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Reproductive Sociology Research Group
 
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The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies. ReproSoc is part of an expanding concentration of Reproductive Studies at Cambridge and is led by Professor Sarah Franklin.

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Recording Births and Deaths – The Cultural Histories of Stillbirth and Miscarriage in Ireland and the UK

Fri, 22/05/2020 - 09:59

Aideen O’Shaughnessy, May 2020 - available to download as a PDF

Content Warning: This article contains detailed discussion of stillbirth, miscarriage and post-miscarriage management.

I spent a lot of time in graveyards growing up. As an Irish Catholic, the graveyard holds a special place in the collective cultural imaginary. It is a place of sadness, of course; but also, a place for family, for gathering, for the celebration of lives lost and mourned. The annual ‘graveyard mass’ (or ‘patron’ in rural Ireland), usually held in summer, was an opportunity to drink tea and eat iced buns, to make daisy chains in the grass with my cousins, keeping our distance but being sure to bless ourselves as the priest made his rounds, spraying the graves with holy water from his aspergillum. Each year, I would note the new graves that had appeared, trying to connect those now standing around them to families in the community I might know. Sometimes, a headstone would appear that was markedly different in size or colour. Having lost my own brother as a child, I had an instinctive aversion to these smaller headstones, or the ones marked with a simple white cross.

I remember being struck, particularly, by the ‘angel’ graves; burial sites which appeared when, as was explained to me, women ‘lost their babies’ or, whose ‘babies were born asleep’. As a child, I found these graves peculiar for how they seemed to ‘pop up’, no ritual or warning. Nevertheless, I took their presence for granted and was surprised then to learn, at a later age, that the burial of ‘unbaptised babies’ (ostensibly, including stillborn infants or miscarried pregnancies) on consecrated grounds was not permitted by the Catholic Church in Ireland until the late 1990’s (Traynor  2011). Without being absolved of ‘original sin’, these ‘babies’ could not enter heaven and were destined instead to spend eternity in ‘limbo’. Deprived of the option of a funeral and graveyard burial, families were expected to bury remains in the garden, or to smuggle them into adult graves. A brief literature review into the history of stillbirth in Ireland unveils a culture of secrecy and shame, with an entire island off the coast of Donegal ‘Oileán na Marbh’ (the Island of the Dead) providing a secret resting place for hundreds of stillborn babies, smuggled there by boat, often in the dark of night (ibid). 

This is, I am aware, a difficult subject for many. For Irish people, it may carry resonances of the events of 2017; when a mass grave of more than 800 babies and children was discovered close to a former ‘Mother and Baby Home’ in Tuam, Co. Galway. It is important to note that the majority of these were not stillbirths but infants and children who had been separated from their ‘unmarried mothers’ after birth. Historian Catherine Corless located birth records for almost all of those whose remains were interred there, but death records for only a few (Grierson 2017). The Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, later announced that efforts would be made to provide proper burials and memorials for the deceased (ibid). This event shed further light on the horrendous abuse and mistreatment of women and children at the hands of Catholic Church-run ‘care’ institutions in Ireland. Reading the history of stillbirth in Ireland alongside the story of Tuam, it is evident that despite the Church’s lauding of the ‘sanctity of life’, in practice, ‘life’ could only be accorded by the Church in very specific conditions. Moreover, only specific lives were to be regarded as worthy of dignified treatment in death.

The visibility of ‘angel graves’ since the late-1990’s (coinciding with my early childhood), can perhaps be linked to the legislative changes made that decade. In February 1994, following sustained campaigning by the Irish Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, a bill was put forward for consideration by the Oireachtas (the combined upper and lower houses of parliament in the Republic of Ireland) for the provision of an official register of stillbirths (Seanad Éireann 1994). Since 1995 then, stillbirths have been recorded in Ireland via the Stillbirths Register, wherein “the baby weighs at least 500 grammes or has a gestational age of at least 24 weeks” (Citizens Information 2016). Interestingly, stillbirths have been officially registered in England and Wales since 1926, with the introduction of the Births and Deaths Registration Act and in Scotland since the Registration of Still-Births Acts 1938 (Davis 2009). Current British policy dictates that stillbirths be recognised as occurring “after the 24th week of pregnancy”; in which case, babies must be registered and buried or cremated, according to common law (Human Tissue Authority 2015).

What catalysed the shift in the treatment of stillbirth in the mid 1990’s in Ireland, then? Was there a collective recognition of the cruelty of Catholic Church practices? A growing compassion for women (specifically, bereaved mothers)? Did it have something to do with shifts in the cultural construction of ‘the child’? Or, was it a shift in the recognition of grief and the effects of stillbirth on those who have experienced it? Perhaps it was a combination of these factors, although the latter appears to be more specifically verifiable. During discussion on the then proposed bill in 1994, Minister for Law and Equality Reform at the time, Mervyn Taylor, cited that the purpose of the register was to “comfort grieving parents” who currently lacked “validation” of their grief without “official recognition of the existence of their unborn child” (Seanad Éireann 1994). What is clear is that this move constituted a distinct divergence from Catholic Church practices, whose teachings and protocols had dominated the treatment of stillbirth in Ireland for centuries before.

