Dear Laura: One Guilt Trip Away

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

I’m the oldest sibling in my family and the first one to get married and move away from my parents. Living in a different state makes me miss my family quite a bit, but I think the transition has been harder on them. After living three states away, we have now moved to *only* one state away. My parents want to take this as an opportunity to visit us almost every month. While I try to be accommodating, I have to tell them, “no” sometimes because of the difficulty of fitting visiting relatives in to our already hectic grad life schedule. When I talk to my parents on the phone, they always seem so desperate to hear even the most boring tidbit of my life. It makes me feel guilty and sad for them. Is there any way to help them be more ok with me being far away?

Sincerely,
Only a Guilt Trip Away

Dear Guilt Trip (if I may),

My husband and I just celebrated an anniversary, one of the double-digit ones that seem like they’re creeping up with a suddenness that is difficult to wrap our minds around. As part of our two-day celebration we sat down one night with a bottle of red and spent a few hours remembering.  We recalled travels and moves (and moves and moves) and stages and celebrations and milestones, but what was surprising and striking to me was how many of the most poignant and substantial memories were so simple and so deeply woven with people, our favourite, beloved people, and what was so clearly absent was…everything else.

The things we thought were so challenging and difficult and overwhelming at the time of their occurrence didn’t rise to the surface at all; it was our spirited and hilarious best-people that were sharply present in our remembering; those nights of board games and hot fudge sundaes, travel weekends, wine nights, and leisurely walks with these cherished friends and family cut right through the days, weeks, months, and years that at the time seemed so full of the pressures of life .  So, here is why I’ve started to answer your question by instead talking about myself (which is obnoxious, but thank you for indulging me):  it struck me so clearly that when we hit the greatest milestones – anniversaries, birthdays, and even death, what is going to be the best stuff of our memories, the stuff that makes everything else fade into the background is….people.

The stresses of the grad student journey will fade, the weekends you wish were spent recuperating on the couch instead of entertaining guests will fade, the irritation with the needy phone calls may even eventually fade, but your family is going to be there until the end. With that end in mind, let’s figure out a way for you to draw some boundaries around your rest-time and couple-time and give you a shot of confidence as you uphold these boundaries. It is great to have limits and to learn to express them clearly – what a gift to the people with whom you share relationships! – and it is also fantastic to serve the people you love by giving them time and access to your life to the extent you are able. What would that look like? Can you and your spouse talk about what the balance might involve and then can you gently start to work toward achieving that balance with your parents? Is there anything you can do to make the visits more enjoyable and less taxing? All worth a good discussion and planning session.

Also, I think we need to remember that the graduate journey, with all it’s trials and sacrifices and joys, does not belong only to us; our families and friends are affected deeply as well (especially when you start introducing grandchildren into the mix!). You’re not responsible for their emotional well-being and you needn’t feel guilty for launching out into this life adventure, but a positive response to their sadness involves striking a wise balance between your own needs and theirs. So, let’s be both wise about what we need as far as protecting our own marriages and selves, but also gracious to those people who are trying so hard to let us go, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so.  (Come to think of it, perhaps we need a new blog called “Graduate Grandmas”…. you’re welcome, Mandy and M.C.!)

-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

Dear Laura: Losing Hope

Dear Laura

Dear Laura,

Numerous job rejections can lead a grad to feel useless and like a failure. How can one feel better about their self-worth, and get the motivation back to apply for more?

Sincerely,
Losing hope

Dear Losing Hope,

I so deeply wish we were in the same place, sharing a cup of something delicious, so I could lean over and give you a big hug.  And I’m not all that hugg-y, this is just one of those times….

I’m going to speak in a language those of us in the UK know all too well this time of year: viruses.  Have you ever been really ill, with chills, headache, cough, sore throat- the works!- and finally after you feel it’s lingered too long, you go to the doctor or GP and he or she says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do to treat you; it seems to be viral, so the only thing that will help is rest, liquids, and patience.” Well, I’m about to sound just like that doctor. There is nothing I can do to make this season of waiting and disappointment go away – you have to take care of yourself and wait it out and know it will not last forever.  There will be a breakthrough one way or another and I can guarantee you will not live this way for the rest of your earthly days. So, here’s my version of vitamin c, herbal tea, and a fleecy warm throw blanket:

1.  Don’t narrow. Broaden. Our tendency in the face of rejection is to either quit and walk away, or refocus our efforts and try again;  fight or flight, so to speak. Desperate to avoid feeling that sense of dejection ever again, we either jump ship or redouble our attention to every detail, disciplining ourselves to perfect the application/ job talk/ interview responses.  Inevitably our anxieties, insecurities, and uncertainties build.

Just like an artist’s work, the academics’ publications, conference presentations, and research are personal, an expression of the inner workings of their hearts and intellect. So, it feels personal when one places one’s work in someone’s hands, that someone reads or reviews it, and decides it’s not good enough.  In that case, it feels like * you* are not good enough – not true, but I get it- and you just want to work harder so you can be deemed good enough.

Of course, yes, we need to refine anything that might increase chances of success in future applications.  However, I think it’s best to avoid becoming obsessive about it.  Talk to your advisor or mentors, do what you can to increase your application’s strength, then press save, close your computer and walk away for the evening or the afternoon or whatever period of time you can wrestle yourself away.  If a painter or photographer or sculptor created pieces that again and again were rejected by critics who didn’t share their vision, style or aesthetic sense, would it be advisable for them to lock themselves in a dark room day after day and simply by sheer force of will, drive themselves to create something beautiful? No. They’d need to be out in the world to be inspired, they’d need to be part of something larger than themselves in order to generate anything worthwhile (and not totally depressing). They’d need encouragement to continue to produce their own style of art – critics be damned- and to just keep working toward finding the right buyer or market or audience.

