Academia or parenthood or ...?

My Ph.D. thesis is killing me and I want to have kids!

By Cary Tennis
July 29, 2013 4:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Thank you for doing what you do. Your thoughtful and sensitive answers to people's questions are something that I look forward to reading each week. I've been holding this question in for a while now. Over the past six years, after ending a relationship with a perfectly nice guy that I wasn't in love with (at the time, I felt like he seemed satisfied with the material things in life, coming from a wealthy background), I endured a series of relationships that crushed my self-esteem. After being verbally abused and psychologically terrorized, I finally was able to break it off and for the past year I've been with a man that treats me like gold. We talk about getting married and having children, and it's wonderful. He works hard, has a close relationship with his family, and is sweet and sensitive.


My problem now lies in my inability to draw on my potential and build the career that I want to have for myself.  When I was a child, my mother pushed me hard to achieve in school -- and then I was belittled for not having intrinsic motivation to do well the way she did when she was in school! (I have forgiven her for this, by the way). All that was important was being smart; there was no accompanying push into a specific career. I never had any childhood aspirations to be a doctor, astronaut or a lawyer so when it came to college, I just took classes in what interested me and following the advice of a favorite professor, entered graduate school.

I quickly learned that while I loved learning, reading, and interacting with people critical of the dominant views of society, I had no interest in being a professor myself. Writing feels like torture, and while I deeply cared for the students in my courses, getting in front of them in class made me feel like I was on stage performing, and I struggled to devise activities and topics to inspire learning and perhaps even make it fun. As a serious and earnest person, this was difficult, and I counted down each day until the end of the quarter. I could get by while I was still in courses, but as soon as I was out on my own, I floundered. Ever eager to please, I did research at a center completely outside my interests (partly to ensure funding), choosing to leave and take a different job in the business world rather than do a dissertation on that topic.

Three years have passed, and now back working at a community college, I'm being pushed by my advisor to find a topic, stick with it, and finish. I try -- I've printed stacks of articles, wandered the library, even written the beginnings of a proposal, but every time I sit down to work, I feel a flood of resistance build up in me. It's really difficult for me to figure out how to get over this, and I'm no good at explaining it to the few professors that are willing to meet with someone that's been in the program so long without making progress. I'm cynical about academia -- it's an industry that's after a profit, just like any other business. I feel like I'm out of place no matter where I go -- too business-minded for my friends that are professors now, too socialist for the business world. I give up weekend days and nights to sitting at the computer, doing what feels like banging my head against the wall, for what? Just to be able to say that I finished my Ph.D. (and maybe get a shot at a job better than the entry-level jobs I've held throughout my 20s)?


I'm torn. The only thing that I know for certain is that I want to have children. I know I would be a good mom. However, to be a parent, it's necessary to be able to provide some sort of stability, which requires a job with benefits and a moderate income. I'm 33, so even though I've worked or been in school full-time since I was 18 and I'd love a break from all of this to help me discern a calling, it doesn't seem feasible. I want to make the world a better place in some small way, and if I'm going to do it from within the system, it feels like I need to move up into a position that would allow me some responsibility and decision-making power. Meanwhile I'm missing beautiful days at the beach, reading the latest novels, learning how to paint, putting down roots in a community, and doing anything else that might actually bring me happiness. I feel stuck by my constant vacillating over the dissertation and lateral moves in my career over the past decade. I don't want to waste time. I'm incredibly grateful for what I have, but how do I harness it to create the most good in the world?

Thank you,



Dear INFJ,

Now, this is interesting. I pay attention to synchronicity and happy accidents. And it just so happens that I began this answer in a hotel room in Florence, Italy (not Florence, Alabama, though it is that state's "Renaissance City"). After reading your letter, I had an intuition. It seemed that there was some occupation that would satisfy you. I did not know the name of it. I knew that you cared about children and wanted to be useful. So I began by writing the following, in that Florence hotel (the Cimatori, incidentally, on Via Dante Alighieri):


"You could start a school. You could get certified as a teacher of young people. You could work in a school that treats young people as the miracles that they are, and learn, and then after some time start a school or a day care center and take care of children and make sure they find out that the world is not a scary place."

So I wrote the above and then we traveled to Munich and had dinner with our relatives in their garden. And after we had eaten the quiche and the stuffed peppers and olives and the special spread on the rich bread and the dessert and were having tea and coffee in the garden one of our relatives started telling me about her two professions. One involves flowers and the other involves children. She puts children into nature. She lets children explore the universe. These are young children. People bring their children to her and she takes them into nature and into her garden and lets them experience things -- stones, bugs, grass, flowers, water. She talked about the miracle of how children encounter the world, and how much joy there is in helping this happen, how much joy in seeing them find the myriad miracles of existence in nature.

Another reason your letter touched me was that news reached us on Sunday night, our last night of the 15-person workshop in Tuscany, that a participant's 23-year-old nephew had gotten drunk and committed suicide.


It made me think about how sometimes all that stands between a person and suicide is a tiny kernel of connectedness to life. And maybe we get that at an early age. And maybe if we don't get that at an early age then we are disconnected from some core, nonverbal world of existence.

These are just my thoughts, of course. I don't know the research. But I sense that you want to help people and that you love children, and your generational struggle will involve changing environmental awareness. If kids are overprotected, over-scheduled, isolated from nature, and do not explore the miracle of bugs and frogs and flowers and slugs, maybe they are not imprinting in their minds an image of life at the state of pure being and wonder.

And maybe that is what is missing when a 23-year-old puts a gun to his head.


You know you want to have kids. You may also want to work with kids. So maybe you could help kids find their core selves at an early age, and thus in some small way help cut down on this ghastly wave of young suicides.

You might do some counseling and take some tests to see. INFs do seem to like helping others, making the world a better place, making sure everyone is comfortable. But personality is complicated, and external factors are important as well.

I just try to pay attention to what people say that is true about themselves and for you, what I hear is: You love kids!

Cary Tennis

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