I sometimes joke with friends that I gave birth twice during grad school. Once when I delivered my son at Queen’s hospital in Honolulu, and a second time two and a half years later when I successfully defended my dissertation.
Both births were intense, simultaneously filled with joy and anxiety.
Both events bestowed on me complicated identities that regularly felt incompatible with one another.
When I formed each sentence of my dissertation, I wondered what my son was doing and whether I should be playing with him instead of his daycare teacher. As I read my son to sleep at the end of his day, a list of chapter edits scrolled through my head.
There was rarely a moment when I felt settled in either role as academic or mother.
And yet, when the identity of one threatened to consume me, the other swooped in to remind me of my wholeness. There was security in the tenuous balance of juxtaposing these major life roles.
It’s been nearly 12 months since graduating, and I’ve only begun to make sense of my life since earning that doctoral degree. In my first year as “Dr. Yuka” the stitches that held together my carefully woven identities began to unravel.
The problem was that I had expected to feel elated as a newly anointed PhD. As a well-defined social identity, “doctor,” I thought I could rest easy in knowing who I was; or at least how I thought others saw me. Instead, I didn’t really know who I was, if I was not a grad student.
How could I have been so attached to an identity that I felt so desperate to shed?
No longer was I enthralled in the unrelenting labor of my biographical research project. In the achievement-focused academic space, I hadn’t appreciated the profound experience of the journey there. Instead, I had obsessed over the destination.
As Dr. Yuka, I looked back nostalgically at researching and writing for their own sake, unencumbered by the pressure of publishing or achieving tenure. I missed the comfort of concrete and clearly defined milestones of my program, the very same ones that as a grad student I had loathed.
Soon after my convocation, I felt aimless and depressed.
Our society has come a long way in recognizing mental health, though much work remains to be done in this area. When I was pregnant I had known about the possibilities of postpartum depression. I worried about this and took precautions, expressing concern with loved ones and my therapist.
I managed to evade the euphemistically labeled “baby blues.”
Perhaps this gave me a false sense of resiliency for the “PhD blues.” I certainly didn’t take precautions for my mental health while growing my project in the same way I did when I was pregnant.
During grad school when I spent time with my family, the guilt from not working on my dissertation was overwhelming. Even if I took a physical break or holiday from work, my mind never ceased to churn.
Feeling guilty over not producing work became a well-defined neural reflex in my brain, and it didn’t disappear with a new and fancy designation after my name. Instead, my consciousness quickly replaced one form of pressure with another: the need to lock down a steady and well-compensated career to make up for the years of a low-wage, no-benefits graduate student salary.
Much like what I’d imagine is the case for struggling artists, my work barely fed our family. This challenged my sense of self as provider and caregiver. The romance of intellectual work for its own sake quickly faded after I was released from the world of doctoral work. My partner, who never understood my desire to learn for the sake of it, supported me anyway. But after six years (three of which included raising our young child) I knew I had depleted his tolerance for our grad school lifestyle.
If I felt the weight of working through the PhD program was heavy, it paled in comparison to my immediate life after. For six years, I conducted my research and fulfilled my teaching obligations under the pretense that I was working toward an unknown but idealized potential self: Dr. Yuka.
But graduate school is really only designed to prepare you for an academic life. At best, I felt ambivalent about a career in the ivory tower, even if I loved working on my dissertation with my amazing committee, and supportive cohort.
As I questioned my next steps, I went down a dangerous rabbit hole of scrutinizing all my decisions during school. The ones that took me away from my young son and partner in favor for working weekends and evenings elicited too much grief over the time lost with my family. I felt confused about my priorities.
Had trying to strike a balance with my two roles—mom and academic—finally caught up to me?
My self-talk was mean and relentless.
How dare I not apply for postdocs or tenure-track positions. I have some nerve taking time to explore my next steps. What a luxury and privilege to struggle as an over-educated, under-employed parent. Graduate school was selfish. My lack of direction is an insult to my partner and son. Do I deserve them? Did I waste six years of my life?
In the immediate months after graduation, I continued to lecture for my department and started freelance work, but the unstable and temporary nature of both jobs hardly felt like enduring careers.
My self-loathing evolved to anger. I was still recouping from the hustle and exhaustion of dissertating, the process of which had led me to feel entitled to some guarantee of a career, even as I knew about the grim prospects for doctoral graduates seeking academic paths. My ego was caught up in a series of unreasonable expectations about whom I should be and what I “deserved” for no other reason than three new letters after my name.
The tricky thing about transitioning identities is how we manage the expectations for ourselves we didn’t realize we had. In this way, earning my PhD was a lot like becoming a parent. Graduation, like giving birth, was just the beginning.
As with parenting, when I started to let go of expectations (mine and society’s) surrounding my role as a newly minted PhD, I started to allow for more grace and forgiveness with adjusting to this new identity. In so doing, I’ve given my new status some much needed perspective: that it’s only a part of who I am.
I don’t yet know how I’ll evolve professionally. But how many actually do, with real certainty? As my first “gradu-anniversary” came and passed this May, I reflect on the past year in which life remained relatively uneventful, though my internal world ran amuck. Recently, I’ve been sitting more comfortably with the unknown “next-steps.” With the noise of arbitrary expectations quieting in my head, I’ve been giving my professional aspirations a fighting chance to be heard.
Yuka lives in Washington, D.C.
Image: Pineapple Bud (Georgia O’Keeffe)