1. “Balancing”, Rachel Hammersley 2. “Speaking the Unspeakable”, Ana Topf
7. “What time is Boris on”, Helen Anderson
“Shape Shifting”, Anon
“My Lockdown World,” Eleanor Gilchrist
“The Covid Trench”, Anon Edited by Maia Almeida-Amir
School of History, Classics and Archaeology I struggle to ﬁnd my balance With the world like jelly under my feet. Work trickles down from my attic study Making pools in other parts of the house. While the children’s problems Drift upwards like smoke Clouding my mind.
My perennial struggle for control Is spiralling out of control. I wage a constant war with my email inbox. Unable to acknowledge the futility of my efforts. I ration everything: food; water; money; time; Desperately trying to keep hold of something, When so much is elusive.
Slowly and intermittently I ﬁnd some sort of method. I suppose you’d call it living in the moment, Which feels crazy just now when we all look longingly To the past - and the future. But focusing on one thing at a time
Offers at least a measure of control - and therefore of peace.
And maybe, just maybe, There will be lessons to take forward from this experience. Evening walks that provide the barrier Or the bridge - between work and home. A better appreciation of what really matters to us As individuals and as a society.
A world, rebalanced.
Northern Bridge Studentship holder I tested positive for Covid on my son’s first birthday. There had been no symptoms, no warning. I had booked a test the day before, after my godmother (who provides childcare support, while I work on my PhD in eighteenth-century women’s writing) developed a fever. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought to myself, with very little doubt in my mind that it would be negative. We planned a trip to the play park for my baby’s birthday — no party, but at least something he’d enjoy. We pinned up birthday banners and inflated balloons with cautious optimism. Tomorrow would be a good day. Now, I attempted to compute the information in front of me. You must stay at home and self-isolate until the 14th of January. As Reuben began his waking routine of clambering onto my chest and babbling loudly into my ear, I felt shock, dread, and sheer guilt. He was cooped up for ten whole days, breaking his usual routine of fresh air, exercise, and at least some degree of contact with the outside world. The pandemic — masks, social distancing, endless nightmare newsreels of deaths and surging R -Rates — was all he had ever known from the age of three months. To an extent, we had been sheltered: but now it had hit us directly. My headache developed as the day progressed, followed by a strange, flu-like achiness. While assembling new toys and tidying away Reuben’s trail of destruction, I dreamed of bed. I was accustomed to ‘Mam guilt’ — induced by lofty cultural expectations of mothers, which made me worry that I wasn’t quite present enough in Reuben’s life, that perhaps work got the better of me and my mind was too often elsewhere. All of this was fuelled by birth trauma, anxiety and depression, which was being treated with CBT and counselling. But, as my head thudded, and I watched Reuben slowly beginning to climb the walls, I realised that this feeling of inadequacy was on another level. Of course, my partner was as supportive as he could be. But he still had to work from home, and his job was demanding. Meanwhile, I submitted an absence request, with the reassurance of my supervisors that I must focus on my recovery, not my project. While Reuben napped during the day, and slept in the evening, I could perhaps read, or perhaps make some tweaks on the work I had produced so far. My partner managed to put a couple of half days in. The situation wasn’t ideal. But I had a plan in place, and I felt confident that I could still be relatively productive over the next ten days. All worries about work set aside, we were extremely lucky: people all over the country were struggling with the monumental stress, suffering, isolation and grief caused by Covid. We had a history of good health, stable incomes, a roof over our heads, internet shopping, and family we could call for support. We only had one child, and there were two of us to muck in after 5pm. We weren’t home schooling. We had to put things into perspective. My symptoms were strange, but relatively mild. Day two was probably the worst: it took a lot of strength to get out of bed. My body felt oddly heavy, and I felt completely drained. But Reuben was in no mood to wait, and neither was all the ‘admin’ of parenthood — the pile of bottles in the sink, the overflowing washing basket. For most of the day, he was his usual energetic self, but I kept up with his crawling and climbing the best I could. Work could wait. Later in the week, I lost my sense of taste and smell, but those other flu-like symptoms had disappeared. I decided it was time to attempt some work. I picked up my laptop, while Reuben played at my feet. He promptly stood up and pushed it off my knee. I found another toy to distract him, then tried again. He began to cry. This process was repeated, until I admitted defeat. I walked into the kitchen with baby on my hip and began to prepare a bottle. I watched my partner jealously as he tapped away on his computer. At least someone was being productive. But how was I defining ‘productive?’ So far today, I had gotten a baby washed, dressed, fed him, kept him entertained, soothed him to sleep, tidied up toys, washed bottles, sorted the laundry, wiped up copious amounts of dribble 8 and food, paced the length of upstairs and downstairs in an attempt to settle him. How hadn’t
