Monday, May 19, 2008

Twisted Sister

This is about balancing career and family, but in this case family does not refer to one's offspring or spouse, but to the rest of one's family. This is a complex topic that includes difficult issues such as caring for aging/ailing parents or siblings, but today I will mention two other issues that have thus far impacted me more directly:

1. Collision of important Career Activities and important Family Activities. Recent example: A month or so ago, I wrote about how I had agreed last fall to give an invited talk at a conference in the summer. In fact, I also made plans for students, postdocs, and me to visit international colleagues to do Research directly after this conference. Months after making these plans, my brother got an awesome new job involving being in charge of some major military stuff. There will be a party. The party will be exactly during my conference and international travel.

My family thinks I should go to my brother's party/ceremony, but to do so would require backing out of several commitments involving the conference, not to mention research travel and activities that require my presence and active participation. If I had known about the ceremony/party thing last fall, I would have made different plans, but by the time the party was announced, I felt it was too late to change plans. Because I refuse to cancel or change my plans, my family thinks I am making a statement that my family is less important than my career.

None of the women of my mother's generation or older ever had a career, so I suppose they can't imagine making this choice, nor can they imagine that for me it isn't as simple as Career > Brother. Even if I say that's not the case, actions speak louder blah blah blah.

I tried to convince a friend to go to the party and impersonate me. All she would have to do is stand around and make the occasional sarcastic comment, and no one would notice she wasn't me. Alas, the opportunity to go to a party with my family on a military base was not alluring.

Earlier this spring, my travels brought me to my brother's city of residence, but he was out of town on business so I didn't see him. No one (including me) suggested that he change his plans, but one relative remarked at my poor planning to schedule my visit while my brother was away, as if I had a choice. In my family, men have Careers and women work if they want to, but it's kind of an optional activity that somehow isn't as serious as what the Men do. The fact that I do this bizarre professor/science job makes it even harder for my family to understand what I do.

I know that my relatives are proud of me for having a Ph.D. and being a professor, but then something like this recent event happens and these feelings of pride are overridden by more fundamental feelings about how things should work in a Family.

So, I am not going to my brother's party, though I will think of some appropriate way to congratulate him. For his last promotion, I got him a chainsaw woodcarving, so I have set the bar pretty high for myself in terms of gifts. In contrast, my brother, who has not similarly acknowledged my advancement in my career, has set the bar pretty low in terms of his gifts to me, so I am not too stressed about this. (though I will accept suggestions, as long as they are bizarre yet tasteful)

2. My so-called career has taken me away from the region of the country where the rest of my family lives, so I really must not care about them all that much. I suppose there are many places in the country/world like this, but few people move away from the place where I am from. I am sure more young people leave it now than 20-30 years ago, but most of my friends from high school still live in or near our town. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the part I don't like is that people who do choose to leave are seen as turning their backs on their home. When I decided to go to college in a different state, more than one person said to me, more as a statement than a question "So we aren't good enough for you?".

I left home long ago (by choice) and have not returned to live there (by the vagaries of the academic job market), and this fact has repercussions to this day. For example, a few years ago I tried to talk to my mother's doctor about my concerns about her deteriorating memory and cognitive abilities, and instead got a lecture about how, because I have chosen to live elsewhere, I can't possibly really care about my mother and so it was a waste of his time for this doctor to talk to me because I was probably just trying to ease my conscience about living so far away. [note: 'far away' in this context means anything more than a 45 minute drive]

There are a lot of great things about growing up in a fairly small place, but people there can be a bit unforgiving if you leave.

I am doing pretty well at being a professor and a mom, but perhaps not so well at being a daughter and a sister. I don't think I am a terrible daughter/sister, though, despite some drops in my approval rating in recent family opinion polls. I visit my relatives*, keep in touch by phone/email, enjoy sending gifts and cards for various occasions and non-occasions, and feel reasonably well connected to the rest of the family**. Right now, my approval rating is probably as low as it has ever been, but I am going to hang in there until not even one relative is willing to vote for me. I seem to be channeling Hillary Clinton and that is not good. It must be the stress of having 82% of my family annoyed with me right now.

* Way more often than my brother does, though I realize it is neither constructive nor mature to point this out.

