Expectations · Moving · Sacrifice

REPOST: The Courage of Exploration

                                                                                             written by Sarah – a current graduate wife

So there I was, sitting at a cheap, plywood table in Newcastle England, starting blankly into a MacBook, more than 3,000 miles away from where I wanted to be.

How did I get so far off course, you might ask? Well, pull up a chair and lend an ear. My story is one a graduate wife can appreciate.

Some of you might remember what it is like to have a great career. I can still hear the hum of the printing press and feel the thick tension in the air as I tried to get a newspaper out on deadline. As a reporter and editor for our local newspaper the days were 100 mile-per-hour marathons, both exhilarating and exhausting. Since I was a little girl I had dreamed of this career. Every extra-curricular activity, internship and my university education had been strategically designed to make me a super reporter.

In my early 20s, I had almost made it. I was an editor at the local paper. The job title, awards and offers proved that I had become a small town Lois Lane. But I was aiming higher.

Then I met my husband.

He was intelligent, ambitious, a Matt Damon look-alike, and I was in love. He was also applying for medical school.

After a year of dating and applying for schools, we were married. On our one month anniversary he was accepted to a medical program – out of the country. We would be moving once a year for the first four years of our marriage, or more if fellowships and residencies dictated.

Like a monkey wrench thrown into the cogs of a printing press, my dreams came to a grinding halt. For this next season of our lives it would either have to be his career or mine on the chopping block – we couldn’t do both. With a few tears, I carefully packed up our unopened wedding gifts, cleaned off my desk and moved to England. I doggedly looked for a job. Anything. Sadly, there were no jobs there in newsroom administration, especially for a transient who would stick around for less than a year. This foreigner couldn’t make headway in the reporting business either – I didn’t know a bobby from a bodge.

Do you ever feel resentment for the sacrifices you have been asked to make?

My bitter tears and empty days alone in a foreign country were poison to my budding marriage. I knew I needed to find an antidote.

A wise comedian, who also found himself 3,000 miles from where he wanted to be, once said, “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” Conan O’Brien might have been speaking to graduating academics at Dartmouth, but his words resonated with me. He continues:

“I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going. At Harvard, five different guys in my class told me that they would one day be President of the United States. Four of them were later killed in motel shoot-outs. The other one briefly hosted Blues Clues, before dying senselessly in yet another motel shoot-out. Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.”

As a newly-minted graduate wife, change was my only constant and adaptation my only antidote.

Somewhere in that foreign London fog of change and hopelessness, I started trying new things. I explored. I blogged. I taught myself how to design a website. I adapted.

Fredrick Nietzsche famously said “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you. The loneliness, the disrupted career path and the stress in my marriage almost killed me. But for those who are stuck in the middle of that mire, I promise that on the other end of your effort there is peace.

My blank stare into that MacBook on that plywood table in that cold, dreary place turned into a journey of exploration. But only because I made it so. Conan was right – there is nothing more exhilarating than having your life flipped on its head and, through your own sheer force of will, flipping it right side up again. When you finally straighten things out, your dreams might look a little different. But because you were the one to do the changing, somehow those new dreams are alright.

Sacrifice became what I made it. It was still painful, but only as painful as I would allow it to be between the bouts of blogging and exploring.

We have survived our second move now and are tripping blissfully and blindly into year three of marriage and year two of his late night, blood-shot eye studying. We have learned that those who adapt, survive. I am a survivor.

What strategies have you found successful in your transition to a graduate wife?

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Marriage · Sharing 'Worlds'

REPOST: Sharing Worlds

I studied interior design and art in undergrad.  My husband is pursing his D.Phil. in the philosophy of physics.  I like jam…good homemade jam that my lovely friend Kat makes at the beginning of summer and then gives to me all year long.  My husband likes peanut butter.  It is his staple food and he literally eats it on toast every single morning of his life.  He communicates through writing, being incredibly friendly with bullet points and annotations.  I‘d much rather show you a painting or play you a song to communicate something and I don’t even punctuate when I write.  We are opposite.  We are incredibly opposite, yet incredibly attracted to and curious about each other.

