Take your kaynana to work day: A Turkish mother-in-law’s observations of an academic


My gracious and elegant Kaynana (Turkish for mother-in-law)

My gracious and elegant Kaynana (Turkish for mother-in-law)

Yesterday, I wrote about my Turkish mother-in-law (kaynana) – or rather – my phantom mother-in-law, as she passed away before I had the honor of meeting her.  During the time I have been with M., I have gleaned bits and pieces of information that have led me to develop a sense of her, but it has only been over the past couple of years, at the height of my workaholism, that I began to imagine that my kaynana was in the car, in the office or in the classroom with me.  Let’s not even get into why I didn’t imagine either of my own mothers in the car with me – I think it was something about someone so different, with such a different frame of reference that made my mind choose her.

As Blogher’s prompt for today’s December NaBloPoMo writing challenge poses the question “what are you a pro at,” let me respond by addressing how my kaynana responds to the way I teach my students and the ability I have to write – and write a lot. I choose these topics as they are the things I feel most confident about in my work life – producing academic scholarship and running student-centered classrooms that facilitate lively discussions and active learning.

So, just to check in, no, I am not hallucinating, my kaynana is not really in the classroom with me, her imaginary presence is more like “checking out” what a woman of a different culture and era might have lived like compared to my own experience.  It’s a way of asking myself – “gee, self, what is it that I am doing here?” And by way of helping me to find my answer, my phantom kaynana might say things such as, “well, are you happy, canım?” or “well, let me put that question back to you, dear? Why don’t you think about that some more over a glass of çay.  You never seem to have time for that at work, though, and you often forget even to go to the ladies room you are so busy!”

Now let me preface all of this imaginary commentary from my take-my-kaynana-to-work days by illustrating that my kaynana was not the stereotypical, stay-at-home Turkish housewife.  While she did all those things, she was fluent in English, had studied ceramic art in France, read extensively and often took trips without her husband – to England, to India, to many parts of Europe. So, this was an empowered lady.  But she did not, as far as I know, work in the formal workforce at any point.  And, I am sure, her primary thoughts were about how she could and should support her husband and children, as that was what *she* was a pro at, work-wise.

Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea (Photo credit: Emre Ergin)

So, as I usually rush, wild-eyed and not-yet-caffeinated with hair un-coiffed out the door in the morning, before I know it, my kaynana is by my side, smoothing my hair, and reminding me that it is alright to take a few moments for the good of self-care (and presenting myself more attractively to the world).  “It is not,” I imagine her saying, “the antithesis of being an empowered woman to do so, canım.”  My kaynana is the reason I find myself in the pedicure bay once in a while, not to mention the hairdresser, as these things were not engaged in by my own mothers who generally eschewed such activities in favor of reading books or taking nature walks (both wonderful things).  It is hard for a busy and some might say workaholic woman such as myself to make time for such things, but every time I do, I relish the relaxation that comes along with it, and I have to thank.

And so it is in the moments before she appears beside me during my work hours that I ponder the questions, “what would kaynana think about my dusty office?” or “how would kaynana handle a grumpy student who behaved disrespectfully in class?”  or “what would kaynana think about how late I have to drive home from work?” During the days (and often nights) in my office, my kaynana is often my accompanist, ensconced graciously in the industrial, fire-proof royal blue chair next to my disastrous desk. Sometimes, she accompanies me to class, registering polite shock at the types of comments my students feel emboldened to make about my weight, my clothes, potential pregnancy status (really) or appearance or my hair.  “Really, these students, they need to show a bit more honor and respect for you,” she notes, with hushed alarm.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford Deutsch: Die zwanzigjährige Virginia Woolf, fotografiert von George Charles Beresford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often teach at night, and try to do a bit of writing after class, when I am “juiced up” mentally, before the hour’s drive home.  As I write away into the night, my kaynana’s svelte arms rest gracefully on the shiny black plastic of the chair’s armrest, she sometimes poses a gentle question along the lines of “Are you happy doing this important work, canım, it must be important or you would not work so hard and long hours?” or “Perhaps I could get you a glass of tea to help you get through the last bit of this writing? I can see that you love to write, but why is it that you write *so* much when you could be home with my son?”  She is rightfully concerned, but I have the sense that she would have respected what some might call the need for a woman to have “a room of one’s own” to draw on Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase.  Mostly, she wishes that I would call a driver to take me home, “it is too late and too dark, canım, for you to be driving when you are so tired.”

So in some small ways, it has been my imaginary connection with my Turkish kaynana that has helped me to begin the process of finding a better balance in my work life.  I find the presence of my phantom mother-in-law a calming and supportive one, and I can only hope that she will continue to haunt me for years to come. Cök teşekürler ederim kaynana benim. 

Note: The Karagöz puppets would like me to announce that they are taking a sporadic vacation this month – and will only make occasional appearances here on Slowly-by-Slowly. They are exhausted and in need of a good, long nap. Instead, you will be hearing from me, Liz Cameron, as I have taken on the challenge of writing via dictation software for the coming month as part of Blogher’s December NaBloPoMo challenge – to write on the topic of “work” each day for the whole month. As some of you know, the past month has been a tough one for me, one in which I have realized that things are way out of whack for me when it comes to how I address my approach to work. Upon reflection, work is a central theme in the discussions and arguments that M. and I have as each half of a Turkish-American marital union, so I am hopeful for this to be a month of rich reflection on how east and west approach – work.

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9 Responses to Take your kaynana to work day: A Turkish mother-in-law’s observations of an academic

  1. Sandra Y. Espinoza says:

    L.C.: your writing today resonates with me in various ways, though what your kaynana says regarding students’ comments to you, speaks to me the loudest. Finding my way around the potential minefields that student attitudes/behaviors towards me can be, has been probably one of the most difficult things to get accustomed to in academia. Thanks for your posts.

  2. E. says:

    Thanks, Sandra. Good to know we are not alone!!

  3. Pingback: Babane, Anane & Kaynana make jam: A lesson in leading, following and collaborating | Slowly-by-Slowly

  4. Alan says:

    . . interesting that there is a parallel between car wheels and people – if car wheels are not balanced then eventually something snaps and the wheels fall off! Cars with all their wheels are great for exploring backways and trackways that often lead, via different roads, to our desired destination 🙂

  5. Nancy says:

    This is such a loving portrait of the mothering in your kaynana – her understanding heart knows that you need to be understood, and cherished, and that the perfection thing, which drives the artistic part of us all, is sometimes harsh. And that the work that comes from it, which now is these words, is almost always beautiful . . .

  6. E. says:

    Dear Nancy, thank you so much for your comment, it means so much coming from you. I am really enjoying this writing, and I am pretty impressed with the iPhone dictation too, as a side note. I think it is easy to idealize my mother in law because she is a phantom mother-in-law, but it sure is fun to write about. And of course she is me trying to help myself understand what’s happening for me. So, basically I think I’m on the right path now. Sending love, Liz

  7. E. says:

    Dear friend Alan, oh how true this is. And boy did my wheels need replacement realignment patching decibel whole works. But I feel as though I’m on the right road now. Currently it’s mental back ways and trackways, but I look forward to getting out on the real road again soon. Things are looking up. Love, Liz

  8. Pingback: How to relax after a hard day’s work? Karagoz chortles and snorts | Slowly-by-Slowly

  9. Pingback: The Karagöz Puppets Respond to the Turkish People’s Profile Study | Slowly-by-Slowly

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