. The Messiness of Motherhood in the Marketised University | Ceasefire Magazine

The Messiness of Motherhood in the Marketised University Beautiful Transgressions

In her latest column, Sara Matta speaks up about the predicament of academic mothers faced with the violence of a marketised University sector.

Beautiful Transgressions, Columns, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, June 14, 2012 14:07 - 2 Comments


“… to be a mestiza, non-elite, single mother academic is to be an outsider-insider”

‘Perhaps the time has come for academic women…to be more open and communicate about the realities of being an academic mother to demand recognition of the differences which people bring with them to academic life are strategies which may help shatter the silence in which academic mothers are presently situated’.

This piece is written as an embrace of Pauline Leonard and Danusia Malina’s urgent call to shatter the silence in which we, as academic mothers, are presently situated. To speak our experiences we will, as June Jordan said in relation to the black female experience, come to “know ourselves and each other”.

As I argued in part one of this essay, And Still We Rise: On the Violence of Marketistion in Higher Education, the violence of marketised austerity attempts to eradicate spaces and times of possibility and, with this, criminalise and erase forms of being, acting and thinking outside of commodified logics. Such violences are also being enacted throughout the University sector.

For those who suffer the violence of eradication, to appear on the scene of possibility and politics, we need space to speak in order to de-centre the taken for granted. This is not to deny others’ experiences or homogenise that of mother-academics, but to create the possibilities of solidarities across difference by affirming that we exist and demand the right for our truth to be heard.

In this piece, I bear witness to these logics from the perspective of an academic mother. I write with mixed feelings; fear, longing and dignity. Yet I write as a means to rupture attempts to eradicate being ‘other’.

The ideal neoliberal subject is grounded in individualisation, infinite flexibility, survivalist competition and personally profitable exchanges. As a historically elite, white and male preserve in which, as Lynn McAlpine and Gerlese Akerlin argue, a ‘sense of self-sacrifice and cloistered disregard for worldly things is a source of intellectual autonomy and disciplinary strength’, the culture of the academic professions imbricates smoothly with neoliberal subjectivity.

This subject is without caring responsibilities, or who has those responsibilities taken care of by someone else (paid or unpaid). Their own self care is either done by others or ignored. As Kathleen Lynch[1] argues, marketisation is embedded in a careless culture. This legitimises some forms of behaving, feeling and embodying space whilst de-legitimising and disciplining others. This thereby necessitates exclusions, resulting in practices of judging and being judged, of ranking and being ranked.

Motherhood can bring messiness into this space. Out of necessity we must bring our children into the university when we have no-one to care for them. Out of necessity we must produce our academic labour in the moments between cooking, cleaning, cuddling, coping and crying.

Many mothers can thus never be ideal neoliberal subjects. When their children enter that space they rupture the normalcy of marketization. Children are unruly; they cannot be disciplined for they cannot self-discipline. They therefore produce cracks in the mask of marketization.

Making visible and exploring what lies beneath the mask opens a door to understanding the logics and nature of the exclusionary conditions through which our academic labour is produced. It also, however, enables us to plant seeds within that messiness through which we might nurture other ways of becoming academic.

Women enter the University: Ambiguous Empowerments

More than three decades of neoliberal marketisation has intensified a gendered division of labour. It has driven ever larger proportions of the population into flexibilised and informalised working conditions, and caused the collapse and/or privatisation of welfare provision. In this context, whilst increasingly working in unregulated and precarious conditions women also continue to undertake the majority of domestic labour.

Thus the story of women’s inclusion into the academy from the 1970s is a story of inclusion within a broader context of neoliberal disarticulation. It is a story therefore of ambiguous empowerments.

Accordingly, many women who are both mothers and academics have discovered they must simultaneously inhabit competing worlds and subjectivities. Motherhood is part of life but being an academic is a lifestyle that devalues, suppresses, silences and disciplines the experiences and realities of motherhood and the mother-self. The result is, as feminist critique has demonstrated, an experience of the madness of splitting, separation and denial.

