We have been home for just over two months after three tours of duty in the field for dissertation research in Brazil and Spain. As I sink into the glory of chickens, gardening, sweet doggies, my wonderful kitchen, awesome home town, and our family (and then the many hours a day I spend working, but that’s no fun to talk about), I only manage to keep all the travel memories fresh because Little Man’s favorite screen time is watching home videos, most of which were from the road. It has taken an inordinate amount of time for me to get myself together for another blog post. There are a lot of stories to tell, but I was waiting for a reason that is intimately related to the content of this post. We have some major life changes to report and I needed to get a few things in order before sharing.
No, I’m not pregnant and I’m not quitting graduate school. We are moving! In a few months we’ll be forming a multigenerational family compound with Papa Bear’s family, but hang in there with me because it was a long journey so isn’t a short tale.
I got pregnant with The Boy during my third year of graduate school. We had planned quite carefully. We did the kitchen renovation the year before so as not to involve our fetus with toxic fumes. We got the second dog a year before so we’d have a full year to settle in with her before the baby. I made sure to wait until I was done with coursework so I would not have regular stressful deadlines for exams and papers. I knew I wanted to breastfeed and take time to be involved in mothering our kids. But I hadn’t yet internalized the fact that academia is the ultimate path of increasing returns–the more work you do, the more there is to be done.
Several events in that third year eventually brought about a major reorientation in our thinking about our family. I was elected president of our department’s graduate students, which gave me a close up view of what work and life was like for faculty and staff inside an R1 institution. Then my dad died. He had lived with cancer for thirty years, but there was something about leaving his bedside when he was in full renal failure (and I was four months pregnant) because I had to take my first round of comprehensive exams that felt like a turning point. To be fair, my advisor told me I could reschedule, but the exams are only given twice a year and I’d have had to redo three months of intensive preparation, still pregnant or with a newborn, and with no idea whether I’d do all that and still have my dad there needing intensive care. I was with him in the morning before the exam started at 8am and when it was over at 5pm I went straight back to the hospital.
Luckily he was still there, and in the end got a second wind and was able to spend about a month back in his own home with wonderful Duke Hospice, saying goodbye to his community. Though our parents had been divorced for a quarter century, our mom moved in without any idea how long she’d be there and took care of him day and night so that my sister and I didn’t have to quit our jobs or take time off school. The grit of this post is not about the politics of domestic care work, but it could be, as there are countries that spend fewer tax dollars than we do on health care and still manage to provide everyone with excellent public care and pay for things like home health assistants. I took an incomplete in one class to manage caring for him with my mother and sister. My second set of comprehensive exams came after his death, when I was 37 weeks pregnant and not capable of caring less. I passed by the hair on my chinny chinny chin. And then the baby came. I started working again six weeks after, luckily from home and on my dissertation, rather than teaching. But I look back and cringe at dragging myself out to attend a class I (quite mistakenly) thought I could handle taking that same semester, three weeks after Stinky was born. I ended up missing half the class because nursing him “during the break” took an hour.
Women in academia rarely have the freedom to combine career advancement with parenting choices like nursing on demand and attachment parenting, though I know several amazing women who I don’t think sleep, but remain on top of their fields while raising children this way. And seriously? I could plug almost any American job description in place of “women in academia” and the statement would still be true. I discovered quickly that I was at the nexus of an ugly yet deeply intellectual modern crisis. Women have striven for an equality with men that has been primarily defined within the parameters of the existing social structure. For highly educated women that meant become CEOs, become tenured professors, make as much money, get as many awards as men (none of which, it is worth noting, appear to make either the men or women at the top very happy, comparatively speaking). For many more it means fighting high schoolers for minimum wage jobs with no benefits (which also doesn’t make people very happy…hmmmm). While I do think it’s important that women occupy spaces “at the top” along with men, we have still not found any sort of balance between getting women into the full spectrum of public roles and putting our money, resources, and respect behind the equally influential work that mostly women are doing behind the scenes at home (regardless of whether or not they are also employed in the formal labor force).
America is at the rock bottom of the rich and poor world (that’s right) in terms of policies to allow work life balance for women and families at all economic levels. I have seen too many op ed pieces in the post-Time magazine debates that focus on whether women should or should not “sacrifice” themselves for their children, with too few stepping back and expressing rage over the fact that it’s not everywhere that women are forced to choose and that we could be doing things differently. Yes, breastfeeding is always “hard,” especially if you manage not to wean early (the historical natural human range is 2-7 years). If your partner and family support you, your boss supports you (and your partner’s boss supports them in supporting you!), your eventual childcare facilities don’t tell you they can’t serve your kid breastmilk, you have time to be home early on, and you are lucky enough not to have difficulties nursing (more common nowadays because of losing our mother’s generation for advice and support–who mostly did not breastfeed us–and fifty years of exposure to high levels of endocrine bending chemicals in our food and environment that impacted our ability to breastfeed our own children even before we were born!)…if all those stars align then that “hard” can be a wonderful, satisfying, transformative hard and not a depressing, tear jerking, lonely, no-win hard. The difference between these two descriptions of the breastfeeding experience is, at the aggregate societal level, a matter of public policy.
