Saturday, 7 October 2017

Why I left academia, Part 1, or: Why your career needs you to get good childcare

At first this was one long blog post full of nitty-gritty details about my life. But it was too long, even for me, so it’s broken up into a few parts now: this series of posts details my semi-recent journey navigating the path into the “pinnacle” of early-career academic achievement – a tenure track position – and then rather abruptly back out of it. My path was winding and bumpy, and I highly do not recommend anyone else follow it…but as with most of my blog posts, I hope that by over-sharing my failures, I can help other folks on a smoother path through life (or at least give you a chance to commiserate and/or make yourself feel better about your above-par choices).
This post is about my postdoc. I had almost given up on getting to do a postdoc, because while I had applied far and wide, no one seemed to want me. I was in Europe with my husband on a camping and “surf” trip (mostly failed on surfing because the airline lost our boards for weeks) to celebrate graduating with my PhD, and relax before starting to teach as an adjunct at MiraCosta college that fall, when I got an email from Australia that they wanted to offer me a postdoc. I had interviewed earlier in the summer by phone but hadn’t heard anything for some time. It was rather thrilling but also logistically challenging to set up a phone call from a payphone at a campground in Spain to a completely different continent and timezone. I recall little about the conversation itself other than it being difficult to hear, and the early-morning sun shining directly into my eyes, attenuated only slightly by the scratched plexiglass of the payphone booth.
Touristing on the ferry in Sydney harbor
I had an incredible time as a postdoc for more than three years in Australia at the Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. I learned a lot, worked with kind and interesting people, got to take two incredible field expeditions to the Gilbert and Line Islands, lived in an amazing location, met wonderful friends, and had a kid in the middle of it all. 
The kid thing really threw me off more than I was anticipating. Did you know that babies and children require essentially constant care? It is not physically possible to get any adulting done (i.e. take a shower, eat, much less actual productive work) while caring for a small child, unless you are a psychopath and don’t mind letting small people wail and paw at your pant leg while you do these things. 
My husband and I set ourselves up for misery because we (1) were unaware of this (I blame heavily people who told us they had worked w/babies in their offices, forgetting about the students and nannies they hired to actually care for said babies, ahem…), (2) lived an ocean away from any family members, (3) as frantic first-time parents, we were nervous about entrusting strangers with our precious offspring, and (4) we took at face value warnings about crappy local childcare options from others. Let me clarify #4: essentially everyone who had small kids told me that every childcare option that was within a reasonable distance of either my home or work and had space was horrible and should be avoided at all costs – apparently it was vital to put your unborn child on a waitlist for the non-horrible childcare places before you even considered getting pregnant, in order to secure a spot when that child turned one (the standard maternity leave in Australia is a year). 
I will only sleep as long as you are not doing anything useful, mom
Thus, we were nervous, thought we had no options, and also of course had waited too long because I wasn’t going to take a year off, I hadn’t known I was going to have a kid, and was therefore about 18 months too late for the waitlist option. This is all a pre-amble to explain that we had no consistent full-time childcare, and we both had full-time jobs. You may wonder why we didn’t hire a nanny: the answer is a combination of financial constraints and #3, above. I’ve always preferred my kids be cared for in a group setting; I’m sure most nannies are amazing, but I’ve had bad experiences and I worry too much. 
Let me be clear, though: working without good childcare is idiotic, impossible to survive, and will make you hate your life. We did eventually obtain a spot for our child on a day-by-day basis (after figuring out rather quickly that we could not get work done while caring for a child, and that there are not enough hours in a day to sleep, work for 8 hours, and then care for a kid for 8 hours while your partner works IF you also have a commute and/or any interest in life outside of these 3 activities, and/or don’t want to sleep in shifts). 
So, every morning at 8 am sharp I would start frantically dialing the drop-in care center near our home, in hopes I got through as one of the 1st 10 people to sign up for a casual space 2 weeks from that day.  You know how you used to listen to the radio, sitting by the phone, and then dialing and redialing a hundred times to try to win concert tickets? Imagine doing this daily. It sucked, for sure, but was at least a step up from plan A – no care at all. By the time I had been back to work full time for a few months, I realized that I was so exhausted and stressed, #3 in my list above almost no longer mattered and I was practically willing to hire a random homeless dude to play with my kid for a few hours so I could get something done (I did not, of course, do this). 
With this backdrop in mind, you may understand why I couldn’t fathom the idea of staying in Australia as the end of my postdoc loomed. I was stressed and lonely (having a baby can be incredibly isolating), and convinced that if we returned to California, these feelings would abate. Thus, I generally didn’t even bother applying for jobs in Australia, and instead focused my efforts on San Diego, where my husband had kept his academic position throughout my time in Australia (yes, this meant a lot of time apart pre-kid, and extreme stress on his end post-kid trying to keep actively engaged in his job from afar). 

I love being a mom - when I can devote my attention
I had established a nascent collaboration with a professor at the University of San Diego, based on our shared love of corals and geochemistry, and she very kindly arranged to have me teach some classes there as an adjunct after we returned to town. She had planned a sabbatical the following year, and hoped that I would be prepared to teach her classes in her stead after my introductory year. I hoped that this would lead to a full-time position there, which would solve our 2-body problem. So when Ryder was 18 months old, we packed up things we couldn’t part with, sold and gave away everything else, and moved back across the ocean to San Diego.

1 comment: