Our dear friend Brain recently wrote a compelling blog post about the problem of anger and how to manage it when you have the massive demands on you that come from parenthood (to a very small little person who needs unconditional love), finishing up a PhD and immediately starting a publish-or-perish tenure-track job, maintaining a happy marriage, and staying connected to your family. Her point was that there are very few safe outlets for frustration and anger when you are trying to juggle all those things (you know what she means–getting the baby down, and then trying to shove 2-3 more hours of work in before you collapse–never mind dishes or quality time with Doughnut). Her conclusion was that while she is a fantastic mother (she is, I’ve seen her), a good academic (I’d say fantastic for that too, frankly), and a functional adult, it makes getting rid of any stockpiled anger difficult.
I couldn’t agree more. B and I have very different ways of dealing with the problem. His is quite close to Brain’s (he is perhaps a bit more laid-back than her to begin with, which helps). B, like Brain, ends up hoarding frustration (not because they want to, but because there is no time for them to go relieve it with a run, or tennis, or just going away mentally from their work and duties). This means that when I leave B with our little Fiend for an hour or two, and then come home happy, he gives me stink eye and seems mad that I am being exuberant. (I am wondering if perhaps he would be less grumpy if I wasn’t so damn chipper about seeing my ridiculously good-looking physical therapist… And don’t get B started on the crush I have on my OB.) Let me hasten to add that B is not mad at me for getting out of the house, or even enjoying myself while I breathe the air of freedom (it’s amazing how liberating stopping by CVS for kleenex is)–he is certainly jealous that I look all happy and relaxed, and he is mad that he can’t escape the pressure created by this period in our lives. As Brain said: it is hard to be good at being yourself if it takes everything you have to survive and be good at the other things.
But B and Brain are at the tail-ends of their programs. They both have (extremely good) jobs lined up for the fall. I am not in that position. So how do I find balance between work, baby, family, husband, and self? How do I either hoard or disperse frustration or anger so I can still function? The simple answer is that instead of hoarding anger I have largely given up on my “life of the mind” right now (literally–I am barely reading). For Brain and B (partially because of their personalities, partially because of the place they are in their professional lives), academic work has had to be a priority (along with parenting). I am pre-orals in a field with almost no jobs. I have not started my dissertation.
Now, I am not claiming I don’t get angry. Of course I do. But I have opted out (for now) of one of the biggest causes of frustration in my life. I am trying not to feel like I am less smart, less worthwhile, less me because I am not doing anything academic at the moment. I don’t want it to poison the joy I am getting out of being a mother and loving my baby–and I can’t imagine a scenario where I regret the time I am giving him. I am also ignoring housework. That helps. A lot. It also helps that B has a job lined up. If he didn’t, or wasn’t about to graduate, then it would be more important that I was still making fast progress too.
But those are some dangerous words, “more important”. It is hard not to think that B’s intellectual work is “more important” than mine. That his getting time to work is more important than my getting time to work. On a practical level, it really is more important: he needs to finish, graduate, and start his job. I do not. On the other hand, through no fault of B’s, this set of circumstances undermines my confidence in my intellectual self-worth. This is where I start to feel frustration and anger. A large part of these feelings come from confusion: given the state of Academia these days, do I want to continue? I would be an irresponsible partner and parent if I didn’t think long and hard about whether it was really worth my time to finish. But right now, even with as much as B does (he is a wonderful father and husband. The best.), I don’t have the mental energy and focus to sort it all out, so I hang there, in mental limbo while I manage the day to day tasks of a baby who arrived 7 weeks early.
The other source of massive anger in my life is my body. We do not see eye to eye, my body and me. Just when I let my guard down, it does something like throw out my back for two weeks, or have another infection (which is difficult to get rid of thanks to the diabetes). The sense of betrayal I regularly feel is difficult to manage. The lingering PTSD from getting hit by the car doesn’t help. This too distracts from that “life of the mind” I am supposed to be engaging in. I think I am coming closer and closer to the conclusion that I have gotten what I want out of graduate school and am not stupid or less worthwhile because I don’t wish to torture myself with the misery that is the job market in my field. (Don’t mention this to my adviser please. Just in case I start getting more sleep and completely change my mind. Again.)
Am I less me right now, because I am stuck in this limbo? Is B less himself as he struggles to balance it all? Unfortunately, I think so. The hopeful part is that this intense phase of parenting, this finishing of dissertations, does not last forever. And luckily for us, the quality of mercy is one that B and I have liberally bestowed upon one another. It makes the ugly spurts of frustration dissipate faster, and do less damage than they would otherwise. I can’t recommend mercy highly enough as a quality to cultivate in one’s marriage. It makes life so much easier. As does skipping the non-essential housework (read: everything but dishes and laundry)–who the hell cares if there are dust buffaloes roaming our halls?