Dear Laura

REPOST: Dear Laura: Looking for Balance

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

My question is: how can I remain supportive to my husband’s journey while still pursuing mine? Our biggest challenge is that the PhD path will delay my dream to start a family. I also have a lot of fears about moving across the country and away from our family and support network while starting a family of our own. At this time, I am the primary income provider and will continue to be while my husband is in school. What advice do you have for me to remain supportive while still focusing on my dreams and needs?


Looking for Balance

Dear Looking for Balance,

The first rule – and the last rule, and every rule in between- of the grad student life is this: to survive this adventure, you have to be willing to accept that this journey will ask you, at different times and in different ways, to let go of your expectations for how your life will be. This might sound terrifying, but it also can be the source of much freedom and adventure, depending on how you lay the foundation for its reality.

Of course I will elaborate, but if I may summarize my response simply, here it is:  you need to evaluate, with your husband, whether this is the right path for you, and evaluation involves deciding whether your individual and shared life dreams can reasonably be tended if you begin this new grad student journey.

The littlest known fact about the academic life is that a certain level of loss of control is required. Oh, but control, how we do love you! All the controllers and planners out there are sighing at the idea that they will be (or have been) stripped of this fantastic comfort, right? Well, I believe there is reason to see this as a great gift rather than a painful reality. (Fellow controllers, close the ten-point life plan doc, complete with relevant websites and google maps and read on. Trust me, I am one of you; I can see your checklists even as I write.)

I like that you used the word “balance” because indeed the open-handedness which can be so fruitful and exciting must also be tempered with a resolve to hold on to the things that are most valuable, those goals and hopes and visions for your life which you will tenaciously grasp and claim.

So, the question is, how do you sift through every life vision and expectation you have had for your next stages of life, and wrestle with deciding which ones belong in the treasure pile, and which will be laid down to rest?  Here are some practical tasks:

  1. Sit down with a good cup of coffee or tea and have a chat with your two good friends, “Expectations” and “Big Plans” (not many friends enjoy being called “big”, but in this case, it’s okay). List them, look them over, and spend some time thinking about where they have originated; are they simply born of the norms of your current culture, or family expectations? Or are they deep, heartfelt hopes and dreams?
  2. Decide which of these expectations and plans fall into the category of those which you must treasure, respect, and cultivate or which become offerings to be set aside for the sake of the academic dream.
  3. Talk to your husband about his expectations – for himself, his career, and your family. Also, share your two metaphorical baskets: the one to which holds the dreams you are firmly clinging, and the one which holds the things you are willing to offer in order to trade them for something greater – the awesome unknown.
  4. Practically and deliberately plan for how each set of dreams and goals will be achieved and honoured. When I say practical, I mean every last detail.  If you both decide you want to have a baby before grad school is completed, discuss how you will obtain medical benefits, how much money you will need saved, and how you might balance childcare needs. Email others who have had children in grad school and ask 100 questions about how to make that work. And figure out a plan.
  5. Seek to make these dreams a reality, but also review the first and last rule of the grad student journey; as it turns out, it is not only the first and last rule for this journey, but for much of life.

Sometimes being stripped clean of everything you hold tightly leaves your hands empty, wide open, and ready to receive something new and beautiful, something greater than your imagination would have allowed. In other cases, the things that are closest to our hearts are meant to be protected, cherished, and cultivated; and the most difficult part is identifying what those are, then working out – together with your husband – how to bring them to life.

Be brave enough to tell yourself the truth, and you will find the balance you are seeking. (That sounds a bit Yoda-like, I know, but try it and see what happens, and then let me know how it goes!)


Laura M. Benton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and professional Graduate Wife (12 years, friends. Two MA’s and a PhD.)

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