Before I go on, I want to be careful to emphasise that although I engage simultaneously here with discussion of both stillbirth and miscarriage, I do not want to collapse the division between the two thereby lending to what Lauren Berlant calls the cultural construction of ‘foetal motherhood’; wherein women are regarded and treated as mothers immediately upon becoming pregnant (Berlant 1994). I also do not seek to reify the significance of the 24-week mark as the timepoint wherein miscarriages and stillbirths can be clearly and unproblematically demarcated; thereby lending to what Sarah Franklin terms the ‘time-life’ construction of the foetus (Franklin 1991). What I want to demonstrate is that religious and state-level treatment of stillbirth is historically contingent, culturally diverse and highly political; providing another arena for Church or State regulation and for the control of reproductive lives and practices. As alluded to above, the methods and modes for the distinction between stillbirths and late miscarriage have also changed over time. In this vein, protocols for the conceptualisation of and disposal of foetal remains from miscarriage and abortion also warrants further analysis in terms of their symbolic and practical effects.

Up to date information on the procedures for the disposal of pregnancy remains, within the context of the Irish Health Service, are difficult to locate. A HSE report from 2016 on “National Standards for Bereavement Care following Pregnancy Loss and Perinatal Death” outlines that, in the case of “ectopic pregnancy or early miscarriage” where “a baby (fetus) is not identifiable”, parents should be given the opportunity to “collect and bury fetal tissue” or may consent for the hospital to “ethically and sensitively” dispose of fetal tissue through “burial or cremation” (HSE 2016, 27). Literature on the disposal of pregnancy remains after abortion in the hospital setting (which occurs generally, according to the 2018 legislation, within 9-12 weeks gestation), dictates that hospital staff will make available a range of options, explained “in a sensitive manner” (HSE 2018).  The most recent guidelines from the Human Tissue Authority in the United Kingdom for the “Disposal of Pregnancy Remains following Pregnancy Loss or Termination” (2015) take quite a similar stance - defining ‘pregnancy remains’ to include “all pregnancy losses, for example as a result of ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or early intrauterine fetal death” as well as from “terminations of pregnancy that have not exceeded the 24th week of pregnancy”.

The 2015 British guidelines outline that women be made aware of all options for ‘disposal’- including cremation and burial, “given the opportunity to discuss them, and supported in an individual and sensitive manner to ensure that she can make a decision that is right for her” (HTA 2015, 3). Interestingly the 2015 document from the Human Tissue Authority differs substantially from previous legislation from the same body. The Human Tissue Act of 2004 did not make distinction between “the disposal of pregnancy remains, and the disposal of any other tissue from a living person” (HTA 2015, 2). Remains were regarded simply as the tissue of the pregnant person. It is important to recognise that the emotional experience of stillbirth, miscarriage and abortion are diverse, and that any attempt to homogenise or universalise these experiences risks essentialising a particular cultural expectation of gender and of maternity. As Erica Millar notes, the grief that women experience through miscarriage may not always be related to the “loss of their autonomous foetuses” but to the “loss of an ideal or belief”, of “an imagined future (as mother or co-parent)” (Millar 2017, 157).

Whatever the objectives of these hospital policies - assumedly, to engage sensitively with the varied experiences of patients and to offer integrated bereavement care - they will I believe, inevitably entail a symbolic effect in terms of assuming or producing a specific ‘intentional orientation’ on the part of the pregnant person towards their pregnancy remains, an intentional orientation with which their own experience of miscarriage or abortion may not align. (With the term ‘intentional orientation’, I am borrowing here from Erica Millar (2017, 23) who explains the cultural acceptance of the discarding of excess embryos from IVF as contingent on the “presumed intent” of the pregnant person; and from Sara Ahmed’s (2006) meditations on ‘orientations’ in Queer Phenomenology). In November 2018, 6 months after the vote to introduce abortion rights in Ireland, a number of TDs (members of parliament) recommended a range of amendments to the Termination of Pregnancy Bill, specifically compelling women to bury or cremate foetal remains following an abortion; going so far as insinuating that those who do not provide a “dignified disposal” of remains should be prosecuted (Finn 2018). This move appeared to follow suit of the strategies of US Vice President, Mike Pence, in Indiana, where he attempted to introduce a similar bill forcing women to seek funerary services for aborted or miscarried foetuses (ibid). 

Again, I want to be quite clear that I do distinguish between what I consider the ‘symbolic effects’ of health standards described above, and the blatantly coercive nature of legislation, such as that put forward by Pence and his Irish contemporaries, which attempts to “align women who have had abortions with the role of mothers mourning their lost children” (Millar 2017, 154). I understand and acknowledge the necessity of medical protocols for the disposal of pregnancy remains, in engaging respectfully with these myriad ‘intentional orientations’ of the reproductive subject towards their pregnancies. In the year preceding the abortion referendum of 2018, I was finishing my master’s degree in Utrecht, the Netherlands. My M.A. thesis examined the conceptualisations of pregnancy amongst abortion rights campaigners. One of the stories which appeared to weigh heavily on the research participants was that of a couple who had recently travelled to England to terminate a pregnancy, because of the presence of fatal foetal abnormality, and who had to return to Ireland with the remains of their pregnancy in the boot of their car. The undignified and traumatic nature of such an experience fuelled both sympathy and anger amongst abortion rights activists of the day.