** With the exception of a cousin who carries a concealed weapon and has read nothing but golfing magazines for the past 15 years, and another cousin who was living in a shed and found God ("In the shed?" I asked, causing a further drop in my family approval rating) and who now wants to travel the world distributing Bibles to desperately poor people in violence-torn countries.


oreneta said...

What about a Smush Bush doll, preferably from a Democratic convention....bizarre, possibly tasteful, and linked to the stress fish he got you. I have no idea where you would get one though.

chall said...

I think, and I am saddened to say, you nail it when you say "it seems to be ok to have a career as long as you understand that family always come first" [my interpretation of quote since I didn't copied and pasted it].

I further think, after reading your posts, that you would have maybe cancelled the trip if it only would have affected you (and your own family) but since it concerns post docs and students that is not really the thing now, is it? It seems like there are more than acknowledging the fact that you have a career as a prof but what it really means, i.e. responsiblities.

I understand if you would've gone to yuor brothers going away party then again, it isn't like you got to choose from "do A or B" since A was already decided and B came up later... I really hope that your family understands the difference.

For me I can say that the moving away from home town has meant similar experiences, and especially since I moved from a Big city to a smaller one (granted to a town with a 'prestigeuos' university when I did my undergrad). When I decided to move across the world to pursue a post doc half of my family/friends stated "why would you want to move that far away from us" whereas the other half said "as long as you return and don't stay there"...

And yes, I do think the fact that you are a woman (and by that mainly responsible for your parents as well as your children) plays into it. I wish you luck in getting the message across and hope that you can enjoy your family as well as your job as a prof!

Janus Professor said...

The best gift you can give is time. If you can't go to the party (which sounds pretty droll), why not visit one weekend relatively close to when the party would have been? Bring your whole family if that is possible.

I live more than 1500 miles from my family, so the best I can do is regularly call and visit them (Christmas and Summer) them. Even if I have nothing to talk about, the time spent on the telephone means something.

Psych Post Doc said...

My brother and sister in law did not speak to us for 6 months because we didn't make it to their daughters 1st birthday party.

We moved that weekend, both cars broke down, and we would have had to drive 6 hours each way in 2 days. Um.. hello??!!

Isn't it strange how just living our lives is somehow meant to insult everyone who ever cared about us?

Anonymous said...

your post makes me so mad, and not so much on behalf of you (it's all about me, you see).

I get the same thing with respect to my husband. I don't have any brothers and one of my sisters is a stay-at-home mom, the other is unmarried and works a pink collar job. Very respectable choices. My mother worked out of the home most of her life, starting from an age that would probably challenge child labor laws, but has never stayed at a job for more than a couple of years. It is not surprising that she doesn't get the career thing.

What is surprising is that she is extremely protective of my husband's work time, telling me how selfish I am if I ever ask him to be home after merely 10hrs of work (because I need him there because I have a late talk/dinner, for example), and how selfish I am that I always put my job before my kids . I nearly had a conniption when she gave me that on the third day in a row I left work at 3PM so I could be home early to help my son with his science fair project.

On the other hand, it isn't easy for my husband either. While he was a stay-at-home dad, he was worse than a pariah, very much just a joke, among my family and his.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Wow. You have some pretty... interesting... relatives. I like the one in the shed the best for sheer nuttery.

How about a dummy grenade for your brother?

L said...

Hell, I'm male and I can't believe the way your family treats you. I mean, my in-laws are a little like this -- in fact, they would be a lot more like your family if they'd had any sons, I suspect -- but still.

Every time you tell one of these stories, I get some serious sympathy pains. Tell you what, you can come to Nebraska for Christmas, drink lots of home-brew, and play with our cats. They're very friendly and are not likely to make comments about your professional life.

Also: "In the shed?" I guffawed. Well played, very well played.

lost academic said...

You know, it's not even just all the notes you've made and the comments previous, which I do agree with. I think your family would have the same problems and different complaints if you were focused just on your daughter and not your career. There's a big difference between a a career and a job, but beyond that, your family is likely to never accept that your family now operates in a way that they are totally unfamiliar with and cannot understand, so will not accept as valid. Your parents and siblings are naturally still important, but your husband and daughter rely on your as THEIR primary family; and you, they.

Some families never really learn to cope with the kids turning into adults.

Nancy S said...

Families can be funny things. I have had a dream to be a nuclear physicist since school, and now have by BSc and have approaching a nuclear power company to join their graduate scheme.