Mother-academics face multiple systematic barriers to reaching the benchmarks which are paradigmatic of academic success. In the UK women constitute just fewer than twenty percent of academic professors (most of whom are white). Across the globe women are less likely to be considered excellent academics or research academics. Women often lag behind in terms of publications and attracting grants due to their invisibilised caring roles and responsibilities.

Academic lifestyle also affects women’s wider relationships. Women academics are more likely not to marry, have fewer children and many choose to remain childless. Mother academics are more likely to be in part time work/study and be lower down in the ranks and/or on fixed term and temporary contracts.

To these tensions are added the psychological and social splitting described by women who suffer from multiple and intersecting oppressions of class, race, gender, sexuality and bodily ability. Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner[2] recalls her feelings of anger, frustration and shame at being denied admission to university because the admissions officer wanted to spare her the failures and disappointments that he felt her experiences as a black labour class single mother would create.

Yance Ford, an African American student in a predominantly white institution created the performance ‘The Invisible World’ in which she built an iron cage that enclosed her, suspended it ten feet off the ground in the lobby of the social science building. She shaved her head and – barefoot and without a watch, wearing a sheet that she had cut up- spent five hours in the cage in total silence. She later described her project:

“My work to me is about all the things that push you to the edge. Its about not belonging, ..not feeling loved or safe or accepted or tolerated or respected or valued or useful or important or comfortable or safe of part of a larger community..It’s about how people can see you and look right through you”

Ana Martinez, coming from a different perspective, writes of how:

“I am struck by my lived contradiction: to be a professor is to be anglo; to be latina is not to be an anglo. So how can I be both a latina and a professor? To be a latina professor, I conclude, means to be unlike and like me. Que locura! What madness”(Martinez in Turner 2002: 75).

For me to be a mestiza, non-elite, single mother academic is to be an outsider-insider. It is to be a marginal other, disciplined by logics of exclusion, silencing and de-legitimisation, to be misnamed and to be judged. The only way I have survived, and it is a question of survival, is through the ethics, solidarity and support of the men and women colleagues and students to whom I have been able to share some of these experiences. Yet it is no longer enough to survive. It is time to speak and embrace becoming academic otherwise.

Marketised Space and Motherhood

Neoliberal marketised space is built on the separation of the public and the private. The ideal neoliberal subject therefore has no private life and no caring responsibilities. It is an academic-self separated from the messiness of life, relationships, needs and desire.

This produces an anaesthetised space of emotional and embodied silences. When a mother-academic problematises this by for example breastfeeding a child in an academic space, she is often regarded as behaving in inappropriate, unreasonable and unprofessional ways.

During my time as an academic (through which I have always been a mother) when I have brought my children into work because of illness, school holidays or nursery closure this has been viewed in a multiplicity of ways including being read as inappropriate, as expecting ‘special treatment’, of endangering health and safety regulations and in being talked to (informally) by my superiors about my inappropriate behaviour.

Once, when I bought these experiences up as not individual issues but as structural issues that needed to be addressed, a male professor began to talk of his caring responsibilities to his dog and that he didn’t ask for special treatment because of these responsibilities.

Not only are these practices of exclusion and humiliation but they have resulted in practices of self-disciplining. When I bring my children to work I feel that I have to hide them by making sure they are quiet, do not leave my office, do not play or cry. In so doing I also hide myself.

Yet the separation of the public and private of neoliberal space does not actually create boundaries between public and private life. Carol Munn-Giddings argues that it

‘is not uncommon to be expected to be engaged continually in research or academic reading, nor uncommon for calls to be at weekends and evenings – work may impinge on home in a way that is uncommon in other settings, but home must not impinge on work’ (1998: 58)[3].

As a mother I am also always on call. In the experience of one mother-academic this results in her feeling:

“stressed out all the time…Being an academic now makes it worse because expectation that you’re permanently working. You were saying on call permanently flexible available as an academic, but I think this is also the case as mothers. And you can’t be committed, permanently flexible available in both.”

This is an unsustainable and toxic logic.

Marketised Time and Motherhood

Workloads are increasing. On top of teaching, research, administration and impact-related activities we also now need to bring in funds by developing research bids to external funders. To find time for writing or to develop research bids takes substantial time; time that is to be found on top of normal working hours. Success in this process is defined in individualised terms like commitment, quality, efficiency whilst the implications for those who fail is that we are uncommitted, bad time managers and intellectually inferior.

