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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Mind the Gap
June 2, 2008 - 10:23pm

In my bio for this blog, I mention "two children, one of whom should be heading off to college in the fall." The verb is deliberately ambiguous: when I wrote the bio, we were not yet sure if her plans for the fall would be approved by the college of her choice. As of this writing, however, I can be more certain: my daughter will not, in fact, be heading off for college in the fall. Rather, like countless other high school graduates (more in Europe than in this country), she's about to embark on a "gap year." The gap year concept is, of course, not entirely new (see this 2006 New York Times article, for example), but it's rare enough that she has some explaining to do every time she brings it up, as do we. The basic idea is simple enough: spend a year between high school and college doing something you haven't done before. My husband and I started pushing the idea a few years back. We've taught enough first-year students over the years to find the concept appealing: students who have been abroad, or who have traveled in this country, or who have worked at something other than the typical safety-net summer job, tend to be more mature and more curious than their peers who haven't had such experiences. They tend to have a better idea of why they're in college, since it's no longer the default "next thing" on the agenda. For some, of course, the "gap year" is called "earning enough money for college." For others -- like our daughter -- it's more about taking a break and coming back to the academy refreshed and, we hope, revitalized for study. After fourteen years in school, starting with the public pre-kindergarten she attended as a four-year-old, she's ready for a new perspective, a new experience. Her plans are still not fully formed, but she'll combine some volunteer work with some travel and (we hope!) some paid work. Part of her task will be to make the plans herself, though we're standing by as backup.

I've spent the past year having my own sort of "gap year" experience, though it's hard to take a real break when you're in the midst of raising a family. But a full year (half-pay) sabbatical has offered me the same kind of opportunity to step away from at least one part of my daily life -- the part that has to take place on campus, in classrooms and meetings. While I haven't traveled (much), I have taken on a few volunteer positions I wouldn't have done last year, and I've had the delightfully ambivalent experience of having to plan my own days. At least between the morning school drop-off at 9 and the afternoon pickup at 3:30, my days have been my own, to spend reading, researching, writing blog entries, or even -- gasp -- grocery shopping during daylight hours, or mastering my new iPod. Some days are annoyingly short: the days when I have a long to-do list and someone gets sick, for example. Others are surprisingly long, as when I just can't get started and seek endlessly for distraction. In all, though, the year has taught me (again--I seem to need to relearn this periodically) that, given the time and the mental space, I can plan my own time and do my own work.

My daughter's gap year will likely involve conforming to other people's schedules, just as mine has -- but they won't be the same ones she's conformed to for the past 14 years. She'll make more of her own choices than she can now, and she'll probably be surprised more than once at how hard it can be to 1) discern what the options really are and 2) actually follow through once she's made the choice. Or at least that's how it's been for me. But as I prepare to watch her walk across the stage in her cap and gown, I'm grateful that I've had this mostly-unscheduled gap year to help her get ready for hers.


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