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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

December 9, 2009 - 8:44am

My son and I arrived ten minutes before the official vaccination clinic start time, but already the line-up for H1N1 vaccine snaked out the cafeteria doors and down the path into the cold rain outside. Although the clinic was held at a university dining hall, it was open to any provincial resident, and over a hundred university staff, faculty, students, neighbors, and their kids were queued up.

While we huddled under my umbrella and debated whether it was worth the wait, I couldn’t help but overhear a woman, maybe 18 or so, in line behind us talking on a cell phone with her mother: “Hi, Mom. Do you really want me to get this shot?…Do I have to? Because the line is out the door and I don’t feel like standing here…Why do you want me to get this shot?…OK. I miss you…I love you too. Bye.” When a friend walked over, she told him, “My mom really wants me to have this stupid shot, so I have to stand in this line all night.” A little while later a nurse came by with medical history forms for us to fill out, and as I wrote in our information, I listened in on another phone call to Mom. “I have to fill out this medical form…Am I on any medication?…And have I ever had Gilly -something syndrome [Guillain-Barré syndrome]?…OK, bye. I love you. I miss you.” During the next hour, she phoned her mother a couple more times, just to chat and kill time.

Maybe this particular woman’s anxiety over getting vaccinated brought out a high degree of neediness. However, with email, texting, and cell phones I wonder if that invisible parent-child umbilical cord stretches just a little longer these days before it finally breaks. I certainly remember periods of stress in my undergraduate years when I really needed my parents, but I was at school in Massachusetts and they lived in Panama. This was before email, calling cards, and cheap international rates. It was hard for me to be so far from home, but exciting at the same time to be on my own in a relatively safe college dorm environment.

Having taught introductory biology courses, I recognize that maturity level among first-year students is highly variable. Interestingly, some of the most mature and focused students I’ve had in my classes lived at home or with relatives and commuted to campus, usually just to save money and not necessarily because their parents were anxious to keep tabs on them. The phone calls I received from parents concerned about their children’s grades and progress were from out-of-town parents.

It’s fascinating to watch over the course of a year (and then in later years) how much more settled students become after their first year. I remember one student who was particularly disruptive and enjoyed entertaining her classmates instead of listening to lectures; biology was clearly not her thing. (Funny, I always remember the ones who hated my class, and I forget all the good interactions!) Three years later I read an article about her in the campus paper, and it was full of accolades about her accomplishments and activism. Clearly she’d done some growing up and found something she loved into which she could channel her abundant energy. Perhaps another professor had truly inspired her, or maybe academics deserve only part of the credit. However, it was nice to learn that I hadn’t seen the only side to her.

As a freshman I didn’t always handle my newly found independence in the most mature way, and I survived my first year despite some foolish actions and dumb decisions. It’s my parents who deserve the credit for keeping their cool and letting me take off on crazy adventures like hitchhiking in the Andes. Could I sit back and let my kids do that? I’d like to think so, and I’m filled with admiration for my parents’ ability to let go but welcome me with open arms when I needed them. I guess as parents we do our best, and then allow our kids to do some growing up on their own. My hope is that I’m nurturing my kids today in such a way that they can make wise (?) decisions for themselves and handle such mundane things as health-care decisions. But frankly, I’m hoping they’ll go to the university up the road and live at home. I’ll try to keep my parental input to a minimum, and they won’t have to call long-distance to get it. But they’re still going to have to get their flu shots.


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