When we were dating long distance before we got engaged, I gained a new level of appreciation for the magic of Wikipedia.  Late at night as I sat curled up on the phone chatting with him, I was frequently online trying to figure out what on earth ‘quantum mechanics’ is, but better yet, all the philosophical implications that come with it.  It was a trying time in our relationship.  Many times I confessed to him that I thought I might not be the right person for him to marry since…..well, since I couldn’t help edit his papers because there were more equations in them than words.  I worried that we were just too different.  Thankfully, by the grace of God and a wise roommate, I was able to look past these fears and insecurities and began to see the beauty that is the diversity of gifts / strengths / and interests in marriage.

We’ve come a long way.  Almost every single night over dinner I hear about Einstein and Lorentz’s theories of relativity and what the true definition of a scientific explanation is.  I listen as my husband explains the quirky guy in his physics lecture or how well done the Powerpoint presentation was (since he knows my love for good design).  Because honestly if he didn’t, we’d be on different pages.  Not just different pages, different chapters.  It’s an effort.  I lose focus and start daydreaming about another cool image design for this blog and then I have to ask him to backtrack and share again.  He gets distracted when I share about my newest passion for the arts or tell him about the lecture on architecture that I just attended.  We know we are different.  As different as peanut butter and jelly…but how great we are when we share our worlds together.  What a good combination we are when we actively pursue unity and strive to share our differing worlds with the other.  I’ve seen far too many well-respected and admired marriages fall away, because ‘worlds’ weren’t shared.  One spouse had work or a dream that took so much of them that there was little energy left to share with the other about it or invite them into it.  One spouse dedicated themselves to their kids and then when they were all grown up and gone, there was such a massive gap between relating and sharing worlds with the other that they almost didn’t make it.

We aren’t perfect at this.  Heck, we’ve only been married three years, but I’m thankful we are trying.  On this graduate wife journey you almost have to.  To actively engage and share in your spouse’s world as best as you can.  So I need to mention one more thing:  backing up to the nightly dinner conversations about my husband’s day.  Before he shares his day, his reading, his world with me…he asks about mine.  He asks about how it was today with our 16 month old.  What did she learn, what did she do, how was her nap.  He asks how my time alone was, what did I get to read (if I found time), what was going on in my head and heart, what the status of the few part-time projects are that I am working on.  After all of that, then he begins to share.

It makes all the difference to me that he consciously reminds himself every day on the way home to ask about my day first, to validate my work as a wife, mother, and artist.  He knows that deep down it’s hard for me at times to be at home while he is studying, pursing his dreams.  He knows that sometimes I get cranky and sad and have pity parties because I feel like we are doing all of this for him and that my dreams are on the back-burner.  It would be incredibly hard for me to jump into, share, or even honestly care about his ‘world’ if he didn’t equally care about mine.

I know this isn’t always the case and we, like many, have learned the hard way, through tears and confusing discussions and misinterpreted emotions. I think in the end it was actually my idea that he asks about my day first and thankfully he took it to heart. We’ve learned that although we are incredibly different people, we are so much more beautiful people when we are unified together, more beautiful than we could ever be alone.  I just want to encourage you on this journey through graduate school, however distant at times you might feel from your spouse’s work, engage them.  Share your day with them and ask for them to share with you.  It’s challenging at times, but ever so enriching and fruitful.

-M.C.

In your journey, how have you and your spouse tried to “share your worlds”?

{disclaimer: So, I know peanut butter and jelly aren’t opposites per say…but I really liked the imagery and decided to go with it.}

Dear Laura

REPOST: Dear Laura: Baffled

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

What if you follow your spouse to grad school to support their dream, and after years of support through school, when they struggle to find a job they say you’re putting too much pressure on them to be the one with the career and why can’t you find something and be the breadwinner?

Sincerely,

Baffled

Dear Baffled,

It was a bright, crisp winter day and as I walked through our neighborhood, I came across a towering, solid oak bookcase – free to a good home –  which seemed like it might serve as a great central piece in our teeny (think grad student budget on a diet) apartment. I briskly padded home, begged my brawny hubby to come help me, and we wrestled the monstrous piece of furniture four blocks home and then up the steep, treacherous staircase to our flat. (Can you see where this is going?)  Need I say: it didn’t fit in our place?  But how long did it take for me to come to that realization, and how many times did I (gently?) instruct my husband to try this possibility and that, and how long until we muscled the @#$% bookcase back down those steep stairs and out to the street with a “Free” sign reluctantly stuck to its solid back?   I have no idea how much time elapsed, but I know the way the story ends: though I had said nothing about not having enough money for a nice bookcases, and though in the wrestling I never mentioned that we were grown adults living in a postage-stamp-sized apartment because my husband was a graduate student, this scene closed with him yelling out “maybe you should have married a doctor or a lawyer!!!” and stomping off.  Thus began a cold silence between us that lasted well into the next day.

