Dr Charlotte Bishop
My path to law began here in Devon, at Exeter College where, in spite of a difficult home life, I achieved 4 As at A Level and a place at Kent University to study Law. I was the first in my family to go to University and embraced the freedom that moving away entailed and, despite the challenges I faced when my negative childhood experiences began to impact upon my emotional and physical health, I graduated in 2003 with a first class degree.
Knowing practice was not for me, I then worked in Kent for a while as a research executive for a medical market research company, before falling pregnant at 23 and returning to Exeter to be near my Dad. When my daughter was 18 months old I found a part-time admin job at the RD&E Hospital where I worked for 2 years doing work I hated and seething inside at regularly being ‘talked down to’ by the consultants and registrars. I knew I needed more and I needed a career that would fulfil me, but I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know what my options were, especially as a single parent. I looked at doing an MA by Research at Exeter, but couldn’t see where that would take me. And then, when my daughter was 3, I heard that it was possible to get funded to do a PhD. I couldn’t believe that this was a possibility, and set about emailing potential supervisors and putting a research proposal together.
Further difficulties set in when I didn’t get a studentship – without a Masters I can see why I wasn’t an ideal candidate for one, but it felt like my dreams were slipping away. I eventually decided to self-fund my first year and try again for a studentship in a year’s time. Embarking on my PhD as the solo parent of a 3 year old was a definite challenge! I look back now and wonder how I did it. Without an MA I felt out of my depth from the beginning – I’d been out of academia for 6 years and had no idea how to use the electronic resources or plan such a big research project. It was also hard from a social point of view as I lacked the time for socialising and building peer support that other PhD students had and I often felt isolated. I also faced financial worries due to the exorbitant cost of childcare, although I was lucky enough to get a childcare bursary to cover some of the costs.
Despite this, I felt myself come to life that first year. I felt my world expanding with new possibilities and I had a sense of purpose from doing work I enjoyed and meeting like-minded people. As a result of sheer hard work in my first year I managed to secure an AHRC studentship for my remaining 2 years which not only provided some short-term financial stability but also boosted my confidence enormously. Starting to teach in my second year was also a huge help as my confidence grew and I realised how much I loved sharing and imparting knowledge to students. Teaching, however, was not without its challenges; on the eve of my first time ever teaching my daughter was up half the night being sick, and I regularly had to work late doing teaching preparation when my daughter was in bed.
My biggest challenges came towards the end of the PhD; needing to regularly work 12 hour days to meet my deadline whilst at the same time facing financial uncertainty was very difficult as a solo parent. I didn’t have the emotional or financial support of a partner and I also didn’t have the same options when I finished my PhD as other students may have; moving around the country for fixed-term posts until I secured a lectureship was not an option. Luckily I was appointed on two fixed-term contracts as an Associate Lecturer at Exeter, and from there eventually managed to achieve a full lectureship. Knowing there would not be an end to pay days was such a relief, after years of worry and uncertainty.
I still find the double-bind faced by many working Mums a challenge. I sometimes feel I am doing nothing well – I am not a good enough parent and I am not succeeding in my career to the same degree I would be if I had fewer home responsibilities. I feel judged by other Mums because I am not as committed to parenting as them; I’m not in the playground every day after school, I don’t have time to help out with reading or on trips, I’m not in the PTA. And I feel judged by other academics for not being committed enough to my career, for saying no to evening events and missing research seminars and not being able to attend as many conferences and external events as I would like to. Some of this judgment is definitely in my head, but there is still a fixed idea of who makes the ‘ideal worker’ and it is hard to balance that ideal with the demands of solo parenting.
I’ve had to learn to say no to certain research opportunities and trust that it will not affect my long-term career goals. I’ve had to get used to running from taking a seminar to get to school in time to see my daughter receive an award or play in a music concert. I’ve learnt to be really productive during the day because I have to finish work in time to be a parent (aka cook, cleaner, shopper, PA, emotional supporter, cheerleader, teacher) and by the time my daughter is in bed at 9.30 and I’ve washed the dishes there is no way that getting the laptop out is going to appeal!
When I struggle with all the juggling and rushing around and working at odd hours that inevitably entails from the career I have chosen to balance with solo parenting, I remind myself that I once dreamed of being where I am now. And I remind myself that through my research on domestic violence, and my teaching of issues around law, gender and sexuality, I am making a difference to the lives of survivors of abuse, and I am inspiring my students to go and work and campaign on these kinds of issues too. And I tell myself that if I can get where I am today in the face of all these challenges, then I will be able to handle whatever the future has in store for me, as a Mum and as a lecturer. I hope my story inspires others in similar positions to realise their dreams – it is possible to overcome childhood adversity and to have a successful and fulfilling career, even as a solo parent, but it requires acceptance of our own limitations, both as a parent and as an academic.