The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are of a magnitude that most of us, at least in the Western industrialised world, have not hitherto suffered in this lifetime. Academics have had a central voice in the scholarly discourse surrounding the pandemic; yet like many others, we have also experienced a disruption to our everyday work practices as a result of COVID-19.
This disruption has not been experienced equally (Collins, Landivar, Ruppanner and Scarborough, 2020). The pandemic has revealed that many of our most stubbornly entrenched inequalities in the academy do not simply follow gendered fault lines, but rather care fault lines.
As more people have chosen not to mother, what Petra Bueskens (2018) calls ‘post-patriarchal motherhood’, it has become apparent that many of the inequalities in academia are experienced by those doubly disadvantaged by their gender and caring role: mothers.
We have chosen not to focus on parents, or on caregivers more broadly, because the experiences of ‘mothers’ are distinctive due to this double disadvantage. Those identifying as mothers experience gendered assumptions about the role of mothers which are reflected in unequal distribution of unpaid work in the home as well as unequal pay, superannuation and career progression within the broader economy.
In this paper, we adopt a maternal epistemology, focus groups and relational auto-ethnography to outline the disruption that almost all academic mothers have experienced during a year shaped by pandemic.
We argue that this disruption is not simply obstructive to academic mothers. Rather, COVID-19, and in particular, its protraction, has provided us with a potentially transformative moment for the visibility and normalisation of mothering in the academy. It has surfaced and visibilised the double burden that sociologists since Sharon Hays (1996) have decried as placing impossible, irreconcilable demands on mothers in modern, industrialised societies. It has forced the complex negotiation of paid work and care work that academic mothers must constantly manage into the spotlight.
The pandemic has provoked an opportunity for a different performance of mothering in the academy; a (re)performance that does not adhere to the masculinised disembodied worker, and that does not require us to invisibilise our maternal selves to be valued in the academy. It is a (re)performance that is necessary if we are to invoke changes in the treatment of mothering embedded in the cultural landscape of the academy.
Bueskens P (2018) ‘From containing to creating: maternal subjectivity’, in Nelson C and Robertson R (eds) Dangerous ideas about mothers, University of Western Australia Publishing, Crawley.
Collins C, Landivar LC, Ruppanner L and Scarborough WJ (2021) ‘COVID-19 and the gender gap in work hours’, Gender, Work & Organization, 28(S1):1–12.
Hays S (1996) The cultural contradictions of motherhood, Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Emilee Gilbert, Western Sydney University
- Carla Pascoe-Leahy, the University of Melbourne