Back in May, my husband reminded me he had Memorial Day off, and my first thought was, “Good, then I can get some work done!” And then I remembered, I don’t have any work. I’m done. I finished my Ph.D. And it was both a happy and a sad thought.
In April, I defended my dissertation. I was awarded a PhD, magna cum laude, a pretty good achievement by all metrics, surely. But when my committee welcomed me to the academic community (their actual words, by the way), I felt no sense of accomplishment, no pride, just weariness and emptiness. It surprised me, and it surprises me still. I worked so hard for this–shouldn’t I feel something?
(My therapist would say, there’s that word again: Should.)
I started my PhD in late 2011, moving to Germany to pursue this dream of a doctorate. I wrote countless grant proposals and scraped together funding from literally a dozen different places. I presented papers at conferences, finding that introvert me actually enjoyed the back-and-forth that conferences inspire, liked the spotlight and the critical questions that came after. I taught classes and realized I was good at research and writing, but I really loved teaching–something that completely and utterly surprised me. I read all the books I could get my hands on, filled notebook after notebook with quotes and ideas and outlines, and slowly began the hard work of having something to say.
Along the way, I moved from Germany to Utah to California, got married, had a baby. And always, always that work on my shoulders, that sense that I Should Be Writing, Should Be Working, or I’d never make it to that promised land of tenure-track, I’d always be stuck wandering in the wilderness. Always that work on my shoulders, and frankly, also always the sense that I was not good enough, would never be good enough, would spend the rest of my life trying to convince others and myself that I deserved to be where I was. Always that work on my shoulders, even through my pregnancy, through my maternity leave and the first year of my daughter’s life. Until it wasn’t there anymore, I was done.
I decided I wasn’t going to be an academic while I was still in Utah, for a myriad of personal and probably not very interesting reasons. I fought it, and then I mourned for quite a while. That’s the only way I can describe it, as a period of mourning, in which I said goodbye to a life spent among books, meaning found in teaching and research and my words on a page. Most days I’m happy with my choice, and in fact, saying goodbye to that dream opened the door to bigger and better dreams, dreams that fit me more and honor who I’ve become, and dreams that scare and thrill me in equal measure and for that reason alone deserve to be pursued.
And yet. The other day, an acquaintance posted on Facebook that she got an offer and would start her tenure-track job this fall. She and I happened to get our PhDs on the same day. I barely know her, and yet it made me cry, made me question whether I was throwing away everything I’d worked so hard for. What use was a PhD if I immediately left the academic community I’d sacrificed so much for to join?
I never aspired to be a stay at home mom, and I surprised myself when halfway through my pregnancy, I floated the idea to L. that I stay home for a little while when the baby was born. For the first eight months of G.’s life, I had a dissertation and then a defense to hide behind. I had a goal to work towards and checklists to manage. And now I spend my days chasing my daughter around our living room, loving it one minute and wondering if there’s something else I should be doing with my life the next, something unidentifiable but “better” all the same.
(There’s that word again: should.)
At heart, of course, is the question I’ve always struggled with: Without outside accomplishments, outside responsibilities, outside accolades, how do I know that it’s enough?
Or perhaps more accurately: How do I know that I’m enough?