there and back again

A friend of mine is going back to grad school. She has three kids. She is where I was this time last year. Head spinning, excited, wondering how it will work, believing that it will work. Her situation is somewhat different. She is a scholar, but not going for a professional academic career. Nevertheless, our situations are somewhat analogous. We belong to class of women otherwise known as “Mama, PhD.” A category of women who find themselves at the same time in the academy and mothers.

Negotiating the balance is difficult. How could it not be? But I want to focus on one aspect of this experience: the reentry. I’m writing this for my friend.

It all starts when you have the bug that won’t stop buzzing. The thought that won’t stop thinking. Despite the fact that there are these wonderful little people in your life who could easily take every ounce of your attention and energy and for whom you would give your life, the voices of dead people whisper in your ears from the pages of books where they are immortalized. Then the stars align and temporal space joins the mental space. You have an idea and then an event gives you a time. Now all you need is a place. So, with an encouraging husband and unsuspecting children who probably assume that you will be there to play playdough with them forever, you fill out an application, try to remember all the institutions you once studied at, collect transcripts, write “remember me?” emails to potential references. This is a tough step, because you have to write these personal statements, in which you have to sound mentally together. When the essay prompt tacitly asks you why you want to go to graduate school, you want to tacitly respond, “because I’m going crazy at home!” But if you say that, on the one hand you sound like traitor-mom who doesn’t love her kids (and that’s not true), and, on the other, well, that’s not really a scholarly reason. So tacit questions and answers aside, you try to pick up thoughts that were left off ten years ago, and try to mesh them with the person you’ve become since those ten years. Not easy.

But then it comes. “You have been accepted…” That’s when life really begins to reel–as you have to move the dream into reality mode. In some ways you’ve been preparing for this, mentally moving in over and over and over again. And then it all works out, you have a place to live, schools for the kids, a schedule. You are almost there, my friend.

What I want to write to you about is the next step.

Then there’s the first day of school. It should be exciting, right? It’s not. It’s terrifying. I couldn’t remember so much. Yes, I could get myself out the door to a certain place on time. I did think to pack a lunch and a backpack–remember I am a veteran park-goer. But I couldn’t think of what to put in the backpack in the place of diapers. It wasn’t that I was trying to think of what to put in; it didn’t occur to me to think of packing school supplies for myself until I was nearly out the door, and I thought, “oh, I’ll probably need a pen and paper.” So I grabbed a half-used mini-legal pad and whatever pen that worked. Lesson Number One: get yourself some school supplies.

But then you get to a graduate seminar, and you have to sit and think and say smart stuff forĀ three hours!!! Let me tell you, I don’t think I have focused my attention for that long at all since having kids. It took me a good six weeks to get used to this. I just felt smashed at the end of a seminar. I didn’t know what the professor was talking about. I had this vague idea. But it was like he was talking through a fog. I couldn’t even think to write notes; I didn’t understand enough to write anything down. I would leave a seminar feeling shaky and exhausted. Like leaving the gym after your out-of-shape body tried to do a massive aerobic workout. I sat on the train on the way home and stared. It took me a good six weeks to feel like I could think, to start remembering stuff, to figure out how to participate in class again. Lesson Number Two: go really easy on yourself; don’t expect to jump right back in.

By the end of the semester I felt like I was getting my groove back. There’s still these small details I remember here and there. But things were clicking well; I was an active contributor in my classes; and I was reading and writing interesting things. I thought I was “back.” I did need a Christmas break, but with the stress of the end of the semester and the pile of grading, I was working right up to the holiday. We visited with our families, and then I had an insane amount of extra work over the break due by the beginning of the semester. It was like Never ending end of semester mode. I began this second semester exhausted and wrung out. And due to the nature of my work, I felt alone and vulnerable. Several weeks into the semester, I had an encounter with one professor who asked about how my work was going, and as I began to explain all I was doing, he said, “um, come talk to me–let’s find you some support.” I have a lot on my shoulders, but I’m in a community. Lesson Number Three: don’t go it alone.

It’s this last lesson that has struck me most profoundly. I’ve had to make some unusual sacrifices to be part of my current department. But I knew it was a special place and that is why I decided to come. I was right. Not every department will support you the ways mine does (and I’m not talking dollar signs here). The mental drain I felt at the beginning of the semester has been rejuvenated by the encouragement of the community of scholars I’m in–my fellow graduate students and many of the professors in my department, not just the ones who are close to my areas of research. Not every graduate student has this blessing, as academia is full of its own quirky dysfunctions and politics. But I do, and there are some things money can’t buy. Lesson Number Four: find mentorship.

And so, my friend, I wish you Godspeed. You will find your way. I just wish our coffee cups were about 262 miles closer. (Yes, I checked the mileage.)