I was baffled. What had happened? All I did was try to fit a bookcase into our flat, and it ended in an explosion (one that has become a great joke between us, and between friends who were privy to the story), but I could not understand how it got there, because I didn’t feel it was a commentary on my husband’s success or potential; it was just a bookcase.

What I know now is that when one is married or partnered, the graduate journey is a supreme exercise in risk and vulnerability, for both spouses.  The vulnerability flows in and out of seemingly benign conversations, it creeps into moods and thoughts, it certainly shadows daily decisions and conversations of life’s challenges.  The vulnerability is sometimes painful, sometimes debilitating, and much of the time, can be terrifying.

The graduate student him or herself has chosen to take a very public risk, to invest resources and life capital into a dream, knowing that it may amount to nothing; he or she might have to bear the shame of having risked and lost, with nowhere to hide.  The student’s spouse is asked to counterintuitively place complete trust in the other person’s dream, but with no control over the journey itself; the quality of work, the decisions made every day at the office, the job interviews which form the path for future career development are completely out of the spouse’s hands.  The sacrifices are deep, the mutual support required is intense, relational and spiritual resources are often tried by fire.

And so, to answer your question:  First, let me say that I am making two assumptions. 1) I choose to believe that you are smart enough not to have said something to your husband like, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get a job already?”, and 2) For various reasons, I am assuming that he did not literally mean what he said. Unless he did, and then that is a different discussion. (Do let me know if I’ve assumed wrongly; this requires a different response.)

That said,  I think that the comment made by your husband is likely fueled by complete terror and exhaustion over the weight of the vulnerability mentioned earlier. His success or failure is swiftly becoming public knowledge – one must report back to family and friends how one fared in recent interviews and with various job prospects – and his worst fears are starting to become a reality; he has nothing to show for his risk, and what is worse, he feels responsible for having asked you to sacrifice to the extent that you have.  So, like the insecurity expressed in the “you should have married a doctor or a lawyer” comment I heard long ago, you may have been having a benign interaction, but the vulnerability is rising to the surface and it is threatening to swallow your husband’s sense of who he is, who he will be, and whether it all was worth the cost.

Maybe he is begging for some relief from the pressure of having to make this career a success and hold up the pillars of your family. Maybe he had a bad interaction with his advisor or heard that his colleague was just hired for the most lucrative, most highly sought after job at one of the schools with the most ivy climbing the brick and mortar. Maybe you said something that made him feel you didn’t understand his efforts. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was being whiny and immature. I don’t know; it’s all conjecture on my part. But, I can tell you that neurologically, we experience separation, rejection (including job market rejection), and exclusion in the exact same way that we experience physical pain, and that contact with a loving partner literally acts as a buffer against shock, stress, and pain. He is in pain, you are in pain.

So, hold his hand. Ask him to hold yours. Hug each other.  Hold each other. Stand together, literally and metaphorically.  It mediates distress and enlivens positive hormones, it increases one’s immune system, and cements you together.  Sit in silence or allow music to fill the background, pray if that’s a part of your lives, look each other in the eye, and prop each other up against the terror of academic uncertainty.

Then, tomorrow or next week, after you have built and re-built the foundation beneath you, then you can talk about who is going to work at Starbucks and who is going to start a pie making business. It won’t be quite so terrifying if you are facing it together; really, truly together.

Baffled, you know that the circumstances of your email and the question posted here include depth and history, to which I am not privy; do let me know if based on the limitations here you would like more discussion or if I’m way off the mark, or otherwise.  If so, maybe you should have emailed a doctor or a lawyer. :)

-Laura

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

To write with your own question for The Graduate Wife team, email TheGraduateWife@gmail.com or LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com

Stages of the Grad Journey

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 2

question-marks

Recently, a reader wrote to ask us the following questions:

Is the graduate life what you thought it would be?

What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

We sat down to write a blog post, and it occurred to us that maybe we should take a survey amongst friends of ours scattered all over the world who have completed this graduate journey. We had planned to take snippets of their answers to create our post, but some of the answers were so helpful, we thought we’d leave them as they came in to us.

We polled current and former graduate wives, married academics, graduate husbands, and our own graduates. 