What I find interesting, both in relation to the NHS and HSE standards for the disposal of pregnancy remains is the emphasis on the provision of ‘choice’, both in relation to the case of miscarriage and in the context of abortions. We might write this off as yet another example of the infiltration of liberal rhetoric into the politics of healthcare. Alternatively, we might reflect upon the historical moment, considering the advent of such protocols at a time where the ‘representational space’ is dominated by the foetus; in this case, perhaps ‘instructions’ become ‘directions’ to orient us in strategic ways? (Berlant 1997, Ahmed 2006). I would like to consider that these protocols provide evidence of a tacit collective understanding of the inevitably varied intentional orientations of pregnant people toward their foetuses. In Abortion and Woman’s Choice, Rosalind Pollack Petchesky proposes a ‘feminist model of personhood’ which she describes as “not static, not a set of physical or even intellectual properties; rather, it is a process, a continual coming to consciousness. We become humanized…always in a context of relationship with others” (Petchesky 1987, 347-348).

What Petchesky is pointing to with her feminist model of personhood is that pregnancies come to take on specific ‘realities’ depending upon how they are embodied. In one of the pilot interviews for my PhD research, the participant I was interviewing verbalised her frustration at the continued dismissal of pro-choice discourse on what can ostensibly be conceived as the differential ‘intentional orientations’ of individuals towards their pregnancies as ‘moral relativism’. “So much of the process is actually mental and emotional…all of it has exactly as much value as the person who is pregnant decides”, she explained. Why is it then that “the meaning of foetal or embryonic life…changes according to context”, in some instances, but not in others? (Millar 2017, 23). How come there is scope to understand the perceived nuances of our intentional orientations towards pregnancies in death, but not in life? In the Irish case, how do we reconcile the existence of the HSE standards on the disposal of pregnancy remains in 2016, during the same period when the presence of the 8th amendment in the Irish Constitution imposed ‘foetal motherhood’ as Lauren Berlant (1997) termed it, upon all of those who were pregnant, immediately upon the test strip turning blue? What does this tell us about the politics instantiating the assumption or production of various intentional orientations in continued versus non-continued pregnancy?

These are difficult questions with no clear answers, but which warrant continued and sustained analyses. What I hope I have shown to be less opaque is the fact that the legislative and cultural histories around stillbirth and miscarriage unveil a fluctuating conceptualisation of intrauterine existence. Moreover, it uncovers a less documented arena in which the state, and specifically the Catholic Church in Ireland, has sought to regulate and control the (female-coded) reproductive body. The politics of birth may be the politics of our generation, but death too, is political it seems (Tyler 2009).

 

  

Bibliography:

Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. London: Duke University Press. 

Berlant, Lauren. 1994. “America, ‘Fat’ and the Fetus.” Boundary 2. 21(3):145-195.

Citizens Information, 2016. “Registering a stillbirth.” Accessed @ https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/birth_family_relationships/miscarriage_and_stillbirth/registering_stillbirth.html, May 10th, 2020.

Davis, Gayle. 2009. “Stillbirth registration and perceptions of infant death, 1900-60: the Scottish case in national context.” The Economic History Review, 62(3), 629-654.

Franklin, Sarah. 1991. “Fetal Fascinations: New Dimensions to the Medical-Scientific Construction of Fetal Personhood.” In Franklin, Lury & Stacey (eds.) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.

Human Tissue Authority, 2015. “Guidance on the disposal of pregnancy remains following pregnancy loss or termination.” Accessed @ https://www.hta.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Guidance_on_the_disposal_of_pregnancy_remains.pdf, May 10th, 2020. 

HSE 2016. “National Standards for Bereavement Care Following Pregnancy Loss and Perinatal Death.” Accessed @ https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/3/maternity/bereavement-care/national-standards-for-bereavement-care-following-pregnancy-loss-and-perinatal-death.pdf, May 10th, 2020.

HSE 2018. “After an abortion: pregnancy remains.” Accessed @ https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/abortion/after-an-abortion/pregnancy-remains.html, May 10th, 2020.

Millar, Erica. 2017. Happy Abortions: Our Bodies in the Era of Choice. London: Zed Books.

Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. 1990. Abortion and woman’s choice: the state, sexuality and reproductive freedom. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Seaned Éireann, 1994. “Stillbirths Registration Bill, 1994: Second Stage.” Accessed @  https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad/1994-02-02/7/, May 10th, 2020.

Traynor, Cian. 2011. “They buried our baby for £5 and nothing more was said.” The Irish Times, February 2nd 2011, accessed @ https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/they-buried-our-baby-for-5-and-nothing-more-was-said-1.561034

Tyler, Imogen. 2009. “Introduction: Birth.” Feminist Review (93): 1-7.

Away from queer feminist heaven: Challenges and chances of being back in my conservative country of origin

Fri, 08/05/2020 - 14:58

The view from my balcony in Tirol (Austria)

Elisabeth Sandler, May ‘20

This is going to be personal, very personal.

Being back

On the 16th of March 2020, I entered Tirol (Austria) on one of the last planes that was allowed to land in the country arriving from the UK. Yes, Covid-19 happened. 24 hours before, I was baking a lemon cake, the possibility of receiving the college email that would change so much, clearing out my flat, booking last minute travel arrangements, and leaving Cambridge without any goodbyes and not knowing when I would return, conceivably far but in fact only hours away.

