All of My Faults Are Stress Related

Ah… vacation

I’m going to take a vacation tomorrow. I’m going to get up early in the morning, ride my bike to my office, and hunker down in front of my computer, putting some of my collaborators’ contributions into a grant proposal.

What? That doesn’t sound like your idea of a vacation?

What about last week, when I spent a glorious two days in my office while my husband and six-year-old went camping and swimming in a hot spring? No?

They actually do feel like vacations to me. See, I’m spending this summer at home with my six-year-old. There are a few options in town for summer childcare, but I decided not to try any of them (except for sending him off with the grandparents or his father). The kid just finished kindergarten and… well, at one point he came home and told me that he was good at reading and good at math, but he wasn’t very good at listening. And he talks all the time about wanting to spend more time with me (although I was part-time this spring, so I was home every day when he came home from school). And I’m not organized or clued-in enough to get him signed up for summer programs, anyway. (Except for swim lessons. I managed those this summer, at least.) So my summer days usually include a couple hours of housework and/or time on the computer, followed by a couple hours riding bikes to the park to see if other kids are around, followed by a couple hours at the pool. Maybe there’s some weeding or lawn-mowing, maybe there’s some grocery shopping, maybe there’s more cleaning. It sounds very relaxing, but in reality it feels like I’m always on call. Half the laundry gets put in, and suddenly there’s a panicked scream: the legos won’t fit back together. Or I’m halfway through vacuuming a room, and I’m called to kill a bug RIGHT NOW. Or I’ve written a paragraph of a blog post, and the kid wants to go play outside. (If the post is about reading Last Child in the Woods, it seems wrong to say “no, not right now, let me finish what I’m doing.”)

When I’m in my office in the summer, I get eight hours of uninterrupted time* to just think. (Well, and read or write or respond to e-mails about the proposal I’m working on.) I can immerse myself in metamorphic reaction textures or explanations of electron back-scatter diffraction. And it feels so good.

Most people, I suspect, would love to have the freedom to spend a summer with their kid. I’m only able to do this because I’m at a teaching-oriented school, with lower research expectations than most other places, and I’m tenured.** (Started teaching early, at age 26; had the kid late, at age 37. Got tenure while on maternity leave, after 11 years of teaching.) Young faculty, post-docs, and grad students simply don’t have the choice to be less productive, and believe me, I sympathize. (As I said, I was an assistant professor for 11 years. I understand the stress and the fear.)

[This post was interrupted by a request to ride bikes.]
[Bike ride + trip to the pool later…]

Where was I? Oh, yeah. I feel like some kind of horrible person for feeling this way. (Partly, I’m remembering all the things I used to hear about selfish, heartless career women; partly, I’m feeling guilty for having the freedom that other women should also have.) The kid’s only going to be six years old once. Aren’t I glad that I get to hear all the sound effects he makes while pretending that his legos are exploding? Or that I know which superpowers his blue stuffed puppy has, and which ones Spot the Rabbit has?

Yeah, I am happy I get to see this. It’s just… I like thinking about other stuff, too. I don’t manage a laser focus on anything very well. Not on teaching (and certainly not on grading). Not on research – when I had a graduate fellowship, I was jealous of my friends who were TAs. And not, I’m afraid, on parenting.

And now he’s at the grandparents’ house for a sleepover, and I’m finally putting together a blog post. He’ll be back tomorrow evening, and we’ll be back to building legos and saving the world with stuffed animals.

Until then, I’m on vacation.

* No students; few faculty in the office. Work isn’t like this during the school year.

** I could still be a terminal associate professor, that doesn’t seem worth losing sleep over. What would I get for being a full professor? Bragging rights? Maybe a tiny raise, depending on the budget at the time?

Post for Scientiae.


  1. #1 coconino
    July 24, 2009

    Boy, do I hear you. I’m always sad and a little bit nervous (it’s hard to send your little one off in an aluminum tube hurtling thru the sky), but I do relish those weekends and weeks when the five-year old is visiting her father. Whatever I end up doing, it’s uninterrupted.

  2. #2 Jude
    July 26, 2009

    My sons are now teenagers, which makes them extremely annoying by default. I’ve been a single parent most of their lives. When you’re a mom, you have to divide your life into different categories. My main ones are money, housework, others, self, work, and filing. When my son was 11, his only birthday wish was to have a day away from his brother, so we spent the day together, from breakfast on, doing exactly what he wanted. I’ll always remember his adoring smile as we rode the Gondola to Glenwood’s Fairy Caves. The next year I was too poor to afford a day together, and the year after that he wouldn’t have been caught dead with me in public on *any* day, let alone his birthday. Taking care of others, whether it’s my mother who just broke her hip or my teenagers with their accompanying 4 to 8 friends is just part of it. But there’ll be a lot more time for yourself in a very short few years.

  3. #3 Mike
    August 17, 2009

    Look into joining a cub scout pack. I did this with my son in the first or second grade. Eight short years later he is now 15, and worked as a lifeguard at a boy scout camp this summer. Contrary to what many in academia seem to believe, scouting is basically a community of parents raising their children. Your child gains the benefit of many parents working their strengths together for the common good of all the children. And one of the greatest benefits is the larger group of adults involved with each other, and their children. In the middle of his working, I pulled him out and we spent a week at a boy scout camp in San Diego. He took snorkeling, kayaking and nautical survival classes, I spent the week helping teach a sailing class.

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