We hope you find their answers insightful.

-Mandy & M.C.

What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

 1. Count the costs. One lives the day-to-day life just like the folks back home, but we do it with the added stresses of isolation, academic competition, and shoestring budgets (with student loan debt!). Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that there is a job on the other end. If it’s worth it for the meantime, do it; but it may not be a means to a straightforward end.

2. I would say that first and foremost, you and your spouse have to BOTH be a thousand percent sure that pursuing graduate work is worth it and something you fully believe your spouse should be pursuing.  If there is any sort of hesitation, address that before you jump in.  For the sake of your marriage, talk about everything.  What do each of you expect life will look like over the next 5-10 years?  What sacrifices are you willing to make (financially, relationally, geographically, etc.)?  What are your non-negotiables – the things you just can’t (or don’t want to) do life without?  What you will do if it doesn’t work out?  Will you have children?  How will your lifestyle as a graduate family affect them?  What if after this degree, you find your spouse needs another?  And another after that?  Are these scenarios you can live with?  Of course some of these things will be re-visited and adjusted throughout the years, but start the journey with clear conversations about where you are headed and why.  Once you’ve made the decision to go ahead, don’t look back!!  Throw your heart and soul into it and make it happen – TOGETHER!

3. Going on this graduate wife journey has slowly shaped me into a person who is more resilient, more emotionally present in everyday moments, more thankful and more accepting of others.  I have learned how necessary community is and what a rare and beautiful gift deep friendships can be (even with unexpected people).  To those just starting the journey, I would say . . . try to hold your expectations loosely and do your best to live fully in each place you are (instead of setting your heart on what is next or wishing for what has already passed).

4. Whatever problems you have now in your life, your marriage, etc. the grad life will magnify it. Yep. Make it front and center. Something about this journey (all the change, the moving, the insecurity, finances–take your pick!) brings out the hard stuff. And that’s not a bad thing if you’re ready for it and committed to seeing it through to the other side. It’s helpful to also do the following:

-Have a life outside of being a grad wife. Be there for your spouse, but don’t own their ups and downs. Be interesting on your own.

-Make a nest for yourself. Even if you’re only there for a short time.

-Settle quickly and start putting down roots. This time FLIES by. Make the most of it from the beginning.

5. Graduate life is certainly demanding of one’s time, energy, and financial and mental resources.  Throughout the whole process we had to learn to communicate our needs and design ways to balance ‘life’ with the demands of school, ambition, and career.  It was important to us to set boundaries about work and play.

I’ve also heard many couples on the graduate journey talking about this time as a ‘holding tank’- a place of limbo until the graduate student graduates and ‘life can begin’.  This analogy is utterly unhelpful and ripe for discontent for the certain setbacks to be faced in the future.  No graduate journey is smooth, there may be financial setbacks, personal or family circumstances that change, problems with data/researching, a doctorate taking longer than thought, and a healthy chunk of time waiting for job offers to come.  If a couple is going to embark on this journey, it should be seen as, yes a season of life, but part of life. Life shouldn’t go on hold until the end of the degree.

With that said, my husband and I found that our life was immeasurably blessed on the graduate journey.  For a precious time in our life we were surrounded by people on the same journey. Most were on similar budgets, we lived in the same community, all had similar dreams, and we could empathize with each other’s struggles.  As a couple, we were faced with many years of an incredibly flexible schedule, where we could work on our studies, spend more time together, and be incredibly enriched by our like-minded friends and community, and a stimulating city.  We’ve loved our experience, struggles and joys.

6. You wouldn’t expect me to say this, but go for it! ~ graduate movement can be shaped, as it was for us, by many important, life-giving forces, not least the power of community and the exercise of virtues (love, patience, tenacity, empathy, rest etc) as a family in the face of varied success, inevitable disappointment and constant uncertainty. To go with that, I’d also say be aware of how much you can handle/take (financial freedom at the end of the journey is a goal worth considering). There is a saying that PHD stands for ‘Permanent Head Damage’ and without making light of it I’d say that to some extent the intensity (and isolation) of doctoral (and masters) work can have that effect, at least in stretches, on more graduates than one would expect, especially if there are no/minimal supporting structures of care and empowerment. Know your own limits and don’t be afraid to consider enough is enough if the warning signs persist.

