Parenting, Masculinity and PhD during COVID-19

I have written in various forums regarding my experiences of parenting during the UK lockdown, in this blog I will explore some of the more subtle experiences I have had and how they can relate to dystopian fiction. At the start of the lockdown my mind was whirring with the various incarnations of dystopian fictions I have read over the years. I was in the middle of re-reading ‘The Year of the Flood’ by Margaret Atwood and the similarities between that virus catastrophe and our own was unnerving. As the lockdown continued, I can now reflect back on experiences of anxiety, self isolation, social distancing and nuclear family life with a degree of clarity.

I will start with the early feelings of fear and anxiety I experienced at the start of this pandemic. I followed the emerging situation from January and associated much of the story with fictional scenarios I am particularly familiar with through my love of dystopian fiction. I started to think about ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy and the means of survival as a family. That story beautifully portrays the contrast between tender love and essential survival through a spare, masculine lens. In my reaction to the developing pandemic, I drew on the survival narrative to perform an audit of the things we needed to survive if things went badly wrong… This includes canned foods, a tent, basic survival clothing and equipment etc. I am woefully ill-equipped to actually perform the necessary survival actions such as camping, but I find it oddly reassuring to have these ‘things’ available should we need them. When I reflect on this, I think this relates to my masculine identification to protect my family from harm. I wonder if this relates to the breadwinner identity that my wife embodies as the primary wage earner? Regardless of it’s origins, my anxiety and fear, stoked by a bank of dystopian fiction scenarios, was the primary catalyst!

Early in the pandemic in March, before the UK lockdown, I entered my own period of self isolation during which I confronted the possibility of my own mortality. My self isolation was due to developing a persistent, dry cough, diarrhoea, early mild fever and persistent mouth ulcers. In those early days, I genuinely considered the possibility of not surviving. This was after hearing of healthy adults of my age who had been admitted to ITU and intubated. Knowing that survival at that stage is roughly 50%, I was genuinely worried about my prospects. I remember feeling relieved that my journal article had been accepted and would be published as this would secure my legacy and a semblance of my voice in public for posterity. I recognise this is a very self-indulgent thought, but I have always felt an urge to contribute to the story of humanity in some way and it is a great motivator for my continuing efforts to write and publish. When I contemplate my experiences of masculinity during my self isolation, confronting my mortality (even if briefly) was a strangely calm process. I did not ‘perform’ this calmness completely as the conversations were still occurring in my head. However, when with my wife and child, I acted as a protective shield by not discussing these thoughts and instead presenting a persona of control and calmness. I associate this protective performance with my unconscious stoic masculinity, something I have previously discussed. I found the self isolation very oppressive and can only imaging how horrible it must have been for those who have been shielding for many weeks. Though my self isolation and morbid thoughts were thankfully short-lived, I learned a lot about my sense of self and my identity construction as a man in such scenarios.

After self-isolation, the protracted months of social distancing have become increasingly normalised. I, like many others, have found the reality of social distancing very strange. I am not an overzealous hugger, but I am happy to embrace a colleague or friend as well as the everyday common contact of a handshake and pat on the arm or shoulder. Such physical interactions form the vernacular of contemporary western masculinity in the workplace and I am intrigued to see what survives in the post COVID-19 world. These small social cues typify what I perceive as masculine acceptance and collegiality in the workplace, especially amongst male peers. I still recall conversations with my parents about the importance of a firm handshake as a signal of character strength and confidence. In my view, this ritual of masculinity can set a precedent for the power dynamics in a relationship, particularly when there is a show of strength from one party. In lieu of such opportunities to show strength and character, I wonder what ritual may replace it. Perhaps this gender performance may be replaced by something a little more gender neutral? The elbow tap feels much less threatening and provides limited opportunity to show off brute strength. Equally, a fist pump provides limited scope to dominate someone, yet does come with masculine associations in pugilism and aggression. Having had the good fortune to do a trek in Nepal, my personal favourite is the Namaste greeting, which involves no physical contact and exemplifies equality in a greeting. Of course, physical contact has not disappeared from my parenting and I have continued to kiss, cuddle and play with my son. In fact, the pandemic social distancing has probably made me appreciate physical contact with my son more than ever. Social distancing is nearly impossible with children and I want to role model masculinity as a caregiving and caring identity for him to integrate into his identity. Perhaps we will all transition from the imposed physicality of social dynamics to a more intimate, loving physicality preserved for family life? I hope this pandemic might see a move towards respectful distancing in the workplace and loving contact with our families and friends.

As time has passed and I have attempted to integrate the norms of the pandemic with my working life, I have grown accustomed to the trials and tribulations of working from home. I love the freedom and comfort of my home, but also feel terrible for those without a safe of healthy environment in which to work. I love to see my family more at the start and end of the day, but miss the contact and fresh environment of the University when the working day starts. I, like many, have started to feel the need for a combination of both worlds, with the flexibility to spend as much or as little time at work as you need. I think it is hard to replace the face to face contact of colleagues and friends, and I think we have to consider the vitally important risk of social stratification according to home environment. If organisations are the live their values of humanistic employee care, the option of a safe space to work must be retained, regardless of the profitability of a scaled down working estate. For PhD students, work without contact is a norm of much of the process, but even the most ardent isolationist requires collegiality and community to take a break from the dredge! If the common spaces disappear, what will happen to the community and the friendship? PhD study is about more than what we read and write, it is about who we meet, what we debate and how we explain what we are doing. Without these crucial tenets of PhD life, perpetual isolation will breed a dysfunctional student and we will be all the poorer for it as an academic community.

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