When you’re a mother, researching motherhood, it’s hard for your research not to seep into every aspect of your life. In a previous life as a secondary school teacher, I’d always been able to draw a clear line between home and work. There was little overlap between the two and I liked it that way.
My choice of research topic has really forced these two worlds together. A year ago, I was interested in Mumsnet and thought it would make a fascinating research site. What I didn’t realise how much my research would feed into my personal life, too. I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reading Mumsnet threads for my research, and have found myself, time and again, making notes on a separate scrap of paper for personal use. Mumsnetters, it turns out, are not just my research subjects. They have advised me how best to label my son’s school clothes, shown me strategies for staying calm when I feel my temper rising, and given me tips on how to get a good night’s sleep. They have shown me that there are 1001 ways to be a successful parent, that everyone struggles sometimes and that there is a growing band of mothers who aren’t willing to be constrained to narrow ideals of what it means to be a ‘mother’. These anonymous Mumsnet users have inspired me on a personal level, as well as giving me some pretty good data to work with. And they’ve made me realise that these personal and professional insights are ultimately inseparable.
As I consider myself to be quite a private person, the revelation that I can no longer clearly separate my identity as a mother from my identity as a professional has made me question my choice of research topic on more than one occasion. When I tell students and colleagues the topic of my research, I mark myself out immediately as a mother. And I don’t like it. At work, I want to be seen as a researcher, and a professional. I don’t necessarily want people to know about my private life. I worry that people will take me less seriously, that they might make assumptions about me based on their own ideas of what it means to be a mother. But as time has passed, I have come to see that these fears are exactly what make my research so important. My own insecurities have also motivated me to push forward with a research project that will contribute to the disruption of the norms and ideals of motherhood that I know can feel stifling at times.
I know that I’m not the only parent who finds it hard to separate their personal and professional lives. Researchers often pursue their personal interests or beliefs, but they are hardly unique in this respect. Plenty have made a business of it, like my fitness fanatic friend who founded ‘OneFitMama’, and runs fitness classes for new mothers. I also know plenty of parents whose professional lives revolve around their family lives, who fit in their work around their children. So although it’s been a challenge at times to change, almost overnight, my perceptions about the relationship between my personal and professional life, it’s been great food for thought, and I know I’m in good company.