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.

Countdown to the Job Market

I am actually flying to Philadelphia tomorrow for the job market!  I recently watched this short video called “Running of the Economists” where several famous economist share their memories of their job market experience.  It’s kind of funny, and it’s only 4 minutes, so it’s worth a watch if you are wondering what I’m about to get myself into.

I think, being a mom, I have some of the same emotions that the other job market candidates have, but also some additional ones. When one of the economists says, “it feels like the rest of your life is on the line”, I can relate to that. I have spent SO much time and effort on this PhD, and this is indeed the main chance to get a PhD job.  But the prospect of getting that job isn’t solely exciting, as it probably is for most of the other students. It’s also nerve-wracking and a little sad, because, if I do get a job, I will be uprooting my entire family. My husband has a job that he loves, my children have friends that they enjoy playing with, we like our neighborhood, etc.  Basically every single thing in our life is great except for the fact that I want to work in this very specific field. So, it’s a mix of emotions for me. Oh, and alongside all these emotions, I can’t forget that I’m also feeling relieved at the idea of having five whole days without hearing “Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy….”

But that being said, I am excited. And nervous. Wish me luck!

 

Why Would Anyone Want a Tenure-Track Job?

In 2013, a tenured professor at Harvard wrote a blog post called The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.  I was eager to read it, given that Radhika Nagpal started her tenure-track position with two young children. At that point there were zero other mothers among the grad students in my department, so I had no one to talk to and desperately wanted advice. (I mean real advice; i.e. advice that would be helpful to a working mother.  Not like “catch up on the news while you’re eating breakfast.”  Someone literally suggested that to me once. I didn’t bother trying to explain what parents do during breakfast.)

As I started reading, I was enamored by passages like, “I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance.” (Emphasis added by me.) Preach it, sister!

But further into the post, I started to see some ways in which even the “ultra-laid-back” approach taken by Radhika was still not compatible with the reality I faced or with the mother I wanted to be.  First problem – she worked from 10pm-12am most nights.  Ummm. I think I stayed up till midnight ONCE during my first two years of graduate school to cram for a metrics exam.  Why?  Because Tuffy didn’t go to bed until well after 10pm most nights and by that time I was utterly exhausted. And, he didn’t sleep through the night until he was about 2 and a half. (Sometimes I allow myself a brief moment of silence for all the extra sleep we could have gotten had we found out about his autism and the wonders of melatonin earlier, but it’s water under the bridge now!)

Second problem – she writes some cutesy stuff about splitting the parenting 50-50.  So… I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that both parents are so extremely organized that they can seamlessly hand off information like “the daycare needs extra pants” and “the school library book is due back tomorrow” day in and day out.  There’s still the issue of travel.  Apparently she and her husband never had work travel, but unfortunately my husband did, and he would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time!  Clearly there is no 50-50 parenting going on in this situation.

But the deal breaker for me, the moment that I knew with certainty that I did not want a tenure track job, was when I read the line – “a sick kid whose fever I tried to mask with Tylenol and send to school.” This is such an absolute NO with a side of NO sauce in my book.  First of all, both of my sons got sick a ZILLION times when they were young. (By the way, sharing this unique, miserable experience is something that bonds Law-mom and I together for life.) Frankly, it’s likely that at least a few of these sicknesses were a direct result of parents pulling that crap. But I’m not trying to rag on Radhika – tons of parents do this, and it’s because we’re all in such desperate situations. I’m sure if I had had a “real” job, there would have been a greater temptation to try the ol’ Tylenol Mask just to avoid getting fired. But honestly this is just one of those places where I drew the line in terms of parenting. I always felt some amount of guilt for putting my son in daycare, but at least I was never going to leave him with anyone other than myself or his dad when he was truly sick. So when Tuffy would get a fever, I’d miss class (which was fun because graduate classes move at lightening speed), and as soon as he was fever-free for 24 hours I’d bring him back and try to somehow catch up while still putting in less than 40 hours a week on class/studying/pumping. And even then I’d still often feel terrible because Tuffy would still have a cough or just not be fully back to himself.

