It was a bright Sunday afternoon, one with the promise of bike rides and driveway chalk, but there were none in my future. Instead, I was channeling my inner college kid, as I lugged a printer, boxes of textbooks, a comforter, and a suitcase full of clothes out to the car. It was the day I had been both working towards and dreading for months; the day I was leaving for my first doctoral residency. The kids lined up by the door to say goodbye. They were so little – almost five, seven, and nine – barely knowing what was going on, except that their mommy was leaving for two weeks – an eternity in kid time.
I kissed their faces, put on my bravest face, and drove away. I held it together just until I got out of the neighborhood, and then I lost it. I could barely see the road through my tears, and I just kept saying to myself, “Why? Why am I doing this?”
Over the next four years, I would repeat this question as I left my family three times a year for residencies in Indiana, sat at Schuler’s on countless Saturdays to write papers, holed up in a hotel room for two weekends to write my comprehensive exams, and spent long weekends alone at our cottage analyzing my dissertation data. I was physically gone, but even more often, I was mentally distant, with the weight of my boulder-sized task hovering over my shoulder.
It was hard. All of it.
But I stuck it out, drove through the tears, wrote paper after paper, missed my daughter Fiona’s May birthday more than once, read my textbooks while watching little league games, and put plenty of miles on my car driving the four hours to and from Indiana.
The question still remained, “Why? Why am I doing this?”
It started as a requirement for my job – a way to continue a vocation that I love – but that wasn’t enough to keep me going when things got rough. There had to be other reasons, but as with all hard things, it was difficult to see the why in the middle of the struggle.
Then again, maybe the hints were there all along.
They were there in how I watched my kids learn how to support me as I traveled this path. I received countless notes from Fiona that said things like, “Congrats on being almost done, Mommy! You can do it!” and “I love you Mom! You are amazing!”. (Words of affirmation are her love language.) My oldest daughter Madi took on the ever-important role of “second-in-command” when I was away, helping my husband Ben, with everyday tasks like homework and dishes. They all chipped in, got it done, and definitely made it clear how much I was appreciated when I got home.
They were there in how my kids have learned to recognize and appreciate hard work. Just the other day, I asked my son Parker what he thought about my doctorate. He said, “I know it was a lot of work, and I am just really proud of you…even though you are my Mom.” I guess it’s a weird thing to be proud of a parent from a 12-year-old’s perspective, but to hear him say that made me realize once again how much of what we teach our kids is through what we do rather than what we say. Maybe that also then will translate to the next time Parker has to persevere through something difficult, and he will know that it can be done, if you just don’t give up.
They were also there when I stood up in front of my peers, professors, dissertation committee, and my husband, and presented my dissertation results. The tears and apprehension that followed me to my first residency had morphed into a steady self-confidence. I had become a better, more thoughtful version of myself, someone that asked good questions and shared ideas without hesitation. I also became a more empathetic parent, one who bore the tender scars of challenging days, allowing me to better understand their point of view in the midst of struggle.
Why? Why did I pursue my doctorate?
Because it fit my calling.
Because I wanted to be a role model to my kids.
Because the challenge was worth it.
Because grit takes practice.
On graduation day, I cried again. The road, littered with my family’s sacrifices and drenched in my salty tears, came to an end.
Or maybe it was just a crossroads.