And just like that, I was snatched from my Cambridge life and queer, feminist academic family. While being truly grateful to have been able to access a state of physical and emotional safety - a country with a progressive health care system that was not in a state of Covid-19 denial in contrast to the country I had just left - I had also unexpectedly moved back to one of the more conservative parts of an overall still conservative country that is dominated by discourses of the Roman Catholic Church and tradition, resulting in rigid binary gender roles, heteronormativity, and still, in parts, discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community I consider myself part of.

To be fair, ever since I moved to the UK almost five years ago, I have spent lovely jealousy-inducing summer months in Tirol where I was swimming in alpine lakes, feeling my toes being tickled by blades of grass while being buried in a field of flowers, biting into crisp bread crusts, indulging in perfectly textured and flavour balanced cakes - the context necessary to understand the origins of my cake and pastry snobbery - yes, I even come back regularly to teach blocked seminars at the University of Innsbruck. However, right now feels different. I am not visiting, which so far has always allowed me to keep up and detach the identity of the “new me” in a space associated with the “old me”, I moved back. Moving back or, in other words, spending substantial amounts of time here, means that I have to re-position myself within a somewhat familiar culture and to consider the narratives this culture has to offer when interacting with people around me; the latter sometimes resulting in having to compromise my expectations towards people’s reactions to me being queer identifying or resisting certain gender stereotypes. But I also ask myself: am I being unfair? Are my expectations and sense-making of people’s behaviour unfairly biased and based on an image I had of this space five years ago? Maybe it is also about re-discovering this culture and acknowledging the changes it underwent. Maybe it is not the space I knew up until the time I moved to the UK anymore, just as I am no longer the person I was when I left.

In order to get to know the culture I am finding myself in again - let us give it the benefit of the doubt that there is a need to re-discover this space and even if only because I have changed - I have to interact with the people that are shaping and are shaped by it. This interaction with people, in addition to the revisiting of places, will also allow me to merge the “old” and “new” me: the “old me” being the image I have of myself before I entered queer feminist spaces in Cambridge, which offered me new ways of making sense of the world around me and thus ultimately myself. Because the truth is, over the past five years, I could see myself having changed whenever I was back in Tirol. I felt a discrepancy between how I used to experience this space and how I felt now. Whenever I temporarily returned - in other words, visited - I felt like I wasn’t that person that I used to be anymore. Of course, I consider human beings to be in a constant state of change, but I do believe that continuing one’s development somewhere else and then returning to the original place and people makes our changes even more visible; just think of wider family and school reunions.

So, these two versions of myself - the Elisabeth I used to be and the Elisabeth I see and, granted, want to be seen as now - need to come together. And I believe they will come together through me, the “new me”, making new experiences with once familiar places and people through which new memories are created. I already started doing that when I took on my position as an external lecturer at the University of Innsbruck, when I entered and kept entering the university buildings - thereby creating more and more new memories - no longer as a student but as a professional. I also, at least in my experience, queered spaces through being visible and verbal as a queer feminist scholar in my teaching and around my family and friends. However, the experience of social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine, denies me full access to the space - people and places - I want and need to overwrite with new experiences and memories. In other words, I currently feel stuck in a limbo of old and new. I am, nevertheless, comforted by the thought that soon, through the governmental loosening of space and gathering restrictions, I will be able to reduce this discrepancy. In the meantime, this experience provides valuable food for thought about the impact of social and physical access (restrictions) on people’s identity, (lack of) identity performance, and thus experience of themselves. This brings me to a reflection on the experience of not only “being back” but simultaneously of “being away”, being away from my, as I affectionately call it, queer feminist heaven.

Being away

Ever since I am “back” and thus “away” - back in my, as I would describe it, conservative home country and away from the queer feminist heaven my department, research group (ReproSoc), Q+@cam initiative, parts of my college, and my networks within and through these spaces represent for me - I have noticed behaviour which I can only conceptualise as “queer/feminist overcompensation”. The first week, I binge-watched the Netflix show “Pose” which took me right into New York’s ballroom culture of the 80s and 90s - suddenly RuPaul’s Drag Race makes so much more sense - only to be taken over by the TV series “Killing Eve” which portrays the evermore growing mutual (sexual) fixation of two women, one a professional serial killer and psychopath, the other a British security services operative. Very much for the benefit of my PhD research, I also passionately read myself into (queer) theory and concepts of heteronormativity, sexuality, intersectionality, and more. And I started singing again. I sang songs of which some had consciously (not) adapted lyrics to make them more LGBTQ+ inclusive - for example changing the pronouns of “Killing me Softly” and not changing the pronouns of “By the Sea” - and I sang empowering songs such as “Speechless” from Disney’s Aladdin. Between the alpine sounds of insect chirping and cowbells, you could hear me sing:

I won't be silenced. You can't keep me quiet. Won't tremble when you try it. All I know is I won't go speechless” (‘Speechless’ from Disney’s Aladdin (2019))

