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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and Ph.D.'s: Parallel lives
August 19, 2009 - 8:01am

My household is a bit disrupted this month with a visit from my sister and her family. These get-togethers are rare since they live thousands of miles away in Europe, where my sister and her husband are both professional musicians. We treasure this time when the cousins can spend the days in one long, extended play date, while the grown-ups eat great meals and sample one bottle of wine after another, simply enjoying each other’s company. Part of why our families mesh so well is that in many regards, though we’re in vastly different fields, the life paths of musicians and academics have many similarities. My sister and I, who are only 18 months apart, have supported one another throughout our career development as we faced similar hurdles and led remarkably parallel lives.

As a graduate student, I studied for months to prepare for my comprehensive exams, which I had to pass to be admitted to PhD candidacy and be allowed to continue in my program. It was a nerve-wracking, demeaning experience. Not long after that, in a similar vein, while studying for a post-graduate performance degree in Switzerland, my sister prepared long hours for her Virtuosit√©, a make-or-break exam to determine if she could continue in her program. The pressure on her was equally demoralizing, but she held up in the cut-throat system. After completion of our degrees, with orchestral and academic jobs in short supply, neither of us had the luxury of choosing where to live, and we both ended up far from our parents and one another. And since we had found partners in the same fields — another biologist for me and another orchestral musician for her — we both ended up following our husbands (both of whom are older than us and farther along in their careers) when they got the first good jobs. My sister and I cobbled together our own positions, and consoled one another when we had to take on mostly teaching work that we perceived at the time to be a step down from our original career goals.

After our long focus on professional development, both of us were of “advanced maternal age” when we each had our first of two children. We shared advice and comfort throughout our pregnancies as best we could over the long distance that separates us. When it came time to find childcare, we spent hours on the phone discussing the pros and cons of nannies versus group daycare. And that’s where our paths diverged. So many different factors went into my decision to stay home after my second child was born, but I can’t help but wonder how my choice would have changed if I’d had for my kids the kind of daycare to which my nieces have access. They have affordable, good quality group childcare, and with government subsidies daycare workers are well paid and respected. At my nieces’ facility group sizes are very small, especially for infant and toddler ages. Because my oldest niece attends primary school at the same place where her younger sister is in a toddler program, they can see one another during the day. My sister meanwhile continues on with her ever-evolving musical career as she encourages me to keep pursuing my own in new directions.

Together my sister and I can recreate just about every moment from our childhoods — we both have a crazy ability to recollect even the most trivial details from our lives, while our husbands just look at one another and shake their heads. Knowing my background as she does and given our parallel life experiences, my sister has been a tremendous support during the twists and turns of my life and career development. Now with children and husbands getting along so well together, if only we could live in the same time zone. I’d even settle for being on the same continent. Darned those specialized jobs, few and far between! We’ll just have to rely on the phone, email and Skype for now.

 

 

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