Hustling for Worthiness

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with some younger friends. We all serve on our university’s women’s council, and the younger friend is easily a decade younger than me. She was talking about moving away from our college town and having a more “adult” life rather than living in her teeny tiny apartment at she was able to afford on her salary. I turned to her and said “do you know where I was when I was 28? I was in the middle of getting divorced. I was broke as all get out because of said divorce, the credit card bills that we both racked up but were in my name, and my student loans coming into repayment at the same time. And I was living in an apartment that I still call the ‘shoebox’ because it was literally shaped like a shoebox.” My friend looked stunned by my honesty and then thanked me for sharing that with her because she felt better about her own shoebox apartment that she had at 27.

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What I wish I had known in my 20s is that people who are in the 30s and 40s and seem to have their shit together all had times in their lives when they didn’t. I’m envious of those people who walked into their grad program and thought they were all that and moved forward through grad school with confidence. I follow some of those people on Facebook and Twitter and I think to myself, damn. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time in my twenties looking for and needing approval. Whether it was an A on paper, a faculty member who wanted to work with me on a project, or a boyfriend (!!!), I needed that approval. I took my chair’s tenure letter of non-support so hard that I cried for a weekend. (I’m sure others are devastated when they receive this letter too.) When my therapist and I talked about this, she described it: I’m a perfectionist, my (academic) achievements were always celebrated from my childhood forward, and I needed that pat on the head. That resonated with me SO much, and I’ve been very aware of this personality tendency for the past few years since she told me this.

However, the other day, I was listening to the Nasty Women Radio podcast and they called this “hustling for worthiness.” This phrase hits the nail on the head. We’re all hustling for worthiness. I posted the other day about my book project and how I gave up on it after someone who has always shitted on my work decided to do it again. So, guess what? Even though I’m tenured and promoted, I still don’t have my shit together. I still allow people to get in my head about my projects. I sometimes allow people to write my story (Reviewer 2, I’m looking at you). But it’s happening less and less as I realize that this is something I need to continually work on. I know my value. I know my worth (or that damn piece of paper in a nice frame on the wall in my office wouldn’t be there). I also don’t need external validation of my projects/my life/my worthiness. Obviously, I really do… thanks, peer review! Hustling for worthiness is fucking exhausting. You aren’t always rewarded for that effort either (ahem, my divorce). We need to cultivate a feeling of value in ourselves. The real question is how do we get there? I’m a big believer in that the answers I give are not “one size fits all” but I’ll tell you what worked for me.

First, finding an awesome therapist who was able to help me on this journey. She opened my eyes to a lot of things I couldn’t see about myself. I had defined myself solely in terms of my academic achievements (ie, if I’m not an academic, then I’m not marketable). She urged me to see that I’m so much more: I’m a wife, mother, daughter, friend. I love to garden and read young adult novels. I am thoughtful, loyal, and empathetic. I am not just my publication record and my methods skills. Some reading this might snort and say “well, reading The Fault in Our Stars isn’t going to get you promoted to full.” Nope, it’s not. But I wish I had learned early on in my grad school days to lead a more balanced life. This is something that I impart to my grad students as a faculty mentor.

Second, realize that your path isn’t someone else’s. Sure, we’re groomed from day one to get THEMOSTAWESOMEJOBPOSSIBLE. Being on the job market is trying for anyone. I remember when a friend got a job at a teaching college that he wanted to go to and other students were like “oh yeah, but it’s just a teaching college.” Is it possible that some of us are better teachers than researchers? If that’s the truth, then why do we all want the same thing other than… Laud? Prestige? Being able to say our department has a PhD? Comparing yourself to others all the time? That is exhausting. Embrace your path. Embrace what YOU want other than what others want. After all, this is your life, not theirs.

Third, and I can’t say this enough… surround yourself with good people. Seek out mentors who want to build you up with constructive criticism and are willing to work with you to move past problems. Find peers who want to read your work and give feedback (and you do the same). Don’t snark on other’s journeys. Some people don’t want to be an academic… and that’s ok. Some people don’t ever want to have children… and that’s ok. Some people only publish in the top five journals… and that’s ok. I truly believe what you put out in the world comes back to you, so only put out what you want back. And stop hustling for your worth.

 

 

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Switching Off for the Summer

One of my absolute favorite movies is Hot Fuzz. Nicholas Angel is the quintessential parallel for an academic: he’s singularly focused on his work and doesn’t know how to “switch off”. It’s only when he meets his partner that he learns how to have fun and not be so serious all the time. I mean, who else doesn’t immediately relax while drinking a pint and watching Patrick Swayze rob a bank in a Richard Nixon mask?