So that was that – and this was even before Tuffy’s autism diagnosis and the onslaught of doctor appointments, paperwork, and therapy sessions. Clearly if working until midnight and taking a sick kid to daycare is the bare minimum it takes to get tenure it’s industry jobs only for this mama!

But here’s the crazy part – back in June I saw a couple classmates who now have tenure-track jobs and as we were chatting I started thinking hey, maybe I could do this too. I guess with Peanut now fiiiiiinally sleeping through the night (usually) and the kids getting sick way less often, it is starting to feel like more things are possible. And working on your own research really is fun.  I published a paper a couple years ago, and it was exciting to collect brand new data and attempt to answer a question that had never been answered before.

Ever since then I’ve been back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis.  It’s like that thing in the movies where someone has the angel and devil on each shoulder. Not that I’m trying to compare tenure-track jobs to the devil, but it does sort of seem like the bad choice in a way.  It’s so high stress, with teaching and research demands, being asked to serve on committees, etc.  Let’s face it, even Radhika who has tenure at Harvard admits to occasionally crying in her office. So the angel was winning for a while, whispering in my ear “Your kids need you. Who would take them on playdates? Also you can’t stay up until midnight.”  Then in September I present my paper and an actual professor comes up to me afterwards and tells me that he likes my work and is interested in co-authoring a paper with me.  And the devil whispers “see how exciting this can be?”

Now, here I am on the job market; and yes, I have applied for some tenure-track jobs. Ultimately I felt like I had to try. Part of me thinks I would crumble under the pressure, but part of me thinks, “hey, I made it this far with so many things working against me. I just want to see what I can do when DH takes over as lead parent, and I can truly focus on my work.”  And, of course, I might not get any offers for teaching jobs and the decision will be made for me. So, we’ll see what happens.

Law-mom’s response:

Yes, Econ-mom (EM), you and I are bonded for life commiserating over how sick both our children were for the first five years (for me) of parenting. Well, first seven years, actually. If you, too, dear reader, are going through this phase, as I am sure others have told you: It does get better! I know that is not helpful when you are going through it. But it does give you hope — I hope. For years I toiled without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. It’s how I felt. I always had hope. But sometimes that hope felt like a lifetime away in a distant future I would never reach. Yet…here I am.

As a bit of a tangent, the other day, as I was walking home from the train, I saw a toddler walking with her mom or caretaker, and I suddenly had a flashback to when SC1 was 13 months old, holding my hand along the sidewalk and walking, and I nearly broke down in tears. (Instead, I just got misty-eyed and had a few good sniffs.) So, apparently, I will still look back fondly and nostalgically at those younger years — even though they broke me. But, there is a silver-lining to being broken: You have empathy and compassion for others who are breaking! And I would never give you advice like, “Just catch up on the news during breakfast!” LOL. That’s a good one! (Though, EM, with older kids who are more self-sufficient, it will be possible.)

The two main points I took away from your post, EM:

  1. The only way to juggle job and family is for all moving pieces to be in perfect order/synchronicity at all times. And, unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. I could be a drill sergeant, I am so good at keeping a ship running on schedule in tip top shape. (Everyone in my family loves this about me, by the way.) But when kids get sick (or you get sick) the whole fragile balance is thrown off, and it’s never easy to recover. The good Lord above only knows how I EVER would have kept my full-time job when the kids were little. I would have been like that lady crying in my office. I also would have had to move to a much higher paying (even more demanding) firm to afford a nanny. I’ve already talked about a litigator’s hours in a previous post.
  2.  I feel your pain re: the struggle between your ambition versus your familial demands. My familial demands drove me to take (what feels like) a “backseat” job. In other words, I took a pay cut and less stress for more time. I went through a period of time where I had a minor identity crisis after changing my career path. I wondered, frequently, if I was making a huge mistake. The other day, however, I had a “Eureka!” moment. It sounds so simple, but it is what finally slapped me out of my self-pity: Time is the most valuable commodity we have. And I now have the (minimum) amount I personally need to try to keep a decent balance between my work and family life. Therefore, even though I took a pay cut, I gained something so much more valuable. It is by focusing on that priceless time that I am able to see my glass half-full — maybe even more than half-full — while I continue to navigate this parenting journey. That is not advice. It is just one perspective. Good luck on the decision-making! Remember that, no matter what you choose, it won’t be easy. That is not pessimism. It is just reality.

