I enjoyed Afshan Jafar’s piece a couple of weeks back  about parallels between parenting and professing in the early years, and I imagine I’m not the only mid-career academic/parent of a teenager who was tempted to write the next chapter. Of course, as Jafar wrote last week, not everyone’s career (or teenager) will go through the same stages, but it does seem to me that the parallels between parenting and professing probably continue right through the life span.
The day-to-day worries in both arenas are very different at this stage than they were in the early years. I have tenure, so I’m not parsing every single word and gesture, just as I’m not second-guessing every single parenting decision. This doesn’t mean that my worries are over, though, as either parent or professor. The path to full professor is longer and less well-marked than the one to tenure; the mid-career professor can branch off into any number of different paths. So can the pre-teen and teenager. So I don’t feel any particular competence to map out a post-tenure, or a pre-teen/teenager, path. But recently I’ve been thinking about a pair of processes that may have some similarities: the teenager learning to drive and the tenured professor taking up a new research area.
Before it happened, I thought my daughter’s learning to drive would be the scariest transition we would navigate together as parent and child. In fact, that fear was just the first stage: after that came anxiety (maybe she’ll never learn!), denial (it’s not really that big a deal!) and, finally, acceptance (of course she’s driving!). I remember feeling as if I could barely breathe the first day I knew she was on the highway (I was, actually, too nervous to be in the car with her—her father handled that role with aplomb). But she navigated that transition just as she had, eventually, made her way out of practicing in parking lots, to surface streets; from watching her dad and me drive, to doing it with us in the passenger seat, to driving on her own. Now, I find her driving indispensable—when I’m too tired to go out for groceries, when her brother needs a lift somewhere, when she has an appointment in the opposite direction from mine. Her brother is still two years away from driving, and I’m sure his transition will be different, but I expect we’ll navigate it as well.
Starting anything new is scary, but you build on all the skills you’ve already developed and, over time, the new skill becomes just as comfortable as the old ones. When I first started to work on children’s literature, I began with Victorian children’s literature, building on the old skill (Victorian literature) as I developed the new. I wrote an article or two before I started teaching in the field. Now I teach and research mostly contemporary children’s literature, but in the beginning I stayed in my comfort zone, moving out only after I’d gained some confidence. I’ve now taken up a couple of new teaching areas, and while each one is different, in each case I need to remind myself, over and over again, that I’ve made similar transitions before, and that I’ve developed some skills I can call upon again.
In fact, that’s true of every new stage of both parenting and professing; at first, it looks daunting; then you remember that you’ve managed other new things before; then you wonder what you were afraid of. And then you start all over again.