried Desktop Mothering. I had this fantastic notion that I could plonk my baby into a bassinette and gurgle in her vague direction while I clinched 120,000 words into one seamless argument.
I got that wrong.
Babies are smarter than we know and she loudly objected to desktop mothering. She devised ingenious ways to keep me out of the evil seat, including needing to freely partake of Mummy skin while being paced for hours. This was not unreasonable, it was just unwieldy. They call it ‘juggling’. I’d call it jugular drainage from the head, while all extremities are numbly entangled. I remember once switching on the light at the bottom of the stairs with my chin, since I had a baby on one hip, the Shorter Oxford on the other, A3 proofing notes and arse-wipes slung over one arm and a nappy bucket dangling from the other. I would’ve used my nose, but it was taken up with glasses.
As it happened this baby became – in a blink it seems - one of those full-throttle, fill-the-screen, bounce-off-the-wall kids. She hung from the upstairs windows inviting passer-bys to dinner, tore off my top in the supermarket queue to raspberry on my blushing bosom. She’d strip naked and cover every inch of her body in paint rather than compliantly using the paper set up on the easel. These riotous, knock-about kids will wear all their underpants at once for 4 months and then none at all for the next, and they are splendid people. But they fry their mother’s brains. By the time I was pregnant with our second Ph.D victim and finalising the draft, I was toast.
What were my symptoms of being psychologically carbonised? I wandered around Melbourne cemetery listening to Rachmaninoff piano trios while marvelling at the order of its mini-suburbia. I calmly spooned porridge into my lap, having failed for over an hour to deposit any in my toddler’s mouth. I decided buckling children into every seat they sit in was almost certainly carcinogenic to mothers. I called Lifeline for parenting tips. I routinely left my exhausted beloved only to return sheepishly each time saying, ‘when I say leaving, I actually just meant sitting out on the pavement for half an hour’.
Many calming-drops, St John’s Worts and Bach Flower remedies later – not to mention parenting workshops, psychotherapy and raising a mothers’ army (which I called The Mothers of Intervention) to seize control of the state (we called for maternity leave by burning maternity bras of the steps of parliament) – I handed in the Ph.D a few days before my second daughter came forth into the paper-logged world.
Birth is of course one way to keep any other death-defying adventures, like writing a Ph.D, in perspective. Nothing else that is so unreasonably heinous ends so miraculously and ecstatically.
My readers’ reports arrived four months later and I sought out the most remote and dusty corral in the La Trobe Library to reverently unfold them. The first line read: ‘This is a superb dissertation, one the very best I have ever examined’. I wept with relief, and again when the Fed Ex truck rolled up with a book contract, and again when the first consignment of my book arrived.
Was it worth it? In her first week of school, after her library tour, our oldest daughter took her 72 page story-board of the Wizard of Oz and placed it gingerly on the library shelf. It seems my daughter lived in a world where people routinely make books and finally she had found the right place to put her own. Perhaps without my knowing it she’d also been immersed in the pile of flappers, just as when I was a kid I’d been deep in the pile of fumigated eucalypts. So had another sister who used Dad's results on the relative sensitivity of Aussie plants to industrial and vehicular air pollution, to give her show-and -tell class a presentation entitled "Air pollution is bad for your pants" (her teacher explained she meant plants).
Writing a Ph.D is a lot like having kids in that none of us understand the process until we’re doing it. But there are unexpected rewards. While breastfeeding at a book launch, a complete jerk turned to his friend and said, ‘the other one’s free’. When I told him where to get off he called me a cocky bitch and with stony relish I was able to reply, ‘that’s Doctor Cocky Bitch to you, mate.
Labels: mothering working