My husband grew up out west in Brazil where piranhas live in the rivers and swamps. When the rivers dry up, pockets of water remain landlocked so the fish are stuck. The cattle during droughts will occasionally lose their lips trying to drink from a puddle filled with piranhas.
Those puddles seem like the perfect metaphor for the job market for academics these days, which is shrinking every year as far as I can tell.
I’ve been lucky not to have to go on the market yet; there’s been a lot of strategic maneuvering on our parts to figure out dissertation, adoption, small children, and work/life balance while I’m still in grad school. Sure, the pay is fairly terrible, but I’ve had some great flexible part-time jobs and I’ve had no desire, none whatsoever, to jump into that piranha pool.
But the downside is, I really love teaching. Love it like an addict. I’m an editor this year and I leave my office door open to hear the discussions taking place next door. If you need me, I’m the creepy girl gazing longingly into the classroom window as students engage in heated debates.
So I’m polishing up my CV, rephrasing my job letter, and looking at postdocs and part-time courses in town for at least another year. Because I’ve watched my friends in the feeding frenzy that is the job market, I know it’s an exercise in humiliation and angst. I thought I was ready, but clearly I’m not. I’m currently breathing into a paper bag in the corner.
It’s hard to explain to anyone outside of academia why we go through these insane emotional hoops; my husband routinely shakes his head at me. It’s a lifestyle. It can be a cult. It’s an all-or-nothing commitment to a career that is prestigious in which we pat the ones who make it on the back and agree that we’re all amazing and smart (except for that person, because, you know, and the other guys, well, I heard…). It’s cutthroat and kind, it’s changeable and strange.
I still don’t know how I feel about all of this. I’ve spent almost a decade trying to decide what to do when I grow up and now the time has come to pay the piper. I’m going to try for an academic career for now, for awhile, to teach–but I’m ready to jump out of the puddle if I need to. I have no desire to eat or be eaten.
But I’ve realized in this process that, while I’ve made a lot of sacrifices that have affected my competitive edge as a grad student, they’ve all been very, very worth it.
Here’s what’s not on my CV:
No hiring committee cares that I’ve perfected the lilted voice that keeps one fat Chinese baby entertained while I fix her morning eggs. I have developed a new way of stacking blocks so that they are almost immediately push-over-able in a way that maximizes hilarity. I have a methodology for extremely fast diaper changing; it’s revolutionary. I speak a modified language of baby sign language, half-formed English words and Chinese-inflected babble with impressive fluency. I have learned just the right way to hold a wriggly body so that she starts to be still, then melt, then put her sweet head on my shoulder.
I have the ability to dispel monsters and zombies from bad dreams just by my presence on the bottom bunk. I can make compromises that lead to averted fits. I know with radar-like accuracy where the stuffed leopard, who is a constant companion to my middle one, ended up each night. I’ve learned to read just by looking when her face registers too much change from no longer being the baby and she needs to sit down in the middle of the kitchen floor and hug for a long, long time.
I’m an amazing coach for anxious first graders who still don’t quite know what the rules are but really want to be following each and every one of them. I can correct mispronounced words in chapter books from across the room or mold long lanky legs into my lap so we can read together. I’m able to help just-fallen girls breathe deeply as they huddle over scraped knees beside a new bike that still doesn’t behave the way it should. I can console a little one who is realizing, thanks to Frozen and fresh fears from a trip to a Chinese orphanage, that parents die or leave or are forced to choose and sometimes kids are alone and that bad things could happen to people she loves and that the universe isn’t the pristine place she thought it was and that it’s really, really scary but that somehow it’s safe when Mom says it is because it is and that’s what matters.
Those things are not in bulleted lines on my CV. There’s no category for these skills. There’s no space for my ninja-adoption-paperwork moves or for the way we’ve managed to make our marriage not just fine but so much stronger during this insanely stressful time. There’s no honor or award better than the hilarity we can make out of thrown food and fits or the way he looks at me with love and admiration when I’m still in my ratty pajamas at the end of a long, long, long day. There’s no line where I describe how I’ve learned when I need to hide in the dark closet just to breathe for a minute before going back into the whiny/needy/lovey fray.
Or that the great “distraction” of my graduate career (yes, I’ve been told it a number of times it was at best a distraction), these relationships with Burmese women and men making gorgeous art, is the only thing that gave me structure and peace in these long years of vacillating between babies and books and that I’d do it a thousand times over to realize that there is a world outside the ivory tower and that the real-life concerns of real-life people is infinitely more important than getting a publication in my fifth year or how many conference papers I’ve presented.
My family and my friends are the things that keep me grounded and keep me sane and they may never come up in a job interview, but clearly these are the things that matter.
*Blog note: So, I was probably a little overambitious to start the Parenting and Privilege series right now. I didn’t realize so many deadlines would be landing this month and there’s only so much computer time I get these days. I’m pushing it off till this summer, so if you’ve contacted me about a guest post, I’ll be in touch in a couple of months. I’m really looking forward to it! Thanks!