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But it’s summertime and, like most academics, we’re faced with this race against the clock to “catch up” on everything that we didn’t do during the semester/school year/past decade. Sometimes, those expectations are mighty unrealistic. If you’re like me, I very quickly get frustrated when my plans go out of whack, and it’s midsummer and I didn’t accomplish much. I’m taking a different approach this year, and I wanted to share that with you.

First, I’m being much more realistic about my goals. It’s taken some time, but I realize how long it takes to write a brand new lit review or to revise a conference paper. This is one of the things that makes me pause when a grad student hands me a timeline for their dissertation writing. Working fast to get more done isn’t always smart nor is it doable. I advise my grad students that they will feel better if they finish a task BEFORE an estimated deadline rather than trudging past that deadline. That positive feeling helps you keep moving forward.

Second, break those tasks down! One of my summer projects is to start a paper on a brand new to me subject.  It is going to take me much longer than the summer to get it done (survey writing and implementation, etc) so I’ve broken it down into steps. I need to review the literature out there on this topic. I need to draft a survey instrument and have friends critique it. I need to get IRB approval for this study. These are all small tasks that are digestible rather than “write paper X”.

Third, I am switching off…sometimes. Just because I’m free from teaching for the summer doesn’t mean I have 24 hours a day where I can work. Summer is time for me as well. I love to read fluff books while sitting on my deck. My kids love hitting the pool for a few hours. Did I mention naps? Such decadent self-care! Summer is the time for you to get some sun on your skin (with some SPF in between). Get away for a few days, even if it means a staycation. Go hiking. Hit the pool. Sit on the deck at a coffee shop and listen to nature. Be sure to take some time for you and those who are important to you. It’s easy to fall into that trap of trying to get everything done in 15 weeks, but it isn’t realistic. Do what you can and be sure to take some time for you as well. I hope that you’re able to look back on this summer and see what all you’ve accomplished rather than what you didn’t.

The Best Time

It might have been in grad school that I heard this conversation for the first time. Now that I’ve participated as a mentor in the ISA Pay It Forward event for the past two years, it’s something that is asked of me.

When is the best time to have a baby?

As a grad student, this was something I fretted about. But then again, I had it all planned out. I was going to get my PhD, my first job, and married at 26, tenured at 32, and then a baby at 33. While I was in grad school, a few friends had gotten pregnant and had babies. We were told “oh, that’s a GREAT time to have babies. You’re writing your dissertation while they’re young and they won’t remember it.” Supposedly, babies make you more organized and more on top of your work. Babies are portable. Babies are easy! It’s the older kids that are hard! You don’t want to be TOO old when you have kids!

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Remember my plan? I did start my first job and got married at 26. I finished my PhD at 27… and then got divorced at 28. It was also around that time that I started having symptoms of endometriosis: dysmenorrhea that made me lay in bed for a few days a month, random bleeding, and pelvic pain. I got my diagnosis around the time I met my husband. I had my first laparoscopy three months after we got married. My doctor had told me that if we wanted to get pregnant, this would be our first step and not to wait. Plenty of women with endometriosis end up with hysterectomies in their 30s (which we now know is not the best way to deal with endo, but…) Two rounds of Clomid later, we were pregnant and our son was born nine months later.

At this point, I was still on the tenure track. A senior member of my department commented that I had gotten pregnant “quickly” while others whispered about my pregnancy. According to them, I had found that “best time” to have my baby… I found a method to delay my tenure clock and also to have a semester off from my teaching load. That “best time” looked a lot different to me… it was marked by recovery from a c-section, difficulty breastfeeding (who knew that you could get preeclampsia postpartum and have your milk dry up thanks to hard core diuretics?) and postpartum depression that set in when I realized that I was going to have to give my baby formula (what I then saw as a failure on my part…overachievers like those who pursue PhDs don’t fail at anything).  Strategy had nothing to do with it: my gynecologist told me that endo doesn’t wait for anyone and so I took my chance and went with it.

Last week was infertility awareness week. While I got pregnant with our son relatively effortlessly (one surgery and some clomid is relatively effortless on the infertility spectrum), trying to get pregnant again was insanely difficult. I definitely wanted to wait until I had my tenure letter in my hand (because I was waiting for that “right time”). During that awful stressful year, I ended up having emergency surgery that affected my fertility again. And then we tried. And tried. And tried. I saw the one reproductive endocrinologist in town who was a complete asshole to me (I later learned he was a complete asshole to everyone). I took clomid again. I did injectables. I did not get pregnant.

