The grief of "not yet": Building a life after academia
I’ve read several beautiful pieces about family planning and the PhD lately, and other beautiful stories of staying, and leaving, academia, lately. I’ve had conversations, and phone calls, and emails with friends about the peculiar way that the future happens while you’re working towards your goals. So here is my contribution, a story of planning a family that has not yet arrived (in the traditional sense, anyway), and building a career in the meantime.
Short of one half-hearted post-doc application, I never really tried to be an academic after my PhD. I knew as early as my second year that a few things were true:
I wanted to have geographic flexibility for my job, because my husband has skills in a narrow sub-field and is geographically limited.
While I was happy to research, write, and especially loved teaching, I knew those skills were translatable and I'd be happy in a variety of positions.
And....the reason I couldn't bring myself to share publicly:
I desperately wanted to start a family, and time was not on my side. The tenure-track grind wasn't, either.
As I was finishing my first year of my MA, I woke up in the middle of the night with what felt like sharp menstrual cramps. While the pain was enough to wake me up, it wasn’t outside of the realm of what I felt month to month. I had been to several doctors to complain about long, heavy, painful cycles, and a variety of other cycle-related symptoms, and was told repeatedly that it was related to stress, and normal. It was only having my appendix removed, one week before the end of the quarter, that found the endometriosis lesions all over my abdomen, and finally gave me a reason for what I knew wasn’t normal.
Although my endometriosis diagnosis was a relief, because it gave a name and treatment protocol to what had thus far been a mystery that I couldn’t convince anyone was a problem, it also was heartbreaking. When I went to an ob-gyn for a follow-up, the doctor was very blunt with me. He told me that if having biological children was something I even thought I might want, then I had to prioritize it, as quickly as I could. I was 23.
After taking a few days to compose myself, I did what I would recommend to anyone: asked for support and advice. I met with a mentor in my MA program who told me, in no uncertain terms, that academic life would making having a child before tenure a risk. I don’t remember the specifics of that conversation, almost a decade ago now, but I do remember silently adding up the years in my head:
- 1 more year to finish the MA
- 5 years (at least) to finish the PhD (with no break in between)
- And then, if I was extraordinarily lucky, a TT placement right away, with 7 average years to tenure...and then, she advised, I could start trying.
I’d be 36, at least. And I was a young student - and this was the absolute fastest timeline. I remember crying in my car on the way home, feeling like I had to choose - tenure, or a family.
I wasn’t, at 23, in a place to start a family. So I started my PhD with this nagging fear in the back of my head. I looked around for mentors that had families. I asked (as circumspectly as I could) questions about starting a family while in grad school, and what timing might be best. I submitted anonymous questions about tenure clock stoppages at administration Q and As. I researched academic cultures different from the R1 where I was getting my degree, and tried to imagine myself balancing all of it.
I remember one faculty member telling me, while waiting for an elevator, that I should time it to have a baby during my fellowship term, because the baby would be sleeping a lot and I could get a lot of writing done. I remember being told that in one faculty member’s network, they could not find a person willing to talk to me about having an early career child, and being the parent to biologically bear the child. There were examples of other grad students who had children, other grad students that were caretakers, and I eventually found people who were willing to talk about what it was like to start a family in an early career stage. So, when the time was right for our family, we decided to start trying, after I was a candidate.
The secret dream I nurtured is that I would finish my PhD, defend it successfully, and have to turn down champagne at the celebration, announcing a pregnancy to all my loved ones and colleagues there. It would serve a dual purpose - giving me a “plan” and “purpose” after the PhD, and proving to everyone that I could do both, despite the challenges.
That, clearly, was not meant to be. And as I write this, several years later, with four lovely rescue cats but no biological child to my name, or pregnancy to speak of, I realize that the grief I feel about my infertility is bound up with the grief I feel about leaving academia. I justified leaving academia because I had another dream that I felt was incompatible - so what happens now, when that dream might not be available in the way that we had hoped?
It took me a long time to use the word grief in either of these situations - how can you grieve for something that was never really yours, and therefore not really lost? Dr. Lisa Munro has written eloquently on grief and leaving academia, but I realized that although I could see parts of my story in what she had written, I felt shame about claiming it was an analog. I never really tried to be an academic. I’ve never had a child, or a pregnancy, to lose.
My grief in both situations is a softer, quieter thing. I grieve the months that pass by, silently calculating due dates that always pass. I grieve the classes I may never teach, the ones I wasn’t even offered. I watch colleagues get jobs (in all areas!) that fulfill them, I watch friends build their families, I try to answer questions gracefully about where I am, and what our plans for the future are. But I grieve in private. I grieve while simultaneously pressing forward, building the life I want and trying, desperately, not to imagine the lives I could have had in parallel.
I want to be clear: I don’t regret my choices. I don’t regret the PhD - it was a valuable experience that forms the bedrock of what I’ve gone on to do, both in this coaching business and in Thrive PhD. We started trying to build our family at the earliest possible moment that felt right, and I made choices about my academic future as soon as I had a firm understanding of the options. I have worked hard, on both fronts, to take advantage of opportunities to build the future I want - I’m proud of what I’ve made it through so far, and I know confidently that I’m more than capable of moving forward.
Recently, I had the opportunity to see many of the faculty members of my department, who I had not seen since I graduated. And for the first time since I defending, I felt ashamed that I was not able to point to a list of accomplishments, biological, commercial, and otherwise. Catching up with them, I felt entirely unimpressive, like a kid at Christmas trying to convince aunts and uncles that third grade accomplishments were big and important. And I realized that despite my best efforts, I had internalized a lot of what I found so difficult to bear in academia. Working on a book doesn’t count, only published manuscripts. Getting close in job interviews, and learning what you need and want in a job, isn’t enough. Infertility treatments aren’t enough if they aren’t successful. Building a business is great, but let us know when you’re raking in enough money to justify “going commercial” with everything we’ve taught you. No one said these things to me directly, but I felt them keenly nonetheless, because I have internalized the idea that my life after academia is only valuable if it’s extraordinary enough to justify the leaving.
I am working on being proud of things in the middle, in progress, in the “not yet.” I am practicing feeling good about what I accomplish, while planning my next move. I cheer on my clients and Thrivers as they reach daily goals, as they vanquish the kinds of foes you can’t cite in a tenure case: learning how to take a weekend off when work is undone, prioritizing family and friends, investing in a hobby, writing a thoroughly shitty first draft. And like I remind my clients, this work is never done. Learning to be a human in a complex world is hard. Learning to value the full spectrum of experiences, and not just the apex accomplishments, is the work of a lifetime. I’m trying, and I’ll be trying for a while, I expect.
As part of this, I’m letting myself mourn the lives I have not led, the ones that were not open for me, or the ones I chose not to pursue. I’ve found great peace in this column by Cheryl Strayed, where she addresses the cost of choice on one’s life. She writes:
And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead....I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.
We all have sister lives - I hope that as you picture yours, you can find the ability to salute it from the shore. Life is too short to deny ourselves comfort until we accomplish something extraordinary. The work of feeling good about the “not yet” is that of a lifetime.