Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Babies and Post-Grad studies

Today is my son's sixteenth birthday. This is a pic of him after we brought him home from the hospital and tried to get our heads around the reality that our lives would never be the same again. His impending arrival sixteen years ago was the start of many new things in my life at that time. My husband was offered a new job which entailed a much welcome move away from an inner-city London area where we lived for some time. My husband was a Londoner since the age of three and loved it there, but the time had come for a positive career move for him and a good move for us to start a new family with a baby. I left a secondary school teaching job that I enjoyed, but I was feeling pretty fed up with a very busy city life that was never quiet. Coming out to the South West of England to a nice, manageable city was great for me. We had already established a couple of sociable connections through his new workplace and found a great flat with amazing views. The problem with this flat was the extent of the physical work that one needed to do to get to the views at the top of this Georgian terraced building. These amazing old places don't have lifts/elevators and there are many stairs to negotiate to get to the top flat. I did feel a bit skeptical about this, knowing there was a baby on the way and we'd be carrying extra loads (more me, as husband would start job straight away), but husband talked me into it as we hadn't seen any other places that were as nice as this one. Another crazy decision that added to the exhaustion that took over my life much of the time. Well, one positive point was that I managed to stay pretty fit and tone with all the stairs and lifting, not to mention walking extensively with baby in pushchair in a very hilly part of town.

My activity levels were challenged even more, because for some crazy reason I also made the decision to start an MA course part-time. It was going to be a difficult time for me to begin looking for new work, as I was pregnant when we arrived, and I wanted something else in my life to 'challenge' me. As I type I am chuckling cynically at this idea now - what was I thinking - all I can say is that I was properly warned by many that this idea was not exactly practical, as once baby arrived I would realize how much pressure I would be under to keep up. My crazy husband, also an academic, was one of the few who encouraged me to give the MA a go as it was 'only part-time - sure I could manage it if I approached it realistically. Well, it must have been hormones doing strange things to me at the time. I started the course in the October after my son was born on the July 17. I found some part-time baby care and sorted out a schedule of class and study time for myself, and cracked on. After the initial struggle with confusing ideas and academic challenges, I got the hang of it and felt excited by academic work. But this 'excitement' seemed to be mixed totally with a tendency toward obsessiveness and compulsion toward perfection, to succeed at all costs. As I read more current debates in the field, I convinced myself that my own essays weren't as good - they too had to be of publishable standard. I am amazed that I actually managed to finish these essays by their deadlines. Of course, I did manage this but only because I would be working at crazy hours throughout the nights to achieve a high standard. Nothing was ever good enough. Hmm, I'm sure post-academics reading this know exactly what I'm talking about. Over the years I have recognised that these obsessive qualities seem to define many features of the academic personality. I think it may take me many years to break away from these tendencies and relieve myself of these pressures. Oh how liberating this will be. I've been allowing this to happen slowly since planning my post-academic transition and feel a great weight is being lifted from my shoulders.

The pressure of perfectionism in some personalities also extends into other areas of life too, especially for the middle-classes whose horizons of expectations are high. My biggest challenge was living up to the expectation of trying to 'have it all' and mastering everything. What a heavy burden it was to try to make new friends in new city while pregnant with my first child. All of my MA peers were younger and single, no kids. There was one other student, single mother with two older kids, but they weren't babies and somehow she seemed to have a grip on things a lot better than I had. New mothers, especially the middle-class ones, are also expected to cook fresh food, pureed when the babies begin solids, and I haven't even mentioned breast-feeding, which was a constant, on demand activity. With my son, we suffered the extra strain of very bad colic, which was at its worst in the evenings and night time. There was not much sleep for many months. When I left him with someone else I struggled to get little bottles of expressed breast milk for him and stressed when there wasn't enough. When I was away at class or at the library, I'd have overly engorged breasts and would need to rush to the bathroom to push some of the milk out for some relief. What can I say, there was never any easy way to get around the business of feeding baby when away in the early days. When I weaned from breastfeeding I had the same over-engorged problems - with my second baby this resulted in painful mastitis.

