Friday, 20 September 2013


Got the proofs through today for a paper to come out in Journal of Biosciences - title is 'Origins of Evolutionary Transitions'. Its a paper I wrote after attending a conference in northern India last summer, and the first thing I've finished since becoming a mother! And I'm disproportionately pleased about it!!

It should be a small thing compared to the enormous achievements I've produced in the last four months. But somehow it's different. I've been pondering why that is.

I wasn't sure it would be easy to carry on caring about academic stuff once my world changed. But in fact I'm really missing it, which makes me feel a bit guilty, cause everyone is like 'don't worry about work, all you need to think about us your baby!'

Reflecting on this, I've decided that one of the main things I'm missing is the explicit feedback: the praise. I'm probably a rather praise-oriented person, thriving on working hard so I can get a pat on the back from someone. And although Orson has evolved to give me priceless rewards such as smiles and snuggles, its different. There are no targets to reach. No grades, no real measures of how i'm doing. And for someone who is used to constantly evaluating herself according to such extrinsic markers, it can be a bit demoralising.

I started thinking that this is probably a contributor also to the fact that motherhood is so woefully undervalued in general. Paid work is, well, paid, but its also respected, taken seriously. Paid work deserves a proper nights sleep and a lie in at the weekend. It earns you a place in society. Motherhood, on the other hand, well just about anyone can do that given the luck of happening to be on the right 50% of the population.

I think this is partly because  the work of mothering is so ....esoteric. Aside from a very sad lower threshold, there aren't really ways to measure success in mothering. You can't ever know how the child might have turned out differently if you had let them cry a few more minutes/not bothered to take them to football practise every saturday/fed them only organic vegetables etc etc. You can't even know the extent to which their level of self-assurance/cheerfulness is due to your efforts as opposed to their own innate character. Its much easier for a mother to think of things she might have done wrong than to gain credit for things done right. You don't meet deadlines or complete projects, as a mother. You just get through another day.

In the commercial world this would be a disaster. Imagine a job where there are no targets, no bonuses, no reviews. No, I can't either. The business would be doomed if the employees were merely passing the time, getting through the days! The managers of even the most mind-numbingly simplistic jobs in the world have learnt to build in various props and hurdles, tactics to motivate the workers. Call centres - yes i know a thing or two about them i'm sorry to say. How can you quantify, measure, pressurise the activity of repeatedly answering a ringing phone and reading out a script? Well, you measure the amount of time the worker spends visiting the bathroom in a week, for example, and you reward them for minimising it. You count how many seconds it takes them to get rid of each customer on the phone and ask them to lower the average (I'm not making it up!)

We could build these into motherhood i guess. Make a device to tot up how many hours in a week the baby cries, or how many seconds, on average, it takes the mother to respond to the infant's need. Or we could take inspiration from oil rigs and give the mother a bonus for every month the baby doesn't get hurt!

Of course these suggestions are ridiculous.As any opponent of the RAE (a system for measurin academic progress) will tell you, some things that are of real value cannot be measured, quantified. The toilet break counting doesn't really make call centre agents work better anyway.

But most of all, the really big difference between motherhood and almost every other job anyone has ever done is that the explicit rewards and motivational tools are necessary in paid work. Motherhood, it is often repeated, is a thankless task. But we'll do it anyway, and we'll do it the best we possibly can  : )

Postscript: Husband came in today after I had a long difficult day with a cranky baby who needed constant attention to avert ear splitting shrieks. As we went to bed he said 'thankyou for managing to be patient with Orson all day today'. I welled up. Little things go a long way : ))

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