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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Thanksgiving reflections
October 21, 2009 - 8:24am

We celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada not long ago, and I spent the holiday weekend in deep contemplation and reflection about all I have and where my life has brought me. Aside from the obvious things for which I feel thankful — health (a big one this year), family, home, and food on the table — I feel particularly grateful for the invaluable time I can spend with my children in their young years.

But there’s a little “however” that keeps creeping in. My thanksgiving meditations just can’t clear away the twinge of regret over leaving academic life that lies just below the surface. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with my life right now — far from it. But I ask myself, can I still feel thankful but miss what I had at the same time? Indeed I miss the teaching I used to do (even though I felt frustratingly distracted and inattentive to my son during those years). My husband and I had an emotion-fraught discussion about this topic as we prepared our Thanksgiving dinner. Our conversation coincided with the recent Mama PhD posts by Dana Campbell, Libby Gruner and Rosemarie Emanuele about opting in/out of academic careers. Here’s another take from an "opt-outer."

The topic has been on my mind a great deal lately. I was at a social gathering recently where a number of high school and university faculty were present. The talk at my table turned to philosophies of teaching and how to keep students engaged during lectures. I’d like to think that I became particularly good at keeping students in active participation during my lectures, and I was eager to be part of the conversation. But when the discussion turned to new technologies and particular department policies I quickly found myself on the margins of the party talk since I’ve been away from teaching for so long. It was frustrating to be an outsider when I think back on how much I loved teaching.

How do I get back inside? Many of the mom friends I know through my son’s school are honing their resumes and planning to go back to work now that their youngest children are in school full days. And almost everyday someone points out that it won’t be long before my daughter is in first grade, so what do I plan to do with myself? (I still have a couple of years to figure that out, thank goodness!) Interestingly, there are also a few moms, including a PhD, who’ve decided for various reasons to be home full time now that their children are in school. What almost all of us have in common, though, is that we’d like to find flexible part-time work or short-term contracts that coincide with the hours our children are in school. I wouldn’t mind stepping back into a secure, dream-job, part-time teaching appointment like Libby Gruner suggested should be available for academics who opt out for a time.

Can I really look back and say I have no regrets? Of course not. But I’m an eternal optimist and have always believed I can recognize the positive, or make the best of most situations. And this outlook has often yielded unexpected rewards. Recognizing this in myself helped me get through the dreary last days in Halifax and my final teaching responsibilities before our move to Vancouver for my husband’s exciting new faculty position. It was all I could do not to hang onto the door of our dear old house on the quiet tree-lined street and scream, “I don’t want to go!” That’s certainly how I felt, and my almost three-year-old son was pretty vocal about expressing that opinion for us both. But in those sad final days my husband and I found comfort in one another, and lo and behold, the pregnancy we’d given up on ever happening became a reality.

I’d like to feel like I’ve, in Dana Campbell’s words "opted elsewhere" for a little while. But I can’t really say that I’ve managed to continue with projects that would help me keep a toehold in the academic world. The reality is that I’m an outsider right now, at least to the life I used to have. I try to keep the emphasis on right now and be alert for future options. One wise scientist-mother I know once told me that she looked at her life in five-year blocks. It helped her focus on her children when they needed her most without feeling like she was stuck in any particular situation, and she could look forward to the changes that would come with the next block. Although she didn’t have a traditional academic appointment, she was able to incrementally increase the amount of time she spent on research as her children got older, and she’s gone on to become quite respected in her particular area of expertise. I especially value her take on life because many years ago, like me, she also left a satisfying academic position when her husband’s dream job opportunity came up.

I wish I could say that I understood all choices available to me and rationally weighed the pros and cons before “opting elsewhere”. I physically moved elsewhere and in the process ended up at home full time, having stumbled onto my path because there were no clear options. But the opt-out “choice” has been a very lucky direction for me, and I’m very grateful for the family life I have. I don’t take for granted that I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I can opt out for now. Although I can’t see the way ahead very clearly, there’s more to come. And another five-year block starts soon!


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