The two countries we lived in these past 18 months are considered laggards on support for “work life balance” policies because they only give four months of (fully paid) maternity leave. For comparison, the United States has zero paid parental leave. As in, zero. You have the right to take three months of unpaid leave if you can afford it. But in Brazil all companies over a certain size have to provide on site créches so that women who go back to work before six months can nurse on demand at the workplace. Both countries have public national health systems that provide high quality care (with some exceptions) with no copays and no red tape (for now). In Spain men and women get a lot of basic benefits in terms of holidays, rights to sick leave, etc, that we could only dream of–though this is being eroded as a result of austerity policies in the wake of the current economic crisis.
Regardless, fertility has fallen to unsustainable levels in both countries because policies are not supportive enough to convince women to attempt families and careers simultaneously (all women, not just elite professional women), so they push childbearing until their late thirties once they feel their family earnings and careers are stable, and often end up only having one child when they repeatedly tell us through surveys that they prefer at least two kids. In Spain fertility has been sitting far far below replacement levels for a generation and in Brazil fell from 4.4 children per woman of childbearing age to below replacement (2.2) in about 20 years. While women gaining some control over their fertility is a crucial worldwide victory, we are now having fewer children than we want in many parts of the world. The pattern is also a big policy problem because it means the dependency ratio has increased precipitously–the elderly are having their pensions paid for by an increasingly small influx of new workers.
In comparative family studies, we joke that the “US exceptionalism” discussed in a number of policy areas is perhaps most shocking in fertility rates–that we keep having babies at higher rates than other advanced industrial countries even with zero support from the state through policy or service provision. We have to rely almost exclusively on family networks and privately purchased help, even with our higher rates of poverty and family dispersion that make those two avenues comparably less attainable for American families. People in other countries, rich and poor, look at the United States and ask “who is raising their children?!”–with no guaranteed access to daycare and no parental leave (not to mention requiring that poor women receiving public benefits work at any job that will take them, no matter what impact on the family), it’s a good question. The kinds of policies that help families balance work and parenthood can be part time options, paid leave, good public day care, family allowances and payments to families with small children, social security benefit accrual to mothers who are at home, universal health care that covers families regardless of employment status, benefit structures that treat single mothers and their children as the whole society’s responsibility rather than as social pariahs, and if you are lucky enough to live in Scandinavia or some parts of continental Europe, maternity leave that can be used as you like over the course of several years and so called “daddy months” that give the family extra parental leave if dad’s take some time off too.
Well, we don’t have any of that. For women PhDs, we know exactly what is happening but haven’t done much about it. Women quit their programs (called the “leaky pipeline”), don’t go on the job market, or choose career paths that are more family friendly in administration or outside academia. I was incredibly lucky to be in a program that had just instituted a generous six weeks of paid leave for faculty and graduate students. My husband would get a paid day off if he were moving, but gets nothing for having a baby. He took two weeks of vacation and then worked from home for two weeks. It was completely insufficient and we were still much luckier than most folks where partners can’t work from home or have limited vacation options.
And somewhere amidst all of that I became quite a different person. I decided that I was not even close to ready to “go on the market” for traditional tenure track positions in my field. The previous sentence all by itself is a large part of why I waited to write this post. I needed to talk it through and make sure my advisor and committee knew my plans and would still support me before talking about it publicly (which they do, because I’m lucky and they are wonderful). I realized that what I really wanted was to have my children at home with family during the early years and that I wasn’t willing to pick up and move away from my entire family just because the most prestigious job offer came from somewhere across the country. I felt deeply conflicted knowing I only had these choices because we could afford to live without my income, and it’s a much more bitter decision for the vast majority of women who reach the same conclusion and don’t have the option of sacrificing a chunk of the family income for a period of time.
I’ll do my best to save the gory details of my personal transformation for another day, or never, but I began to question my life more radically in terms of the plans and possessions I had felt were really necessary. My brain still worked and I still loved my work, but it was just so incredibly unimportant compared to raising a whole, healthy human being. I made the very difficult decision not to quit. I am finishing, I will graduate next year. It feels like taking a mental break to sit down and work for a few hours after being fully engaged in mothering. Before and after work I apply my research skills to vaccines, development, child health, early childhood education, and I eventually dove into homesteading and self sufficiency (part of my overall rethinking of my life). I love the way that being intensively engaged in the life of a growing human keeps my mind agile and helps me get out of the narrow rut of adulthood that most of us sink into after many years of squashing ourselves into the mainstream. I learn new things every day and have expanded my nerdiness to include an obsession with raising sheep. I started to realize that all the things my mother had been doing forever, that I thought were horribly crunchy, were the things I wanted to be doing. It took a few “duh” moments before I learned to call my mom and in-laws to consult whenever I discovered a new home remedy or baking soda and vinegar cleaning recipe, since inevitably they once tried it, maybe still use it, and probably have some of the ingredients under the kitchen sink that I can borrow.
