On Father’s Day, I was messing around in the garden with E. I recently bought my first prime lens for my camera. I was sick of not being able to take the pictures of E. I really wanted to- I wanted a lens with lower aperature settings. I bought an old one (a 50mm/F1.8)- it works with my camera, but it’s manual focus only. It wasn’t very expensive, and I figured if I liked it, I could eventually upgrade to one of the newer models.
I’ve already seen a huge difference in my photos. I’m working hard to stay off of the auto setting and to, at minimum, set my aperature and my white balance. I’m not confident with it yet, and the manual focus is a problem when you have a swift-moving toddler, but the jump in quality has been (to me at least) very noticeable, and I’m not enjoying my little portable point-and-shoot very much anymore (which means now I have to think more seriously about a proper camera bag for my DSLR that can also serve as a diaper bag/space to stash child stuff, since the backpack I have, which I did not bring to the U.K., really isn’t suitable if I’ve got E. on my back).
On Father’s Day I was taking some pictures to check out the light and to play with the focus so I could hopefully later take a nice picture of Q. and E. (which I did manage to get, but it took some effort). And while I was messing around, I took a picture of E. that is, hands down, one of my favourite pictures of him. He’s looking at the camera, smiling in that gentle way he has, perfectly in focus, good light, nicely blurred background, etc.
It’s a beautiful photo. On Monday I changed my laptop’s background to be that photo.
And it derailed my work day.
I’m serious. I kept stopping what I was reading just to stare at his face.
The photo I’d had as my background before that also had E. in it- it was the two of us in San Francisco from our trip in late March- but it never struck me so deeply as this photo does.
Every time I looked at it, I wondered what I was doing sitting in the library when I really wanted to be at home with him.
I am so confused right now.
I have no idea what I really want to do when I get this PhD finished.
I don’t know whether or not I want to get a tenure-track job (although I suspect the answer is “not”, even if there were a tenure-track job available, which is highly highly unlikely).
I don’t know whether or not I want to be a stay-at-home Mum for a while (although I suspect again that the answer is “not”, although I vascillate wildly on this).
I don’t know whether I want to do a post-doc, although I’m going to apply for the funding in the fall anyway. I have a prospective supervisor, and she just sent me a really positive e-mail in response to the one I’d sent with my project idea- she thinks it’s a great idea, can think of no other treatment of the question, and would be very happy to supervise it. I got really excited about it when I read her e-mail, and then the doubts crept in again.
There is a lot that I love about academia. I love that Q. and I work in the same field- even though this means I basically have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a proper job at the end, since I can’t move to take up a position. I love that we can talk about the books that we’ve read. I love the rhythms of academia- the start of the new year, the long vacation (which isn’t, in any way, a vacation if you are on the tenure track and have publications to finish- you’re just free of teaching). The flexibility. The chance to set your own hours (the trade off is that your job and your life remain ever intertwined and it is very very hard to ever actually be “off”). The chance to go to conferences in new places (although I don’t really like conferences, I like using them as an excuse to go somewhere nice). The opportunity to work with other people, like I’m doing now.
Right now I simply cannot imagine my life outside of academia. I’ve been in school, as a teacher or a student, sometimes both simultaneously, since I was four. My new year starts in September. Always has, always will. It’s that simple.
The happiest I’ve ever been in the last few years was in the first year after we’d moved back to Canada. I was a contract lecturer at the university where I’m now a PhD student. I had my own course and TA’ed in a couple of others. I had intellectual fulfillment without too much pressure. I had time to myself- I wrote a novel that year (that I’ve then kept under my desk, but that’s another post).
I did not, however, make very much money.
And it wasn’t really fair that I was working part-time, and happy, and balanced, when Q. was killing himself trying to get tenure.
It was that year of teaching- the first semester, even- that convinced me to go back for the PhD. I loved teaching at university. I felt inspired. I felt like this was what I wanted to do.
Now, when I look back with a cold, hard eye, I ask myself whether I really enjoyed it that much, or whether I was just enthralled by the newness of it all. I ask myself whether it would start to grate on me, to teach the same texts to first year undergraduates, year after year, undergraduates who often didn’t want to be in the course, who often almost never did their readings.
It was also our first year in our new city. My sisters were in town. We were catching up with old friends. Everything was new, and we hadn’t yet been beaten down by infertility or exhausted from parenting.
Next year, E. is going to preschool three days a week. I’ll be home with him the other two days.
This, on the surface and in my gut, strikes me as the perfect balance.
Except I’ll be trying to finish a dissertation while teaching my own course (a fourth year honours seminar) for the first time.