This is a loaded process if you have caring responsibilities, are in financial precarity and social isolation (as many mothers are). Carrying this load takes its physical, emotional and psychological toll. This is not uncommon. As one mother-academic explained to me:

‘It’s why I don’t sleep a lot, 4 or 5 hours a night. I can’t let go of the need to do things outside the time I actually have. I don’t feel like I ever do either thing well enough. I see I’m not there for things or not there attentively with [my daughter]’.

These are the invisibilised underside conditions which enable the production of academic labour for mother-academics. Attempts to address these conditions are generally ignored and viewed as personal responsibilities which it is inappropriate to bring in to the workplace, unintelligible in the neoliberal performance of reality.

These conditions of neoliberal space and time leave no room for nurturing, creating the conditions for meaningful and joyous intellectual production, mothering, caring for others or caring for the self. They expose the denial of the human upon which marketisation is premised.  They also expose its inherent unsustainability and fragility.

To speak of myself as a subject in these conditions I almost cannot find the words because to speak is emotionally fraught, frightening and yet liberating in the same moment. When I look to a recent interview I gave about motherhood in the academy, I am struck and saddened by my own words:

‘My ways of being, my logics, why I am in here, what I am, I can’t speak it, can’t be emotional, can’t engage. You’re not supposed to be crying, wildly laughing or even to be too theoretical or intellectual. I am almost externalised from myself. I am denied. I deny.’

Yet there is a mother-self that is allowed in the academy: the bourgeois women living in a nuclear family. It is assumed that we can and should want to hide our private lives, because that is what is proper. We are framed as de-sexualised, de-sensualised and disembodied.

If we are in social spaces after working hours then of course we do not bring our children as that is inappropriate and of course we do not get drunk or demonstrate desire. We must be modest and ‘nice’. As bell hooks argues in relation to classroom space but which captures these dynamics, “Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts, and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter [are] deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of… social order”

Thus the choice many academic mothers are faced with is to assimilate and be denied, or maintain our difference and be judged. And yet, as bell hooks continues, “assimilation, touted as an answer to racial divisions, is dehumanizing; it requires eradication of one’s blackness so that a white self can come into being” (in Turner 2002: 20). So it is too with assimilating the mother-self into the neoliberal academic self.

Yet there is another choice; to speak the unspeakable and embrace our messy otherness as a shout of dignity against this denial. We can learn to become academic-mothers ‘otherwise’ and to embrace logics of being, creating, loving, and thinking otherwise.

Embracing the otherness and marginality of the messiness that motherhood brings to the marketised university takes courage, for it involves emotional risk and exposure to uncertainty. Yet maintaining our silence surrounding the mother-academic will only allow our shame to grow.

To transform our experiences of quiet desperation into shared narratives is to make our vulnerability visible. Vulnerability has a particular quality with immense potentiality.  As Brené Brown reminds us ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.

Speaking our truth in this way disrupts the emotionally controlled and disembodied performances of the neoliberal academic subject. Like Yance Ford’s performance ‘The Invisible Cage’, this can potentially have an enormous impact on everyone who bears witness, even in passing, to such experiences. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty comments in relation to this performance ‘no mundane response was possible. Nor was business as usual possible’.

In the act of speaking out we also bear witness to ourselves. From this moment on, no longer will it be enough to suffer in silence. No longer will it be acceptable to find increasingly complicated compromise solutions to survive.

Facilitating the speaking of our truths involves creating times and spaces against and outside marketised logics. The nurturing of such spaces involves collectivising care in small groups of trusted friends and colleagues and in spaces with other mother-academics.

As I argued in the first article on the Violence of Marketisation in HE, this also involves an ethic of love through which we act with care towards our colleagues and with recognition of the painful complexities of our situations is a way to rebuild dialogue and connections from where we are.

As Audre Lorde argued, such an ethics of love is deeply embedded in our connection to the erotic, a resource, she argues, ‘that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.’

