Life and Labor
As someone who writes—for money, or clout, or towards a dissertation—I feel some compulsion to write about motherhood, if only because that’s what’s about to happen to me. Pregnancy and parenthood are absolutely ordinary things that, for now, three weeks from my due date, still feel unprecedented. What could I say about holding a person inside me, as an architect, or at least someone studying architecture? To be the body-house that Carolee Schneemann theorized as accommodations for radical action or that Louise Bourgeois conjured as a literal representation of the femme maison, the “house wife” suffocated by her enclosure?1 In this moment before my labor, and amid the ongoing agitation for labor at Yale, I find myself seeking out precedents.2
Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison (Above: 1994; Below: 1984)
My recognition that this condition is not new or exceptional is not a claim on some kind of normative motherhood, or experience of gestation, especially after the undoing of Roe v. Wade in the United States. The body is ever a site of political contestation, and at this fraught political moment, mine carries the weight of another. The prospect of their being in the world also asks me to clarify my politics (how to teach this kid to be? what world to fight for, for them?) as it asks me to clear my schedule—those nagging feelings that tug in parallel to round ligament pains.
It’s an intensely intimate relation, to imagine the head that turns in my pelvis and what it can hear and taste and see, and to wonder what parts of my experiences are also theirs. But it’s also a relation that is made intensely public, given its outward expression on my body—what you’re otherwise meant to suppress in a professional setting.3 At 37 weeks, it’s no longer something I can hide; and it became a matter of disclosure to my employer, advisors, and Administrative Dean many weeks prior. This condition is one that has to be accommodated; that is my right! Though the language of accommodation, or of benefit, would have you believe it is the institution’s beneficence at work. “Parental relief” is what they call it when the Graduate School awards you “leave” while continuing to pay your stipend. Relieved from my teaching duties, though allowed and encouraged to make academic progress, I walk around in the family way, trying to get things done before the labor that will actually inaugurate the eight-or-so week suspension of my labor for the institution.
Previously, I had been thinking about this leave as some kind of sabbatical to go and do the life that is mine and doesn’t happen at Yale. Finally, after so many successive deadlines, all I would need to do is the simple work of birthing and caring for a newborn 😬 The history lecturer and mother Emily Baughan seems to share my sentiment:
The trailblazing feminist historians of the 1970s saw their work as an escape from duty of home, a place of their own. But when I had my own children, I imagined them, at first, as an escape from the work. They were the thing that would place limits on how much I could give to my job. 4
But the imagined separateness of those two places—life and work—is not quite right. As long as this child has been gestating, they’ve also been subject to the institution to which I belong, because it is the basis of my livelihood and the condition of possibility for their life. We rely on the GSAS stipend, disbursed by YSoA, raised just recently to account for inflation, but somewhere under the real cost of living in New Haven (see Nick Fisk’s September 26th email on graduate and professional student food insecurity, an acknowledgement of the precarity of what Harney and Moten call “teaching for food”5 ). That the university has accepted its role in providing for living’s “costs” betrays its tacit material investment in our basic survival and our means of reproduction.
One thing about living in America is that much of your life happens on somebody else’s time—or what they’ve paid for yours. Even its messiest parts. And in a country where healthcare is largely employer-sponsored, one’s access to life-sustaining care is contingent on one’s job. Every time I see a new provider at Yale Health, I’m asked some version of the same question: “Who works at Yale?” When I thought my water broke at 35 weeks, facing the prospect of pre-term induction, the resident OBGYN doing my cervical exam asked me again. Glancing between my spread legs and my partner sitting beside me:
“Who works at Yale?”
“I do, I’m a PhD student.”
“Oh wow, PhD students get the Yale Health plan? We don’t even get that.”
You should unionize, I should have told her. That’s what we’re doing anyway.
If intimacy is a form of relation—often reduced to those we have between friends, sexual partners, family members and lovers—it would be a mistake to neglect the way that working relations are situated within our personal lives, and the way they mutually structure them. With someone’s foot knocking against my ribs, disturbing the shape of my belly and providing the very visible excuse for my absence from Rudolph Hall, I confront my temporary exception to this space of work not just as ordinary, but as an expression and condition of solidarity with all those workers who have not had the benefit of such “accommodation,” and for all those demands still to make.
My experience, however shrouded in Ivy League privilege, is not remote from the same working class demands that gave us Paid Family and Medical Leave or civil rights protections against workplace pregnancy discrimination. This is the very ordinariness and exceptional nature of organizing with your cohort: a task that feels new and urgent, though it’s been practiced many times over. It’s not a radical vision to come together to demand the right to fair compensation or dental coverage or child care. How many airline workers and miners have fought to do so before professional intellectuals came to understand themselves as workers? Or that Yale students saw their TFs as performing an essential labor for the university?
At the University of Sheffield, where Emily Baughan teaches, academic workers went on strike against the conditions of casualization earlier this year, as they had in 2019. Then, she expressed her solidarity in terms of love. Love—for her children, for her students, for her colleagues, and even for the university itself—was a force that brought her onto the picket line:
There was a particular emotional quality to those strikes: the cold, the carnival, a love-language that we brought out of our jobs straight onto the picket. I don’t want to be on strike, I am doing this because I love the university and all it could be. The cold assured me of our sacrifice.
I didn’t need the hot water bottle again, although we didn’t win. In 2019, I carried my first son under my coat instead. As a historian, I analyse how people in the past used children to describe their political ambitions. Women, often, brought up to believe that their own needs are illegitimate, claimed rights of their own with a promise to save the children. And yet here I was, believing that in striking I was saving something I loved for the next generation, incarnate under my coat.6
But the university, she affirms, doesn’t love us back: “Our love was the precondition that made our exploitation possible.” I think about her writing and what motherhood might have to teach me, as Yale’s graduate student workers prepare to rally this week.
I am not out here to save the university, from itself or for my children. I am out here now for us, and for our rights. I am not out here to fight for a job I love but to fight for a job that doesn’t need my love, so I am free to love how and what I choose.
My cohort and friend, Auntie Iris, who keeps reminding me to wear comfortable shoes to the rally, as if I have any others at this point. We’re fighting for the same things—including each other.
- See feminist architecture collaborative, “Sexy Models and Homely Stuff: Architectural Bodies for Architecture without Feminism,” The Funambulist no. 23 (May 2019), https://thefunambulist.net/magazine/23-insurgent-architectures/sexy-models-homely-stuff-architectural-bodies-architecture-without-feminism-feminist-architecture-collaborative; and Carolee Schneemann, Parts of A Body House Book (1972). ↩︎
- Apart from these examples of 20th century feminist art, I arranged a zoom call with a member of the Yale faculty who had also timed her prospectus defense with her third trimester. Among her advice for how to maintain a life with a newborn and a PhD, there seemed to be more to say about cankles and breastfeeding than managing the expectations of my committee. ↩︎
- See feminist architecture collaborative, “The Incubator Incubator, the Administration of Leaky Bodies, and Other Labor Pains,” Harvard Design Magazine no. 46 (F/W 2018), https://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/46/the-incubator-incubator-the-administration-of-leaky-bodies-and-other-labor-pains. ↩︎
- Emily Baughan, “Strike Babies,” History Workshop (February 21, 2022), https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/strike-babies/. ↩︎
- Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “The University and the Undercommons,” The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 27. ↩︎
- Baughan, “Strike Babies.” ↩︎