I will be, once again, trying to squeeze a full-time job into part-time hours.
So I don’t feel that next year will give me a clear sense of whether that’s the ratio of work-home balance for which I’m searching.
But it might be a start.
I’ve tried to spend some time lately thinking about what I do and don’t want from a future career. I’ve tried to prioritize and to think about what really really matters to me.
Each time I come to the same conclusion:
I would rather make less money (much less money) than be stressed.
I really don’t want a career/job that asks 110% of what I can give. I don’t want a career/job that keeps me up at night fretting. I don’t thrive on that. Some people do.
I want time in my life for other things.
I want to be able to be present, really present, when I’m at home with my son. Not thinking about work. Not disappearing off to do a few more hours. Not checking e-mails while he amuses himself.
I want time at night with my husband. I don’t want to be working every evening after E. has gone to bed.
I want time for myself. I want time to exercise, without feeling guilty that I’m taking that time. I want time to read books for fun.
Am I asking for too much?
Before we moved back to Canada, I taught English at a private high school in the city in which we lived. For 18 months I was on a full-time load. I also coached rowing.
This school was notorious for taking its pound of flesh from its staff. There were always, always extra-curricular commitments and parent meetings and performances to attend. While I was there a significant proportion of the young staff left. Some moved to other teaching jobs at government schools; others left teaching entirely.
I really loved parts of that job. I loved the students. They were overwhelmingly really good kids. They threw me surprise farewell parties when I left. They made me cry (happy crying) on more than one occasion.
I loved the rest of my department, especially my chair and assistant chair. It was a wonderful department in which to be a young teacher.
The job, however, was killing me.
The marking. The coaching. The five classes of English, each one a different grade level.
I spent a lot of evenings in tears.
If we’d stayed there, Q. and I had already discussed my dropping down to 0.8 time, which would mean four lines of English rather than five.
We’d agreed that it would be worth the financial hit to have me less stressed. Q. wanted me to be happy.
I joke to Q. a lot that I’d like to be a bank teller.
9-5, no evenings and weekends (although even that is changing these days with our banks offering longer hours and more service options).
Leave the job behind you when you get home. Really, really leave it behind you.
(Note: I have no idea what life is actually like as a bank teller. It’s just what I tend to fixate on when I’m looking at alternatives. It seems to sum up, for me, the type of job that would be the completel opposite of being in academia.)
“You’d get bored.” Q. just states this. “You’d be bored within two months.”
He’s probably right.
And I think I’d find the idea of four weeks’ holiday a year to be a rude shock given I’m so used to being able to manipulate my own hours.
But I do like to idly daydream about it.
I don’t know that I have what it takes for the tenure-track.
I don’t know that I would have wanted it if we’d remained childless, but I certainly feel that my priorities have shifted considerably since having E.
I feel like a failed feminist for saying this.
I want so much for men and women to attain employment equality.
I want to be one of those women who proves that you can have children and be an academic too, despite what all the statistics keep saying.
But I also want to spend more time with my son.
Here’s the thing.
I get bored easily.
I need challenge.
Even while miserably overworked while a full-time high school teacher, I wrote new lesson plans and taught new texts each year. I only once retaught a course (North American Literature to grade eleven), and even then I changed two of the set texts.
It would have been so much easier to just reteach what I’d already prepped. But I was already, even in the infancy of my teaching career, getting bored.
I worry that I will get bored teaching the same tutorials over and over again, as would undoubtedly happen if I were an adjunct. This would happen as well on the tenure track, but I’d have the ability to design a new course if I really wanted to. I’d have more control over what I was teaching.
But if I left academia, I’d probably become bored by whatever else I did too.
When I think about what I most want to do in the next few years, I come back again and again to the same answer.
I want to teach, part-time, at university.
I want to be able to take my son to his preschool and pick him up again.
I want to be able to spend the summers with him.
I want to be able to write. And this time I swear I will silence my inner critics and actually send what I write to a publisher.
I am willing to take the enormous financial penalty that would come with such a decision.
I would be signing on to teach as much as Q. does for literally a third of the pay. In theory this is meant to reflect the fact that adjuncts are not meant to have research and service commitments like full-time faculty do. In reality it’s a calculated move by the universities to save money- every year more and more courses are taught by part-time, temporary, contract lecturers and fewer and fewer tenure-stream positions are advertised.
I don’t know that there will be enough part-time work for me in every year.
I don’t know that I will find the job intellectually satisfying after a few years.