My family have been very supportive up to now, but my mum recently asked how I was going to commute, by car or train ? I told her that the nearest power station I could be posted to is aout a 2 hour drive away, and there is no guarantee that I will be based there, I could be sent to the other side of the UK.

It seems that following your dreams is ok, so long as it does not take you too far from home.

Lisa said...

Maybe too expensive, but what about a robotic lawn mower such as robo mow or lawnbott for your brother?

Professor in Training said...

I feel your frustration. I moved halfway around the world for a postdoc and am planning to stay indefinitely for my cool new tt gig and while my parents and sister are extremely proud of my accomplishments I am still getting questions such as: (1) "when are you going to come home and settle down?", (2) "why can't you make it for Christmas, your mother's/father's/sister's/nephew's birthdays?", (3) "why can't you visit for longer than two weeks?", (4) "your grandmother/uncles/aunts/cousins want to see you while you're at home ... if you have time".

I should point out that the answers to the above questions include: (1) never and never, (2) I can't go home 5 times a year, (3) because one day is usually enough, (4) NONE of these people have even bothered to email or call me so why would I fly 24 hours and then drive another 10 hours to see them?

Grrrrr. Families. Can't choose 'em. Can't kill 'em. Such a conundrum.

Heather said...

I'm impressed you haven't gone ballistic on your mother's doctor. If he'd said that to me I'd have either strangled him with his stethoscope or said "Hey, you got me. I'll slip you an extra 20 if you promise to prescribe the ultra-strength laxative for Ma next time she comes in, still gotta get back at her for all those dates she embarrassed me in front of when I was a kid, wink wink."

I'm impressed that you haven't gone ballistic on your family for that matter. I don't understand families that have these huge problems with whatever their individual members choose to do with their lives, and let it ruin their relationships with them. I know a couple of people who have relatives like this, who insist that family is first, and then treat their family members like crap, and I'm always astounded when they tell me stories about how horrible one of their family members was to them. I ask, "why didn't you say something?" The response is always something like, "It wouldn't do any good." I have trouble accepting this, coming from a family that is either understanding of or at least not openly antagonistic about choices that their family members make. The assumption is that they're adults, and we're family, and whatever time we can make to see each other is fantastic, even if we wish it were a little more often. Sometimes we don't get to do everything we'd like in order to succeed, or we made a prior commitment long before they invited you to something and you need to be there. How is it that some people don't get that?

Squeaky Wipers said...

Interesting post. Please be assured that you are not alone in your situation.

With my family, at some point the nosy aunts assigned my cousins and me our "value." I was to be the peon who was suppose to take care of the elderly population of our family when I grow up, and my male cousins are to be the scholars and professionals.

At a young age, I resented this. I loved to learn, I loved to go to school, and I sought to make something of myself. In retrospect, I guess my academic achievements were fueled by my resentment of the preordained life assigned to me by my aunts. Fortunately for me, Oprah taught me about self empowerment, and all that sappy stuff.

I moved away for college, I moved away for work, and I'll be moving away for grad school.

My younger male cousin is deemed to be the brightest and most successful of all. He's in highschool, and homeboy has a tutor for english, math, and science. He will soon have a tutor to teach him to take a crap.

Not only have I never had a tutor, I worked my way to support myself through college.

I guess our challenges make us that much stronger, but it would've been nice to have had the family support. Although the reality of my family saddens me, it make me so much prouder of all my achievements.

neurowoman said...

In my family, I interpret most digs about leaving, not coming home, and being "too good" for them as insecurity about their own choices to stay, have unfulfilling jobs and lack of worldly exposure. It helps that I brought my mother to live near us after a period of employment difficulties in the hometown, fulfills my duty to 'take care' of family.

Probably wouldn't help to point out that they might feel differently if you were a brother with job expectations instead of a sister (i.e., their criticism is sexist). Or ask why didn't they consult you about when to hold the party!

femalebioprof said...

Hooboy, I think we're related.

Am I missing something if I wonder why they didn't schedule the party so that you could make it?

Aceon said...

May I suggest a bobblehead made in his image? It's certainly bizarre, and depending on the body you pick - could be considered tasteful.

Professor Staff said...

There seems to be a pattern here.

