Something Dystopian: dropping off my son at Nursery

Many parents have been there and many have winced and crumbled at the sight of their child wailing as they are carried away from your arms by their wonderful nursery carer. My experience this morning was visceral in every sense. As I handed my son over to his key carer I watched the calmness crash out of his face to be replaced by anguish and an imploring soul sapping cry as he stared at me. I felt the invisible heartstrings straining between us as he was carried away from me and I stumbled further into the room to follow his innocent, vulnerable cries. Reassured by the calm, collected carer, I steeled myself and turned for the door while being bombarded by the continuing sounds of my son’s cries. The lurching, sinking weight in my stomach continued to pull me down as I headed out of the main building and into the courtyard. Few psychological torture techniques could have the emotional power of this experience.

I used the title ‘something dystopian’ to equate the oppressive, crushing experience of my first official nursery drop-off for my son with those often described in dystopian fiction. Of course, I know that my son is being very well looked after as I type these words. I know that I will be picking him up in around 90 minutes time. I know that he will get more familiar with this routine as time passes and he learns to expect our routine every week. In contrast, dystopian fictions often outline the despair and seeming hopelessness of such experiences. Where dystopian fiction does align with my own experiences is the coping strategies that protagonists employ to cope. For me, this blog post is a means of processing and reflecting on my experience. My phone call to my wife was another, and my text to my mum was another. It is the act of sharing and mutual reassurance that subverts the oppressive forces that act upon us. If we suffer in silence, or allow our emotions to be silenced, we become the embodiment of dystopian oppression.

My re-embodied masculinity journey took a step forward today because of this bodily caring experience. I handed over my son in a symbolic act of mutual trust and abandonment of my parental responsibilities as a carer in lieu of my other responsibilities as a provider. This juxtaposition of care and abandonment is an element of masculinity that was previously relatively unfamiliar to me. I have gained a greater sense of the inner conflict that I presume other parents feel when doing the drop off. I have certainly heard about it through general discourse in media discussions, but the real experience brings the emotions into clear focus. I do not presume to suggest that I have somehow had an epiphany today, but I do believe the physical aspect of parenting involves a spectrum of emotions. If you don’t engage in all aspects of physical care, you nullify your sense of self and limiting your growth beyond the hegemonic masculine model. Parenting is not just reading, play and bath time, it is tears, nappies and rocking to sleep too.

Re-embodiment requires that you embrace this collage of emotion and internalise these feelings as a part of who you are. Only through reflection and discourse can men take steps towards a caring masculinity that benefits them, their children and society as a whole.

Something Utopian: My Son’s Christening

I have spoken a lot about subversion, collectivism and the need for change in my blog. It is something I apply to workplace cultures and societal attitudes to gender roles in parenting. One area I can say I am not so keen to change is that of traditional family events and the opportunity to bring people together to celebrate something special. Yesterday was my son’s Christening and we had a wonderful day celebrating one of his first life milestones in the church that I grew up in. It felt really special to share this day with my family and some people from the church that I have known for years. During the day and afterwards, I reflected on how important it is to have events like this that bring people together in mutual celebration.

I have some personal issues, related to ideas of masculinity, with patriarchal events that symbolise men’s ownership of women, but yesterday’s christening was absolutely about my son (or any person) and his welcoming into our family traditions and the wider church community into which we hope to continue to involve him. I am not a great believer in the extravagance of the wedding industry, nor the commercialisation of many family events, but I do still value the togetherness these days enable. I thought it would be useful to write a bit about my feelings on the day and also relate that to my research. This is partly for me, partly for my son and partly for catharsis.

The weekend itself was a great family occasion. On the Saturday, we met as more nuclear family with the grandparents to have a lunch together and spend some quality time. I reflected on the reality of the limited occasions when such lunches might occur in the future (aside from birthdays, christenings etc.) and the importance of appreciating them. It felt very balanced with each member of the family having their own identity outside of traditional gender roles. This is something I love about my family as I have previously written about the influence of women in my life. I hope my son will also learn to appreciate the unique qualities of all his relatives as he grows up and internalise this level of respect for family as he gets older. It was very important to me that the grandparents were together with us as I want my son to know them as a collective as well as separate entities. For me, this is because I remember the pleasure I got from seeing my own grandparents getting on together and socialising, it is one of the great joys of two families joining together and something that can break down social divides that could exist if we only met those we chose to meet.