You see, my predominant day-to-day Cambridge experience has been shaped by such inclusion and diversity acceptance that the terminology “inclusion” and “acceptance” feels utterly unfitting to use in the first place. In this way, I have never felt included or accepted - words I associate with a sense of compromise and the good-will of more powerful others - I just am. In my Cambridge circles, diversity celebration is the norm, very much in contrast to the overall feeling I get where I am now or, to be fair, probably anywhere else. Whether through books, TV shows, songs, or regular video calls with my Cambridge family, surrounding myself with the queer feminist voices that I am missing is a way of making up for what feels (temporarily) lost. And the contrast of what has been and of what is now feels all the bigger given that I had just “survived” February - LGBT history month in the UK - when I abruptly had to leave Cambridge. With my recent completion of LGBTQ+ research for the Q+@cam initiative (see ‘Out at Cambridge’ study) and my PhD research being a continuation and development of this work, I have never been so actively involved in a LGBT history month before; it was wonderful. One February night, a close friend of mine even challenged me to list the days I did not have an LGBTQ+ event that month, rather than listing the days I was event-free, the idea being that asking the question this way would allow me to answer faster.

This dramatic shift towards all of a sudden feeling like “the only queer in the village” - to be taken quite literally given my current residence in a village - has been isolating, saddening, and at times challenging. However, next to bringing out the rebel inside me, I do believe there is a real chance in it, two chances to be precise:

1.     I now have the opportunity to experience and, in fact, continue to experience myself as being uncompromising in my self-worth while being LGBTQ+ and female identifying. Standing up for myself - thereby also for others with similar diversity characteristics - and being an “out and proud” queer feminist scholar and individual, is much easier in an environment where this is the norm. Thus, if I can stand up for myself in less supportive and maybe even challenging environments, only possible of course because I am privileged to be safe to do that, this “acid test” could help me internalise this identity aspect and sense of self-worth even more. Besides, continuing to not accept anything less - less respect, less support - “despite” being LGBTQ+ and female identifying, can also contribute to change in a place where it is needed (more). This reminds me of my best friend’s reflection on my coming out experience in Austria almost six years ago: “It all went really well for you, didn’t it? But then again, you did not accept and would not allow us to react in any other way!”

In addition to feeling safe to be a feminist and openly LGBTQ+ in Austria, I also owe this confidence to my Cambridge spaces and people within it who were unapologetic themselves, supportive, and encouraging. This is why I believe that having safe and diversity celebrating spaces to experiment, discover and (re)invent oneself in, where we can learn about and are reminded of our value and worth “regardless” of gender and sexual orientation, is so crucial and necessary. It is crucial and necessary for our wellbeing and development, but also so that we can return strengthened to the places where we experienced something different.

2.     I also see an opportunity for my LGBTQ+ research to improve due to being temporarily away from a place where people identify, feel, think, experience, and construct the world similarly to me. Being in a less diversity supporting environment than the one I am used to which, ironically, makes it a more diverse environment, might allow me to (1) get a more realistic apprehension of the world as it is constructed and experienced by most, which allows me to (2) better understand the wider societal context of my research and thereby (3) help me see the actual scope of my research topic. All this will hopefully help me to be more realistic in what my current research can do - to understand that it is only a droplet of contribution - and to design my research in a way which allows me to connect to a wider audience during and as a result of it. Having been reminded that my diversity encouraging, feminist environment is unlike the experience of probably most other people and having been disillusioned about the realistic impact of my PhD research was truly uncomfortable, destabilising, and partly depressing. But I feel that I now have a more accurate understanding of what I do and can do than before. I appreciate that. It will make my research more grounded and, I believe, stronger. How am I supposed to interact with the world and contribute to it becoming more inclusive if I don’t have a realistic apprehension of it? Harshly put, I am probably not going to connect to and offer change to most people’s views, for example Austrians, while sitting in a mansion in Cambridge. This brings me to another chance: being away from the Oxbridge bubble.

Remember the Aladdin song I referred to earlier? One of my favourite lines from this song is: “Don't you underestimate me”. This is an interesting one. For the first weeks of my return, I constantly felt underestimated when meeting my fellow Tiroleans on morning or evening walks, simply because I was in Tirol and not in Cambridge anymore. Precisely because of interactions taking place in Tirol and not within the “honourable walls” of Oxbridge, they would not know about my Oxford and Cambridge affiliation. Not that this is necessarily what I want people to know about me, I actually find myself making very conscious decisions whether or, as in most cases, not to disclose this aspect about myself outside of Oxbridge. However, based on my experience, these two magical words - Oxford and Cambridge - seem to be one of the biggest factors contributing to people underestimating me less and, in many cases, not reducing me to my age and gender anymore. Besides, to shift one’s perception of someone solely because of hearing these brands is, in my mind, unjustifiable. So instead, I started to become overwhelmingly aware of my gender and age when engaging in the culturally obligatory “Hallo” – “Grias di!” greeting ritual, expected when meeting someone on Tirolean mountains. And, whether it was a fair interpretation or I was blinded by my experiences I made growing up here, I felt reduced to being a somehow young looking, female presenting individual and with these characteristics, given the dominant societal meaning associated to these characteristics, underestimated. I use the expression “reduced to”, but maybe the focus on gender and age, in addition to race and class, is not so much an exceptional reduction but what tends to happen when interacting with strangers generally. But having lived within the Oxford and Cambridge bubble for almost five years, what I am used to - certainly for worse than for better - is for people to predominantly consider my Oxbridge “status” when interacting with me; within Oxbridge and outside of it, where these two universities - unfairly more so than others - receive such meaning and power. What made me aware of the difference it can make to have or not have this “status” even within Oxbridge was when I lived with my partner, who at that time was not affiliated to either university, in Cambridge for two years. The following happened a lot: we were out and about and started chatting with strangers who, in most cases, turned out to be Cambridge students. One of the first questions we got was: “What do you do?” Once we had shared our professions and thereby disclosed our (non-)Oxbridge affiliation, all the attention was shifted to me and my partner got ignored: “At which department and college are you? What is your research about? Which one do you think is better, Oxford or Cambridge?” And it saddens me to admit that, at first, I did not even notice; I was that used to it. I realise now that being (temporarily) away and experiencing life without this “special status” certainly makes me - similarly to experiencing a less diversity celebrating environment - a more grounded person who has a more accurate apprehension of how life feels for the majority of people, at least in some aspects. As one of my loved ones told me a couple of days ago: “You don’t find yourself in the focus of interest and importance anymore? Welcome to the real world!”