I been productive? Yet apart from a (relatively) clean, happy(ish) baby, and a half-tidy house, results that never really lasted, there didn’t seem much to show for my efforts. There were no words on a page, no notes to show for completed research and reading. I reflected on the kinds of ideologies I was internalising here. In my own thought patterns, I could detect the devaluing of domestic labour — which usually falls to women — and that age-old patriarchal tendency to undermine the work of mothering. I thought about my eighty-eight-year-old Nanna, a bookkeeper-turned stay-at-home mother of five, who confessed to me that she often wondered what she had been put on this earth for. She concluded that she had been designed to raise children. I reassured her that parenting was of the most challenging, demanding, rewarding and influential jobs possible. Fundamentally, it was work: hard work, too. But, in isolation, my ideas of productivity were still being shaped by frankly backward ideas of what roles matter most, who matters most in society. Clearly, my feminist outlook had some subconscious blind spots.
With his routine out of sync, Reuben’s sleeping began to suffer. His nights had never been completely restful, but now he was reverting back to a newborn state. His nap schedule was non-existent. He went to bed late and woke at numerous points during the night. He was like a caged animal. On a daily basis, he crawled from room to room in pursuit of me, wailing, and then clinging to my body like his life depended on it. And just after day ten was up, Reuben developed a temperature. He was hot and unsettled. He cried endlessly. The signs were there. And despite him being young, fit and healthy, I was sick with worry. We got him tested, then received a positive result the following day. And so, ten more days stretched out before us, reaching to the very end of January. One of the worst aspects of dealing with a poorly baby is that they can’t tell you how they feel: my heart hurt to see Reuben in that state, with only Calpol and cuddles to soothe him. But thankfully, within days, he was back to his usual self. On my partner’s half days, I retreated into the kitchen, which became a sanctuary to me: a place where my laptop and books were protected from prying little hands. But now, Reuben refused to settle for his Dad. He wanted Mam, and Mam alone. He would cry and bang at the door, demanding the presence of the person he had never been without during this period. It was only natural — and, as I attempted to block out the incessant thumping, that feeling of guilt peaked. I longed for this to be over, if only for my baby. This was a strange, overwhelming world for him, and he craved some form of consistency. He needed routine, and he needed normality. Over these weeks, talking was the best therapy. Daily video chats with my family spurred me on, and I kept the lines of conversation open with my supervisors, who are always incredibly supportive. I aired my frustration to my friends and begged my mam for tips on getting Reuben to sleep for at least three consecutive hours during the night. Just reflecting on my feelings wherever possible, and expressing them through writing or through conversation, has been a great method of deconstructing those internalised patriarchal thought patterns, for working through the mass of emotional baggage that comes with motherhood — let alone motherhood in a pandemic, and motherhood in isolation. I began to let go of expectations, and simply survive. In the grander scheme of things, it didn’t matter if Reuben sat in front of CBeebies for longer than he usually did: it didn’t matter if the ironing wasn’t done. I began to collect little moments of fun between us in this strange, shrunken world, and capture them on camera. I learned to slow down. Above all, I learned to be a bit more introspective, that little bit more patient, and kind to myself: I was shocked at my own resilience. Of course, this has experience has illuminated the monumental expectations placed upon parents — mothers in particular — to negotiate the competing challenges of salaried work and domestic labour. From this, I hope that we can start to redefine ‘productivity,’ as it is understood in capitalist, patriarchal terms, through a lens that recognised the skills required for managing a household and caring for children. Yes, I’m back to my PhD. But really, I never stopped working, nor do I stop working when 5pm rolls around. All things considered, it is high time that we valued ourselves and our labour, with all the physical, mental, and emotional messiness it entails.
