It was early 2020, the deep end of the first lockdown when the email containing the magic words: “we are pleased to inform you that your proposal has passed this phase” landed in my inbox. Just over six months into the Horizon 2020 MotherNet project (grant agreement No 952366 ), I can confirm that these months have been some of the most intense, strange and educational in my academic career.
Let’s have a little sneak peek behind the scenes of the Horizon 2020 networking project MotherNet. What sort of activities do participants engage in? What benefits do they bring? What are their uses?
The project that brings together Vilnius, Maynooth and Uppsala Universities kicked off in January 2021 online. By then we were all quite savvy with the online working tools, so the three day long online meeting didn’t feel all that unnatural. One of the challenges and possibly one of the greatest rewards of this project is its interdisciplinary nature. Scholars in fields as diverse as literature, cultural studies, film, English, German, French, Swedish, Russian, Lithuanian studies, linguistics, sociology, social work, medicine, law and business studies have come together to see how we can collectively provide some insight into the mothering conditions and experiences in contemporary Europe. This is no small feat, especially for those of us who haven’t had that much experience of interdisciplinary research – or in some case, much interdisciplinary academic experience at all! Figuring out how to productively combine the knowledge, know-how, theoretical approaches and methodologies of different disciplines can be really complicated, humbling and downright frustrating! Therefore, creating interdisciplinary research clusters as early as the kick-off meeting has been one of the biggest achievements of the project so far. The research clusters so far include: Motherhood and Work, Negotiating Childlessness; Lone Mothers; Medical Humanities; Migrant Mothers; and Mothers and Sex Work. For the same reasons, a monthly interdisciplinary research seminar has been set up at Vilnius University that provides a platform for VU researchers to present and discuss their research with an interdisciplinary audience. This work lays the groundwork for interdisciplinary collaborations in terms of research projects and joint publications. It is already obvious that these collaborations will produce some important new knowledge, especially since the kick-off meeting and the first MotherNet Summer School at Maynooth University, run by Dr Ciara Bradley and delivered mostly by Maynooth University participants, included highly interesting and focussed training sessions in areas such as: narrative and engaged research; research ethics; maternal theories; academic publishing; case study research, critical discourse analysis; and many more. Separate sessions were held for research support staff to offer training on how best to support individual and collaborative applications for research grants.
In the month, many MotherNet scholars have disseminated their research at two international conferences held at Maynooth University – one on Motherhood and Work held in June and one on Doing Women’s Film and Television History. Dissemination of provisional MotherNet research results has been happening in other conferences across the world too. Furthermore, this year, a new BA elective module on Contemporary Motherhood and Fatherhood (in English in spring and in Lithuanian in autumn) was offered at Vilnius University. The module contains four units – Cultural Representations of Motherhood;Motherhood/Fatherhood and Human Rights; Sexual and Reproductive Health; and Mothering with Disabilities – and it has been really popular with students so far. A new module for the Master of Social Science Rights informed by research collaboration within the MotherNet has been offered at Maynooth University too. It explores continuing differences in the experiences of women and men in paid labour, with persistent wage differentials, occupational and sectoral segregation and unequal work-life balance; social protection and care; and analysis of the continuation or demise of the ‘male breadwinner’ model.
Another important aspect of the MotherNet project is its focus on Early-Stage Researchers (ESRs), i.e. postgraduate students. To this end, an Early-Stage Researcher (ESR) Forum, led by Professor Anna Williams and Dr Jenny Björklund from Uppsala University, has been established with the aim of offering a supportive network and opportunities for PhD students at scheduled and informal meetings. Two meetings took place online in the spring of 2021. The first meeting was entitled “National perspectives on motherhood and mothering”. It was based on the understanding that the three countries represented in MotherNet (Lithuania, Sweden, and Ireland) have different approaches to motherhood/mothering, different national motherhood ideals, and different ideas about feminism, abortion, childcare systems, balancing professional work and parenting, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. Thus, the ESR Forum members gave short presentations on motherhood in their respective countries, followed by a discussion. The participants were free to focus on aspects that they found interesting, and their introductions led to productive discussion, among other things about common grounds for further collaboration.
The second workshop aimed at enhancing academic writing skills by discussing work-in-progress by ESR members. Two members submitted samples of their academic texts (in English) in advance, and a rewarding discussion followed at the seminar. There are obvious benefits for the ESRs in meeting PhD students from other universities, sharing experiences about writing, doing research, the workplace, reflections about everyday life as an ESR, and future opportunities.
The MotherNet mentoring programme, run by Professor Margaretha Fahlgren, is another productive feature of the MotherNet. Thirteen mentor-mentee pairs have been formed; a Zoom training seminar was offered for mentors and mentees by career and leadership coach Rabbe Hedengren of the Division for Quality Enhancement, Career and Leadership in academia at Uppsala University. Since that, the mentors and mentees have been meeting regularly and have worked on career development plans for the mentees.
Finally, one of the aims of MotherNet is to change perceptions about motherhood. To this end, a series of MotherNet outreach events has been planned to coincide with relevant holidays and local and national events. The event Ššš, mama dirba (Hush, Mum’s Working), organised by Vilnius University, was scheduled to coincide with the Lithuanian Mother’s Day (the 1st Sunday in May) and took place online on 29 April 2021. Since the original event – the opening of the exhibition Portrait of a (Working) Mother featuring a round-table discussion on motherhood and work – had to be cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions, the event was replaced with an online equivalent tailored to reflect on the situation of working mothers during the lockdown, as seen through their eyes of their children. Children were invited to send photos of their mothers at work. The pictures, as well as the strains of mothering (and parenting more broadly), were discussed in a forum of the children themselves, their mothers, one father, and a panel of experts.
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Eglė Kačkutė (Vilnius University), MotherNet Coordinator
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 952366.