In retrospect, having been “back” and thereby “away” has been, in parts, challenging but is also full of opportunities for me and my research to develop: to confront myself with my past and unify the “old” and “new” me, to strengthen and internalise my sense of self-worth and to maybe even have an impact on the more conservative surroundings I find myself in, to re-discover my current surroundings and find out whether the description “conservative” is still a fair one, to be disillusioned about the context and scope of contribution of my PhD research, and finally, to step away from and thereby reflect on my Oxbridge identity, affiliation, and power I am given because it.

Writing this blog post has been emotional, cathartic, and made me truly appreciate the space I am in now. It also helped me to critically reflect on Cambridge, so when the day comes and I return, I might see it differently, challenge and value aspects of it more, and make the most out of it while I am there or, to be honest, wherever I am.

Five Generations

Fri, 24/04/2020 - 09:09

My daughter meets her great-grandmother. Photo by Louis Buckley

Katie Dow, April ‘20

‘Mummy tired.’ I’m not sure if it was a question or an observation, but I was struck by my two-year-old’s empathy. She had just woken up from a nap herself, her cheeks a little pink and her hair more unkempt than usual. Focused, apparently, on a bowl of raisins, she looked at me when I yawned and pronounced her assessment.

Later, a few messages from my mum, who has been self-isolating for about a month because she has various chest conditions. One a suggestion that I try and grow mung bean sprouts with my daughter, as, apparently, she did with me as a child. She might enjoy watching them grow, she suggested. Another, a forwarded email from her best friend since childhood, my godmother and namesake. My dad is Christian and I was christened, but my godmother is Jewish and my mum and I are both atheists, so we use the term godmother in an unconventional – you could say, unorthodox – way, to denote the special bond between my godmother and my mum, and between my godmother and me.

My godmother’s family was an important haven for my mum when she was growing up, a second family for her in which, unlike her natal home, diversity was valued and the underdog was championed. In her email, my godmother had written to offer some of her best memories of my grandmother. One in particular struck a chord with me, of how she always prepared guestrooms with generosity and comfort, even for children, including leaving a tin of biscuits in case of ‘night starvation’. It reminded me of the times I had stayed with my grandparents during summer holidays. At one point, they lived in a converted mill house in Devon, with my great-grandmother (my grandmother’s mother) in a cottage next door. It was a magical place to spend time, roaming around the large garden, paddling in the millstream that still ran through it and finding any excuse to visit my great-grandmother, who always treated me, as she did all of her younger relations, somewhere between a trusted confidante and a distinguished guest.

My daughter is obsessed with rabbits, which she likes to call babbies. She has many soft toy rabbits, mostly presents given to her as a newborn. I was astonished by the generosity of friends and family when she arrived. Presents, cards and thoughtful gestures flooded in from far and wide. Her newest babby, an Easter present from my dad, is a baby rabbit, whom she sometimes refers to with the multispecies moniker, Baby Bear Babby. My suggestion that we call her Babette didn’t stick. I watch my daughter take Baby Babby everywhere, tucked under her arm, changing her imaginary nappy, feeding her morsels, sharing her toys with her, asking her if she is ok when she falls on the floor and even designating another bigger babby she already had (previously only known as ‘Big Babby’ or ‘White Babby’) as ‘Mummy Babby’. Presumably, she does not think of herself as Baby Babby’s mummy, or at least not her only one.

Becoming a parent has opened up a portal back to my childhood. Although shy, and constantly reminded of this by – I guess – well-meaning adults, I was often full of laughter. I still remember those times I had uncontrollable fits of giggles, like when my junior school best friend, whom I talked about so much my mum’s boyfriend at the time renamed her The Divine Miss P, and I laughed together at school lunch until the jelly she was eating came out of her nose – naturally, causing even more giggles. Like most children, my daughter squeals with abandon when tickled. She has recently discovered This Little Piggy. Playing ‘Piggy Market’ with her, I notice the new meaning to the words: this little piggy stayed at home. I imagine if I were so inclined and had the time or energy, I would turn it into a fun gif, a cartoon of a chubby toddler foot, with ‘be this little piggy’ and an arrow pointing to the second toe. Then I think, am I really the sort of person who wants to make gifs promulgating government advice? Even if this particular piece of advice seems reasonable from a public health perspective and relatively easy to follow in my particular, privileged circumstances, it is undoubtedly problematic, especially coming from this particular government.