I don’t know that I would make enough money to ensure that Q. would not stress about money. Let me be clear about this. Q. makes a very good wage. We could live on Q’s income alone. We wouldn’t be able to pay off our mortgage aggressively, and we wouldn’t have a lot of extra money to put into retirement savings, and we wouldn’t be able to afford the clinic, and we’d struggle to afford the flights back to see Q’s family every couple of years, but we’d manage. But leaving aside all of my own conflicted feelings about not having an income and being dependent on Q. and losing my own identity, ultimately I would not be able to rationalize staying home full-time because I wouldn’t be able to watch the impact it would have on Q. to become our sole bread-winner. We live in an expensive city, and Q. grew up with more money than I did, so he has particular ideas about how we should live. It wouldn’t be financially crippling if I were to stay home for a few years. It would be emotionally crippling. I think the stress would just overwhelm Q. And I’m not sure how much more money I need to bring in before Q. will stop fretting about it. We probably need to sit down and work out our short, medium and long-term financial goals and then do a budget. (I love crunching numbers. Q. hates talking about numbers. It’s a challenge.) But we can’t do any of that until we’re done with trying to add to our family.
I don’t know that it makes sound financial sense for me long-term. Once you step off the tenure-track, you can never, ever get back on again. And if my marriage to Q. ended (which I have absolutely no reason to think it ever would, but it has to be thought about), I’d be in a much more vulnerable position.
I don’t know that this decision is fair to Q. Is it fair that I take such a step back from the world of work, when the only reason I’m in a position to even consider such a move is because he worked his ass off to get tenure and land that permanent job? At the same time, we agreed when I started the PhD that he was the senior academic and that we wouldn’t move just so I could take up a job somewhere else without something for him. So if I do end up on the adjunct side of things, it would partly be because he does have that permanent job.
I know that I could never have even considered settling (and see, I instinctively call it “settling”) for such part-time, unpredictable, unstable work, if we’d remained childless. I would have felt like I was letting Q. down.
Now that E. is in the picture, however, things seem different. And if, if we get a 2.0 as well, things will change again. I feel like going from one child to two would make it easier to rationalize one of us stepping back to focus more on our little family.
But then again, I feel like I should be able to make up my mind about what I want to do, career-wise, without knowing whether we’ll have two children, or just E. I feel like I should be able to decide about this independently of our family circumstances.
This is, of course, completely illogical. Of course career priorities could change depending on the final form our family takes.
I feel like it shouldn’t.
I worry a lot about Q.
Right now he’s miserable. He’s been stressed out and overworked for literally years now. Sometimes he drives himself harder than he has to, but often it’s just the demands of the job.
His sabbatical year, which was meant to be restorative, was E’s first year of life.
For half of it he was massively sleep deprived and trying to cope with a wife who was seriously struggling adjusting to motherhood.
And for the other half he was still sleep deprived but was now also looking after E. 50% of the time while I started work on the PhD again.
And did I mention that his book proofs turned up within weeks of E’s birth?
There was nothing restorative about his sabbatical.
I think (believe? hope? wish?) that if we made the decision to have me move onto the adjunct track once my PhD is done in the long run Q. would be less stressed.
This last year, where he’s been trying to balance his full-time job with caring for E. 40% of the time (and 80% this summer) has been terrible.
It’s been completely unsustainable.
There’s no way we could do it again if we have a second child.
But, I also don’t think either of us could stand to put a second child in daycare at 12 months. Not when we worked so hard to keep E. home with us for so long.
And if I pulled back entirely, and stayed home for a couple of years, I’d lose any seniority I could build up on the adjunct track. Academia is vicious like that. If you step off, at any stage, it’s almost impossible to start again.
So again I spiral around to needing Q. to be at home, maybe even only one day a week when 2.0 was under two, so that I could at least take a couple of tutorials. Bring in some income. Keep my hand in the game.
Q. got his PhD so young. He was 25.
He got a permanent academic job as soon as he finished.
He could have a 40 year career. Longer, if he wanted, given there’s no longer mandatory retirement.
The insanity that is parenting very young children will take up five years, at the most, of his career.
I just don’t think it’s a big deal if he doesn’t publish much for the next couple of years. He’s tenured. His book is out.
But I also can’t live with him killing himself through stress and anxiety.
I can’t live with him beaten down and depressed.
I can’t live with him short-tempered and defensive.
It matters to him that he’s not doing his job the way that he thinks he should be.
I’m hoping next year, when he really will have full-time hours again, with the exception of a two and a half hour duty day at E’s preschool during term, will make things better.
I’m not sure what to do if it doesn’t.
I can’t work as hard as Q. does.
There’d be no point in having worked so hard to have our E. if we both worked like he does.
But I don’t think I could work as hard as Q. does even if we were childless.
