There are some things that just stick with you. For example, in fourth grade I got called to the principal’s office over a playground argument. My mom taught in my school and I had never been so sick in my life as I was in that moment of dread. It’s a feeling I would never forget.
Fast forward thirty years and I still get collywobbles when I get called to the higher-ups, like I am nine years old getting called into the office all over again. It’s absurd really but when I got the “come see me” it was automatic.
I guess some things don’t change no matter how far away you get.
So this time it wasn’t a scuffle but still I got called in to meet with my chair in one of those “I need to speak with you” moments that often come with ZERO additional information. In a time when everything is upside down, I feel like my brain ran in a thousand random directions at once and settled on being unsettled. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait and went to see what was needed. The chair began with all the formalities…how are you, how is research going, how are classes, then segued into the focus of the “chat”. It’s that time, you go up this year, deadlines, portfolio roulette, procedures. The stuff junior faculty members track like a disconnected astronaut tracks an oxygen source. Then she set it all aside and asked a question that left me speechless and rambling for words. In hindsight, it was probably the most important question I’ve ever been asked about my entire career.
Who do you want to be now that you are preparing to move to the other side of things?
Not what all are you going to do, how will you maintain this level of productivity, what is your next project, but WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE.
As an academic in the sciences, my life for the last few years has been nothing but thoughts of publish or perish, writing grants, coming up with the next new study, course design, program design, teaching classes and so much more. Its been exponential rejections, revisions, and resubmissions in the quest for tiny victories building into greater battles. It’s been long hours, weekends, missed family moments, and a struggle to develop and hold on to some kind of self-care (Dr. Workload for the win!). I’ve spent a shocking amount of time on the road, not only for conferences but for research, supervision, class visits, so many things. There have been months where I have been in hotels more than home and times when I was in more states in a month than I can count on one hand. It is very much the story of the junior academic. For so many years our primary focus is on reaching the point where we can go up for tenure and promotion consideration. It’s almost as if you’re functioning for many years in a caffeine-fueled manic survival mode driven solely by the potential of that next level. It goes on and on right up until it suddenly just…doesn’t.
Who do I want to be?
Ironically enough, although I’ve been present in all the things that I have done over my years as junior faculty I’ve never really thought about it in terms of who I wanted to be so much as what I can contribute and what I need to reach the next level. In fact, I think the innate inability to say NO to things as a junior academic has led me down so many different paths I am starting to feel like one of the fossils in the evolutionary braided stream.
So when asked that question I really didn’t have a response, in fact I am pretty sure I sat there for a moment with my mouth open catching flies and completely unable to form any meaningful words in response.
Yet over the last ten weeks (so far) of social distancing, cancellations of all the things, and home-isolation with a herd of small humans and growing variety of animals (I HAVE BEES–just not the robotic variety), I have had a great deal of time to think and live in the moment in ways that I have not been able to achieve in many years. It has really given me perspective and clarity that I don’t think I’ve had in a long time. My reflections have led me to outline some frames of my thinking that I think will help me decide on my answer to that looming question.
In hindsight, time does not run in reverse. My time is worth a lot more than some of things I have bartered it for in the past. Learning how to say “no” is very hard, but at the same time it is something that is very necessary. I am slowly learning how to say no to things that I don’t want to do or have a passion for doing and being very selective in what I agree to, because the time I lose with my children, and the time that I am not spending on self-care, has a lasting impact on them as well as on me. The legacy that I will leave in this world is ultimately not tied to my science and advocacy but it is tied to my home and the people who love me, the students that I teach and interact with each day. I want my legacy to be a legacy of kindness, reason, and compassion.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Sometimes what feels like productivity is really just spinning wheels and it is best to just slow down. My goal for this year was to set a limit on my days to avoid the inevitable hours long time-suck warp event that happens whenever I sit down to work. For the longest it was like I would sit down to handle this one thing for a few minutes, and then *poof* its five hours later. Now I allow myself to work on three things per day and then I stop. This has been very hard, but once I put it into place, I have actually become MORE productive. Instead of trying to do all the things at once a little bit at a time, it has forced me to learn to prioritize but also has made it more possible for me to set three clear goals and actually reach them. The end result is a sense of productivity and accomplishment without feeling overwhelmed.
Self-care requires self-love, appreciation, and the recognition that I am one person. For many years I have worn so many hats. Mother, wife, researcher, teacher, advocate. These roles all require different modes of attention, different skill-sets, and very different approaches. Over the last few months I have been learning how to be all of these things at one time and have learned to blend my skills in new ways. The more I take time to care for myself, the more effective I am in all the other roles I hold. I am happier, my mind is sharper, my energy is better, and even small successes feel powerful and encouraging.
So who do I want to be now that I am preparing to enter a new stage in my life? I want to be my most authentic self. I will not apologize for my strengths or my weaknesses but will use both to learn and grow each day and actively work to support and uplift others. I will use the privilege that I have in my life to amplify the opportunities and voices of others. I will take care of myself so that I can be better for others, whether that is at home or in my work arenas. I will say no to the things that do not bring me joy. Most importantly, I will be forgiving, compassionate, and patient with myself, after all, I am just one me and for me, that is enough.
Afterthoughts: I have an amazing chair. She is dedicated to the human side of her faculty in a way that is mind-blowing and empowering. I am very thankful to have the guidance of someone who wants her faculty to be mentally/physically well in addition to productive and scholarly, who pushes us to embrace self-care and awareness, and who is open, up-front, and always there to listen. More administrators need to take that approach and more faculty need to hear it.