I reply to my mum, I remember those biscuits in the guest room. Well yes, she says, of course your great-grandmother did that first. I think that my great-grandmother’s funeral was the first one I went to. My mum’s family is long-lived and my great-grandmother, who was born at the end of the nineteenth century, lived into my teenage years. She was always kind, fun, stylish and a bit naughty and I am so grateful I got to enjoy so many years knowing her as I grew up. I wish my daughter (who has her name as a middle-name) could have met her; I feel that they are kindred spirits in many ways. I couldn’t go to my grandfather’s funeral because, as it turned out, I gave birth that day. I cannot go to my grandmother’s because there won’t be one. This is one of the harsh realities of this pandemic, which has finally killed her, aided and abetted by old age and Alzheimer’s disease. We will arrange something for when this is over. Perhaps we will plant a tree like we did after my great-grandmother died. When this is over.

My daughter speaks to her grandparents by video call every day, sometimes several times a day. At the end of the calls, she kisses the screen and hugs the phone or computer. It is touching, and a little heart-breaking. I wish my mum, who hasn’t been able to touch anyone for a month, could have more comfort than this digital simulacrum, though of course the sentiment is still pure and true. I wish my daughter’s gesture of haptic closeness wasn’t met with the flat metallic counter-embrace of a device. Children are adaptable, it’s true, but what do we want them to have to adapt to?

Being in lockdown is a bit like the early days of maternity leave. My daughter was born in mid-February. My partner had the customary two weeks of paternity leave (and, later, took three months of shared parental leave). When he went back to work after those initial two weeks, which were a milky haze punctuated by late night viewing of the Winter Olympics, a new familiarity with the darkest hours of the early morning, a shift in expectations that meant having a couple of hours’ sleep in a row was an achievement, the ‘Beast from the East’ struck, with unseasonal cold and snowstorms even in London. Suddenly on my own with a tiny, hangry human to care for, I was scared to go outside, not only because it seemed like a herculean effort to get everything ready and time it right between unpredictable naps and feeds, but also because I was worried about slipping over in the snow or my daughter getting cold. Then, by the end of the week, as I was realising that it was important to get outside whatever it took, the first bout of mastitis struck. With my mum’s help, I managed through the pain and discomfort, the irony of having to set an alarm every four hours to take my antibiotics, my daughter’s confusion about what had happened to her milk supply. Later, once I had got into the routine of getting out, of setting small goals like going to a particular destination, planning what kind of coffee and, perhaps, cake I might have at a café, even taking a book with me that I might attempt to read while my daughter napped, I observed that other people on parental leave spend a lot of time walking, particularly around parks. I came to understand that it is a way of doing something, of getting some exercise and fresh air, but also, often, of getting babies – who somehow sleep all the time but never when you want them to – to nap. In London it also reflects the fact that it is challenging to negotiate the public transport system, especially the tube, with a pushchair. Now, it seems like good practice for valuing the newly limited geographies we can inhabit under lockdown. 

Around the same time that my grandmother died in her care home, social media started to erupt with the realisation that the death toll being announced in the UK government’s press conference each day is a potentially massive under-estimate, as it only counts those who have been tested in hospital. My grandmother was one of the great Uncounted. As the comedian Frankie Boyle later tweeted, excluding residents of care homes from the death count implies that they are, somehow, less than human. It reminds me also of the careless talk of some commentators at the beginning of this crisis, that COVID-19 ‘only’ kills the elderly and those with ‘existing health conditions’. We all know what careless talk costs. 

When we planted a tree for my great-grandmother, who was a spiritualist, we spotted two rainbow clouds in the sky. Despite our atheism, we still enjoyed the thought that in some way those rainbow clouds represented her spirit – colourful, rare, distinctive.

One thing, which I hope has a lasting legacy (though I am sceptical about whether it will), is the re-evaluating that many on the right have had to do about who counts, and who is counted. Many rightwingers have expressed unabashed surprise that, in fact, people who work in the ‘unskilled’ caring, service and retail sectors might, after all, have some use. They might even – whisper it – be keyworkers. Media and government representatives express pleasant surprise that thousands of people have signed up to volunteer in the NHS. It is a cliché to talk about a ‘disconnect’ between the elites and ‘ordinary’ people in the UK, but many clichés do have a grain of truth. It is almost as if there was an untapped well of kindness and care that people have been looking for an opportunity to express. The sad thing is that those in power had no conception it might be so, and, even, that it could be harnessed without resorting to bellicose twaddle. In fact the poignant truth is that that well of kindness was already pumping through the system, it was just unrecognised before, because typically those who were keeping the country going were the least valued members of society – BAME, working class, migrants, single mothers… Think of a category of person whom our prime minister has ridiculed or denigrated in one of his newspaper columns: these are the same people who have literally been keeping us, including him, alive. The questions about whose death is counted reflect that this is a crisis in social reproduction, a reckoning with the vital importance of care. How heartbreakingly apt that it is deaths in care homes, and the quiet acts of heroism that go on there every day, that are not being counted.