Same to you, Academic.  Resist the urge to sit in front of your laptop pounding and pounding the keys trying to create something brilliant and worthwhile. Get out there and interact with the world, with other disciplines, with strangers and friends and loved ones and nature, and be refreshed.  Then, and only then, get back to pounding those keys and let’s see what happens next.

2.  Do something for someone else, even though you don’t feel like it. It’s me, the seemingly unhelpful doctor again, telling you to drink fluids. I know you think it won’t make any difference to how you’re feeling, but just hear me: it will. Take five minutes, thirty minutes, one hour, four hours – anything!- and go do something to serve someone else.  Get out of the muck of academia for just a second. Buy someone flowers and leave a note of encouragement. Send a card to someone.  Buy a coffee for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop. Pick up litter. Donate a bunch of household goods to a homeless shelter.  Serve a meal at the soup kitchen.  Bake something and give it away. Call someone who would love to hear from you. Clean for someone. Help someone with their groceries.  Anonomously do something nice for someone, somewhere.

Prescription: Do one such thing every day during this time of waiting and you’ll survive with your heart, your mind, and your sense of self in tact.

-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

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

REPOST: Dear Laura: ‘Helpless in the dark’

Dear Laura

Readers-We are very pleased to launch our ‘Dear Laura’ advice and support column on The Graduate Wife!  If you have any questions to submit, please email us and we will ask Laura to respond.  We hope we can all benefit from some of the personal stories and advice given.  For more information on Laura click here.

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Dear Graduate Wife,

I was wondering if you have some tips for being supportive…Right now my partner is miserable and I feel like I have tried everything to make him feel better, with no luck.  Also, how can I avoid allowing his stress to get to me? After all these weeks, it is getting me down.  I don’t like the feelings of helplessness when there is nothing I can do to distract him from his stress, but I am also finding that he is miserable to be around.

 – In the Dark

Dear In the Dark,

Indeed, you have entered that time in your spouse’s program wherein dark clouds have gathered and it seems your household is craving glimmers of light and hope.  Here is a little nugget of hope: this is not forever.  Hang on to this, write it down, scribble it in Sharpie on your arm, whatever it takes to help you remember that this is just a phase.  Your partner is not forever damaged, your marriage is not crumbling – despite feelings to the contrary – and you will eventually get your loveable partner back.

That being said, let us be honest: your partner is very, very difficult to love right now and he has become quite boring at dinner, but he probably knows that he is poor company (which makes him feel guilty and like he can do nothing right, and by the way he will never be able to get a job because no one will ever like his work and he is not as smart as anyone else on the job market and why did he ever start this program anyway and….). Does this sound at all familiar?

So, here is the good and the bad news: there is nothing you can do to lead your spouse out of the dark tunnel; he has to trudge along until he finds the light at the end. Is that freeing or horrifying? Let me explain further:

Think of the last time you flew on an airplane; the flight attendant said that in case of emergency, the yellow bags will fall from the storage compartments (though they may not inflate, which I’m glad they come right out and say because if we were crashing and my bag was flat….okay, I digress). You are given in no uncertain terms a directive that is contrary to our instinct, which is why they are so careful to make it clear – in case of emergency, secure your OWN mask first, before assisting anyone else because you will be of no use to anyone else if you are deprived of oxygen.

The same principle applies here; you have to find some oxygen, some enjoyment, some satisfaction and live in it as deeply and intentionally as you can to make it to the other side of this “emergency”. Get your own oxygen flowing, and then perhaps when you have those rare opportunities to meet your husband in his struggle, you will be able to provide him with a breath of fresh air.

Some people might feel nervous about releasing the responsibility they feel for rescuing their spouse, perhaps thinking this would indicate a lack of care or concern, but in this case it is a fruitless struggle and your energy is better spent enjoying your life. Trust me, your spouse will feel relieved that he is not bringing you down and might even feel free to join you in your contentment every once in awhile.

You’ve been wanting to learn to throw pottery? Now is the time. You have been craving that decadent chocolate cake you saw in last month’s foodie catalogue? Invite some girls over and polish it off in one night (and send me some!). You have been thinking you might want to start training for a 10k or read a whole genre of books or learn photography? Today, tonight, and tomorrow. Do it.

Your spouse is having a hard time keeping his head above water; it does not help for you to jump in the water, too – you need to stay on the shore and offer lifelines until he makes it to safety.

Finally, I have never met anyone who made it through the graduate wife journey alone.  You need girlfriends. If you have to Skype with your best friend from home every week, make it happen; if you need to join some groups in your new area to meet some kindred spirits, do it.  You need to be surrounded by people who are filled with life, with whom you share laughter and tears, and you need to have enough fun for the both of you without any resentment or grudge. Did you hear me? Without any resentment or grudge. Now that is a tall order, but if you save the energy you would have been spending trying to save your spouse from this dark pit, you can channel some into disciplining yourself to stay away from resentment. Remember this: this is the hardest part of your spouse’s grad school career. It is temporary, and it is not his fault. He will be helped immensely if he can see that you are doing your best to enjoy your life. So get going and have some fun!

-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

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?

Signed,

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

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

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

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?

Signed,

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

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