A professor in a course in Labor Economics in graduate school once described the workings of the national conference where job searches were held, outlining behavior that might be seen as illegal in many other contexts. For example, it was not uncommon at the time for schools that were hiring to get together before any interviews began to discuss what salaries would be offered that year to those hired at different ranks. He asked us to try to explain how such behavior could not be seen as collusive price setting behavior, and we were all at a loss for words.
Despite this knowledge, when the time came, we all made reservations to attend the conference where hiring happened, holding our breaths in hopes that we would win coveted interview slots. One aspect of this search that many of us did not even consider was the question of how a position might separate us from our families of origin and from the friends we had made in recent years. For me, being hired meant moving to a town that, with the exception of my interviews there, I had been to only once before (and that was to change planes.) I left my friends and family hundreds of miles away, trusting that having landed a coveted tenure-track position, all would be well.
Of course, all was not well, and I ran into some serious health problems right away. However, as it worked out, that city that I had never visited before was the home of several world class hospitals, and I was therefore in good hands. As I recovered, it slowly became clear that my dreams of tenure at that first school were not going to work out, and that I would need to find another position. By that time, I was married and hoping for a child. I now had family commitments (and real estate) in my adopted town, and was not willing to move. I recalled something I had once heard someone say; you can choose your work, or you can choose the people you want to live with. This time, I chose the people I wanted to live with, and was lucky when I found a position that would have been a desirable one from the start.
However, I was still five hundred miles from my family of origin. For many years, this was not much of a problem. I visited my parents and sister a few times a year, and was able to be there to participate in my sister’s wedding and to welcome my niece soon after her birth. However, in recent years things have gotten more difficult. First my sister became deathly ill, and then my mother suffered a recurrence of a rare form of cancer that had been in remission for many years. After my sister’s death a few months ago, I now feel more responsibility to stay in touch with my parents, as I am now, in some ways, an only child. The Italian tradition that I grew up in expects female children to be the caretakers of their elderly parents, something that I find almost impossible to do from several states away all while raising my own child. This is the “sandwich generation,” with the sandwich being hundreds of miles wide.
And so I open the question up to my readers. I suspect that many of you are living very far from your parents and families of origin. How do you stay involved in their lives and play the caretaker roles that you may want to play, all the while fulfilling your duties as academics? It occurred to me recently, as I spoke with my parents via long distance, that the tag line of this blog column could be amended to say something like “Mothers attempting to balance parenthood, academics and caring for their own parents.”
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Chemical, Paper and Biomedical Engineering: Assistant or Associate Professor in Biomedical/Bioengineering