Seven years is a long time to work for a reward, only to have the veil lifted to reveal the wrong prize. Even if, after seven more years, you reach the right reward, you can’t ignore the role an additional result — bitterness — now plays in your life. Many factors led to my departure from academia, from my boredom and frustration with higher education to my impatience with indifferent students, but absolutely I think parenthood played a role.
I had a different perspective on time after becoming a parent. I’m sure that in some ways this happens to everyone as they age, but my personal preoccupation with becoming a mother and then parenting a toddler defined my life from when I was twenty-eight until I turned thirty-five (again, seven years, I just realized.)
Unlike so many of my friends and my spouse, who are happy with their chosen paths in history and other academic fields, I looked up from my space on the floor playing Legos and scrubbing puke out of my rented carpets to the piles of grading before me and thought, “What the f*ck am I doing?” Why on earth would I want to go from one space where at the very least I get playtime, hugs, big smiles and outside appreciation in exchange for my hard labor, to that other one where I was once told the office I shared with another person could have only one chair because I wasn’t on the tenure track?
I suppose I could’ve tried harder to get on the multiple-office chair level of the university, but I’d have never been able to forget those folks still struggling to sit while they worked. I have friends who feel differently and I could’ve become an advocate for other struggling PhDs. Yet when I thought about where I could spend my energy for reform, higher education didn’t spark my devotion.
Of course, mothers get crapped on by the outside world, too, but somehow I’ve never felt that treatment overwhelms my pleasure in my kids. The outside world, however, crushed and trampled my love of talking about history. It didn’t do so by ignoring or repeating history, or by sending me weak students, or even by letting Bill O’Reilly publish books. It did so by exploiting not only the faculty, but especially the students and the staff within and around the campus. Many of my friends and my spouse are doing good work in academia, but it quickly came to feel ridiculous to me, like I was getting further from, not closer to, my life’s purpose.
Am I bitter? Not really, but I admit I have some bitter feelings. No one could spend the time I spent in pursuit of an imagined result switched out for a poor substitute, without wondering, at least sometimes, what the hell I was thinking.