In the final year of the part-time MA I was working on my dissertation. This was the year when my husband and I discussed whether we should think about having another child. Wow, this decision was very difficult indeed. Finally, I felt I was getting to a point where life's pressures seemed to ease up a bit as my son was getting older. I haven't mentioned how extremely active he was. Compared to other boys and girls his age, he was certainly the busiest and most distracted, with the tendency to take more risks than other children. The playgroup he went to advised me not to try to 'full-day' as they thought he wasn't ready/mature enough and needed to be with me. My translation was that they couldn't cope with his activity levels and left it to me to deal with. I was desperate for a break and only got little bits that I treasured. Suddenly, there was talk about having another. I was 36 at the time and felt I needed to be clear about what we were going to do - I wasn't getting any younger - pressure, pressure. We did try and after I finished my dissertation in May, I had my daughter a few months later in September. Sometime later I started the adjunct teaching path and then was talked into starting a PhD. I applied for funding with the expectation that I wouldn't get it, but surprise came when I did. I felt compelled to carry the obligation through - with such competition for funds I saw it as my duty.

I cannot ever make the claim that my PhD study was a waste of time. I am the person I am today because of this unique experience and I've grown intellectually in ways I would not have if I hadn't done it. Having said that, I may have found other avenues for intellectual challenge outside the expectations of a PhD if given the chance. I also may have had a less self-inflicted stressful, anxiety ridden life if I avoided PhD study. Or would I? Perhaps, considering my somewhat obsessive personality I may have sought other ways to put myself under pressure. I've said in earlier posts that I have some residual guilt about how academic stress may have been passed on to my children. Being completely honest, I have to admit I would have been more productive academically had I not had them. If we decided not to go forward with having our second child I probably would have gone straight into PhD and had more energy to devote to my academic career. I may have secured a job at a time in UK Higher Education when there were more jobs available.  Have I taken some sort of resentment out on my children. Probably. Probably out on my husband too. I am only human and living during historical times when there are just too many expectations to try to live up to. As I'm getting older, I feel I can let go of many of those expectations now and appreciate the other great things in my life, including my family - I'd be pretty lonely without them. Would an academic career, where nothing is ever 'good enough' be worth sacrificing them? As I'm writing this, I want to make clear that I'm not taking a dualistic position on family-good, no family, career - bad. I'm just working through how some of my own difficult feelings around this have surfaced over the years. 

The golden time of academic life here in the UK has passed now, of course. If I had taken the path where I din;t have my daughter, I may also have got to this point now, where academic labour may feel less favourable to me. Many academics I have come across are very unhappy with working conditions as they are now and are dreaming about retirement time. Others are losing their jobs from forced redundancy and are wondering how they can now make a living.

Fast forward now to the present. Sixteen years later my son last week had his secondary school 'prom'. Not quite the standard of the overblown US high-school prom, (no date, not lots of pics) but enough to warrant spending some dosh on renting a tux (opted out of bow-tie, and went for Mafia style here!). When he was seven, after years of struggling to keep up with his pace and endless negotiations with his school about his unusual level of distraction and hyperactivity, yes, you guessed it, he was diagnosed with ADHD.We opted to try the meds and life began to become more manageable for all the family (too many details to discuss here - life was very, very hard for a while). He's an A star student now aspiring to get top grades to go to Cambridge where they teach top Maths degree. He's picked up on my husband's and my obsessive academic qualities and spends hours on his own trying to figure out bizarre Maths' formulas and problems that are a completely different language for me. My constant advice to him is to take great care and have a balanced life and to focus on having strong relationships with people. Hopefully he'll manage this.

My daughter is a high achiever too, growing massively upset if she can't sort out her homework on time or to the best standard. And she happens to be pretty good in everything - her choices will be extremely difficult to make. My advice to her is the same - keep life balanced! These days are tough, with their school expectations very high, wanting good exam results for survival, and with the potential for many girls to play the 'good girl' compliant academic routine. She and her friends simply want to please their teachers all the time. Academic danger signs are there for sure.