 

Applying for a “Non-PhD” Job

As I mentioned in this post, the Economics Job Market is a very peculiar beast.  Right now, I am in the thick of “application season”, as most of the applications are due sometime in November.  I’m applying to a few dozen places and only one of them is in San Diego.  This is just par for the course when you get a PhD – your job is so specialized that you’re likely to have to move to get the job you want.  I get the sense that this is largely unknown outside of the PhD world. (Dare I say the “normal” world?)  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation similar to the one I had yesterday with my son’s babysitter.  It went approximately like this:

Me: I just applied to a job in Minnesota.

Sitter: What? But what about your husband’s job? What about your kids?

Me: Well, I’d love to stay here, but there just aren’t many jobs here, unfortunately.

Sitter: What about UCSD?

Me: Sigh.

Here’s the thing.  I could apply to UCSD.  But it would be a waste of time, and frankly, my own advisor probably wouldn’t sign off on it.  Economics is a very hierarchical field, and I’m getting my PhD from a school that is not ranked nearly as well as UCSD so there’s approximately zero chance of me getting hired there. There are a few other schools here, but the chances of getting an academic job at one particular school are slim.

Now, I really truly would love to stay here.  I don’t want to have to move my kids again.  They’re very happy here and that means so incredibly much to me.  That’s why I am also working on an application to a local job that doesn’t require a PhD (but still looks like an interesting job).  I’ve been hesitating on this one though (read, I started the app 3 weeks ago!!) for one reason: If I were to get that job, they would probably want me to start right away. But I also really want to finish my PhD* and try for a “PhD job”.  (I almost want to say “academic job,” but I’m also looking at think tanks and government organizations, so academic isn’t quite the right word.)

To me, going to the AEA meeting (the big job market meeting that happens every January) feels like going to try-outs for the U.S. Olympic team.  I have been training for years, and I just want to get a spot on the team — any spot.  But getting that spot would mean moving my family and starting a high-intensity job that would leave me less time with my kids. And here these lovely economists are always telling us that more choice is better!

*In theory people can work full-time and finish their PhDs on the side.  But let’s face it, these people don’t have kids.

Law-mom’s response: Econ-mom (EM), I love the asterisk. I am a bit tired today, because daylight savings has completely messed with my schedule. So, my brain is not working well-enough right now to respond further. I wish you luck!

EM’s response: Ah yes, the lovely time change.  Peanut is now waking up at 5am.  *sad face*

A Mom on the Job Market

This year is my seventh(?!?!) and final year of my economics PhD.  During our final year, many of us go on the job market, which is a centralized market of sorts through which most PhD economists are hired. For the uninitiated, Noah Smith has a great post describing this process.

This process is very efficient, but (as it would be with any job search I suppose) I don’t exactly feel like I’m being myself.  First of all, I had to take a picture while wearing a suit.  Scratch that.  First, I had to go buy a suit.  That was fun….I took Peanut (my 3-year-old) to the mall a couple weekends ago.  I spent about 10 minutes trying on clothes and about 90 minutes buying food, taking multiple trips to the bathroom, and purchasing a toy in the toy store.  (Yes, I had to bribe my child to get through 10 minutes of clothes shopping.  I’m on track to win several parenting awards this year.)

Then I had to write a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.”  In this document, I am supposed to make it sound like I’ve been teaching for years, during which time I have been honing my craft and now have strongly held opinions on pedagogy.  This is a little bit hard to do, given that I’ve independently taught a grand total of TWO classes. (And my teaching evaluations are…well… reflective of the fact that I had a 9 month old baby at that time.)  But I was thinking the teaching statement could be better, if I was able to incorporate my mom experience by adding something like this —

Extensive experience lecturing young minds on a variety of topics including:

  • making a decision before opening the fridge
  • choosing weather-appropriate clothing
  • when one should jump off a bridge
  • correct discount rates as applied to teeth brushing
  • why strong priors are not sufficient to justify rejection of a new food
  • when to come crying to me if you’ve hurt yourself
  • the relationship between money and photosynthesis (hint: there isn’t one)