“I Couldn’t Possibly”

Cathy Mazak explores the lies one can tell oneself when allowing an academic job to be all consuming.

March 29, 2019
 
 
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About two weeks into the semester, after I went back to work from maternity leave, my 10-month-old son stopped breathing. I was nursing him to sleep in a chair in his darkened baby room, practically falling asleep myself, when he suddenly sat up, vomited and turned a horrible shade of gray.

What happened in the next 15 minutes was a panicked blur. I pulled my 3-year-old out of bed and made her put shoes on with her princess nightgown. My husband -- a professor, too -- was just arriving home from work. I remember screaming at him that we needed to get to the hospital while I ducked under the garage door, which couldn’t open fast enough.

The baby was breathing again as I strapped him into the car seat, but he was still that awful ashy gray-blue. We arrived at the hospital, and I scooped him up and ran to the desk. I remember how calm everyone was. No one was rushing to take his vitals. No one came to help. I had to sign in and take a number while the baby flopped in my arms and continued to vomit.

This was the beginning of the 10 most horrible days of my life.

If you’ve ever tried to sleep in a hospital, you understand the level of exhausted I was. Over the course of 10 days, I only went home for maybe an hour at a time when my husband would stay at the hospital so that I could shower and eat. The rules at the only children’s hospital in western Puerto Rico mandated that the mother stay overnight with the patient. Plus, I was breastfeeding still, so it was really me or me.

It was the second week of classes. My husband and I were both pretenure. It was 2010, and I didn’t have a smartphone, so there was really nothing I could do. I think I called the department and just told them that I was in the hospital with the baby until further notice. All thoughts of the semester dissolved in the blurry exhaustion of caring for the sick kiddo (who was doing better but needed almost constant breathing treatments).

When the hospital finally released us, I jumped back into the semester with both feet. I was running a large grant project and teaching three first-year English classes. It was more than full-time work.

But as soon as I got home from the university, it was all medicines and breathing treatments. My nights were spent coaxing kids to bed, then crashing myself, only to be woken up at least twice by a sniffly baby. I felt like I was on a treadmill set five clicks too fast, and I couldn’t get off or slow down. Brain fog was seriously affecting my work, but I was completely in survival mode, so I hardly noticed.

By late October I was sitting in my driveway, the transition zone between “day job” and “all-night job,” talking on the phone with my sister about me hospitalizing myself. I was crying, saying I couldn't keep up the pace.

“Don’t you have sick leave you can take?” she asked.

“I couldn’t possibly do that! It’s like week 10 of the semester. What would happen to my classes? And my grant project?” I moaned.

But in that moment, my wise sister made it clear: take action or end up in the hospital yourself.

So I took sick leave. Right at the worst time of the semester. I remember sitting in my department head’s office. At the time, he was young and single, and I remember feeling like he would never understand or would push back. He didn’t.

I took my doctor’s note to the university’s human resources department and then went home and slept. In fact, for two weeks, after I dropped off the kids at day care, I went home and forced myself to lie down. I didn’t check email. I didn't try to get writing done. I just deliberately rested.

And despite all my internal resistance and guilt, I realized “I can possibly.” I realized that the university didn’t stop without me. My classes didn’t even stop. And the program manager of my grant never even knew I was gone -- my co-principal investigator swiftly managed everything in my absence, just as she had when I was on maternity leave.

This experience made me see things more clearly for the first time: when I had to miss the second week of class to be in the hospital with my son, I hadn’t blinked an eye. But when I had needed to take a leave to prevent me from ending up in the hospital myself, I had said, “I couldn’t possibly.”

The World Won’t End

Last semester, which ended the traumatic academic year that Hurricane María changed all of our lives, I almost broke down again. This time it was different. We were a country exhausted from hurricane recovery and a university trying to find our footing after blow after blow by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, which was threatening to cut our budget drastically. We were collectively breaking down.

But this time I recognized the signals and took action sooner. I heard the desperate voice in my head that said, “I just need to breathe. I can’t keep this up. If I could only rest …” I listened to that voice and deliberately rested. On the weekends, I made myself lie down. I cleared the schedule so I didn’t have to leave the house. We ate more takeout (I called it “outsourcing dinner”), and the kids watched more Netflix.

I whittled down my to-do list until it only contained the absolutely necessary items to finish the semester: grade the papers. Give the classes. That’s it. I excused myself from faculty meetings, from meetings of all kinds. (I wasn’t the only one -- no one had the energy for meetings.)

The difference between this last almost breakdown and the first one was that I truly believed “I can possibly.” I knew that if I cut way back everything would still be fine. The world would not end. At the same time, I deeply understood that if I didn’t deliberately rest, I would collapse, and that wouldn’t serve anyone.

Academe can be soul sucking. It can be all consuming. But you do not have to be consumed. You can deliberately rest. I give you permission -- and so should you.

Bio

Cathy Mazak is a tenured full professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. She blogs about academic writing at cathymazak.com.

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