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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Thoughts from an old photo
June 25, 2008 - 5:02am

I had two visitors this month, one expected—my dad—and other unexpected -- myself at age 11. It wasn’t exactly an encounter with a ghost from the past but a photo of me as a child asleep in my father’s arms. The image was a surprise in many ways. My father received it out of the blue from a friend he hadn’t seen in over twenty years, and my dad and I had no idea it existed. In the black-and-white image we’re both unaware of the photographer: Dad is either deep in thought or listening intently to the other people in the background, and I’m dead to the world, my head on Dad’s shoulder, my pudgy pre-teen face in a pout and my big glasses askew. I’m sure I would have hated the unflattering picture had I seen it at that age, but looking at it now it’s remarkable how well it captures the essence of my relationship with my father and how that 11-year-old girl has inspired so much soul-searching over the past couple of weeks. I remember where she wanted to go; what would she have thought about where I am now?

My father, a physician by vocation and an entomologist at heart, went on many exciting expeditions (and still does) when I was a kid. Some of my happiest moments were spent beside my father helping him turn over logs to catch beetles or standing at his side to grab escaping bugs while he checked his beetle traps. It’s no wonder that the 11-year-old girl in the photo wanted to be a biologist when she grew up. The photo was taken on a special trip to the mountains, and I remember being very excited because I got to miss school to go with my dad and some of his crazy entomologist friends on the week-long adventure.

Just before Father’s Day this month my dad arrived for a two-week visit. I’d arranged a bit of an expedition for him: a trip to a marine science station on Vancouver Island where my husband is teaching for the month of June. It was a long journey, beginning with a ferry ride and ending with an almost two hours’ drive on a gravel logging road. My dad’s back was giving him considerable pain, and I worried constantly on the trip about the road, my kids’ well-being, and my dad’s comfort. After the long trip my dad looked tired and older. During our four-day stay at the station I was constantly torn between wanting to look after my children’s needs and caring for my father. At times I wanted to be a kid again and help my father turn over logs to look for beetles, but then I’d have to attend to my daughter who got cold and wanted to go back to the cabin. On one of our hikes I found myself reaching forward to help my three-year-old daughter over a rough part of the trail, then turning around to offer my shoulder for my dad to lean on. But most of the time my kids’ and my dad’s needs meshed well, and I hope they were unaware of my internal anxieties. The kids loved hunting for bugs with their grandpa, and he read lots of stories to them on rainy days. Walks in the woods with a three-year-old are usually pretty slow-paced, perfect for my dad. And on the way home while my son and I grimaced and moaned about stopping at McDonald’s for a bathroom and snack break, Dad found an ally in my daughter, who began chanting “McDonald’s, McDonald’s!” in the back seat.

I’m beginning to see that my role as caregiver might take on new dimensions and will soon have to expand to include caring for my parents. I wonder how torn I might feel if I were working full-time and how difficult it would be to accommodate time with them should an emergency arise. When I’ve thought about balancing work and family, I’ve considered mostly my children and given little thought to where caring for ageing parents might fit in. How strange to realize that the caregiver roles might someday be reversed. I sometimes want to wrap my arms around Dad like he was with me in that photo, but at the same time he’s my dad and I’m still the child deep down.


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