I had an old and very dear friend stop by with her teenaged children for dinner and a visit last night. We live on opposite ends of the country, and haven’t seen each other for ages and it was really terrific to catch up. We went to high school together and her kids are pretty much the same age as my #4 and #5.
She is one of those friends with whom it is easy to just jump in and pick right up where we left off. Our conversations can be raucous, highly animated, wildly enthusiastic yet methodical as we go through the happenings of the last 5-6 years in each of our lives and share tidbits of gossip of our shared friends.
I hold my friend in high regard. In high school she was “the smart one”- and while she may have thought herself to be a nerd of sorts I have always seen her as one of the coolest and most interesting people I know.
We took fairly different routes after high school. We both went to university but she took, not surprisingly, a very direct path– fast tracking through an undergraduate degree, then on to law school followed directly by a successful career in which she has balanced motherhood (and very successfully from my point of view, as her kids are absolutely lovely). My path began with a degree studying music with an eye towards a career in performance, then, midway through that degree I changed majors to theatre— I didn’t quite finish my last year when a ‘surprise’ pregnancy led me to drooping out to begin my journey in motherhood. 3 babies later I returned to finish my undergrad degree … THEN I went on to have 3 more babies (while doing a smattering of performance and teaching gigs) and when my youngest was 2 jumped next into a Masters Degree… Following that, somehow, buoyed by a misguided feeling that academia was indeed… fun(?!) I started my PhD.
And 35+ (!) years later here I am.
Sitting listening to my friend talk about how she is really working to come to terms with this phase of her life; kids growing up and going off to university, empty nest and all that— I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious. Not because she will have her kids grown before me (my youngest will only start high school in the Fall) but more in terms of TIME. The time she will have for herself…to do whatever she wants. It just seemed to me that the really, really hard work of parenting and career building was behind her. She’s not yet ready to retire but she is very secure in her working life. The ‘having to prove her worth’ career bit was done.
I have had to think a lot about how doing this PhD is NOT all about getting a job, because there is a very good chance that my status as a part-time University Instructor is not going to change. Full-time professor jobs in my specialty are few and far between. Throw in my (and my family’s ) unwillingness at this point in my (our!) life to move to any-old place to take on a new job and the odds are definitely stacked against me of ever landing THE job. I HAVE to be okay with this, and in fact when I started this mature student PhD journey I cheerfully chirped about it being about much more than the pursuit of a tenure-track job. “Sure” I said, “a job would be great and all but it is really mostly about scholarship and achieving something. I want to show my kids that anything is possible! If I, a not-so-academic mother of six can do it, anyone, with a little gumption and a whole lot of elbow grease can!” (OK I never actually thought elbow grease had anything to do with it, but gumption most certainly does.)
However, 5 years later, as I drag my exhausted self to the finish line, I am not always so chipper about facing the reality that, unlike my friend I may never have the same kind of job security. Somehow I have to find peace with that. If this PhD journey leads to THE job well, maybe that will be considered a bonus of sorts. Everyone loves a bonus but it cannot be something you expect or feel remotely entitled to.
In the meantime, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And if I can get this beast of a thesis submitted before I am too old to sit at my desk then maybe somedays, that is all I can wish for.