7. I would say the same thing that I would say to anyone who is married or in a committed relationship. First of all, be flexible and have flexible expectations about the future. Remember that you married each other because of who you are, not because you were going to be a doctor/lawyer/professor/etc. (well hopefully that’s the case!). And even though you should be flexible, also be honest with one another about the expectations you do have and the struggles that you face. Sometimes, all it takes is being willing to hear one another out and listen while reserving judgement, either for yourself or your spouse. My most important piece of advice is one my sister gave me: At the end of the day, try to remember that when the line is drawn in the sand, you’re on the same side. Being a team and working together has gotten us through this journey with so much less strife and resentment than we could have had!

8. Just that the long-term ramifications of even beginning the academic journey are serious.  The job market is no joke: it has no mercy and it isn’t fair.  Life on a student budget is a serious stress for a family. It’s probably not going to be much fun unless the move into academia is a mutual decision, and unless it’s made after plenty of discussion with other former or current graduate-families.

9. Your time as a graduate will be longer than you expect and the time before you get a stable job will be longer than you expect. Only do it if you have a way to fund a significant portion of it (although my wife and I broke this rule initially). To Graduates: this is a vocation not only you need to feel comfortable with but those around you. Also, you will have setbacks both financially and academically whilst pursuing graduate work. You really need to count the cost…

10. I would tell them to consider realistically what the job market will be like in their field with that degree. To research the area the schools are in before making the move.  That they need to find support. That there is more to it than doing what you love all the time. I would probably point out some articles I’ve read about the reality of staying in academia. But really the number one thing I would tell them is to look at the job market in that field. I think so much of the depression and stress is realizing, after years of agonizing work, that you might not be able to work in the field that has been your dream, or that it turns out your dream job isn’t what you thought it would be.

11. Don’t do this unless you’re SURE you want to.  The job prospects are lousy, and you may well not get one.  Have a backup plan for your degree if you don’t get an academic job.  And be ready to be content if you have to use that backup plan.  It’s there for a reason.

Now we ask you, dear readers: What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

Stages of the Grad Journey

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 1

https://i1.wp.com/www.ciob.org.uk/sites/ciob.org.uk/files/images/question%20marks_0.jpg

Recently, a reader wrote to ask us the following questions:

Is the graduate life what you thought it would be?

What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

We sat down to write a blog post, and it occurred to us that maybe we should take a survey amongst friends of ours scattered all over the world who have completed this graduate journey. We had planned to take snippets of their answers to create our post, but some of the answers were so helpful, we thought we’d leave them as they came in to us.

We polled current and former graduate wives, married academics, graduate husbands, and our own graduates. 

We hope you find their answers insightful.

-Mandy & M.C.

Is the graduate life what you thought it would be?

1. No!  I never imagined that it would require so much of us as a family and as a couple.  The dark times of our graduate journey were darker than I thought they would be but there were also many bright moments that surpassed my expectations.

2. Not at all. It’s more unifying to our marriage, and far less edifying to our budget. And the marriage is stronger only because we moved away on our own, owning nothing but the contents of four suitcases. All we had was each other. And being dirt poor isn’t easy, but conversations are had when cooking rice and beans over a rented movie.

3. Yes.  I feel like we knew enough people who were knee-deep in the graduate journey themselves, that we had a really good idea of what to expect.

And, no.  Because I NEVER would have guessed that 7 years (and 3 degrees) later we would have lived in three countries, had two children (in two different countries – neither of which are our home country), moved 6 times, worked 4 jobs, etc. to make this academic dream a reality.  And after all that, there is the unfortunate reality to eventually face that there are simply not enough jobs for all the amazingly talented people who have all made incredible sacrifices to make academia their career.  I (like most) once naively thought that a good degree from a top school where my husband worked with a well-known supervisor with whom he has a good relationship would ensure a good job afterward.  Sadly, there simply are no guarantees.

4. No. It’s been so much more than I could have ever expected!In the beginning, 2 weeks after we were married we shipped off for his first masters.  Just the two of us. The good, the bad and the ugly. And we had to figure it all out on our own but together. Wouldn’t trade it. Even the really hard bits.

3 years later we shipped off to the UK. Again, just the two of us. Those are precious memories.

And all along the way the amazing friends we met. More than friends. Kindred spirits. Make shift family. Forever friends. Most of the time it was people I might not have been friends with if we’d all been living in America. Why is that?! But it is special because our little world was really expanded through all those different friends. And we’re all still friends today. The kind that you get back together with after not talking for a year and just pick back up. The people you can be totally yourself with and they get you. The people you call/email when something really big is going on.

