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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Damage Control
April 15, 2009 - 7:40am


A flood has forced me to reckon with my past. As floods go it was minor and certainly no major properties or lives were at stake. Except my academic life, which lives in boxes stored in my husband’s lab space. Sometime over the four-day Easter weekend a water purifier located on the floor above my husband’s lab malfunctioned. No one was around, and the flooding in my husband’s lab wasn’t discovered until he went in late Monday afternoon. Water had seeped through the ceiling, run down the walls, and pooled on the floor … on the floor, right where boxes containing all the books, papers, data, and notes from my previous life as an academic lay. A few of my husband’s things were destroyed, mostly equipment that could be replaced, but the biggest part of the soggy mess was labeled with my name.

We live in a small townhouse where there’s no room for me to set up an office. Part of the deal I made with my husband before our trans-continental move for his current job was that he’d have to look after my stuff until I one day went back to research or teaching and could at least have a desk of my own, if not a real office. At the time I thought my stint as a stay-at-home mom would be short-lived. However, until I went in to look at the damage today I realized I hadn’t kept track of the time: it’s been almost five years since I’d peeked at the contents of those boxes. They contained all sorts of stuff—in this case both tangible and emotional—and it wasn’t easy to bring myself to face it all

My husband very kindly spent the afternoon of the grim discovery unpacking the cartons and laying wet books on lab benches. He wanted to assess the situation before he came home for dinner to tell me the bad news. At first I really didn’t want to deal with the clean-up, knowing that I’d feel saddened by any losses, but equally bothered by how little attention I’d paid the relics that represent such a huge part of my life. I knew I’d have an overwhelming chore ahead of me. I’m a packrat to begin with, but at the time I packed the boxes I was in the middle of reading students’ research papers and preparing final exams at the end of the winter term. And combined with the stress of teaching responsibilities were the multiple stresses associated with a big move: packing up at home, finalizing the sale of our home, ensuring that my toddler was not too traumatized by the chaos around him, saying good-bye to friends, and coping with the uncertainty of my career situation after we re-located. I really didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to put my academic career into boxes. In the end there was simply no time to cull my junk, so I packed everything around me with little sorting (unfortunately, that’s how I always seem to pack, so the baggage has really accumulated over the years!).

I faced the damp piles this morning after dropping my daughter off at pre-school. Only a few books were badly affected, and the university will replace anything still in print or pay for restoration of irreplaceable editions. Since I did much of my research in the tropics, I was accustomed to making all my notes in indelible ink or pencil and even writing on water-resistant paper. Though damp, most of my papers were intact and still legible. The restoration company can oven-dry or freeze-dry any important papers, an expensive process, but there’s no guarantee that all papers and files will be returned in the same order or grouped in the proper files. It’s enough of a nightmare to go through the sedimentary layers of contents in labeled files, but to have everything come back potentially rearranged would be too much. To even decide what’s most important meant sorting through it all, something I’ve been saying for the past several years I need to do.

The part about going through my things that surprised me the most was that it wasn’t drudgery. It was even satisfying when I recycled heaps of stuff that I can now, after a five-year hiatus, look at objectively and discard without fear of “needing it someday.” The wet mess was upsetting, but I was actually excited when I came across files for projects I’d started but didn’t get to finish or write up. There’s some good stuff there! I found I was completely distracted at times reading through my papers. It was fun to look through the old notes I’d kept as I developed my thesis topic and see the evolution of my thinking. Of course it’ll take quite a while for me to get back to where I was in my understanding of some of my own work—those parts of my brain are rusty from disuse. But I gathered some of the files and papers from those projects I’d put away and set them aside to bring home. I now want to dust(?) off the damp files and pick up where I left off. And, hey, what about those unharmed boxes that we didn’t open? I can’t wait to get into those too!


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