Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Don't Mind Me, Just a Little Meltdown

I wasn't going to get a PhD. A year into my MA in English, I realized that the tenure-track research professorship wasn't for me and planned a terminal Master's. Through an amazing mix of luck and people believing in me when I wasn't particularly believing in myself, I ended up with a job that I loved at the university. They offered tuition remission to employees. It seemed silly, ridiculous even, not to use the benefit to its fullest and keep taking classes, especially since I loved the intellectual work of graduate school. It was only the end career goal that was eluding me. Writing papers, talking in seminars, listening to professors who were excited about their work? Yes, please.

At the time, the stress of the PhD didn't really touch me. It was like my degree program stretched in front of me like a peaceful, wide open field. 

Wildflower fields

I even felt a little guilty. As my classmates confessed the stress of a decidedly awful job market dancing on their horizons, I felt like the classes I was taking were play. Sure, I was working hard. It always stressed me out to have to grade papers while writing my own, but I could only take one class at a time so the end seemed like such an amorphous, distant object that I didn't have to worry about. 

Slowly, though, my chance to romp around in the field began to fade. 

I noticed the stress of academia in general. I was reading blogs like Mama Nervosa and other post-ac and alt-ac sources. There was a barrage of articles from respected outlets like the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed about why graduate school is a terrible investment, personally and financially. There were especially dire writings about the future of my particular field of study: English and the humanities. Some wistful, some downright ugly

And with each one, so subtly that I didn't even notice at first, my open field was starting to get bricked in. The days of being playful and free to let my thoughts frolic among the daisies were dwindling as the walls grew taller. 


At the same time, I was beginning to grow professionally restless. I still loved the work that I did (advising and program planning for first-generation undergraduate students), but I yearned to be in a classroom full time. I found myself making lesson plans for fun, designing syllabi for classes I might never teach, reading about pedagogical practices that had no place in my day-to-day life. I knew that I needed to be teaching. That knowledge became the mortar between the bricks. 

brick wall

When I left that job, it was for my dream job, the position that I had known I had wanted since that first year of my MA program, the inkling toward teaching that had led me away from the research-track professorship. It is, in all honesty and without trying to sound too sappy, an amazing thing to me. If they let me, I plan to do it until I die. 

But that's left me in a weird place. I finished coursework. There was no more play left in the field. I could no longer just wander around taking classes and reading books and writing papers without a goal. Truth be told, I had avoided looking for so long, just staring down at the flowers at my feet that I hadn't noticed how tall and narrow the walls had gotten. You have to finish now. The voice in the back of my head sneered. You're too far not to.

So I looked up, noticed the walls, and started walking along them, trying to find my way out of their center, trying to find the purpose for what I was doing. And there was plenty to see. I was excited about research in the field of developmental education. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to meld my own personal interests in identity construction with my professional experiences in the classroom by exploring rhetoric. I talked and planned and felt my heart and mind race with an excitement I hadn't felt about my degree in a long time.

But the walls keep closing in. A recent administrative revelation that my part-time status as a full time employee did not change the school's time-to-degree completion requirements has sent me into a panic. There will be extensions to file, fees to pay, and stress to battle.

The daily grind of reading three theoretically-dense books a week to prepare for exams while teaching five classes is beginning to get to me. Physically, my eyes hurt from the strain; my neck tenses from spending hours hunched over texts, often in dim light so as not to wake the toddler who would not let me leave her side at bedtime.

And then there's that. Every moment that I spend reading on the porch while she plays in the swimming pool, listening to her watch Blue's Clues from the other room while I hurriedly try to type my notes before the episode ends, thinking about the swim class that I'd enroll her in if I had the time, they bring me to my knees with guilt.

So I fight it by making sure that I answer "yes" to nearly every request of "Mommy, will you play with me?" I limit the television programs to one a day. I cook dinner and learn to braid hair so that the time I spend with her feels meaningful, purposeful, present. And it works--most of the time.

Intellectually, I know that my eyes will rest, my neck will relax, my daughter will remember the times we played and see me working hard. This too shall pass.

But emotionally, I am finally very aware of the walls that have been erected in my once playful field. I am no longer dancing around with the joy and exhilaration of curiosity. I am turned sideways, ducking low, squeezing through the cracks and trying not to get caught in the middle of a maze that seems to have only one end, somewhere, distant and not yet showing itself to me. 


  1. I'm sorry you're in this place too. I wish I could say it gets better, but I'm right there with you.

  2. I'm sorry you are so stressed. I admire you for teaching, taking classes and taking care of your family. It sounds like you have finished your coursework; does that mean it's exams and the dissertation? I hope it gets better. I finished my master's while working full time and taking care of a baby/toddler and it was tough, tough, tough.

  3. Yep. Exams in January, and then dissertation (assuming I pass, fingers crossed).

  4. I'm so sorry about the pain. I defended almost a year ago (successfully, whew), and at the time the work felt almost unbearable.

    But I'd do it all over again, I think.

    And if it's any comfort, your local roller derby team is prolly rooting for you.