I too:
- live/work a long way from hometown/state (too far to drive)
- feel I do a decent but workable job balancing family and work
- but am considered "the lousy son" who is "too busy" to do family things

I could cite many examples similar to yours.

Several other professors (male and female) that I work with also share these attributes. So maybe this is common for academics.

One things we (my coworkers in similar situations) have in common is that we all come from New England (where 45 minutes in a car is a "day trip"). There is a cultural provincialism that is pervasive among folks from various parts of those states (including my family!)

vodalus said...

How about a plush toy of his favorite pathogen?

My favorites are yeast, chicken pox and the common cold.

Ms.PhD said...

I SO identify with this post.

I gave up a long time ago on having my family approve of me being far away or anything I want to do with my life. If anything, I should have given up sooner, it would have made a huge difference in my life. (Perhaps I should be in therapy to deal with that, it is probably holding me back.)

I don't think you have to be from a small place to get these guilt trips about leaving, I get those too.

MrPhD's family is funny, they are very close knit but don't expect us to move back to where he's from. Instead they come visit us for ridiculous lengths of time, and never ask when is a good time to come. So far I've succeeded in cutting the visit length in half, but it's still too much for me.

I also don't think you should feel bad, for even a millisecond, about missing the stupid party. I hope you don't.

I laughed hard at your idea of sending someone in your place to stand around and make sarcastic comments. That sense of humor is really a priceless quality, I admire that you manage to make light of these things.

I am currently getting the same crap, my family wants me to send gifts to a relative for a personal achievement I really don't care about. She never emails or calls me except to brag, and only sends the most perfunctory gifts, and only on major holidays.

Unfortunately my family is not as amusing as yours in the department of gifts. I'm sending some books with a quirky science twist on a relevant topic. I figured even if they sit on a shelf somewhere, it makes a statement.

Female Science Professor said...

I am VERY intrigued by the bobblehead idea. I think I am going to have to acquire one or more custom bobbleheads of/for my brother and/or his wife/kids. THANKS for the idea, aceon.

Anonymous said...

I... don't really understand why it would have been so hard for your parents (who I assume organized the party) to ask you when you might have a hole in your schedule to come down (like, I don't know, 1 week later/earlier).

It seems completely rational to try to make sure at least the entire nuclear family has no prior engagements... Or is there a particular reason the party MUST be on that date?

Female Science Professor said...

I should have specified that the party isn't being organized by my family -- it's an official military ceremony thing. No one in my family had a choice of the date.

Anonymous said...

Bizarre, but tasteful you say? Did you mean something like this?

Citronella said...

When I visited my boyfriend's family (for last Christmas), there wasn't a single member of the family who did not ask him "so when are you coming back?". They can't understand that he is not. He cannot be a high-tech engineer in the effing middle of nowhere, he hates the weather there with all his guts, and he has no intention of, like his "good" brother, marrying a local girl, settling in a house no more than a few miles away from his parents, and seeing various relatives all the time.

(Plus, we have no intention of marrying each other or even living together, but we haven't really told them how "casual" a couple we are...)

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP, this is a beautiful blog, sometimes you write posts like this that absolutely kill me! Being a good child/sibling to a difficult family can be an awful task and you I am perpetually shocked at how well you do it.

Aceon said...

Hah! I am delighted to be of service.

Davey Jones said...

I'm not even done with my B.S. and I've already started to hear this. I had to just tell them how it is, I live x hours away, I make less than 10,000 a year, and am trying to support myself through college, you make 5 or 6 times what I drive up. Mom got it, Dad didn't.

Its cold, and it isn't really fair to them. I made my choices and I knew I wouldn't be able to see my family, and I know it will only get worse for me in the future, its a sacrifice I'm willing to make in order to do what I want to do. However, I never asked them to make that sacrifice. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel to need to ask my family's permission, but they are losing as much as I am, but they didn't choose to.

I have to laugh when my dad asks if I will graduate in four years, for some reason that is important to him and I don't know why. He asks every time he calls me.

Principle Investigator said...

Oh, this sounds so familiar, no pun intended. I was lucky enough to land a t-t position at a very good SLAC this year. Unfortunately, it's diagonally opposite the continent from my hometown (where my parents and sister still live). There was one particularly difficult conversation in which I was told I obviously didn't "try hard enough" to get a job closer to home. I had to tell my father that he had no idea how academia worked and he was just going to have to trust me that I did indeed try, for my boyfriend at the time as well as for my family and friends. Actually I consider the lack of control over job location to be THE major drawback of an academic career - not the perspiration or the renumeration but the situation. Blech.