This deep knowing or joy that we feel when we authentically express our creativity, once experienced, cannot be forgotten and re-buried. As Lorde continues ‘Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, [our] work becomes a conscious decision – a longed-for bed which [we] enter gratefully and from which [we] rise up empowered’.

Empowered in this way, women become dangerous. Dangerous because we can identify and embrace with that which brings us joy. Dangerous because we can dare greatly. Dangerous because we can say ‘no more’.

We can also then individually and collectively refuse. Such refusal can be through visible ruptures and performances like those of Yance Ford. It can also happen in the beautifully transgressive moments of internal refusal; when we refuse to be colonised by standards, criterion and the ways of being and living which are not our own.

This re-articulation of women’s power and social autonomy is the bridge to change.  This takes us to our borders of self and opens up the possibilities of re-imagining and re-inventing what the mother-academic and the university are and could be.

And as we move into the unknown borderlands, as Gloria Anzaldúa describes, ‘[we] loosen our borders, not closing off to others. Bridging is the work of opening the gate to the stranger, within and without’.

To bridge in this way we open the door to connecting our experiences, struggles, pain and joy with others who are also experiencing the violence of marketised austerity.

Thank you to Joyce Canaan for her inspirational courage in following her truth, to Katinka Soetens for helping me to find my truth, to Norma Bermudez and Patricia Mason-Snider for reminding of the value of my voice and to Sarah Amsler for nurturing other spaces and times in which to speak that truth and for our collaborations on the broader project that explores the politics of motherhood in the neoliberal university. If you are a mother-academic and wish to learn more about and/or discuss this project please contact: [email protected]

We will also be presenting on this subject at the workshop For a Public University on the 15th June, 2012.

Dedicated to my daughters to whom I wish great joy and connection.

See also, part one of this essay: Beautiful Transgressions | And Still We Rise: On the Violence of Marketisation in Higher Education

[1] Kathleen Turner 2010’ Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education.’ Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 9: 154-67.
[2] Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner 2002 ‘Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality.’ The Journal of Higher Education , 73 (1), Special Issue: The Faculty in the New Millennium: 74-93.
[3] Carole Munn-Giddings, ‘Motherhood and Academia- a Lethal Cocktail.’ in Surviving the Academy: Feminist Perspectives. D. Malina and S. Maslin-Prothero, eds. London: Routledge 1998 pp56-68.
Sara Motta

Sara Motta, Ceasefire's Beautiful Transgressions columnist, is a mother, radical educator and writer.


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Jun 18, 2012 3:55

Amazing. Thank you so much for this- I learned a lot.

Jun 23, 2012 17:18

This is a fascinating article, and of course highlights numerous important issues. But there’s one line I quibble with, which comes early on: “Women academic are more likely not to marry, have fewer children, and many choose to remain childless.” Once more — as so often is used in describing women without children, the word “choice” is thrust upon us, as is the implication that we’ve chosen never to marry. The fact is that, as a matter of fact, many of us have not chosen to be childless; instead, the demands of an academic career — which, as your article says, is expected to be a 24-hr job — have deprived us of a social life, of opportunities to meet someone…and therefore of the opportunity to achieve motherhood. This is not to say that the article is wrong; just that it is forgetful. If anything, the fact that so many women academics lack the opportunities necessary to marry and/or have children (I’ve no objection whatsoever to single motherhood; I’m still holding out hope of achieving at least that) is just as much of a symptom of the problem as the difficulties faced by women academics who have young children. As women academics, we are all in THIS together: our subject position as “Other” in a profession which (despite the patina of its members being “educated”) still priviledges Male over Female hinders us all in one way or another, regardless of whether or not we have had children.

In other words, yes, you’re right, academic mothers have a difficult row to hoe. But this is because ALL academic women are disadvantaged by the system as it exists. If we want to make it better, then we need to work as a team, and not allow ourselves to be divided by the illusion that we are mothers vs. non-mothers. Feminism (which is NOT “post”; how can we be post-feminism when, at best, we’re only just now reaching the mid-way point?) has forgotten the old emphasis on “Sisterhood” to its detriment. I may not yet have children, but I stand in solidarity with all of my sister academics who do; I expect, therefore, the courtesy of them standing shoulder to shoulder with me.

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