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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Tipping Point
January 7, 2009 - 4:37am

The first days of a new year always fill me with a numbing sense of dread that is deeply rooted and hard to shake. It has nothing to do with the farewell to an old year or to the holiday festivities; it has everything to do with farewell to family and loved ones. The days after New Year celebrations were for several years the time when my husband and I said good-bye to one another after spending Christmases with each other at our parents’ homes. Yesterday was back-to-school day for my husband and son, and as I packed a few remnant Christmas cookies in my son’s lunchbox, I was surprised that the familiar wave of sadness crept back just out of habit. It seemed like with the start of another academic term there would be another good-bye followed by separation. I laughed off the feeling, gave my husband a hug and reminded him how thankful I am that we don’t live apart anymore.

I’ve read with interest the pieces by my fellow blogger Elizabeth Coffman on long distance relationships, and as she and her articles’ comments indicate, these relationships are pretty typical for academics and certainly nothing new. In fact, I was surprised to see the attention given to the phenomenon of commuter marriages by a recent NYTimes article, highlighting the increasing number of married couples who live apart because they can’t find jobs in the same cities

. These stories, and my usual start-of-the-year introspection, have had me thinking about what kept my husband and me going for so long, working and studying at different universities trying to further our careers and pursue our research interests. We’ve been together for over seventeen years, but during the first nine of those years we spent significant blocks of time apart, and accumulated a lot of debt from phone calls and travel by car, bus, ferry, or plane. We made regular international border crossings to see one another, and the border officials’ questions could be tedious: What was the purpose of your trip? What do you mean you were visiting your husband? Usually wives live with their husbands. One cold, dark night the clutch on my faithful, old car died on a lonely stretch of highway as I returned home after a conjugal visit. This was before mobile phones were very affordable, and I waited two hours before a highway patrol officer stopped and gave me a ride to the nearest town. Despite the expense and the inconvenience of living apart, it was important to stick with it. We worked hard and sacrificed our time together to build individual careers so that we could be in good positions to compete for academic jobs. And of course each of us was driven by interest in our individual research projects and a commitment to the science we were doing. There were times when I could have left to follow my husband, who graduated five years before I did, but leaving in the middle of my graduate program would have meant giving up so much, especially the interactions with a stimulating lab group led by an inspiring advisor. My husband and I were in good company too, with many supportive friends and colleagues in similar long-distance relationships.

But then there was this almost sudden tipping point, after which we couldn’t deal with the separation anymore. We were just learning to live together again when I got a post-doc in a city three hours away by air. Maybe it was my age and serious nesting urges brought on by my ticking biological clock. Or perhaps we were simply uneasy about the toll living apart was taking on our marriage. It became increasingly difficult to give my work the focus it deserved when I just didn’t want to pack up and leave home for weeks at a time. I’ve mostly considered the role my kids played in my choice to leave full-time academia. However, in reflecting over the period my husband and I lived apart, I realize that I scaled back even before my children were born, primarily because the separation from my husband had become too hard. The goal was for both of us to be marketable enough to compete for jobs in the same place. But I burned out trying to get there. It was the beginning for me of a changing balance in favor of family time over career.

Thinking about long-distance relationships again has me thinking about where the tipping point lies within us — how much is too much? It’s different for everyone, even though our life circumstances and academic career paths might be similar. There are so many factors to take into consideration—timing, self-fulfillment and job satisfaction, the health of relationships, one’s own mental health, and of course economic necessity. I couldn’t go back to those years apart, but it made perfect sense to live that way then.

So now having lived at two extremes, I’m sure hoping to tip back toward the middle in a couple of years, once my youngest starts school — elementary school, that is. Thank goodness I have some time before my kids’ college years, when the start of a new year and academic term will bring separation and good-byes again.


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