My gynecologic surgeon suggested I drive up to our closest big city, to the women’s hospital where he had done his residency. That’s a 90 minute drive, one way. A three hour round trip that would have to be done multiple times a week, for testing, ultrasounds, and any other monitoring that would need to be done if we did more invasive fertility treatments. All while teaching and doing research. Not to mention that my insurance (and my husband’s) doesn’t cover fertility treatments. I’ve had friends who did IUI and IVF, spent the thousands of dollars necessary to do that, and still had their hearts broken in the end. My husband and I thought long and hard about it and decided IVF wasn’t for us. Maybe if we hadn’t had our son, we would have been willing to invest the money into the risk, but we couldn’t justify it. The right time, that time that I thought would be so perfect post-tenure, just wasn’t.

I’m that annoying person who has a happy ending to my story. After giving up on baby #2, I got pregnant a few months later with no interventions. There are so many people who don’t get that happy ending. We like to point to fertility issues as an age thing, but honestly, I know plenty of women who have problems getting pregnant and/or staying pregnant for reasons not related to age. So, now, post-tenure me rolls my eyes at those conversations about “the right time” to get pregnant. (Or, worse, people who suggest timing your pregnancies to have the summer off! Kudos if you can actually pull that off!) So, when young women ask me when is the “right time” to get pregnant, I tell them there is no right time. You just need to take a leap of faith and do what is right for you and your family… and also not worry about the whispers that might follow. We academics are planners. We just need to make that connection that all that planning may not work out the way we want it to.

Enough is enough

One of the first things my (former) chair said to me when I started my tenure track job was to protect my research time. “Just do the basic service necessary. Review manuscripts, be panel discussants, the usual,” he advised. And, for years, that’s what I did. Post-tenure women are still advised to say no. While we excel at service, it is to the detriment of our research. And while it is important for us to increase our service post-tenure (in tune with our department and college/university expectations), research-focused schools do not reward service with promotions. However, how can you balance these guidelines with the impulse to get involved in this post-election period? I was in a meeting last week for one of my service projects (helping to start up the new Women’s Resource Center on my campus) and I found myself starting to apologize for not being involved in one of the new multi-generational feminist groups that started in the fall. I mean, when it started, I was on parental leave and then the meeting time didn’t mesh with my kids’ daycare pickup, and… I’m sorry.

I found myself apologizing to others for making the decision not to march in January. Two of my very good (local) friends were going, my university was sponsoring a bus to DC, and a few of my (non-local) friends were meeting up to spend the weekend together. Plus… it was my spouse’s birthday. It wasn’t a milestone birthday, but I didn’t want to be out of town without him that weekend. I confessed to one of my friends that I met through a campus women’s group that I was worried that people were judging me for not going to the march. I felt a lot better when she said that she struggled with the decision too. Crowds aren’t her thing (they aren’t mine either) and not going to DC didn’t mean that she (or I) had any less of an effect on the political process.

About a month later, I got a Facebook invite to attend an organizational meeting of a local NOW chapter that some colleagues and acquaintances had helped to initiate. This was exciting! This was activism at its finest! This was… not going to fit into my calendar at all. My weekends are reserved for my family (as are most evenings). I know that there are plenty of other women who are involved in this type of activism that have partners and kids and aging parents but… they aren’t me. The first NOW meeting passed with me feeling an immense sense of guilt. I convinced myself that I would make it to the next one.

I have a friend who is doing some local organizing to help find a challenger to run against her local congressman, all while raising two kids, teaching music lessons, and being a member in her local orchestra. The women who organized the local chapter of NOW are all professional women who have partners and kids and careers. The women who marched in DC are from all different backgrounds and ages and locales and they found time to march. Are all these people more dedicated than I am? Am I being lazy?

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As I found myself apologizing at that meeting last week, I quickly stopped myself before the words “I’m sorry” ever made it out of my mouth. I do enough. I can’t be everything to everyone. I am involved in a number of women’s groups already, albeit concentrated in my campus service and my service to the discipline. I like that service. To me (and to others), it’s service that matters. And yet, I feel guilt for not doing more, especially in this political climate. However, what more women need to realize is that we do enough already. There is plenty of evidence for that.Those of us who struggle or feel guilt about not doing enough are probably doing more than others already… and I guarantee that we are making a difference to someone. And, while it rests on our shoulders to protect our rights and the rights of other underrepresented groups (because we have seen time and again that we can’t leave it to others to do the work for us), a division of labor is necessary to avoid burnout.

