Monday, August 10, 2009

Home Angst Home

The instinct to return to one's ancestral home seems to be quite strong in many different creatures, but I wonder if any of those birds or butterflies or sea creatures would rather not return home but somehow feel that they should.

Yes, it's that time of year again, almost. Time to trek back to the old homestead and visit relatives and feel like an eccentric loser.

Why do I do it? Why do I go back if I dread it each year before I go and don't enjoy it much while I'm there? Well, of course it's because I love (some of) my relatives, I want my daughter to know and love this part of her family, and I want her to have some connection with that place, which is beautiful.

I think I would like my visits 'home' a lot more if I only saw my mother and my aunts and we could just hang out together chatting and walking and laughing together. But that's not what happens.

Here's what it will be like:

My uncles will sit on the deck drinking and talking about sports, war, and religion (occasionally telling crude jokes when they think no one is listening) and the women will cook for them and bring them beverages and snacks.

One of my uncles will ask me if I'm still wasting taxpayer money on my "research" that is on topics so obscure no one could possibly care about such things. Everyone will laugh.

Discussion of my career will remind another uncle to tell me about his son who spent his teens and twenties drunk and/or stoned but who now devotes himself to bringing Bibles to desperately poor people in other countries. He will say "Now that's important work."

My step-father will ask me if I've "written anything" lately, but he doesn't really want to know if I've written anything lately. There is no point in mentioning my scientific articles or books and I am definitely not going to mention that I have been writing occasional columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education because my step-father's question is just his way of introducing the topic of his son who writes for The New York Times.

And we will spend vast amounts of time talking about my brother, the high-ranking military officer, of whom I am very fond and proud even though he outranks me in the family because he is (1) male and therefore intrinsically more special, and (2) in the military. The military is #1 in my family; religion is #2; and some male relatives have even reached a pinnacle of awesomeness by becoming ministers after retiring as high-ranking officers in the military.

Being a Female Science Professor in my family is considered weird and somewhat pathetic. At least I'm good at it. That's something..

At 'home', I go into a kind of Zen-coma in which I let it all wash over me as much as possible. I breathe slowly and evenly, I don't talk much, I go with the flow, I read, I do some manuscript and proposal reviews (though I read them over before I send them in case my feeling of oppression inadvertently seeps into my reviews), I help out in the kitchen, and I count the days.

I have also developed the strategy of taking a vacation in the middle of the vacation. After a dose of relatives, my daughter and I spend a few days together in a favorite place where I spent a lot of time as a child. It is just far enough from Relative Central that we stay in a motel, but not so far that they can't visit us for an afternoon or for dinner. I bookend the stressful parts of the visit on either end of that part of the trip, thereby saving at least a portion of my sanity.

I will not blog during my family trip but I will post something quick tomorrow (with a poll!), and then I will be back next week, just in time to obsess about the looming fall term.

36 comments:

Alex said...

The nice thing about academic careers is that finding a tenure-track professorship generally necessitates packing up and moving far, far away from blood relatives.

zed said...

That all sounds really awful! At least you've worked out a good coping strategy. I have such a small family (like 5, total) and we are all relatively on the same wavelength, I just can't imagine dealing with what you've described. I've had to deal with people like your uncles, but for minutes at a time, and they were not my relatives. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I guess even after reading your essay I still don't understand why you choose to spend time with these people who you so obviously dislike, Do you think that your daughter is oblivious to the emotional undercurrents? It can't be great for her to experience "home" as a place where FSP-mom hangs out happily with all the women and despises all the men.

EliRabett said...

Two recommendations. First you need an elevator speech as in

Yeah, I'm one of 50 people in the world who know about "insert important topic you work on" You may not know it but we are responsible for "insert first line from grant application" which is really important to our country.

Second you need to stress that you are responsible for the education of the smartest kids. The physician who stands over them when they have a heart attack was educated in your class and you are responsible for making sure that only the best become doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. And, oh yes, why aren't your kids good enough for my R1.

When you grew up you looked up to your step-dad and uncles. It's time to rub their noses in your success and your husband needs to take part.

Kea said...

Ah, yes, the wierdo in the family thing. No military or religious people in my family, but the spirit of such occasions is just as you say.