The most important advice I think anyone can give to someone who will become a parent is to try their best to do the impossible: be at peace with the prospect of changing in ways you may not be ready for, can’t predict, and that your old self might not be thrilled about.
But there it was. Do I wish I hadn’t started my PhD? Definitely not. It’s actually quite substantial for me to know that I can do difficult statistics by hand and really understand the scientific method. I can apply these tools however I want now that I have them. I like how my brain has grown and changed. I love the relationships I’ve formed with mentors and colleagues and I am really excited about the projects I am working on because I feel they matter in the real world. And yes, I think it’s valuable to have some societal seals of approval that help communicate to my kids about the work I do.
I had funding to do my field research and once I decided to stick with it there was nothing to do but go forward. As you’ve likely read in the posts over the past few years, we headed out into the world as a family, hauling a toddler over several continents for conferences, meetings, and research. I have no regrets, I accomplished the work I needed to accomplish and had quite a few really wonderful times with family and friends. But by the end when I got too tired to work I would just sit for hours with a sleeping child cradled on my lap reading about whole grain chicken feed and composting toilets. I think something in me had snapped.
When we got home I was devastated that I had to wait a whole week to get my chickens while we got their housing set up. But I planted ginger the same day, started sweet potato slips, made raw milk yogurt, and got into the garden immediately to turn what had been a massive bed of mountain mint into tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, squash, melons, and corn within just a few days. I think our neighbors thought I had lost it, and I’m not really going to argue with that. I ordered my Vitamix before we even got home so it would be waiting for me (refer back to the part where I said I had radically altered my sense of the possessions I needed for a good life, add salt).
But the most important part of this transformation was our ultimate realization that we needed to change our living, our life, our home. Having Papa Bear at home until 3pm everyday with the time change in Spain, spending time with our son and making meals together, was unforgettable for both of us. It was like night and day. He told me that when we had been living with his parents before our last round of travel and he would call to say he was on his way home, I actually sounded happy rather than sounding like my mind was going to be fully lost five minutes before he got home, so he’d better arrive with beer, ready to pick up the pieces. For us to stay in our current house and expand our family as we hope to, we’d need to do some expensive additions to be comfortable. But what we wanted was to be consuming less, not more. So one day when my father in law said “well, you could live here” we actually stopped and thought about it.
My husband’s parents live less than fifteen minutes from town and I wrote this past winter about how much we love being out there–in the woods but close enough to throw a stick at town. And most importantly to our son (aside from the small matter of being nearer two of his favorite people), you can still hear the trains (TRAINS!) and the airplanes from the airport (AIRPLANES!). So this is our big news and big life change–we are moving out of our beloved Trinity Park, our first house together, onto my in-laws’ land. The other reason we waited to write was so we’d have a chance to talk to our neighbors first, who have become true friends over the past six years. We are building a little addition onto the back of the grandparents’ house so we can be close without suffocating each other, helping them use empty bedrooms and expand the garden and saving everyone money. But most importantly, we’ll be together. I’ve decided to take some time off after I graduate, but luckily have some professional side projects that will keep me engaged in my field and give me a breather from the truly challenging intellectual work of parenting.
When Papa Bear and I met, we both had family very high on our list of priorities. As the kids of migrants from other parts of America, we had always been far from our own extended families and dreamed of having our kids grow up near their aunts and uncles and grandparents. My mother, who has done dozens of hours a week of childcare since our son was born, will actually be closer once we move. My sister will only be a little farther away. For the time being, my sister in law will actually be right there with us too, as she and her partner are using their parents’ driveway as a staging ground to build a Tiny House on the back of a flat bed trailer.
More than anything else about our daily life in town, we will miss our neighbors and all the friends we see every morning walking our dogs around the neighborhood. We’ve decided to keep our house and rent it out (Papa Bear is dreaming of it being our retirement house in town when the kids are grown) and have no doubt that we’ll maintain our strong connections to Durham. Losing the proximity of my closest friend and her kids, who now live just two blocks away, will be hard. And while Fullsteam and Geer Street will no longer be just a quick jaunt away, Durham’s downtown goodness (DPAC, Old Havana, Revolution, Bull City Burger, and oh the list goes on) will really only be a few extra minutes’ drive.
As someone very wise once said, “A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing [us] to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.” I don’t know that anything as radical as sheep will ever be in our future, but there certainly are plenty of changes ahead.