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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Love, Academic Style
December 3, 2008 - 10:19pm

I want to introduce myself as a new writer for Mama, Ph.D. — Long Distance Mom. I will share Thursdays with fellow blogger Aeron Haynie (a good friend who helped me survive my grad school pregnancy).

As a filmmaker and film studies scholar, I am used to traveling frequently to complete my creative and scholarly work. But now I also travel for love. For the last decade, I’ve been involved in long distance relationships — first with my partner, and more recently, with my children.

Twenty years ago, I married a fellow graduate student, but I did not anticipate the challenges of being a dual career family with infants. (I managed to finish the Ph.D. He did not.) Neither did I anticipate divorce. My marriage made it through graduate school, and my first tenure-track job. By the time I got tenure and promotion, though, the pressures of being a breast-feeding college professor had taken their toll on our relationship. My husband and I divorced when our children were 3 and 5.

I soon fell in love with another academic who lived in another city. We worked on film projects together, which provided a ‘tax-free’ excuse to see each other. By traveling on Southwest Airlines every other weekend, I was able to pursue this relationship while living with my children, and maintaining a tenured position.

5 years later, I was hired as chair of a department in my partner’s city at double my former salary. My ex-husband declined to move to my new city and my children wanted to remain in their schools. Accepting this new administrative position meant maintaining two houses, paying child custody, and commuting long distances to see my children, who had just entered their pre-teen years. For lots of reasons that many people do not understand, I decided to try it.

Four years later, I sit writing this document on my laptop on a Southwest flight. I vacuumed one of my houses this morning, hoping the roaches and ants would stay away for the next 12 days. (I earn enough money to maintain two residences, but not enough for a house cleaner). When I try to explain my situation to other parents or even to colleagues -- "I have a job in the north, children in the south" -- I get many dubious looks. People seem to relax when I say, “Just imagine me as the Dad who commutes to Atlanta during the week and comes home on the weekends…”

I have met other academic colleagues in similar situations. We teach Tuesdays through Thursdays, and commute to see our kids or partners on weekends. The Chronicle for Higher Education described some of the challenges of long distance relationships in an article on married college presidents Irvin D. Reid and Pamela Trotman Reid. He works in Michigan. She works in Connecticut. Their jobs as their schools' top administrators does not leave much time for relaxing. They plan their time together in six-month increments.

In this column I plan to write about long distance strategies for academics and their families. How do we shorten the emotional distance? By using cell phones? Skype? Facebook? How much work can you realistically accomplish on the plane? How do you keep your child from feeling secondary to your work? Is distance really fundamental to desire?


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