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June 7, 2007

Pick 'n Choose

I was in a focus group this week of other fathers in our family social science PhD program and a theme emerged that I think is irresistably bloggable! There is a supreme irony of being in a top-notch graduate program which is both galling and thrilling: there are unlimited opportunities and yet time is extraordinarily finite. Extraordinarily, because any graduate project (i.e. paper, course assignment, assistantship, teaching opportunity) takes far more time than any previous level of academic pursuit AND FURTHERMORE there is a built-in tug-o-war that privileges family over optional academic pursuits. Of course, it is these "optional" pursuits that will end up defining our scholarly voice and area of research interest and expertise. Yet, there is a ever present tug between these pursuits and nurturing one's family life and relationships. And hell, this is a graduate program aimed directly at examining the dynamics of family life that are so central to this tug-o-war.

I suppose we could chalk it all up to a grand lesson in 'putting first things first' and learning how to prioritize. We could even reframe it as an opportunity to experience the kind of extraordinary growth that ONLY occurs when the pressure is intense and one's commitments and sense of integrity are challenged. I think there is a deeper issue at work in the lives of graduate students who experience this tumultuous inner conflict: grief and loss. We live in a culture that advocates 'doing whatever it takes' to climb to the top of the ladder and achieve excellence, however, this makes it difficult to live with the grief of knowing that ideal opportunities will be relinquished in favor of "higher" priorities. The reality is that sometimes these lost opportunities center around academics or clinical work (as in the MFT program) and sometimes these losses center around family. There are losses in every realm. Losses like this are probably experienced, to some degree, on a weekly basis.

We don't grow up learning how to grow and heal through these kinds of losses. Our culture doesn't dwell on this phenomenon. That is why this pressure that students experience is so extraordinary. There is no template for how to cope with this kind of grief. It's a kind of ambiguous loss, I think, and I bet it takes a measurable toll on the quality of work students submit, as well as the type of relationships that are nurtured interpersonally.

My reflection on this makes me think that we spend too little time naming this kind of loss in our academic circles. The pressure is front and center and always a part of the family conversations and self-talk that help us navigate the process, but the sense of loss and associated grief is outside the conscious periphery. I don't have any solutions, but I imagine that community is one way of helping to process these experiences. When students and families come together to describe their experience and process there is a sense of solidarity and support that tends to emerge. Even when this kind of community is informal or transient. Community not only offers normalizing support for students, but it offers spouses or partners or family members a chance to see their connection to a wider network of pressured fathers/students just trying to navigate their way through a time of enormous potential. Community.

Posted by gschache at June 7, 2007 10:11 AM | Navigating Academia