I am having an existential crisis of sorts unfold before me.
My newsfeed on Facebook was recently beset with commencement and convocation photos of people graduating with Masters and Doctorates. Of professor friends and acquaintances participating in ceremony.
Diving straight to the heart of it, these represent, for me, family photos I was left out of, and it hit me so embarrassingly hard.
Let me explain.
Growing up, more than any other place and for better or worse, school was where my need for acceptance was met. Not entirely, of course. Oh so far from it. But certainly more consistently than at home and by so many other people. It is where I felt valued; where I was met with approval. I have letter grades to show for it, you know. And even though this is true for so many people, it still pains me to say that my teachers and professors, whether they knew it or not, were my surrogate parents. My dad put me up on a pedestal that I felt I could never live up to, and my mom was simply exhausted from life and had very little left in her for me. It’s how life was. I learned early on to be as emotionally independent as I could be, but I still had needs. A Lot of them. I still do. That happens when you’re human.
I took 5 years to finish my undergrad, at the end of which, I decided to apply to the Master’s program in the same department because little else was calling my name. It was the best thing I could think of doing with myself at the time. I spent an additional year and a half coming to the realization that I didn’t have the zeal I needed for that particular program. It wasn’t what *I* wanted to do with myself. So with help, I put effort toward creating my own program. And then life flung some big changes my way and I ended up in a different country, at a different university in a different Master’s program. I didn’t finish this program, either, for the usual reasons that people generally did not finish this particular program. There was a proficiency exam that I needed to pass. I had 5 tries to do it; I quit after the 4th failure. Quit the program and didn’t look back for 8 years.
This was my teenage rebellion.
During this time, I learned that I retain information much better if I’m interested. I studied neurotransmitters, drug usage, dietary issues, food intolerances, hypoglycemia, depression, went through various phases of living as green a life as I could within the confines of extant limitations. I learned I could live without blatant plastic usage. I learned about living life with two partners. I studied pregnancy, birth, and attachment parenting. I learned a fair bit about herbalism. Gardening, urban homesteading. I created two beautiful children. During which time, I learned about trauma, separation, flashbacks, visitation, learning what was ok to talk about and with whom, trusting my gut instinct, making do, letting it all fall apart so that I could put it back anew.
All of this has value. This is life, and I dare say, it has been a life well-lived. But there is unfinished business, so many loose ends.
I see these commencement photos and it draws up so many feelings I wanted to forget about. All the insecurities have come to the fore. I look at the life I have lived since leaving university and I see it through the merciless eyes of Academia. None of it has served the Academy, so therefore none of it has value. Maybe on a person-to-person level it does, but not overall.
I went to an academic conference last year and felt both at home for the first time in a decade and so out of place as to be ashamed and embarrassed that I had nothing to show for my time spent away. Meaning that, in terms of what is valued within that particular overarching community, I had nothing but an undergraduate degree and a descriptor under my name of Independent Scholar. With no university affiliation, I was Suspect. No post-grad degrees meant no short-hand ways of gleaning where I fit into the greater scheme of things. Truth be told, I was welcomed just fine but there was an obvious undercurrent of Othering. “I took time off,” I said. “I’ll be able to go back someday.”
I felt ashamed. I still do when I tell people that I’m a stay-at-home mother. I feel like I should start telling people I’m a writer, but then, blogs aren’t really Writing, are they? (We know we value bloggers because we get free insight, but we bloggers get made fun of relentlessly… “And now there are all these bloggers…” a writing teacher dismissively said last year to my Saturday class. “Do any of you have a blog?” I did not respond. I didn’t know how to play the game.) I didn’t respond because I didn’t value myself as a blogger in the face of criticism. And I feel ashamed to tell people I’m a stay-at-home mother because I do not value my work as a parent. I keep looking at it through the lens of our sociocultural norms rather than through the lens of someone who appreciates the work I do…
I have two amazing creative projects, my boys, but they do not serve the Academy, and they’re not actively serving society. I am not contributing to the economy because I have no job for which I get cash payment, and, as a result, I spend very little. Parenthood and all that comes with it is nothing that society at large actually truly values. As a parent, I see that reflected back to me in so many ugly and sharply painful ways. And that lack of value is reflected in Academia where so many academics, who are mothers, are consistently discriminated against, and not just by male academics, either. It is a problem. THIS is what I want to go back to?
Through all of this introspection, I have discovered that I have a price. A price that I am willing to pay in order to feel like I belong somewhere. It is the cost of a graduate degree. A graduate degree spanning 14 years, costing, on a monetary level, well over three times as much as it would have cost had I done it straight through. And maybe that price is the cost of two graduate degrees, because who knows what’ll come of my own search to feel adequate. I feel like if I have said degrees, I’ll belong somewhere where I want to belong. Somewhere where I felt like I once belonged. This is what I’m buying into. This is how I’m letting myself be bought.
I have oft times referred to the professors, students, and staff at the first and only university where I actually felt like I sort of belonged, as my dysfunctional family away from dysfunctional family. I am under no delusions that Academia is some majestic heavenly place of fluffy warm fuzzies. People bring their emotional baggage with them wherever they go and they act it out in all kinds of unsavoury and egotistical ways. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating those people and loving them (er, some more distantly than others). So yes, I get this. And, yes, I still want to go back. Mind you, it’ll be to a different university than the one referenced above, back to the last program I was in.
Except that the truth of the matter is, of course, that I can never really go back.
- the people are different
- even if some people are the same, they’re still different from who they were a decade ago
- I am different
- it’s not going to be what I need for it to be
but tell that to my Inner Child and she will cross her arms stubbornly and hold her head aloft, abjectly refusing to hear what you are trying to tell her. The Adult in me wants to tie up loose ends and finish what she started. The Child in me wants so very much to return to a place where her interests were nurtured. Where she felt valued and loved for what she had to offer (for what is love, after all, but connection? and connecting through shared and nurtured interests can happen frequently in upper level education). Where people actively tried to help her get to where she said she wanted to be. All the things she never got as a child.
What I want her to know and understand with all her heart is that she has value no matter where she goes, no matter what she does with herself, no matter what her creative projects are. She is an amazing person who works with integrity to help others and works hard to understand the world. That is laudable in and of itself.
Getting all of that at heart level is the real work that lies ahead.
In the meantime, there is bureaucracy, red tape, and finances to be dealt with. And, hopefully, Latin. So much Latin.
And maybe my returning to grad school is my equivalent of moving back home for awhile just so that I can reassess my life and get things in order before moving on to something else. That’s a price I can live with.