What To Expect When You're Expecting
Over the years, the parallels between having and raising a baby and being in your first tenure-track academic job have often occurred to me. Naturally, just as not everyone's parenting experience is the same, not everyone has the same job experience. Still, I think one can draw the rough outlines of the two experiences.
The Wait: Whether you are waiting for your child to be born or for a job offer, the waiting game is unbearable. Sure, there are those people who just love it all; then there is the rest of the population, those of us who wake up with a sick feeling in our stomach, wonder if we’ve made all the right choices, go from feeling elated one moment, to being scared stiff, from feeling like we can take on the world, to just wanting to throw in the towel and hanging out in sweatpants on the couch watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Think I’m describing a pregnancy here? Speak to somebody who’s currently on the job market ...
The Arrival: The day finally comes when your baby is born, or in the academic world parallel, you are finally offered that job that you were waiting to hear about. Ahhhh …. there’s really nothing like it! You did it! You realize that all the waiting, the ups and downs, the exhaustion was worth this moment. You lovingly hold the contract in your hand, and peruse each clause nervously, just the way new parents count the fingers and toes on their babies. You are so happy; you can’t believe this is your life!
The First Year: You can’t believe this is your life! When will you sleep? Will you ever see your old friends again? But perhaps more than the physical exhaustion (which comes in greater or lesser degrees for first-time parents or first-time professors), it's the anxiety of being new at something, of second-guessing yourself, of jumping the second you’re called, of trying to be a "good" __________________ (insert: parent, coworker, teacher, junior faculty) that gets you feeling run down. This is not to say there aren’t happy and gratifying moments; there are, many of them! Still, the uncertainty and anxiety of your first year is often quite overwhelming. Just as you spend your first year as a parent trying to figure out your parenting style – will the baby sleep in your bed or in a room down the hall? — you spend the first year of your job trying to figure out your work style — will you bring the laptop to bed with you or leave it in an office down the hall?
The Toddler: With the first year behind you, you were looking forward to coasting a bit now. You’ve got things under control. You can handle this. Mentally, you feel like you’re in a better place than your first year. And then it happens: You realize your first year “protections” are gone. In the baby world, this means your baby is no longer stationary (yet not very stable) and this means you are constantly on the go. In the academic world, this means the onslaught of service expectations, advising, and a full teaching load (if you were lucky enough to have a reduced load in your first year). Hold on tight, because this ride just picked up speed when you least expected it to!
The "Look At Me, No Hands" Years: You’ve been doing this for three or four years now. This is usually a great time. You have experience and other people come to you for advice. Yes, you feel pretty good about yourself. Sure, there are some ups and downs still. But on the surface at least, things seem pretty calm now.
The Kindergartner: You have five years behind you now. Your baby is off to school. And instead of feeling relief, you start to worry: Did you do enough? Will your child fall behind or sail through? Now everybody will be able to judge you as a parent depending on your child’s performance. To make things worse, suddenly your kindergartner has transformed into a completely different person since starting school (or so you think in your neurotic moments): one who is more prone to yelling, screaming and thinking you’re not being “fun”. Yes, in the job world this is the stage right before tenure. Suddenly your doubts are back. Did you do enough? What do my colleagues really think of me? And what did colleague X mean by that comment the other day? Every word and gesture of your colleagues seems to have a deeper meaning than it used to (or so you think in your neurotic moments).
Of course, sometimes the order of these events gets switched around for people. Instead of experiencing the “Look At Me, No Hands” years, you could very well start dealing with the behavior of “the kindergartner” at an earlier stage. Still, there seems to be no denying that our jobs have a life cycle that parallels that of a human being.
Well, since I lack experience beyond this stage — as a parent and as an academic — this is where I have to stop with this life cycle, though I realize it is incomplete. For now, I often stay up late at night, wondering what the teenage years have in store for me!