A Woman for All Seasons

Join me in welcoming guest writer, Allison Aylward to the blog! A PhD candidate and new mom, Allison explores the birth pangs of early motherhood and her growing confidence to navigate the changes it brings.

I am a new mom, currently juggling the needs of my one year old son, my husband, and my PhD. My husband and I welcomed our son during the second year of my PhD; my Annual Progress Review was actually scheduled the day before my due date. Sweating out a progress review by panel (literally) at nine months pregnant was one of those life experiences I’ll never forget or not mine for laughs.

Prior to getting pregnant, or even as we woke up each morning, wondering if that would be the day I’d go into labour, I had not considered how I’d feel about my career path as a new mom. I had not considered the fact that I’d be pulled towards, and be completely satisfied with, a much more slowed down pace and direction for my professional life. As I approach the final stages of this PhD, my priorities are with my young son and my husband, and making sure my family’s needs are met. My desires for the trappings of an academic career have faded into the background, almost like a dream. Thanks to the wisdom of a kind friend, I now realize I’m simply moving into a different season in my life, and there will be other seasons in the future for new opportunities.

I struggled with accepting this while at the same time relishing the rebelliousness of this realization. Part of this discovery was a natural result of the PhD process. As an aspiring academic, I see academia for what it is – warts and all. Inside the ivory tower, all is not dusty old tomes, tweed jackets, and erudite conversations with leading scholars (though there is a bit of that!). It’s full of people who work incredibly hard, pushed beyond reasonable professional expectations, to deliver for the university and their students. It’s full of people who are expected to maintain a grueling research output schedule, while still handling a full teaching and administrative load that only increases each year. Academics work in uncertain conditions, knowing that their jobs could be ended without much notice.

Allison featured image

Allison finds parallels in the landscapes surrounding her home and her own life journey

As PhD candidates, we see all of this. And, in its own way, it’s useful. We are confronted with this reality and have to ask ourselves – do we want this for ourselves? Knowing what we know about the realities of academia in the 21st century, do we want to joint this relentless cycle of publishing, admin, grant writing, and if we are lucky, the odd bit of truly satisfying teaching and mentoring?

This process of professional planning was only compounded when I found out I was pregnant. We live in a society that tells women we can truly have it all, if we just ‘lean in.’ But, what society also tells us, is that if we don’t succeed in every single way at work, if we don’t embody the ultimate in domestic goddess, and if we don’t kill ourselves for our children’s well-being, then we’ve failed. Well, the truth is that no one can do this alone.

As a Type A person, recovering over-achiever in school, and having grown up in a very competitive area, I struggle with this dilemma. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this post-partum period. I actually can function on zero sleep and I have learned to make peace with clutter and laundry that was done and folded weeks ago, but never put away. A grimy bathroom doesn’t give me nightmares anymore. In a previous job, on one annual review, I was told I was a ‘pillar of patience’ when helping my colleagues learn to use a new filing system. I was amused, thinking if they only knew how short my fuse really was. Now, I own that title. I can handle a willful, angry, baby that is wrecked but doesn’t want to sleep and takes an hour to settle. I can get up again and again in the night, with a smile and a cuddle, because my son needs me. I accept that everything will take longer than it used to, and that’s ok. That’s just where my life is right now.

And it is in this current season of life, learning so much about myself, that I realised I don’t want to remain in the ivory tower. I don’t even know if I want an academic career. My priorities have shifted, my interests diverted. I know I want to continue working after the PhD is finished, but it’s not on the original path I had thought. And that is ok. Maybe later on in my life, but for now I am satisfied where I am. And in accepting this desire, I feel free. Free of the relentless pressure that society places on women, particularly mothers. Free to say that I am in the season of my life where my family takes priority. Perhaps later, in a different season, I will return to a more career focused outlook.

I want my son to see all of this. To see a mother that is confident in her choices in life; who can keep evolving and developing as she grows in years and experience. I hope that this inspires him to realise his own life will be made of seasons, and to weather their passing with confidence, just as is mother is weathering her own.

Many people experience liberation in letting go of the pressure to “have it all”. Have you experienced seasons in your life? How can children learn from these experiences?

Allison bio

Allison is a PhD candidate in the UK, researching the Colombian peace process. Her work focuses on confidence building and negotiations in the context of ongoing violence. She enjoys spending time with family, traveling, swimming, yoga, and writing. Brand new journals, full pots of coffee, and soul music make her happy. All opinions and thoughts expressed on this page are her own and not affiliated with any organisation.

Mommy Has a Squishy Tummy

A few weeks ago while I was reading with my kids, my five-year-old son scooted close to me and told me I had a very squishy tummy.

I stopped reading.

Okay, I frantically thought, I’m a modern woman. Obviously my tummy is squishy and I should be okay with this. There’s a life-lesson for my son I need to be teaching here. One that conveys healthy body image. Or something. I know I should say something.

But the life-lessons weren’t coming to me. All the articles and talks with friends. All those words of wisdom and desire to raise boys who didn’t objectify women. They went out the window. I felt I needed to say something to him, but all the possible words felt insincere.

What I did feel was my stomach tighten, as if a deep inhale could reduce the squish. And then I kept reading.

Following this squishy tummy episode, I realized it had been a while since I had taken stock of, and perhaps confronted, some realities about my own body image.

I’m at a point in life where pondering my physical appearance ranks about #457 on the list of things to think about. For instance, “can I wear this pair of jeans a fifth day in a row?” and “there’s no milk or bread in the house, can I still go one more day without a grocery run?” rank higher than pondering physical appearance on my list. Most days pass without more than a glance in the mirror.

But this moment with my son confirmed the presence of long-lasting  insecurities. I had tucked away these insecurities when I became a mother. Filed them away somewhere to be sorted out at a later date. It wasn’t that I had been liberated from these negative thoughts, I just put them on hold. And when I unintentionally stumble upon #457, the outcome is rarely positive. It’s one that still evokes feelings of inadequacy, criticism and self-depreciation.   

Perhaps you can relate.

So how am I to teach my children about healthy body image when I still struggle?

The answer was sitting right beside me. I wasn’t going to teach my children. My children were going to teach me.

My son had tried to teach me something that day while we were reading. And I missed it. The negative connotation I have with “squish” had resonated so strongly with me that the manner in which it was uttered by my boy was utterly lost.

So let me retell this story, completely this time. Let me put aside any insecurities and knee-jerk reactions. Let me share this as my son intended it.

squishy-tummy

A few weeks ago, I was reading with my kids. My three kids, five-years and younger. The children I have born and given so much of my body and soul to care for. As a page turned of a much-loved story, my oldest son nestled close to me, and with a contented sigh, as if almost unconsciously done, said I had a very squishy tummy.

That moment was not a criticism or tease. That moment for him meant comfort and security. It meant contentment and rest. It meant mother and home. As he felt his little body enveloped by the body that had loved him into existence, he felt happy. He liked the way he could so comfortably nestle into his mommy and he spoke that feeling into existence.

Children do not need lessons from adults on healthy body image. There was nothing he needed to learn from me.  Adults need to learn from their children.

Ask children about our bodies and what will we learn?

Children will tell us that bodies are for play, and love and exploration.

They will tell us skin is sticky and soft, occasionally boo-booed and in need of a kiss.

Fingers and toes are for feeling cool mud and warm sand.

Legs are to carry us to where we wish to go.

Arms are for reaching, even if what we desire seems beyond our grasp.

Faces are to be used in reckless expression.

And tummies are for food and belly laughs. They are often best squishy, especially when belonging to their mommies.

Having kids can teach us so much about our bodies. What have you learned about your body after having children?