 

Going through the motions

Since learning about Will Moore‘s death, I’ve been going through the motions. It’s odd because I wasn’t particularly close to Will. We were at Florida State at the same time in the early 2000s, where he was a professor and I was a PhD student. He taught my research design course in Fall 2001, which was my very first graduate class. Will was interested in pushing students to be the best they could be. I wish, that as a 21 year old graduate student, I had been able to recognize what he was doing. Instead, he intimidated the crap out of me. He called me into his office after class one day to encourage me to contribute more. I remember him telling me that my male counterparts were just blowing hot air (I think he actually said that they like to hear the sounds of their own voices) and that he knew I had something more to add than what was already being said. It made me speak up more, but my horrible imposter syndrome made me shrink back from any mentoring by Will. Clearly, he was a fantastic mentor to many of my contemporaries at Florida State and beyond. But, Florida State being what it was/is, we were truly a community of scholars. While I never took another class with Will, he was at every one of my practice conference presentations and job talks. The faculty at Florida State set the bar high for having a supportive community of scholars in the workplace. I still haven’t found a place that comes close to that level of community since I left Tallahassee ten and a half years ago.

And yet, I find myself grieving. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. Cullen Hendrix’s recent post and Christian Davenport’s blog post summarizes a lot of why I am feeling this way. It’s fantastic that we’re having these conversations about mental health in academia, especially in political science, but how long will these conversations go on? Will they just be conversations? Will they lead to action? How long until we just go back to the same old, same old?

I’ve had a lot of regrets, a lot of things I wish I could do again: I wish I had travelled more while I was in grad school. I wish I had gone to more happy hours. I wish that I didn’t question myself at every turn. I wish that I knew how to relax and enjoy myself with my contemporaries. I know now that a lot of what held me back was depression and anxiety. Sometimes we call it imposter syndrome, but, as time has gone on, I realize that it’s my anxiety manifesting itself into some succinct “acceptable” term we use in academia. It’s that little voice that makes you wonder if you’re ever going to be found out, if you’re not as smart as others in the room, if you’re researching the right thing.

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(Tien Frogget, 2015)

 

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve experienced things that have reinforced what I see through my anxiety . For instance, a short interview at APSA while I was on the market played out like this: two senior men, very well known in the discipline, looking through me to see what else was going on in the room while I was answering their questions. (My anxiety says “They only agreed to this short interview because of who you know and who is on your committee. You’re not good enough to end up at University of X.”) Or the number of times I’ve been at conferences talking to friends who then introduce me to their friends, only for them to look at my name tag, see my large state school under my name, and then continue a conversation like I am not there. (My anxiety says “You aren’t worth knowing since you work at a large state school that is better known for its football team than its academic rigor.”) Or a conference discussant giving you advice in a “break you down to build you up” sort of way… or not giving comments to you at all because they felt another paper was that much more important. (My anxiety says “Your paper was crap. Throw it out. It will never be published. Don’t even try.”)

Maybe I need a thicker skin, which is the advice that many people have given to me over the years. Maybe academia isn’t for me. Except, I know that isn’t the solution either, as I truly love what I do. Or maybe, just maybe, there are more of us that have these feelings than not. On the flip side of the posturing that goes on at conferences, there is also an opportunity to find a space for yourself. After a very tumultuous time in my career, I began searching out new opportunities at ISA. I remember going to panels sponsored by the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) section where they discussed “circles of niceness” and “academic assholery”. This clicked for me. I don’t want to be an asshole. Assholes make me crawl deep into my shell. I give criticism, but in a constructive way. Particularly, because I want people to succeed. I want to value people for what they bring to the discipline, because we are not cookie cutter academics. I want to value people and their work, not based on what school they are at, their pedigree, or where they publish, but because we excel at different things and we bring a different perspective to these topics. I also want people to know that they are not alone in these feelings.

The unfortunate truth is that those who need to check their privilege (and/or academic jerk status) are probably never going to read this post. Or, if they do, they’ll write it off to me being bitter or sad that I am [insert whatever insult here]. I’ve been a part of a number of discussions over the past few years about changing our professional culture, and the truth is that change can only come when we start convincing those in power positions that change can benefit them too. And, why would they? Like Cullen said, as long as we continue to reward those behaviors that allow this culture to dominate, there is no incentive to change.

Last month, in Baltimore, I had organized a panel on self-care that, because of a few mix-ups, had been left off the original ISA program. I pushed back and, luckily, the program chair was able to find a spot for us albeit at 8AM on Saturday morning. Four people were on the panel (due to the scheduling mix-up, some others had to step down to present their substantive research) and two people in the audience. Two. And, honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had at an ISA because it was a space for us to know we weren’t alone in our struggles in the discipline, whether it was due to stress, anxiety, departmental cultures, or chronic illnesses. I don’t say this to self-promote, but for others to realize that there are those of us who have been working towards changing our professional culture prior to Will’s untimely death. And we will continue to do so. Please join us in our efforts so this conversation does not become a soft hum once again.