The christening itself was a wonderful service and highlighted the unique joy of bringing people together from a range of backgrounds. I am incredibly grateful to the parish vicar Fiona Mayer-Jones for her warm, collegiate, emotionally intelligent approach. From our first contact, she has been exemplary and made us feel comfortable and involved every step of the journey. The service was delightfully informal with music and humour and togetherness. She spoke with great feeling about the warm embrace of the church for my son and she guided us with great sensitivity and calmness through the service. It was at the font, when she held my son that I felt one of the greatest surges of pride that I had experienced in a long time (I held myself together… just). It really solidified my connection with the church (as a building and a collective) as a something that meant so much to me growing up. As a parent, it confirmed of me the importance of the wider community in the education of children.

Afterwards, we had some lovely informal family time together at my parents home with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and close family friends. It was a time to chat, eat and just be together without any pressure. I am so grateful to my parents for hosting it as I know how much my mum gets anxious about events like this. Mum and Dad, it was brilliant and something I will always look back on with happy memories. I wanted the day to be as informal as possible as I feel this is the best way to create events that challenge the rigidity of patriarchal tradition. I believe the same principle applies to the workplace too as the more hierarchical events and groups become, the more likely they will reproduce patriarchal structures and imbalances. Avoiding formal structure and hierarchy was one of the great joys of yesterday and something I hope to apply in the workplace too.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who made yesterday special. Everyone at the church and in my family who joined us for our son’s special day as equals in celebrating our son’s christening. It meant the world to me and we have memories and photos that we can look at and smile for the rest of our lives. This is what family should be about and it affirmed my belief in the great good that many of our traditions can continue to support in contemporary and future society. Yes, they (our traditional institutions) can, and should, adapt to modern attitudes and expectations, but equally, we as a modern society, should appreciate the many beautiful things that happen as a result of our traditions and the simple act of bringing people together.

Spaces for research, spaces for masculinities, manifestos and meaningful work in academia

I attended a session today for research development that focused on meaningful research and spaces in academia. The session was led by Gibson Burrell whose agenda centred on the contemporary, neoliberal landscape of academic and approaches to subverting this.

The session itself was designed as a space for academic discourse and more egalitarian debate, unfortunately, this was not fully achieved in that much of the talking was led by the professors in the room (this is not the first time I have encountered this problem). This issue is compounded by the parallel demographic issue amongst our professor colleagues of male dominance. This was not an intentional hierarchical barrier, but rather a consequence of the power distance between the students and senior colleagues in the room (probably only perceived by the students). This power distance (in a foucauldian sense) between the individuals in the room meant that the space became transformed from an initially open space to a more closed, patriarchal space.

One consequence of this re-conceptualised space, aside from the visual problem of male professors discussing research in their terms, was the equally problematic silence of young women and BAME colleagues in the room. Taking a feminist & postcolonial perspective, the room began as a gender balanced, ethnically diverse group, yet the conversation was representative of hegemonic masculinity in the sense that most of the time and reflections were reproduced stories of white, male privilege in academia. The problem reminded me of my work on masculinities and the voices of alternative masculinities such as caring, gay or subordinate masculinity in parental discourse. It is so difficult to speak up with an alternative lens, and I was so pleased when a woman (I later learned from Turkey) spoke about power in Foucauldian terms (which is the main reason I mentioned it earlier). Her contribution was excellent and added to what was a very interesting discussion with some highly optimistic and hopeful points raised. I am certainly not criticising the content of the session as found most of the talk very refreshing. However, it struck me as I stuck up my hand to ask a question about manifestos, that I was also part of the problem as a young, white, cis-gender man (the next generation???). My question was self-serving and directly related to my own work; it also enabled me to establish my presence in the room. Ultimately, it was designed to orient the discussion back towards meaningful work and the methods to achieving meaning in academic outputs.

My final thoughts relate to this idea of meaningful research as I see academia as reaching an audience when our outputs can translate to local impact. My wife spoke to me about the impact of our eating habits the other day and this really struck home to me. We started eating a hybrid of vegan/vegetarian and pescatarian food about four years ago and spoke to our family about its benefits to the environment and our health. Although it is easy to feel your individual efforts are limited, we have since observed our close family all adapting their own diets to varying degrees of similarity to ours. In effect, our local impact (though I am sure this was not in isolation from media influence too) has resulted in a multiplying effect for health and environment. I want the same impact to sustain me in my research, which is why I engage in research that has a message for people to access and reflect on, not just accessible in the prestigious journals of academia. Hopefully my parental manifesto will be my first foray into this world, but is crucial that I do not create a narrow demographic space, reflective of my own positionality, as a consequence of this approach.