My experience of academia as a mother  bringing up two young children has been a great challenge, to say the least. I don't think I ever managed it that well, but this isn't to say it is impossible as I've met other women who, at least from a distance, seem to pull it all together. In my case, my personality, the over-worry, over-anxiety led to over-work. My over-work eventually led to very bad health and a diagnosis of Relapsing-Remitting MS when I was mid PhD study. The lack of sleep certainly triggered the first and second MS episode - a recipe for MS disaster, which made me stop dead in my tracks and rethink what I was doing, and what I wanted from life. If there was anything good to come of out bad health, then a new revelation about the direction I wanted to take in life was it. But it's taken my still, a very long time since then to get out of academia. I'm hoping now that I have a new non-academic career ahead of me, that I put some of these bad working habits behind me and enjoy the work-life balance more.


  1. Great to read more, Jet. Absolutely empathise with the whole engorged, breast-feeding bit: boy, do I remember that stage!
    Happiest of happy birthdays to your lovely son!
    And have a lovely day yourself.
    Fabulous photos too.

    1. Oh yes, those never-ending feeding days. How can we ever forget them! I have just come back from treating him to burger and chips lunch and coaxed him into having a walk with me in public also - at the risk of him bumping into friends. And he even got chatty, introducing conversation without me dragging it out of him. One of those good moments that I will cherish.

  2. Wow, what a great looking family!

    Thanks for hanging your experience out there for the rest of us to see. I can relate to a lot of what you say about the academic type personality and resulting anxiety. I'm also sorry to hear about the health problems you've had as a result of that stress. I have had some stress related problems myself and it scares the crap out of me that I have let academia affect me in this way. I would love to hear more about your quest to strike a balance and find more happiness/satisfaction in another career path!

    1. Hey thanks! I've come across quite few blog posts now that reveal this personality tendency. Unsurprising I guess, but worrying when physical and mental health suffer (as I've also read about - Psychology today had an article written by an academic about her anorexia - was fascinating...). My quest in finding a balance seems to be in process most of the time. When I think I've got a grip on it, I find there's an opportunity that drags me back in, like this past year when I worked on a research contract and a Research Assistant and had to get to grips with lots of new material. And when I applied recently for a non-academic job that I got in the end, I had to prepare loads of stuff for the interview and I found myself really going for it, doing far too much probably. Well, I did get the job so worth it I guess but warning myself to be careful. Luckily health is okay at moment but it does go up and down. All is much better when rested and chilled! I'm indulging in some real nonsense summer reading fiction at the moment - it's a great tonic for escape and as I'm not having to write anything about it, it's such a pleasure! Good luck with your journey - I've just had a look at your blog and great posts - lookign forward to reading more.

  3. Yes, yes, yes to the perfectionism and anxiety and health issues. I am seeing this habit of mine impact my new job too--that feeling of never being good enough as an academic. I couldn't log in properly to a webinar yesterday and I wanted to die of embarrassment. But, unlike with academe, my manager was very cool and understanding about the whole thing...so maybe I can afford to learn to relax a bit in the "real world"?...who knows?

  4. Ha, I know what you mean - the overflow of anxiety that we take with us form academia into new work contexts. I had a meeting with my new manager recently about sorting out new job details and he was very positive about what I could offer, said I was top choice, wasn't I great, my presentation and interview was right on the mark, I competed with so many others and got the job etc - Added note - the number of applicants was 50ish compared to the 180 average I have been up against for Lecturers' jobs here in my field. I had to try hard to control myself when he told me this number. So, what I'm seeing here is something of a new-found appreciation for my hard-earned skills and knowledges. And this is something I have not felt in academia where the sense of competition with so many other qualified (young) academics puts the stops on recognising what people can offer - the tower seeks out the negative often as a starting point. So, It's nice to feel wanted - confidence building and also more forgiving when we show our human faults every now and then. Yes, let's try and relax a bit now and enjoy!