• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Long Distance Mom: Carbon Guilt

Inside Higher Ed has done a good job with publicizing the humor and pain surrounding long distance couples and their families.

December 17, 2008

Inside Higher Ed has done a good job with publicizing the humor and pain surrounding long distance couples and their families.

Aeron Haynie pointed out last week that Papa and Mama Ph.D.s frequently have to make hard choices between career advancement or proximity to their families. For many of us, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice at all.

I often second-guess the choices I’ve made, wondering if I (or my children) can live with them. I try not to dwell on these feelings for long. After reading the emotional comments from my first entry, though, I decided to address these comments by focusing on the emotion that seems to predominate -- guilt.

Ah, guilt… Moms, in particular seem to exude it, but parenting, in general, brings it on.

When a parent senses a child’s unhappiness at their absence -- perhaps you missed the school play or a band concert? — that feeling gnaws away at the certainty that a better research position is really that important. Ouch. There is no other word for that pain, except for guilt.

I’ve learned that the best way to handle this kind of guilt is to confront it. Be direct with it. Work through it. Break it into smaller, more productive pieces, and then, stop listening to it.

I frequently distract myself from parental guilt by focusing on a separate dilemma -- my carbon guilt. The environmental impact I make by my plane travel -- flying across the country 20 times a year -- emits enough carbon into the atmosphere to raise the temperature of a small city. (You can calculate your own carbon impact here.)

My carbon guilt is not so much about how travel affects my family life, but about how my actions affect the whole planet. Now that’s a guilt that I can wrap my heart around, (and it doesn’t break).

The best way to offset carbon is not to emit it. Don’t fly. Don’t drive. Don’t eat meat. These acts alone have a lot of carbon emissions attached to them. Like most Americans, though, I continue to participate in all 3 activities, which means that I contribute to unsustainable carbon and methane emissions and have high cholesterol.

I believe that we are entering a historic period where long distance commuting will not be a financial option for business travelers for much longer. Like most oil addicts, though, I will have to be forced legally and financially not to travel as much. I rely on travel for my research and filmmaking activities as well as to relieve my mom guilt. As mom guilt goes down, my carbon guilt seems to go up.

I decided that I must offset my carbon guilt, if not with cash, then with the tools I have within the academic community. Fortunately, my university created a lab-based course that manufactures biodiesel fuel out of our cafeteria grease. I participated as an instructor, advising students on documenting and publicizing their research, which included testing biodiesel emissions in my Volkwagen Jetta.

Teaching this course and driving on biodiesel fuel helps to reduce some carbon guilt. And it helps to alleviate mom guilt whenever I involve my kids in my offsetting processes. For instance, when my family drove through the Northwest last summer on vacation, we made a point of locating and stopping at biodiesel stations. (Oregon requires biofuels by law!) I also share interesting pictures with my kids that they can take to class for school reports.

Ralph Nader made a point of saying that biodiesel fuels created from food products are not the most sustainable option for the environment.


Involving my kids in environmental efforts -- e.g., locating biodiesel stations on the internet, holding a microphone for Nader, etc... -- helps to relieve my carbon guilt, but better yet, it helps to reduce my parental guilt.

The best way to alleviate guilt and avoid navel-gazing is to do something productive. If your guilt involves being away from your kids, then find ways to involve them in your projects. Kids can help change to compact, fluorescent light bulbs in your house. Or start a compost pile together. You can plant and tend a garden whenever home.

Since the holidays are just around the corner, I thought I would post links to green gifts and carbon offsetting programs.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines has a program where you can purchase carbon offsets on the plane. And there is a new program that offers gift certificates to offset carbon production for the average person for one day -- that’s 136 pounds of green house gas!

These could be great stocking stuffers!

Don’t forget to read IHE’s Getting to Green blog. It is full of useful environmental information and the latest research.

Offset some carbon together this season. It should make us all feel better…


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