My Kids Give Me Perspective – Or Do They?

Once, a few years ago, I was lamenting to a classmate how little time I had to work on research.  She said something like, “Well, at least your kids give you perspective. Sometimes it feels like my whole life revolves around my dissertation.”

I’ve thought about that comment often over the years. It is, of course, very true that there is much more in my life besides my PhD. My boys do bring me immeasurable joy (along with a hearty dash of frustration and just general craziness.) But getting a PhD does come with a lot of emotional attachment and some pretty big ups and downs – for example that time a few months ago when I got an email saying that my paper was accepted to a conference, only to be followed a few hours later by an email stating that the earlier email was sent in error. Honestly, it is so hard to put on my June Cleaver face and say, “What can I get you sweetie?” when one of the boys says, “Mooooom, I’m hungry!” and I’ve literally JUST FED THEM, and I’m still trying to process some horrible rejection letter that I received earlier that day. In fact, I will admit that I almost never succeed at channeling my inner 50s mom in those situations. Instead, I snap at my poor unsuspecting child and then later feel badly about it. So, that’s fun for everyone. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, on the plus side, kids give you no time to wallow. On the minus side, kids give you no time to wallow.

Sometimes I’m really not sure if my kids are “giving me perspective.”  It’s not like I’m able to just immediately shrug stuff off and say, “That’s OK, at least I have my children!” And for another thing, when things aren’t going well with my PhD, I not only feel badly about whatever is going on with school, but I also have the joy of asking myself why I have been spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to put my children in daycare this whole time?

A perfect example of this happened just over a week ago. Tuffy and I were in the airport when I had my Erin Bartram moment. (I highly recommend reading her post – she describes the feeling of being forced out of academia much more eloquently than I could.) As we were waiting in the airport security line on our way home, I checked my email and found out that I had not been accepted for the one tenure-track position that I had gotten a fly-out for. But we barely had enough time to make it to our gate, buy some fast food, and shovel some of it in our mouths before we had to board the plane, so I had no time to do anything but speed us along (albeit in a much grumpier mood than I had been in before reading my email). As we boarded the plane, I didn’t even notice that Tuffy was checking out the cockpit, but one of the flight attendants told him to come in and meet the pilots. The flight attendants and pilots were all smiling and laughing and they had Tuffy – and me – sit in the cockpit and took pictures of us. It was silly and fun and Tuffy loved it a lot.

Clearly this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had my child with me (OK maybe, but it seems like it’s somehow not as cute when grownups try to look into the cockpit). It was a nice, almost immediate reminder of how much else there is to life besides professional success. But have no fear, I did spend a little time wallowing – I broke down in tears the next day on my way to Target. (Yes, I went to Target by myself. You gotta treat yourself a little bit after a day like that!) I knew that my job market paper wasn’t fantastic, so none of this was incredibly surprising. But it’s hard not to get teary-eyed thinking about all the amazing papers that were in my head that I was going to write (including one about the child care market) and wondering if I should just tweet out all my research ideas since I have no need for them anymore.

Sometimes I just wish there was a way to say in my cover letters, “Look at what I was able to accomplish with one hand tied behind my back! Look – I got through my PhD coursework and wrote a few halfway decent papers while raising two kids. While breastfeeding for SIX YEARS. While taking one son to speech therapy, occupational therapy, development pre-school, and ABA therapy. While enrolling the other son in multiple autism studies. While dropping to part-time after my young toddler had been sick for weeks and was losing weight and then got a staph infection. While my husband left town for weeks at a time. But the hardest part is over now, and if you give me a chance at a job, my husband is going to take over as the lead parent and just imagine what I could do then!”

Unfortunately for me, the world doesn’t work that way. But I am at least on track to finish this PhD soon, which is still an accomplishment. And my boys are thriving, and once in a while I get to pretend I’m a kid and sit in the cockpit of an airplane; so, I guess I can say that while it’s still hard, some perspective has been given.

Law-mom: Econ-mom – I so feel your pain here: “if you give me a chance at a job, my husband is going to take over as the lead parent and just imagine what I could do then!” My job search situation is a little different from yours. I haven’t been writing about it on here, but I am on the look-out for a new job (preferably one in which I can earn what a J.D. should be earning) and it is discouraging. I sometimes feel like I will never economically recover from my years of parenting while side-lining my career. I once had a man say to me, when I mentioned the effect the “mommy penalty” had on my salary: “But you should be recovered from that by now.”

REALLY?!?! 1) Thank you for the disguised insult; and 2) How would you know?

Anyway — kudos to you for continuing to plug away. Getting a PhD while breastfeeding for six years and taking care of special needs kids is a HUGE accomplishment. Congratulations! Even if the job market cannot see what an amazing person you are, I certainly can.

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