Balancing on an Academic Tightrope and Hitting the Net

Considering intellectual and emotional investments.

August 27, 2013

Most of the time, working mothers walk a tightrope.  If we focus on the horizon where happy children, successful careers, and loving marriages converge, we manage to keep our balance and move towards a goal.  Life, however, has a way of throwing a beach ball at our heads just when we feel secure.  We either dodge or take the hit.  Either way, the rope reverberates beneath our feet, and we begin to fall.  

My beach ball this summer, my husband’s endocarditis (infection of his bovine aortic valve), left me hanging by my fingernails from my personal tightrope.  In June and early July, he was ill, but we didn’t know why. He spent the last week of July in a hospital room with dozens of doctors probing and pricking his person in search of the answer.  His August has consisted of daily trips back to the hospital for IV infusions of antibiotics.

Summer is my writing time.  I still advise applicants and chauffeur children to camp, but my weeks offer a closer approximation to the 40 hours for which I am paid than the 24/7 pace that marks the onset of autumn.  During this time, I imagine myself a legitimate scholar steeped in research and able to refine my own - not an advisee's - prose.

In my imagination, a *real* scholar of the tenured variety would have been able to revise manuscripts sitting at a spouse’s side while stymied specialists passed the buck.  Scholarship constitutes the bread and butter of their careers.  No one pays me for my scholarly efforts.  My odd diet of early modern documents offers nourishment for my soul alone. While at the hospital, I decided to find liberation in the fact no one cares whether or not I "produce," shirked my scholarly commitments, and took refuge in the pastoral fantasy of Lark Rise to Candleford between medical consultations and anxious emails.   A self-pitying cop out?  Probably.  When the diagnosis came and the long recuperation began, I scrambled to herd wayward advisees back into the fold and file overdue school forms for my sons.  My scholarship remained abandoned at the bottom of my list.

Compared to other families that face serious illness, ours had an excellent safety net.  I have colleagues who took my meetings, neighbors who picked up my place in the carpool, parents who cared for our sons while I was away, and friends who brought treats with which to tempt my husband’s absent appetite back into existence.  I have no idea what I would have done without any of them.  They caught me when I fell.  I was winded but not wounded.  Meanwhile, I have yet to determine my scholarship's prognosis.

As my husband works his way towards recovery, I look up at the tightrope and contemplate whether or how to alight it.  It seems easier to remain splayed across my net - to quit.  Then the realization hits.  I am my family’s safety net.  My paid job as an administrator/adviser is emotionally exhausting, but if my husband hadn’t recovered, I might have supported our family on my meager salary.  What role, however, do those languishing articles play?  Do they offer any return on my intellectual and emotional investment in their creation?  Do they deserve to be anything but the residual sediment of my former scholarly self

Should I waste my own precious breath to breathe my historical subjects back to life?  I simply don’t know.

I will get back on the tightrope; I don’t have a choice. In the meantime, I can choose to lighten my load.



Evanston, Illinois in the US.


Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.


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