Stylocycle’s Blog

Did you have plans?
October 8, 2010, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s a gorgeous week-end here in SW Ontario and we are going to take advantage by driving several hours to the North Central region to hang out in Coloured Leaf and Icy Blue Water Country. We so rarely manage to get away to our shabby retreat in the woods. Mostly we are limited by having a teen-aged boy who generally refuses to accompany us. This week, however, he decided to grant us an act of grace and to go with us for Thanksgiving one last time before he turns 18 at the end of the month. We aren’t going to to the Turkey thing this year; with my grandmother gone and Dear Spouse’s family dispersed hither and yon with their own fixations there just didn’t seem to be much point in doing the Big Deal.

I look upon this week-end and I think to myself that I actually have a fair amount to be thankful for. I was reading some academic advice for women just recently in “Inside Higher Ed”, and the advice came down to “Don’t make plans”. The general idea was that the academic world is inhospitable to women, and more so to women with children, so instead of thinking “This is how I’m going to do it”, just decide to ride whatever waves come at you… It’s not terrible advice, except for the premise. I find the premise defeatist, and if I were to use it with my own young students — male or female — I’d feel like I was working in kinda bad faith.

To me, you see, while it’s true that it’s damnably hard to have kids, be female, and carve out a space in the academy, it’s a much better option than almost anything else going. The women I know who have both stability and the time for a really creative life, and who have to earn money (rather than being the owners of significantly sized companies and I only know one woman who has that) are all in some form of teaching gig, usually with graduate degrees to their name. I know women who have great lives out there in the corporate world, or in the non-profits but they seem not to have kids (which is fine, I’m just talking about *having kids* as a specific feature of the deal), and they often have a male partner with a larger and more stable income.

Anyway, back to the “Don’t plan” bit. I had a plan. And all through undergrad and grad school I lived pretty much according to plan. To a large degree I lived that way because I had grown up knowing that it was best not to rely on anyone else to have my back. I saw a lot of men who didn’t have the backs of their S.O.’s, who left their kids out to dry when the marriages fell apart. I had my own financially challenged father… so I figured I needed a plan and had to stick to it — more or less — if things were going to turn out better than they had started. My plan wasn’t super-rigid but it went something like this:

Work to pay for Undergrad
Earn a fellowship for grad school
Have a kid sooner instead of later because little ones are a liability on the job market
Use the window of time you have now for kids instead of waiting for a chance that may not come
Get a tenure-track job
Write at least one book
Be reliable

So, I did all that. I was very lucky and when I had both a fellowship and a great programme to enter for my M.A. I decided that it was the ‘now or never’ moment to have the kid. We got lucky and the kid came along promptly.
The PhD was harder; I didn’t have so much funding because I went to a school in another province where the funding models for out-of-province students were kind of punitive. IT was 95-96 and not a nice time to be moving *to* Montreal… so once my residency was completed and as I prepped for my comprehensive exams we moved back to Ontario and I worked full time all through the comps and dissertation stages. 30-35 hours a week right to the end. And yet i still finished on time, and when my dissertation was deposited I got lucky and found a sessional job at a local university that gave me just enough teaching experience to tack on as I hit the job market.
A tenure track job took two years to arrive, so those 2 years post-doc were miserable. My god!
But I stuck to the plan.
I got the tenure-track job, and I got the book, and now I look back on it and indeed, I have so much more than my meagre little plan allowed for me to have… ever.
20 years married to the only person in the world who really ‘gets me’, who never tried to discourage me, never said I could not achieve the things I set out to achieve.
A stable home in a happy neighbourhood in as much house as I will ever need.
A kid on the verge of his own adulthood whom I love dearly — even if bringing up baby has been among the hardest and most heart-breaking things I’ve ever done.
A career that pays me well and allows me time to think — at least sometimes.

Maybe others can handle abandoning the plan, but I need to feel that I have some control over the course of my life, and if I had ever veered too far off course, I think I would not have been able to survive other challenges that came along.

How about you? Did you have plans?