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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: On Getting (and asking for) Help
March 1, 2010 - 9:11pm

When my son was about three we took him out to a restaurant where kids were welcome. He sat in a high chair with a tray, and we put things on it for him to eat. I can't remember exactly what it was that he was so intent on, but I do remember him chasing a piece of food around the tray with his fork, trying — and failing — to spear it. "I got it, I got it, I got it!" he chanted. Then, almost without taking a breath — "I need help!"

I feel like that a lot. The semester has just hit the half-way point for me. There's one more week until spring break, and then we'll be on the downward slope of the semester and picking up speed. This year, as part of my duties coordinating our new first year seminar program, I'll be responsible for a series of workshops for faculty as soon as the semester ends, so I'm not looking towards May with quite the sense of relief and freedom that it usually brings. Indeed, there are days when I almost wish the semester would go on for an extra couple of weeks, if only to postpone the inevitable.

Then I remember: I'm not doing this all by myself. As an academic — and an academic in a discipline notoriously hostile to collaboration — I am used to doing things myself. I plan my syllabi, order my books, run my classes. I've learned to put up a webpage and I can do some rudimentary trouble-shooting on my computer. I write these blog posts alone at my computer, as I do most other things. Research takes long hours of solitude—though an occasional conversation with a colleague can sometimes help me reframe a question, it's still mostly a one-person job.

But my new position is not. I have, as I've mentioned before, an administrative assistant to help with some of the routine (and not so routine) tasks that come up. I also have a fabulous committee, source of great wisdom and good jokes. I'm working with terrific faculty who have shown a great spirit of cooperation and are developing courses for a new program that look both challenging and appealing. And the workshops that I'm anticipating are also not my sole responsibility — both on-campus and outside facilitators will be a big part of them. This morning, for example, I met with a group of my fellow collaborators, and the ideas they generated will help shape the summer program I'm developing. It may take me some time to learn to collaborate — but the payoff is that I don't have to do it all myself.

And indeed, the more I learn to collaborate, the more I realize I've been doing it all along. My students are my first and best collaborators — they laugh at my jokes (probably a sympathy laugh, but I'll take it) and (mostly) read what I ask them to, and the discussions we have together are what make it worth coming to work every day. At conferences and in journals I meet the professional colleagues whose writing teaches me and informs my own. And of course I may write these blog posts on my own, but I am part of a community of writers at this site—we read each other, we comment on each other, we link to each other, and we bounce off each other to write our pieces. Last week when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I called out to Scott Jaschik, "I need help!" and he gave me a week off. Like my young son, then, I need to remember that self-reliance is not, in fact, always a virtue — sometimes we all just need to ask for a little help.


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