Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The choices I made

How did I get here? Is this my beautiful wife?

I started this post writing about choosing college, a major and graduate school, but realized that though some of those choices had cultural elements to them, they were primarily made separate from those issues. My choice of graduate school I made for two reasons: 1) it was the best school I was accepted to and 2) it wasn't in the South. I was feeling stifled in the South as a woman, so in some sense that was a cultural decision.

My bigger choices didn't come until I met up with Mr. Geeky. After a whirlwind romance, we ended up living together. Initially, we thought we'd finish our graduate programs at the same time. He'd just taken--and passed--his qualifying exams and I was in a three-year writing program. By our calculations, we'd be on the job market at the same time. So we began our enterprise thinking we were giving equal value to both our careers and that we would weigh any decisions about the future based on this premise.

My career faltered. In the last semester of my last year, I was denied funding. It had been a struggle for me to get funding in the first place, so after a long battle, I felt defeated. In addition, Mr. Geeky was not going to be finished at the end of that semester and in fact, could not pinpoint an exact date. Then his career falter, when he had to do major revisions on his dissertation proposal, making a date for completion even harder to determine.

As I saw it, I had two choices with regard to my career. I could find the money to finish, apply for jobs and get the heck out of dodge. I had applied for some jobs and was getting soundly rejected--and the pay sucked. I considered Ph.D. programs. I knew I couldn't get into the Ph.D. program where I was and after taking classes with the students in that program wasn't sure I wanted to. My other option besides getting an academic job or going to a Ph.D. program was to find a way to stick around with Mr. Geeky. Of course, this depended to a great extent on where we both thought this relationship was going.

So I asked Mr. Geeky to marry me. This was really difficult because I had decided that if he said no, I was going to pursue options that took me far away. I would basically be leaving him. Of course, he said yes. So now, I could still scrape up the money to finish my program, but it wouldn't really gain me anything since I had punted my plans to pursue an academic career or a Ph.D. I chose to get a corporate job and support Mr. Geeky in his sprint to the finish. Though I made some efforts to finish my degree at first, after a while, I just gave up. I didn't have enough money to pay for the classes I needed and I didn't have enough time to do the classwork or work on my thesis while working a 9-5 job.

An alternative to this whole scenerio, I suppose, is that Mr. Geeky and I could have decided to privilege my career over his, but we didn't. The chances of my career actually going anywhere were slim (given the academic market and given the slim demand for poets). Mr. Geeky was in a field with plenty of opportunities, both in academics and in industry.

We married; we had our first kid. We had our first while I had good insurance and we had money--a very practical decision. We had no idea what our future would bring, so it seemed like the right thing to do. What I didn't realize at the time was how hard it would be to juggle having a kid and a career. If making decisions was harder with Mr. Geeky in the picture, it was even more difficult with a child. Having a child in the picture meant you had to think about child care and where you lived in relation to both child care and work, and how flexible your work schedule was in case the child got sick or their school was closed. A lot of little things suddenly factored in to every decision we made.

Mr. Geeky's first job took us to a third-tier state school. I spent a year at home with the first child deciding whether I wanted to find another job or go back to school. I didn't like just having a job--like I'd had for the end of Mr. Geeky's graduate years--so I opted to go back to school. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program (a requirement when Mr. Geeky was looking for a job) in English. I loved it. I was doing well. Since it wasn't a ranked school, there wasn't a lot pressure. I went to conferences. I ran the Graduate Student Association. I was having a great time.

Mr. Geeky, not so much. And once again, we were faced with choosing which career to privilege. And once again, we chose his. Unfortunately, the timing of our move couldn't have been worse. I had just completed my exams and was ready to start writing my dissertation. At the time, I thought that it was good because I'd be surrounded by resources and great libraries and it would be great and I'd finish in a couple of years and then look for a job in the area--probably at a community college. What I didn't realize is that I didn't need resources, I needed support. It's hard to cobble together support from people you don't even know. I was an adjunct, so I never became part of a community where I could participate and get support. I was surrounded by women who'd all put off their careers to support their husband's academic careers instead of trying to cobble something together the way I was.

I struggled to write. I had primary care of the children. I met my son after school. I stayed home when they didn't have school. I treated my writing like a 9-5 job. I got the first chapter done. I sent it off to my advisor. I continued to write and read and I waited. I got a devastating letter back. The first chapter was horrible. Good ideas, not quite connected, not enough footnotes, parts are poorly written. My one source of support had shriveled up. Once again, I had to decide. Do I struggle through this and finish? Or do I give up and move on to something else? I had been very resentful about moving here in the first place. I think deep down, I knew that it would be hard for me to finish my degree away from my support network. This was the second time I'd had to leave friends behind against my will.

My new friends gave me lots of advice, which was useful because they were somewhat objective. Mr. Geeky was mad at my advisor and he said I should switch advisors and topics and write a thesis about technology and writing (my real interest at the time) and just whip through, be done and decide what to do after that. Someone else suggested sitting down, writing the whole thing fairly quickly and submitting the completed thesis without any input from my advisor. Another person suggested abandoning the whole project, turn it into a novel, become famous and throw it back at my advisor.

The truth is I was tired of being poor, tired of struggling through something that wasn't going to gain me much financially. I had been looking at my job prospects and the best option was a non-tenure track job teaching 4 comp classes a semester (talk about 80 hour work weeks). My last semester as an adjunct had been disappointing. I hadn't enjoyed it that much. Did I really want to pursue a teaching career? Because that's what the degree would get me. Not a teaching and research career, a teaching career. I decided against. It took me a year to make it official but I didn't regret it at all. It was painful writing every day. I didn't like it. It wasn't going to end in something wonderful. There was no potential in it.

Perhaps if Mr. Geeky had been willing to stick around at my home institution or if I had been willing to live without him until I finished, I might have finished. But neither of those were options for us. In the end, I suppose I didn't care about my career enough to push options that would have benefited me. Is this a result of a bias toward always privileging the man's career? Possibly. Maybe I didn't push because of that bias. I don't know.

Though I struggle to some extent with my decision to work as opposed to staying home. In reality, my working has given us as a family a greater chance to succeed. We had racked up a considerable amount of debt getting each other through graduate school. My working has allowed us to get that debt under control, to purchase a house, to enroll the kids in activities and camps, to go on family vacations. We would not have been able to do those things without my career.

And now, even my dissertation has a new life as a historical novel. I don't kid myself that it will be sold or that anything will become of it, but the process of writing it has made me enjoy writing again and I now have two other book ideas going. I'm reading more than I ever did (well since junior high). I feel intellectually stimulated both at work and in what I choose to do outside of work. In the end, my choices led me to this place. I think I have constantly asked myself what would make me happy and that has always been a balance of financial security, intellectual stimulation, and opportunities to be with my family. It's hard to find that balance. And I think there's always a struggle between balancing one person's needs and desires with another. I've been lucky in some ways in that Mr. Geeky usually took my needs into account, but certainly this last move was primarily his needs to move his career foward.

Well, that's a long winded way of saying nothing happens in a vacuum. And I didn't even give all the details, all the little things that affected our decisions. If you read this far, I commend you. I hope it was worth it in some way.