A few days ago, my mum posted on Facebook: ‘Today I made a resolution not to take any more patronising, condescending, insensitive misogynistic crap from stupid white men who are less intelligent and less well informed than I am and are threatened by that fact # me too # you suck # mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’ Grief can give great clarity. We should hold on to this clarity as we, eventually, move out of our current situation. When this is over, we should remember who (was) counted in this crisis and how we all thought about how things might be, could be, different.  

Notes from within – Refractions of light in the time of Covid-19

Mon, 20/04/2020 - 08:41

Hannah Gibson (PhD Candidate Victoria University of Wellington and previous ReproSoc Visiting Scholar), April ‘20 

‘You’re at the top of the world, amore. I am so proud of you!’ she exclaimed. Indeed, beyond the trees’ branches and Tui bird that paused for breath on the phone line, I saw our world sprawled out in front of us. When I looked at her face, I saw that to her, I had climbed Everest. Grinning, I felt engulfed in a warm embrace as I worked to slow down my breath to avoid my heart rate getting too high. Always at risk, Covid-19 or not. To distract myself, I noticed how quiet the airport looks now. Travel has now become synonymous with risk and fear.

Our city is filled with so many nooks and crannies, houses built on precarious edges all higgledy-piggledy. Although it lacks a particular style, it abounds in character. Even on the cusp of winter and global pandemic, it is glorious and earns the slogan, ‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day’. Friends from Europe sometimes lament how far away we are here, worlds apart. Are we closer now? A green cast on one arm, and gripping my stick with the other, I made it up the steep slope next to the house. Mr Darcy, my service dog, does not have a halter on him usually to help me walk, but he transforms into a sleigh husky when he has a bundle of energy inside and a hill in front of him. He has been in his element these past few weeks, seeing the sudden lockdown as a treat of multiple people to check on throughout the day.

It has been a month of seeing my immediate networks adjust to isolation of varying degrees. As if they stepped across the threshold into a reality that is all too familiar to me. I’m not adjusting because I know what it is like to see your world shrink before your eyes, and the steps necessary to create substance in other, more creative ways. I have however been grieving along with everyone else, as, even though my own body is sick, I rely on others around me maintaining their own health and strength. When you spend every day of your life battling, you hold onto infallibility in others as your constant. Poets have written about the inherent vulnerability of life for centuries, but it feels like Covid-19 has enabled many to understand this concept. We are all finding ways to reorient ourselves with how we measure productivity. Now, as my mum excitedly describes the tents her grandchildren have built in her garden and the continuous board-game set out on the dining table, it is more than enough. Some days, it is okay to cocoon.

Last weekend our household sat around the dining room, playing board games too as we tried to cheer one another – but it’s always harder to lift the spirits when fog makes it impossible to see further than the neighbour’s garden. She surprised me with a boardgame based on the tiles from my favourite place on earth, La Alhambra, where years ago I found peace. Sipping tea, a hum of reverence settled upon our house that I may have found within the four walls of a church in another life. A week before the lockdown, we stood among our chosen kin in a church with acoustics ripe for a karakia we chose to sing in lieu of our choir rehearsal. Decisions had been made to look after the vulnerable by postponing the part of our lives where we could be ourselves and our heavy hearts needed lifting. Standing 2 metres apart, we expanded and felt our hearts soar. It’s an eerie feeling, your heart aching at the same time it finds comfort.

Now, nearly 2 weeks into the lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand, our apple tree has been attended to, with apples collected into paper bags and left out in our front lawn for people in our neighbourhood to collect. We asked for jars in return and found a bag of lemons also by the gate. There is a synergy happening and nature is happy. It has simultaneously more attention and peace than it has for longer than I can remember. These moments of surprise are what helps support the routine that shapes our days. I am now reoriented with what productivity means, attending to more than I output. 

A month or so before Covid-19 arrived, the biggest fertility clinic in Aotearoa put up a billboard on the side of the highway leading off from the airport. Instead of travelling, it urged women to freeze their eggs. I took a photo as we drove by the first time I saw it, laughing about the explicitness by which I was reminded that I should be thinking of my own reproduction more than I am. I wondered how many women felt guilt or grief as they drove into the city. Come visit the capital where egg freezing is the new vacation! If you can afford it. 

In the final months of writing my dissertation, I have stalled. Slowly creeping forward with an immobilised arm, I try to adjust to voice activation software that wasn’t designed for my Scottish accent. Every syllable is thought about, and I falter more than I have before because I’m used to thinking as I type. Words and keys were always fused together, a reliance that now adds to the impairment. Which words are important, which deserve to be spoken out loud? Are the Tui birds and the garden tents more valuable than an increasing chapter word count? This begs for an orientation away from the familiar, and I find myself looking at my data and fieldnotes differently. I am slowed down in the time I need to gear up, when ideas need to flourish so that the constant anxiety and surge of adrenaline have meaning. This is a different kind of paralysis of the mind, whereas before I feared what the future would be once I submit, I now want there to be a future.

These quiet moments have fed the eroding grief, the uncertainty and the familiar. A time to connect and awareness of how compelled we are to always rush. For today, knowing how incredibly privileged I am, I grip onto the small moments and realise that La Alhambra may never have re-entered my life if it were not for this isolation.