A Crisis of Self

Graduate school. I had visions of international travel, independent studies and research, excellence, publication, and expanding horizons. In reality it’s been a series of disappointments as I’ve had to adjust my expectations to balance having a family and school. I had imagined part time school, where I could set a more leisurely pace to my studies in order to fulfill my duties as a mother. A couple days spent at home with the baby, nursing, going on walks, and playing with his favorite book, “Fishy Tales.” Time at school to devote serious attention to a subject or project.

The system isn’t set up to allow this. If I want to graduate in any decent amount of time, I need to take at least 12 credits a term. I don’t have time to devote serious attention to anything. I’m merely surviving. The alternative is to extend my time, which brings with it an additional $7-14k in debt. I’m already looking at graduating with around $50k. I also don’t want to put off trying for another baby.

I’ve wondered what the point of it is. If I’m not truly giving my all and getting what I wanted out of this experience, why am I doing it? I feel like a failed mother, and definitely a failed student. I’m going through the motions, living by default instead of being proactive. When two of my classmates attended and presented at the Architecture for Humanity Design Like You Give a Damn conference, jealousy welled up inside me. It was disappointment in myself because I am not designing like I give a damn. I’m not pursuing opportunities. I tried to volunteer twice for Architects Without Borders but had to drop out twice due to time constraints. I want to be like Grace, Annie, and Jackie. They are passionate and generous, determined and driven. I am a disappointment.

I almost dropped out this term, but then an incredible opportunity arose: a studio about avenues and passageways along Istiklal avenue in Istanbul, with grant money to cover the majority of the costs of a class trip. One of my favorite professors from undergrad is coming up to teach it. Here is my opportunity: to study something I love, to travel, to devote energy to something meaningful and exciting. I jumped at the chance and started pumping like a mad woman to build up the 210 ounces of freezer stash required for my absence from Matthew Ali. My husband is supportive, and we figured out a way to pay for the portion not covered by the grant. “If anyone should go, it’s you,” my mother-in-law said, excited for me.

I asked my dad for advice on finding an inexpensive ticket to Istanbul. As a concerned father and grandfather, he asked innocently, “What about the baby?” It brought out into the open a part of me I’ve been shoving deep down inside, because I can’t bear to think of it. A week away from my son. The agony of saying goodbye to him and my husband at the airport, then boarding a plane, my breasts swollen with milk, and no baby to hold in my arms. I went into a depressive tailspin of misery and doubt. I started having panic attacks thinking about being away. I am a bad mother. I am abandoning my baby. I asked my husband if he would go. He said no, but that he understood why I want to. I thought, well I’ll get a good night’s sleep and it might be a nice break. Then I felt guilty for being so selfish. I look into my son’s eyes and I can’t bear the thought of being away. I also can’t bear the thought of giving up this opportunity.

On the way to school one day, I verbalized each scenario to see what it felt like.

“I’m not going. I’m going to stay home with my son and not go to Istanbul. I’ll miss a great opportunity but I’ll be home with my baby.” A heaviness presented in my heart. A wrenching, tugging feeling opened a hole, and it felt like my entire body was caving in on itself. It felt like a break-up. I’m breaking up with my dream. Utter crushing depression. I slumped in the passenger seat of the car as Tom drove us down Couch street.

“I’m going. I’m going to Istanbul and I’m going to have a great time exploring the city. I will be away from my son and I will miss him very much.” Excitement, then fear. Overwhelming fear. My heart started racing, my face flushed, and my breathing quickened as the panic attack started to take control. I had to distract myself with another thought.

“Fear is not a good reason,” Tom said. “You realize you have a tendency to sabotage yourself?” I do. Every time I approach achieving a dream, panic ensues, and I do something to mess it up. I am constantly telling myself why I can’t do something. I settle for half way.

So I’m going. My son needs a mother who doesn’t give up part of her soul, even if it means a week away from him. I have to be whole in order to be good to him. I need to be happy so he can learn to live joyfully. Is it the right thing to do? No. Yes. It’s an incredible opportunity at an incredibly inopportune time.

Photo by Josep Renalias.  Wikimedia commons
Istiklal Avenue.  Photo by Josep Renalias. Wikimedia commons

4 thoughts on “A Crisis of Self

  1. Thank you everyone. It was an amazing trip. My son did just fine without me, while I was broken up the whole time. Good thing we were too busy during the day for me to notice most of the time. I’m glad I went.


  2. Oh my goodness. I am SO familiar with that sinking feeling of “I am not going. I am doing what’s best for everyone else.” And then the hope of going. and then deciding not to.
    This is the hardest roller coaster ever.

    I’m so proud of you. I hope it’s everything you dreamed of, and I hope you find a muse there like no other.


  3. Does a woman have to have tunnel vision to succeed in her career? How many women have struggled with this question? I chose to bypass the manic track when pregnant with my first child, but I did not choose to abandon my career. I kept a foot in my profession and my *self* in the family. My career expanded as my family expanded. There are those whose lives allow them to be driven now, but honestly the career will not disappear.


  4. so so so hard. you won’t know until you go and come back with perspective. the baby won’t remember this. overall though, having children in grad school is just impossible, for me. i am doing it, but i don’t really know how most days. good luck!


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