Those kind of friendships are harder to find after the grad life. So we treasure them.

And oh the places I’ve been. I grew up in a town of 500 people and never really had a desire to leave. I love my hometown. Love it. But I love that the world is so much bigger to me now. I love that I understand different cultures because I’ve experienced them…really lived in them. And maybe at times really hated them, but to come through that all the way to appreciation for why a country or city is the way it is. The grad wife journey has given me that.

5. Yes, in the main sense.  But much less contemplative.  Of course, that may be because we had no stipend the whole time, so I was always working at least 30 hours per week.

6. For the first response, it was more than I thought it would be!  This experience allowed my husband and I to grow as a couple.  Away from family we had to rely on the strength, empathy and sacrifice of each other.  We had the unique experience of pursuing doctorates together, but I don’t think that our experience is so separate from other couples where only one is pursuing graduate school.

7. Graduate life was far more intense (and far more rewarding) than I had initially expected. It really is a pilgrimage in every sense, not least all that relates to personal significance and aspiration. Graduate work, on top of that, was not what I had expected. Research is linear and subject to control, I came into the program thinking, that is, year 1’s findings lead into year 2’s findings and so forth, with equal measures of momentum and success. But research requires addition by subtraction, a step forward by a couple (or more) steps backward. That is no easy thing to experience on a regular basis. Good supervision alleviates this dimension of graduate life, but there is no getting around it: it is a rite of passage that every researcher goes through. The non-linear (and inherently provisional) nature of humanities research and writing took a good bit of adjustment.

8. My graduate husband said that his Masters’ program was about what he expected, but that the PhD program was much harder than he had anticipated. I think it was especially hard the first year, when he wasn’t getting a lot of feedback from his advisors and he began second-guessing his decision to be here at all. He said that he didn’t expect to need me as much as he has. Like, he knew in a “head” way that he would need me to help in practical ways and so forth, but he didn’t know he would need as much emotional support and encouragement as it’s taken to finish the program.

For me, the most surprising thing was how necessary it was for me to develop solitary hobbies. This probably has more to do with our living in a one-bedroom apartment the first 4 years of the PhD, but all through the program: coursework, comps, and dissertation, if I was going to see him at all, it was going to be in our living room and he would be working a lot of the time, so I better have something like reading/knitting/sewing/writing to do. So I’m glad I’ve developed those hobbies but didn’t anticipate how necessary they would be.

9. I can’t say that I had many expectations, so it’s hard to say! But one thing is sure: I didn’t expect this much of an emotional roller-coaster.  I thought I’d found my niche, meaning: a) I pictured myself enjoying every moment of my studies, and so it’s a bit of a let-down to find myself approaching my thesis more and more as another big hoop to jump through; b) I pictured myself excelling, and actually having something to offer to the academic community, so it’s a bit frustrating to feel like I’m just doing all I can to pass, and in the process am taking up space that someone else could probably fit more effectively.

10. No, but rarely are things the way I expect them. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got before going into graduate school was to treat it like a job, 9am-5pm. If one must do something in the evening it had to be made up elsewhere. Sure, there will be times, temporary times, where scheduling may get intense but I’ve always felt this can never become the norm.

In my years here I have struggled with this mentality while also recognising that ‘life is what happens to you while you are making other plans’. I have always felt that while graduate school is meant to be about preparation for a new career and a new life, the process and that time (it was 6 years!) can’t be seen on its own as just preparation–only waiting around until life will actually start. Life happens in those decisions and habits we make today. That doesn’t change just because one gets a degree. That is the reality of the situation. Certain sacrifices have to be made on both ends: for the graduate and for those who are affected by the graduate. But, it is those moments of mutual sacrifice that our love for each other is ACTUALLY put into practice. It is how we tell each other: ‘I love you. I am willing to sacrifice my own comfort and ambition for you.’

I found graduate school a lot more flexible in the UK then what we had back in the States. First, because the schedule is much more flexible. The coursework is a lot lighter (instead of being in the classroom for 20 hours a week it might only be 5-10). There is a lot more time in the week to be flexible. This just isn’t the case with most programs especially in the USA. For three years before we started graduate school my wife and I held full-time jobs and were full-time students in the USA (she was getting her Masters in Clinical Psychology and I was getting another degree in Engineering). This time was MUCH more difficult and a lot of it was because of the coursework we were both required to fulfil and because we were working full time. In the UK, we integrated this much better.

