I felt I blinked, and those nine months were up.
When you decide to have a baby, you don’t realize all the sacrifices you will make. Sure, you have the financial conversation: calculating diapers, clothes, doctor’s co pays, furniture, eventual college, child care, etc. At a certain point, somewhere around the fifth figure, you stop and know it’s going to be a long time before you get comfortable. Then the physical sacrifice – at least for mom. My body doesn’t resemble anything like pre-pregnancy, and I wouldn’t change that. I love my scar. It’s a physical reminder of my experience. Besides the financial and physical sacrifices, there are the emotional sacrifices. No one told me I wouldn’t be able to hear a story about a child’s death without feeling physically ill. I did not expect to cry at every stupid Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card I read.
And no one told me how comfortable I would become with urine. It’s sterile, right?
Earlier this month another nine months came to a close. No, we haven’t added a new addition to the family that I can blog about over at my other writing post AllMommyFail. Last Spring, we sat down to calculate the sacrifices it would mean for me to go back to school. Cancel the house phone, downgrade the car, re-assess our insurance, cut fun-money and vacations…the financial sacrifices go on. Looking back, some of it makes sense since neither of us have time for fun, phone calls, or vacations. We asked for help when we needed it – a scholarship to the Y to continue our membership, student loans (ugh). In the short-term, it’ll suck. But much like having a child, in the long-term, we’ll be better off, right?
I was not prepared for the physical sacrifice. Ever since I could remember, I can function on 5-6hrs of sleep. If I get more, I’m off. Once Autumn Quarter started, I was lucky to get 3hrs per night. Less than 30hrs of sleep per week is just not healthy. I see pictures of me from Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and I would have been worried about me if I were my friend. Grayish complexion, carry-on luggage under my eyes, dust collecting on the gym bag, the pounds creeping back on the scale. No sleep, no exercise, no downtime = incredibly grumpy me. Okay, let’s be honest. I was a bitch to my family from September through…let’s say January?
That wasn’t in the orientation materials.
There were emotional sacrifices as well. In the past decade, I have enjoyed a certain comfort in being good at anything that was thrown at me. I have been very fortunate to have been employed consistently since entering the workforce, usually in fields that related to psychology: research assistant, control coordinator, clinical interviewer, grant/program coordinator, research coordinator. My best skill was taking someone’s problem and saying, “I can do that.” And then do it! I knew what I was talking about, I was confident. Then I got some crazy idea that I should go into a field I thought I knew nothing about.
In our first class, the professor had each student in the room describe where they came from (institution), background in communications, and research interests. It was probably the fourth time we each had done this, so it was a well-honed speech at this point. Each student was able to drop a name, an institution, a project related to communications, besides a few of us. They were all SO YOUNG!
What the hell did I get myself into?
I don’t think anyone has any idea of how mentally exhausting my brain can be. I would perseverate on everything someone said in class, how they said it, what I said, how people reacted non-verbally to my comments, the professor’s nonverbal and verbal response, was I right, was I wrong, was that stupid, oh god I shouldn’t have said that, now I have to make up for it, please don’t talk so fast I need to get this down because I’ve never heard of what everyone else is nodding their heads to, wait I didn’t read that article I didn’t think we had to, what was that analysis, we have an exam TOMORROW? All this would go through my head every 2min or so.
If anyone actually recorded my thoughts, I’d sound like a crazy person. No, I’d sound like three crazy people.
My first quarter was wicked rough. I questioned everything I ever said, wrote, thought. I feel graduate programs really must do a better job warning students, especially older students, of the imposter syndrome we all will encounter at some point. It takes a lot to counteract the effects of imposter syndrome. Intense, tenured professors who aim to push students as hard as possible are not the anecdote. Surrounding yourself 24/7 with others experiencing the same symptoms attempting to counteract with MORE fervor and knowledge is worse. The icing on the cake is those financial and physical sacrifices you’ve made while trying to understand what the hell is happening.
I felt in the first three months, much like when you’re pregnant, you have to give your everything. Most women get really sick in their first trimester, and have to adjust to a changing body. It’s really hard NOT to get swept up in every twinge, pull, queasiness. You worry because in those first three months is where stuff goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’ve experienced that loss, and once you have, you’re terrified until you feel your baby kick or see a head on an ultrasound that you’ll experience it again. The first three months of graduate school isn’t much different. You worry that everything you’ve worked so hard for: the studying for the GREs, the personal statement, the grades during undergrad, the letters of the people you don’t want to let down – will all be pulled out from under you. Once you’re dumped, can you ever go back? What about those sacrifices I made? My family? I don’t have a job to go back to. I can’t be a failure to my family? Everyone KNOWS I’m doing this – I CANNOT FAIL. No pressure.
Pregnancy can break bodies and leaves scars. Graduate school can break spirits and leaves equally noticeable scars.
But there was light. In January I got to take a class of MY choosing – not a mandated. It wasn’t perfect, and I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But in that class were different people. These second and third years were just more comfortable in their skins. They survived their first year, I could too, right? And we were talking about stuff I give a shit about. I found my voice with my advisor; I figured what to take and what to leave in comments from what professors. I listened more. And I began to find balance. My computer didn’t come out of the car until the kids were asleep. I didn’t get there much, but I did see the gym a few times. Eric and I finally figured out what our shifts looked like together and we felt more comfortable with the arrangements. Much like pregnancy, the middle three months of your first year in graduate school is the most comfortable. Sure, there was stress and a few all nighters. But they weren’t nearly as painful as the first three months. It was as if that horrible-no-good-marathon sprint of the first three months prepared me for the less-steep-incline of Winter Quarter. Still a hike, but a doable hike.
During the last three months of any nine month journey like this you have the finish line on your horizon. Your due date is on the calendar, you visit the hospital, you have the baby shower, and you prepare the nursery. You know the end is near, so everything is a little more tolerable. My last three months of my first year of graduate school was similar. I was pretty damned snarky in my last few months. I stopped giving a shit what other students (not in my program) thought of what I had to say. I wasn’t there for them, I was there for me. The best part was getting to do research that I designed. Research surveys and projects other people were excited about, that was sexy, and successful. I got to frame what I wanted my future to look like, and then I got to sell it to others. When the lead is let out of the leash a little bit, the thinker in me goes nuts. That’s where I’m comfortable. Not constantly comparing to what I should know or should care about, which is mostly in the past? But preparing for the future.
My research program is like my birth plan – how will I bring into my present that future I’ve incubated?
I know my first year wasn’t perfect and I know I won’t have another opportunity to experience or do it over. I would need a thick book to write down all the mistakes I made: emotionally, socially, financially, academically, professionally, and with my family. But I’ll learn from them. I now understand why those second and third years seemed so comfortable in their bodies. Scars and all, they were still here. They could laugh about missteps and stumbles. The fourth years remind me that on job talks or interviews, no one asks how much your classmates liked your comments in your first seminar or what grades you got on unassigned yet graded homeworks. It’s the JOURNEY. It’s what you did with your time while you were learning.
I remember my maternity time with each of my kids. I adored that time, sleepless nights and all. Actually, the first kid was really easy – slept through the night at like week 5. We bonded as a family, being together. I know how incredibly fortunate and blessed I am for having that time. I feel like I’m on maternity leave all over again, bonding with my data sets. Taking the time, unrushed, to be creative. I’m preparing for the next step, in three months (okay 8wks) to move to the next platform. It will be challenging, difficult, stressful, for sure. But as long as I keep the scars I have from the first year, I’ll understand how to keep from others marking my spirit.