To be honest, I don’t think any of the other young faculty at our institution work as hard as Q. does.
When does it stop being institutional pressure and becomes self-imposed?
I don’t know.
I will be closing in on thirty-five when I finish my PhD, if all goes according to plan in the next year or so.
That’s later than “normal”, but not outrageously so for North American PhDs in the humanities. I think most people don’t finish until they’re thirty or a bit older, even if they go straight through without taking time out (as I did) to work and assess their situation. (Q. was a bit unusual in that he never did a Master’s degree and finished his (U.K.) doctorate in three years. He’s really very very good.)
I know I am writing a better doctorate now than I would have had I stayed at the institution where I did my Master’s degree.
I need to think about my own career too. I’m not going to be washed up and unemployable at thirty-five. I have the chance at a long career in front of me, and I need to take the right steps to make that possible.
And yet my child(ren) will only be small for a few, fleeting years.
No one ever gets to their death bed and wishes they’d worked harder. This article, about a nurse who has written a book about the top five regrets of the dying really struck home for me, especially number one: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I’m the good girl, you see.
The one who doesn’t get into trouble (not that either of my sisters is a black sheep).
The one who cannot stand to have anyone mad at her.
The one who desperately needs approval from others, who measures her academic worth through external validation.
Wanting the tenure-stream position is what everyone expects of me, given where I am, and what I’ve done, and the decisions I’ve made.
I feel like rejecting that desire would make my decision to go back for the PhD foolish, would make the last five years a failure, even if I finish (and I am damn well going to finish. I could never, ever contemplate leaving it unfinished- that would be the biggest failure of all).
(This is not at all uncommon in graduate school. Learning how to quit is, for a lot of people, the hardest lesson of all.)
We’re planning to go back to the clinic in the fall.
We want to get pregnant again.
I am, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely TERRIFIED of having another baby.
I look at what I’m trying to get done next year, and I look at how stressed Q. is, and then I say to myself, “And you want to add a pregnancy to all of this? You want to finish the PhD and give birth a month later? You want to finally, finally get to a point where things might get easier and then throw a giant atom bomb into your lives?”
Well, no, I don’t.
But I also don’t want E. to be by himself in the backseat on long road trips.
I don’t want E. to be caring for us alone when Q. and I reach old age.
I don’t want E. to grow up without a sibling.
And I’m not willing to sacrifice that future vision of the family I hope for to the present day circumstances.
At minimum there’s going to be a three year age gap between E. and any future 2.0.
I am not willing to intentionally make that even larger. I’m getting older. So is Q. So are my eggs.
I am completely terrified of the first two years of 2.0’s life- of going through them with an older child, of trying again to figure out a way to balance our competing needs, of keeping him/her largely out of daycare while still maybe getting some teaching in, but not being able to rely on Q. I cannot ask more of Q.
But at the same time, I recognize that these years will be short. Things will get easier. We will sleep again. Eventually E. and 2.0 will be at school.
It will be hard. But I know already it will be worth it, for the future life I want our family to have.
The truth is, when the chips are down, I’m just not sure I’m all that good at research.
I like a lot of things about doing research. I like chasing the idea. I like reading the books. I like puzzling over what I’ve read.
Where I falter is at the last step.
I don’t think I’ve got the sheer bloody-mindedness that it takes to sit down, really sit down, and read everything you have to read, in every language, to finish off your footnotes.
Maybe this is just Imposter Syndrome talking, that feeling women in academia are prone to- that we don’t belong, that everyone is smarter than we are, that we’re just faking it and sooner or later we’ll be exposed.
But maybe not.
Ultimately, I just get bored.
I watch what Q. does, and I can see the difference between us. And it’s not just that we have different working styles (we do) or that we have different strengths (we do).
Q. gets invigorated by his research and worn down by teaching.
And I am the exact opposite.
I don’t have answers to any of this.
I can’t have answers to any of this yet. There remain too many unknowns- about the shape and size of our family, about the job market when I finish, about what level of financial sacrifice Q. and I are willing to accept on my part to give me the flexibility that we both want for our family.
I think about it a lot though. And much of the time I feel guilty about these thoughts, because I recognize that I am in a position of incredible privilege to be even able to contemplate these various options. Sometimes I think I need to just get over myself and get on with things. But then I read yet another study on women and academia and I remember that I’m not the only one struggling with this situation, that it’s not all in my head, that I am right to understand that having a second child (IF we are able to have a second child) will have long-term negative repercussions for my career while providing a positive benefit for Q.’s (as men who have children in academia are looked upon as being more reliable and trustworthy by their departments, so they tend to get promoted more easily).
I wish I had answers.