I wouldn’t trade my graduate life. I have met some of the most amazing people who have sacrificed a lot to be here, giving up successful careers to serve people in higher education (both graduates and family). I want to be around those kind of people.

11. I guess I have a limited perspective, since we only did a year.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  It’s so fun to be back in the college atmosphere with the built in friends and fun.  Though, we will be paying off the loans until our own kids go to college, and they are quite expensive–like a luxury car payment every month.  I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything though.  I would wholeheartedly recommend it, and going overseas makes it even more life-changing.  If anything, it helped me understand what really matters–family, not location, wealth, status, or things.

12. No. I didn’t think that much about it, just went with it. I suppose I expected a sort of continuation of undergrad. (digression: read “Surviving my stupid, stupid decision to go to grad school“). I didn’t know about the “dark period“, the stress, the pressure, the insanity, or that I would be going through it with my graduate.

Now we ask you, dear readers: is the graduate life what you thought it would be?
Inspiration

You’re My Home

home

credit

-written by Keeley, a current (but soon to be former!) graduate wife

As I was listening to this song by Billy Joel on the way to work this morning, it struck me as particularly appropriate for the Graduate Wife journey. I feel sure that it wasn’t written in that context, but I literally teared up thinking about all the places my husband and I have lived and all the unique experiences we’ve had over the course of two graduate programs. Billy Joel evidently feels the same way about his companion:

Home can be the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Indiana’s early morning dew

High up in the hills of California

Home is just another word for you

I think about my friend K, who, along with her husband, grew up in Oklahoma then moved to Nashville, then to Princeton, and will move who-knows-where next. I think about C, who grew up in New Jersey and has accompanied her husband for nearly four years while earning her own Masters degree, partially online because of an unexpected move to Atlanta. And M, from Kansas, whose husband is from Minnesota, and how they live in Tampa because of his calling after completing her, and then his, Masters programs in Princeton. And L, who has been with her husband for over half their lives, moving from Missouri to North Carolina to New Jersey.

Certainly, it’s true of our generation that we simply move around a lot, and that relocating is an essential part of our social skill set. However, I am grateful for a companion who helps to make any place feel like we belong there, because of the history and love that we share. As I listen to this song, I picture the knee-deep snow of Boston, our “special” nights out to Qdoba during his Masters program, and the poor little Christmas tree we carried to our apartment after a ride on the T bus. I picture our favorite ice cream parlor  in downtown Princeton, visiting the Christmas window displays in New York City, and picking blueberries, a summer tradition in Hammonton, New Jersey. I see snapshots of beautiful stone edifices in Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh, where he has done research and had conferences, and remember the feel of the soft moss under my shoes as we hiked along the shore of Loch Ness. I see the red hills outside Kampala, Uganda and taste delicious barbecued goat, while hearing the first storm of the February rains on the tin roof of our cottage, or feeling the wind through my hair as I rode “side-saddle” on a motorcycle taxi in a bright turquoise dress. All of these have been “home” to me, not least because Jason and I have been there together. I wonder how it will be to live in the dry, arid climate of Phoenix as we move there this summer to embark on his career as a professor, times zones away from our families, but feel peaceful that it will work, because we have each other (plus one, due in June!). These words resonate like a benediction as I contemplate the past, present, and future of our time together:

If I traveled all my life

And I never get to stop and settle down

Long as I have you by my side

There’s a roof above and good walls all around

You’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome

I need you in my house ’cause you’re my home.   

As a graduate wife, what does home look like to you?

 

Dear Laura

Dear Laura: Baffled

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

What if you follow your spouse to grad school to support their dream, and after years of support through school, when they struggle to find a job they say you’re putting too much pressure on them to be the one with the career and why can’t you find something and be the breadwinner?

