Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Why I left academia, part 4, or: Realizing you don’t actually know how to swim, very far from land

By the fall of 2015, Ryder was on his 7th daycare/preschool, and there were more changes to come. Each time we went back and forth between coasts, I had to find a new spot for him in care, and each time we returned to Boston I had to find a new living situation. Adding his sister to the equation just made this even more difficult. When I returned post-maternity leave for another winter in Boston, this time with two kids, I opted to sublet an apartment in Somerville walking distance from friends. The apartment came with a car and an underground parking garage – I felt totally ready for the snow this time. 
I was able to get Ryder back into the UMass Boston Early Learning Center, and after much grief and stress, I found a spot for Adelaide at the closest infant center in Dorchester. It was in a city government building, surrounded by fish-packing plants and a few blocks from a methadone clinic. In other words, I didn’t totally love the neighborhood, but the daycare itself was lovely.  
Elevatoring down to the garage
Getting the kids into the car in the covered basement was logistically much easier than walking to the T, but with two kids to drop off in different places and the tunnel under the city always jammed with traffic, we still spent about 3 hours commuting on a good day. Since it was my second year at work, expectations had increased as had my service requirements, so I would work from 8 pm – 10 pm or so every night after the kids went to sleep. I usually also got up at 5 am or so to make lunches and coffee and get myself dressed so I could enjoy the kids for a bit in the morning before we ran out the door. I did actually love the commute time in some ways; the car was so much quieter than the Redline, it allowed us to sing and tell stories and have snacks when no one was crying. 
During that semester, many colleagues decided it was time to provide their guidance on what I needed to do to reach tenure. Their advice was invariably conflicting when it came to work – how much to focus on teaching vs. scholarship vs. service was a big source of disagreement. Another was how to comport myself as a woman faculty member and a mom. The advice regarding how to logistically survive as a mother on the tenure track was just depressing.
One woman told me about her childcare situation when she had a baby: an older woman down the street watched her daughter. If she was going to be home late, she would feed her daughter dinner. If she was going to be home even later, she would bathe her daughter and get her in PJs. If she wouldn’t be home at all, the woman would put the baby to sleep at her house so my colleague could pick her up the following evening. 
A good book to make you feel inadequate
One women had a stay-at-home husband and worked late every night. Another’s husband was under-employed and did most of the childcare and household chores. Another had no children. Another seemed to not actually enjoy her child, and remarked that the child spent close to the maximum number of allowed hours in care every day. The only female colleague with a family situation close to mine seemed to be doing poorly on the work-front; she admitted to me that she was almost certain she would never be promoted. 
I haven’t yet mentioned my graduate students, which is cruel. They were the best part of my stint on the tenure track. One student started while I was on maternity leave. He settled himself in and kept busy with classes. The next semester we went on fieldwork together to the US Virgin Islands, with assistance from the kids, my mom, and husband. My student was amazing and spent time getting to know my kids and family; in addition to being a good scientist, it was clear he was a good person and this was wonderful to experience. My favorite times at UMass Boston included hours spent working with him in the lab to develop procedures, discuss problems, and talk about ideas. 
My other student was jointly advised by myself and a colleague at another Boston institution. His master’s project stemmed out of a research cruise I helped prepare for while I was extremely pregnant in San Diego; I spent weeks acid-cleaning what felt like a million bottles and other equipment that would be used to collect ocean water for trace-iron analyses, and to conduct an on-board aquarium experiment. I purposefully carried around carboys of MilliQ that were much too heavy and spent hours on my feet while experiencing relentless but ineffective contractions – still, my dumb body refused to just go into labor without medical help. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to separate that project from those slow and painful weeks. 
Touristing in Boston
During the summer after my second year at UMass Boston, it became clear that the only way Adam could move to Boston would be for him to give up his established career and start fresh. I thought I might have a chance of convincing him it was worth it when he came to spend time in Boston that next fall – while we’d certainly enjoyed a lot of snow together so far, we had yet to experience the purported best season in Boston. We went leaf-peeping in New Hampshire, we visited the Cape, Glouster, and Lowell; we fell in love with several adorable coastal towns and discussed the potential to live in Hull or another town with surfing options. 
Meanwhile, though, I was feeling less than confident at work. I was co-teaching with a seasoned professor who demonstrated abundantly that I was not actually as awesome at teaching as I had convinced myself. I also realized I not only wasn’t particularly talented at teaching, but I had very little grasp of the literature on teaching methods. I was mostly just teaching by feel, and was demoralized to realize that if I really wanted to become as effective a teacher as I had hoped, I was going to have to invest a lot more time into that pie-slice of my job. Barring that, I was going to have to live with myself being a sub-par instructor for people who deserved better. 

During my maternity leave, I had taken a break from proposal-writing. This turned out to be a potentially deadly blow to my academic career. I saw that the end of my start-up funding was looming, as was the end of my first and only federal grant, and I didn’t have any proposals in the pipeline. I couldn’t bring on new students without funding, but I couldn’t get new funding without some preliminary results and new ideas, and I didn’t have the time or energy to produce these things. I had nothing lined up to pay my summer salary the following year; without that money, the cost of childcare and rent in Boston would exceed my monthly income and I would have to pay to go to work. I started to freak out.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this alone Jess. You made the right choice. Academia is a blessed and a nutty place to be. We tell ourselves it's the pinnacle because, well, otherwise we would t survive I suppose. You made good choices.