Give and Take

Balance seems to be one of those things that everyone is trying to find. It’s a difficult and delicate thing to maintain. For me, it often ends up looking like this:

Video 1. belle chases her tail whilst precariously balanced. It’s all well and good and fun… until she falls on her face.

OK. I am being a bit dramatic–amusingly dramatic, but dramatic nonetheless. The point is, regardless of profession or career stage, finding balance is a tricky thing–especially if you’re the sort of person who goes “all in”, and science really seems to select such persuasions.

Around the time I started visiting graduate programs, a seminar speaker lunching with students asked what our plans were after undergrad. When it came around to me, the conversation went something like this:

belle: I’m going after a Ph.D.

prof (glancing at my hand): You married?

belle: After graduation.

prof (cynically): Good luck with that. I went into grad school married. I came out not married.

After that conversation, one criterion for graduate programs was ‘still married when I finish’. (That was later expanded to ‘still married and not in jail for strangling Ph.D. adviser’, but that’s a story for another time.) Here we are, 7 years later, and I’m still married. Of course, that’s not to say it’s been easy, as both Paramed (aka my husband) and I are extremely driven, passionate, and stubborn individuals.

Paramed and I grew up in the rural Southeast, where it’s not assumed that every–or even most–high school graduates will continue to college. To this point, our decisions about where to go and what to do have been largely driven by my career, and Paramed has been incredibly supportive of every step. He took on a great deal of the domestic responsibilities while I was in grad school. On more than one occasion, he brought me dinner when I was working late. The week before my defense, he got on a plane by himself (and he really, really hates flying), came to postdoc city, and found us an apartment. In short, Paramed is awesome.

A year ago, Paramed took a big step toward his career goals when he finally got the opportunity to start working on his Bachelor’s degree full-time. Our financial position–living in a city with a high cost of living plus debt derived in part from education and associated costs and in part from being young and stupid–is far from ideal, and he has had to continue working. His first semester involved a full class load distributed over 3 days plus two 24-hour work shifts every week. The next semester he was able to drop one of the shifts. What this means is that Paramed and I stay busy Monday through Friday with school and work, respectively. Before 6:30 Saturday morning, Paramed leaves for work, providing emergency medical care in one of the less savory parts of the city. When he drags in around 8 am Sunday morning, he considers himself lucky to have gotten more than an hour or two of sleep. Hence the first half of Sundays typically involve Paramed catching a long nap and me going grocery shopping. Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, we have to find time to (try to) clean our apartment, do laundry, pay bills, etc.

To make it work, we have to enjoy the little time we have. Sometimes it’s as simple as working together fixing dinner in our tiny kitchen or kicking back on the couch with a movie or hanging out in a park reading a book or walking home together from work. Occasionally it’s splurging on a nice, long relaxing dinner, free from the distractions of TV, email, phones, and so on. I have learned that, despite my protestations to the contrary, often the science can wait one more day. So I take those official holidays–things like President’s Day and Memorial Day–so that Paramed and I can have an entire day off together, and I’m getting better about not feeling guilty about not being in the lab.

Even though we’ve conditioned ourselves to try to make the most of the time we have, we are not always successful. Often the limited time we spend together is actually spent slogging through some pretty serious issues, which can involve some very heated debates. We have learned, though, that these arguments get at the heart of issues needing to be addressed, and we have learned to forgive each other and use them as jumping-off point for moving forward. Paramed and I know that it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time. In fact, decisions have been made that will almost certainly add more strain and stress. However, we know that for us to be happy together we also have to be happy with ourselves. So we move forward together, trying to balance two careers and our relationship together. We’ve made it 7 years. With a little luck, maybe we’ll make it 70 more.

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