Sincerely,

Baffled

Dear Baffled,

It was a bright, crisp winter day and as I walked through our neighborhood, I came across a towering, solid oak bookcase – free to a good home –  which seemed like it might serve as a great central piece in our teeny (think grad student budget on a diet) apartment. I briskly padded home, begged my brawny hubby to come help me, and we wrestled the monstrous piece of furniture four blocks home and then up the steep, treacherous staircase to our flat. (Can you see where this is going?)  Need I say: it didn’t fit in our place?  But how long did it take for me to come to that realization, and how many times did I (gently?) instruct my husband to try this possibility and that, and how long until we muscled the @#$% bookcase back down those steep stairs and out to the street with a “Free” sign reluctantly stuck to its solid back?   I have no idea how much time elapsed, but I know the way the story ends: though I had said nothing about not having enough money for a nice bookcases, and though in the wrestling I never mentioned that we were grown adults living in a postage-stamp-sized apartment because my husband was a graduate student, this scene closed with him yelling out “maybe you should have married a doctor or a lawyer!!!” and stomping off.  Thus began a cold silence between us that lasted well into the next day.

I was baffled. What had happened? All I did was try to fit a bookcase into our flat, and it ended in an explosion (one that has become a great joke between us, and between friends who were privy to the story), but I could not understand how it got there, because I didn’t feel it was a commentary on my husband’s success or potential; it was just a bookcase.

What I know now is that when one is married or partnered, the graduate journey is a supreme exercise in risk and vulnerability, for both spouses.  The vulnerability flows in and out of seemingly benign conversations, it creeps into moods and thoughts, it certainly shadows daily decisions and conversations of life’s challenges.  The vulnerability is sometimes painful, sometimes debilitating, and much of the time, can be terrifying.

The graduate student him or herself has chosen to take a very public risk, to invest resources and life capital into a dream, knowing that it may amount to nothing; he or she might have to bear the shame of having risked and lost, with nowhere to hide.  The student’s spouse is asked to counterintuitively place complete trust in the other person’s dream, but with no control over the journey itself; the quality of work, the decisions made every day at the office, the job interviews which form the path for future career development are completely out of the spouse’s hands.  The sacrifices are deep, the mutual support required is intense, relational and spiritual resources are often tried by fire.

And so, to answer your question:  First, let me say that I am making two assumptions. 1) I choose to believe that you are smart enough not to have said something to your husband like, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get a job already?”, and 2) For various reasons, I am assuming that he did not literally mean what he said. Unless he did, and then that is a different discussion. (Do let me know if I’ve assumed wrongly; this requires a different response.)

That said,  I think that the comment made by your husband is likely fueled by complete terror and exhaustion over the weight of the vulnerability mentioned earlier. His success or failure is swiftly becoming public knowledge – one must report back to family and friends how one fared in recent interviews and with various job prospects – and his worst fears are starting to become a reality; he has nothing to show for his risk, and what is worse, he feels responsible for having asked you to sacrifice to the extent that you have.  So, like the insecurity expressed in the “you should have married a doctor or a lawyer” comment I heard long ago, you may have been having a benign interaction, but the vulnerability is rising to the surface and it is threatening to swallow your husband’s sense of who he is, who he will be, and whether it all was worth the cost.

Maybe he is begging for some relief from the pressure of having to make this career a success and hold up the pillars of your family. Maybe he had a bad interaction with his advisor or heard that his colleague was just hired for the most lucrative, most highly sought after job at one of the schools with the most ivy climbing the brick and mortar. Maybe you said something that made him feel you didn’t understand his efforts. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was being whiny and immature. I don’t know; it’s all conjecture on my part. But, I can tell you that neurologically, we experience separation, rejection (including job market rejection), and exclusion in the exact same way that we experience physical pain, and that contact with a loving partner literally acts as a buffer against shock, stress, and pain. He is in pain, you are in pain.

So, hold his hand. Ask him to hold yours. Hug each other.  Hold each other. Stand together, literally and metaphorically.  It mediates distress and enlivens positive hormones, it increases one’s immune system, and cements you together.  Sit in silence or allow music to fill the background, pray if that’s a part of your lives, look each other in the eye, and prop each other up against the terror of academic uncertainty.

Then, tomorrow or next week, after you have built and re-built the foundation beneath you, then you can talk about who is going to work at Starbucks and who is going to start a pie making business. It won’t be quite so terrifying if you are facing it together; really, truly together.

Baffled, you know that the circumstances of your email and the question posted here include depth and history, to which I am not privy; do let me know if based on the limitations here you would like more discussion or if I’m way off the mark, or otherwise.  If so, maybe you should have emailed a doctor or a lawyer. :)

-Laura

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

To write with your own question for The Graduate Wife team, email TheGraduateWife@gmail.com or LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com