Two photos taken with my iPhone 8.
These depict my new breakfast table,
which is also my new workspace and place to relax and reflect.
Before it happened, I had crafted my shape to fit the space. I had slowly shifted, like a viscous blob. I had taken up spare crevices. Where the edges were softer, I had chiselled out new fissures. I filled leftover gaps. Covered over cracks. The shape was made. Life went on. Slow shape shifting was the routine. Before. My shape filled the gap in the day when everyone was busy elsewhere. I had found new spaces as they had grown. I had learnt to fill them, had reclaimed them. I had even planted dreams that were mine in the space. My shape was a version of myself I had eased into, over time. There was a rhythm I could rely on. There was cooking and cleaning and caring. I had learnt their value. And the reward was mine. Then there was study and research and writing. There was other people and other places and other versions of me. I had even fitted doctorate into my space. How pompous that word had sounded. How ill-fitting it had appeared when I had first invited it in. How challenging it had been to chisel where that fitted. But I had. It did. My shape had shifted and assimilated. The space had eased to accommodate. And the rhythm played on. But. Then, shape shifting got seismic. The music stopped. Yes, I heard the birds. Because the elaborate drumbeat I hadn’t even noticed composing over the years was suddenly silent. Suddenly everyone’s everything had to be fitted in to my space. Sapling dreams had to make room. Precious hours, days and months, were lost. Roles outsourced to teachers, friends, dinner ladies and classroom cleaners suddenly came home to roost. Yes, I heard the birds, all of them. There’s no empty nest here. Overnight space shifted. I woke. Clambering to find the new edges, new footholds. Everything was up for renegotiation. The space was no longer mine. Had it ever been? And those cracks. Suddenly they were chasms. There was no hiding from them. Shapes catch up slowly. The new normal will be very new. It appears from outside that the same people are in the same place. They aren’t. We will try to meet some of the old expectations. But we are all shifting. Every so often I feel the old rhythm’s echo in my heart, but then I remember. It hangs now with the echoes of old dreams, and old loves. New spaces are calling to be filled. Everything changes. Sometimes earthquakes happen. We shift. The past is the past. This time I am choosing, differently. I will beat out new rhythms. I will dance, older and wiser. We will all dance.
And the birds, well, they sing.
OD Adviser (researcher development), Organisational Development Team, People Services
Drawing, painting and sketching have helped me throughout lockdown. This painting, using watercolour and charcoal, was inspired by an autumn walk last October at Paddy Freemans pond near Jesmond Dene. The low sunlight was slanting through the leaves which were turning from green, to gold and orange. Art is meditative and has helped me to relax, balance work with home and the challenges of this situation.
(Charlotte, Lesley, Angie, Viv, Elisa, and Sue)
This document provides a representation of our shared swimming experience during lockdown as a bubble of 6.
Lockdown the first: Work paused, house full, sunny spring, home-school. Whinging, bribing, moaning, chiding, Cajoling, guiding, caring, hiding. Hand washing, friends’ shopping, daily walks: no stopping. Missing friends, missing jaunts, missing quiet, missing haunts.
Summer and we’re sort of free: Masks, flasks, sand, sea. Swimming gals, new pals, road trips, morning dips. Painting ceilings, painting walls, painting skirtings, painting doors. Lockdown the North: Open schools, less rules, virus spreads in germ pools.
Test, trace, hands, space. Tears, fears… here’s tiers. Doubt spreads, worry gnaws. Study plans put on pause. Lockdown again or is it still? Winter chill bodes ill. Mistrust discussed results in nonplussed disgust. Lockdown the last: Same reason, different season. Heat cranked up – it’s freezing. Breakfast, lunch, snacks, tea, watching reruns on TV. Changing plans, changing places, vaccine hopes of fewer cases. Home-school is not so hard, but they’re ready for the school yard. So back to uni at 43: I.T. will be the death of me.