A couple weeks ago I requested a guest post that might speak to the misery and angst of the partner/spouse of someone on the academic job market. I had received several requests for such a post, generally from non-academic partners/spouses trying to figure out how to cope with the stress and uncertainty. One individual, the husband of a current client, volunteered this post. He is ABD himself, and as I read the post, I felt that it speaks more directly to the perennial challenges of work-life balance a bit more than to the angst of the non-academic spouse in the sidelines. Either way, it addresses head on the struggles to plan “real life” when so many things in an academic career (particularly its precarious beginning stages) are totally up in the air.
It seems like I am always writing, or in reality, negotiating, a time-line. Spreadsheets, the incubators of time-lines, encourage academic obsessiveness. Color coded rows, 2 pt borders, column headings, all integral parts of the fictional order that is academic life. They have a sort of logic to them, as evidenced by the fact that I can insert a function and elicit a tabulation of superfluous information.
And then there is real life.
This blog post is written from the perspective of one who is, and for those others that are, ABD (All But Defended/Dissertated) and have a spouse that is further ahead in that nebulous space of ABDness, i.e. already on the job market. In what will perhaps be a surprise, I’ll then add in the reality of how having a baby—at least for us—in interesting ways seems to fit well within the columns of the timeline.
My wife and I entered our doctoral programs a year apart (she a year ahead of me) when we were already engaged. Pilot fieldwork on opposite sides of the globe (me in Brazil and her in India) was a drag, and so we tried to create a timeline that would allow us to be together throughout the long haul of two anthropologists’ dissertation fieldwork. Nine months into my wife’s dissertation research our daughter was born. Luckily, I was able to conduct a portion of my dissertation research that was not fieldwork-based (textual and satellite imagery analyses) while living in New Delhi, and my wife was able to write up most of her dissertation while living in rural Brazilian Amazonia. This was, in complete seriousness, all planned, down to me being able to care for our daughter full time (a perk of planning) while my wife finished her research. Yay, so planning worked! We both got grants, did fieldwork and had a baby, all the while not having to be apart and being able to be full-time caregivers for our baby. Royal flush. Thank you, Excel.
But now we find ourselves coming back to the United States, and our respective universities after nearly three years abroad, and trying to once again construct another semi-fictitious timeline. One iteration goes something like this:
She’ll go on the job/post-doc market this year, and I’ll apply for as many write-up grants that I can, hoping against hope that I get one which provides the geographic freedom for me to write up wherever we (hopefully) end up. If she isn’t successful during this year’s academic hunting season, well, that reduces my blood pressure and anxiety, as it means we’ll be at the same place, and applying together the following year. For sure, that presents its own inevitable difficulties, i.e. what if we both get our respective dream jobs but on different sides of the country, but at least, in theory, my being at the far end of the ABD limbo gives us both more bargaining power for the coveted spousal hire. You know, the one you both talk about over dessert as you figure out what universities and colleges happen to be within close proximity and fit each of your various professional criteria?
That’s all well and good, and more or less fits into a spreadsheet. But then there are those pesky things called ambitions, family, and emotions—all of which are, unsurprisingly, integrated. Let’s start with ambitions: both of us want tenure-track positions. Whether that’s at a Research I or teaching college or somewhere in between is up for discussion, but we both enjoy (most of the time) what we do, and given our ridiculous amount of training should probably do “something” with it. I’m perfectly fine with finishing my dissertation write up, perhaps even getting a post-doc, during the next few years as my wife rocks it as a new professor. I’m well aware of the implicit less-than-equitable position in many departments towards new faculty who also happen to be mothers, and realize that she needs to keep “progressing.” Having her care for our infant while I finish writing up would be nice for me, but makes no sense professionally for her, as not entering the job market would leave a strange gap in her CV. Additionally, having me able to work half-time on write-up and half-time as a father (praying for you, part-time write up grant!) would be an amazing opportunity that most don’t get as they progress with careers and their children grow. So, in respect to ambitions and family, that’s all good. She gets a position of some sort, I write my dissertation, and we get to raise our daughter at home for a little longer. A win-win, if you will. That is as long as I don’t get held up—upon finishing write-up, and, perhaps, a post-doc—from my aspirations. And that’s where the emotions rear their ugly heads.
The internal monolgue frequently goes like this: ‘What if she gets her dream job, but it’s in Back-of-Beyond America where there are no other universities or colleges, and no openings?’ ‘What if I never get a chance to go on the job market and before I know it, I’m essentially academically unemployable, and am forever at home watching Oprah and waiting for our teenager to come home and ignore me?’ ‘Why can’t she just wait a year and let us be on the same footing?’ (watch out, that’s the most dangerous one). The pity-party soliloquy could certainly go on, but I think the picture is pretty clear. Clear as the Amazon, that is (which is all muddy, incidentally).
Perhaps that’s the point of timelines and plans: they seem to impose an order on life, which is inevitably chaotic. Everyone thought we were crazy when we announced that our daughter would be born in the midst of a year of fieldwork in India, and then brought immediately to the rural Amazon to live in an agrarian reform settlement. But you know what? That timeline worked beautifully. Sure, there were numerous blips, largely in the form of minor medical emergencies hours away from the nearest pediatrician, and a few short stints of time apart, but we did it. Where will we end up next year, in five years, in ten years? I doubt even an Indian numerologist could tell—one was, however, able to provide us with the most auspicious date for our daughter to be born (hint: it’s all about the 6s and 9s). But it doesn’t matter. Excel doesn’t have a function for life. And if there’s anything that nearly three years of combined fieldwork and a baby have taught us, it’s that if we can remain flexible, supportive, and understanding, the timeline will fall into place.