Nine years ago when I started my doctoral studies not only was I in a fertile intellectual endeavour undertaking fieldwork, reading theory, stretching my brain and writing, I was also at my peak fertility having babies while I did all the above. I was stretched in more ways than one.
At that time we lived in a small house, as you do when you first start out and one of the things that I had to make space for was, well me. That was me as a student, me doing my PhD, me needing a computer and a small space to work in. Where could I find that in a house that was basically four rooms, with a partner, a baby and a toddler? We had a study set up, basic, but serviceable. As is the case it was always at the back of the house, near the kitchen and laundry, cold and draughty and not anything like the sort of space you might imagine doing your best work, your thinking and writing in.
I was in this space early in the morning before babies interrupted your thoughts with cries of need for milk, bananas and entertainment for an hour or so in the morning. I was in this space late at night as well, when everyone else had gone to bed after a nice night watching a movie or playing a game or reading a book, and was snug, while I sat in the cold, dark, poorly ventilated space next to the laundry trying to put some semblance of academic thinking against my fieldwork experiences. That I was translating and transcribing and trying to keep up with the bourgeoning literature at the same time as managing leaky breasts and playgroups says something about the spaces in which I travelled at that time.
Well the study space in the end just didn’t do it for me. I dragged the family to IKEA looking for something small in a desk that I could prop up somewhere away from people. I found a desk and a chair and we dragged power boards and strung cords all through the house and then ta dah, I finally had a space up the hallway somewhere near the front door, away from the TV and the kids, where I could work.
At least that was the theory. In practice, there was no door to separate me from the noise, the hubbub, the neediness, the wants, the cuddles, the play, the cleanup so, the baby change table and well, life basically.
So I had to rethink the desk, chair and computer scenario again.
This time I moved them into my bedroom which was right up the front of the house. At least this way I had a door to close, which meant entry and exit rituals that I could control.
I was sick and tired of the functionality of the IKEA desk and chair and so I persuaded the family (7 minutes to get the kids into the car seats each time we stopped) to take a drive to the part of the city that had ‘interesting’ furniture and I found what in the end turned out to be a hall table with a couple of drawers that suited me just fine. It was narrow enough not to take up too much space (unlike me) and attractive as well as functional. Well, my knees knocked on it a bit when I crossed my legs, but hey I wasn’t complaining.
I set it up in front of the curtains facing the street. It was a busy street too, a secondary road that connected far flung suburbs. And it was a major intersection to boot. And one of the feeder roads to the intersection took the big trucks that transported goods around the country from the inland port just down the road. That meant a few hundred thousand big rigs shining their lights right into my bedroom as they waited to go around that corner. And go around that corner they did every time, usually in about six gear changes. I know, I used to count every single one of them.
These rigs, their lights, their gear changes, their acceleration and their brakes were my companions as I translated, transcribed and created sensible sentences to please my doctoral dissertation readers. I did OK. I passed in the end.
But the space: sitting their looking at the curtains, looking at the lights all those years ago. I thought I’d passed that stage but no. Here I am again. This time I’m facing teenagers and a partner who’s studying too. We live not in the little four room house anymore, but a couple of suburbs away in comparative luxury and splendour. We have a house with more than the minimum number of rooms, it’s open plan and has a purpose built study. What a joke. Did I just write those words: ‘purpose built study’? I should post the photo from the company that sold the build to us. It looks perfect but the photo, like my part of the study is not inhabited by any real people at all.
Here I am nine years later again facing the curtains in the bedroom. Again I’m sitting at a make shift desk, but this time it’s a reused telephone table, and I have a little bit more room for my knees, but not much. Instead of the laptop I’ve gone cordless with the IPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. And it’s carpeted..
When I look out now I don’t have to hide behind muslin curtains to shield myself from anonymous drivers. Now I look out at a panoply of suburbia. There are five houses, these are my neighbours and I get to watch the comings and goings of my street, of my neighbourhood. I see the dads come home with the kids. I see the mums dragging home groceries and pulling them out of the boot. I see the older kids smartly walk home, their school uniforms dishevelled. And the punks with their hotted up cars that they like to double park on the suburban streets, just to show how cool they are and how they can break the rules. That nobody but me and my neighbours sees, doesn’t seem to faze them. We all look to challenge the boundary spaces in life in lots of little ways, and this is their way.
I get to see the unfamiliar too: the surveyor who pulls out his equipment and takes his measures. Who’s moving I wonder? What’s the council up to, I muse? I see the bald man with the walking stick cross the road outside my house, walk along the path on the other side of my low hedge with his walking stick. He avoids my gaze and heads to the path near my house and walks to the park and onwards to somewhere that I don’t see. Perhaps to the park? Perhaps to the suburb next door? Perhaps, like some of my neighbours to the nearby club for a drink with friends for the afternoon? I don’t know.
And I’m studying again. This time a Masters level course. So much more practical than a PhD. And fun too. I’m loving being engaged with mature students who’ve already overcome the hurdles and challenges of early career negotiations. But I need to find a space to write and that’s what this blog was about: how do you find space for yourself in a busy house, a busy place, a hectic world, a noisy monstrosity of a family that still demands something of you?
Well, you just set yourself up somewhere in a corner, or by a window and preferably, have the capacity to shut the door….