However, in your case, it seems clear that you had made previous commitments (to your academic family, in a sense) and that keeping them in no way implies that your brother is less important to you.

Global Girl said...

Hmm, I had no idea so many people's families want them to be so physically close to them. In college, my family was on two different continents and that was, well, normal. My parents have zero expectation I will live close to them and I have zero expectation of the same. For us, careers are the big people movers - the family member who would ask someone to give up something Career-related would seen manipulative and uncaring. (One family member does, and this is the general consensus. It's manipulation.) Evidently, I'm lucky.

Sophia said...

as a first year grad student, i think i can identify with your sentiments, and that scares me a little! how do you stop or slow this train wreck waiting to happen at this stage? this is not technically my career per se, and already i'm feeling the heat to choose.

geomom said...

FSP--so the odd thing in my family is that my father is an academic and my mother is the only one of her siblings to get a college degree. She was the uber-volunteer-involved mom when I was young and worked at various jobs when I was in HS through grad school. And it wasn't until my second child was about 5 years old that it dawned on her that I WAS NOT GOING TO LEAVE MY CAREER TO STAY HOME WITH MY CHILDREN. Honestly, the only explanation I can offer is that she really thought grad school and research scientist career was just a hobby until I got "settled".

So these attitudes can come from ANYWHERE! And if you can't find God in a shed, where can you find him?!

Professor in Training said...

At the risk of offending people, I've also got a lot of cousins/aunts/uncles who have "found God" in all sorts of strange places. My standing within the family took a sharp nose dive several years ago when one of my uncles was showing photos of his daughter (my cousin) in a pool getting a good dunking by a strange man wearing a very skimpy bathing suit and displaying a LOT of chest hair. I had missed the introduction to the slide show and was therefore totally unaware of the context and just blurted out "you drove 12 hours to go to a pool party?" to which the inevitable reply came "these are photos of cousin XX being baptized".

My parents struggled to contain their giggles but my uncle was NOT amused in the slightest. Still makes me laugh even now.

Am thinking of taking up your suggestion of hiring a stand-in for family occasions who would just stand around making sarcastic comments.

Shay said...


Seriously. You're a respected academic professional in a position most science professors (male or female) would kill for.


Sorry. I'm just tired of the way our gender beats itself up over something as unimportant as what our families think of us.

Screw 'em.

Victoria said...

Goodness, I suspect that FSP cares what her family thinks of her because she loves them and does not purposefully want to cause them pain (however dense they may be).

I wonder if something else happening here is that the Military is oh-so-much-more respectable than Academia. Horowitz didn't write a diatribe about the 100 Most Dangerous Generals (only 100?!). We don't stand up at concerts etc and thank the dedicated professors who spend their lives making discoveries that improve the world and teaching young people.

My sibs are both in the military and I'm in academia...a lot of the time *I* get sucked into wondering why I didn't do something more important, "like they did!" Fortunately, my parents are just as proud of me as of them, so the self-doubt is entirely self-imposed. Sorry, FSP...not that it makes up for family not understanding, but your admiring public is glad you do what you do!

Alethea said...

Yet another "I hear you loud and clear".

Just to add another to the list.

Grit your teeth and make your own choices. You can live with some disapproval. I get it too, even in a family where Brother has traveled widely and most close relatives *do* have a graduate degree. So it's not really dependent on education, in my opinion. More on your right to be an individual relative to your obligations as a member of a social structure.

Carrie said...

MY family has been great about understanding that sometimes I have to travel somewhere and may miss an event, and that does NOT mean that career > family. My dh's family, however. We've even given them blackout dates for family events because I knew I had a conference then, and they planned the event for the date, and then gave me greif on why I wasn't enabling dh to attend (because he didn't want to go without me).

Re: moving-back-home. Some of it is because they truely do MISS YOU. I live on a small island in the middle of the Pacific -- it is effort to see my family and I understand why they ask me when we're moving back. But I also get annoyed when they ask every month and I've indicated we don't have plans to move back anytime soon. But they do it out of love.