The men will sit around drinking beer and discussing manly topics, while the women prepare lavish meals and clean the house (the men might throw some meat on the barbie when asked). Some relative will tell me that women are no good at maths, and they will consider themselves an expert on the basis of close male autistic relatives who have never been vaccinated. I will be shown the most recent purchases of TVs, ipods, cars, boats or whatever, and be expected to express approval for these purchases without any complaints about my usual state of poverty, which is of course entirely self inflicted. I will do lots of dishes and walk the dogs, to get some peace and quiet.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

Perhaps you and I are related? There were no boys in my immediate family and I have only 1 male cousin--but he was very, very special, I'll tell you that. Because there are so many women, babies seem to be the trump card in my family (and my male cousin scores bonus points for having produced 4 sons with 2 different women). You can be happy that your family knows you do research and write. Mine only acknowledges that I teach and they ask me lots about teaching (I like teaching fine, but it's not what keeps me in this profession).

Anonymous said...

Last time I went home my sister argued with me about WMD in Iraq and left my Dad and stepmom's home without finishing her dinner. Then she called my Mom and accused me of saying things I did not say. As I FSP myself, I feel your pain, but instead of doing what you do I limit my visits "home".

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Now I get what your subconscious dislike of the male species started from

New Asst. Prof. said...

Oh dear, I'm so sorry! While not my 'blood relative,' the uncles could be my father-in-law and I feel you on this. My husband and I both have advanced degrees, and not only does he have no concept of the effort and dedication that goes into it, but he always feels compelled to emphasize how he did just fine by not going to college and it didn't give him any "big ideas." When each of us defended/graduated, he even wrote words to that effect in our congratulatory cards. We politely spend an afternoon with him when back in husband's home town, but have otherwise written him off. Enjoy your moments of sanity with your daughter!

Anonymous said...

to anon 12:55

Do you think that FSP should completely cut her beloved relatives from her life because they happen to associate with (and presumably love) people FSP does not?

It's impossible to go through life only interacting with people we like and agree with. In fact, we sometimes have to be very accommodating to people we don't like (check out the last 5 years of FSP posts for examples). This is something FSP-junior will have to learn in her life, better sooner than later.

mixlamalice said...

Well I have the same comments from some members of my extended family: especially the taxpayer part, or being told that I am a lazy guy that only wants to become a state employee -which is what researchers are in France- so I can do nothing for the rest of my life. For some reasons, explaining that I have worked my way through an ultra-competitive system for the past ten years and am still not done yet, which should mean that I really love what I am doing rather than I just want to do nothing, doesn't seem to convince them: they believe that if I were "normal", I should go for the money in a company rather than wanting to be a poorly paid state employee. Loving his job is not a valid argument for these kind of people.

But other nicer people have other weird ways of considering me, which can be fun:
- my parents for example are very proud, even though they can't really seem to understand what I am doing and what I want to do. I am not even talking about science here but more about "the small world", as D. Lodge says, that I live in.
- some other aunts or uncles think of me as some kind of Professor Calculus, which is a very common way in France of thinking about scientists when you don't actually know them. Well, we all know some scientists like that, but I am pretty sure I am not at all one of them. Actually it is a good excuse for me, since I am not really fond of family reunions: I can miss them or being quite distant when I go, and everybody will think I must be lost in my deep thoughts about changing the world (whereas I am just thinking about my next meal or how to find a quiet place to read my book without being disturbed). My brother, who doesn't really like these meetings either, but who is not a scientist, is often considered as an arrogant guy...

Anyway, good luck.

Anonymous said...

Don't you have some old friend with whom you can chat in your home town? I generally enjoy chatting with couple of my old time friends when I visit home and enjoy hanging out with them.

With all their shortcoming these relatives are part of real world, far from your scientific world where everyone understand your language. It will be similar mixture of people whenever you will go out of your comfortable academic atmosphere. Also maybe your world is too complicated for them to understand and appreciate. Good luck...

Azulao said...

Congratulations on being able to keep the hostility to the minimum, and I'm not saying that sarcastically. I'd be ready to bite pieces off the dresser by the end of a day.

Ask them about "The Family," have you heard of it? It's a secret religious organization, pretending to be Christian, to which all too many of our top pols belong.

Anonymous said...

This was a pleasure to read - I am about to embark on a similar trek, with my daughter. I definitely feel like the odd person out at "home",out of the loop on daily activities of cousins and nephews and nieces...and not really wanting to be part of that circuit. However, it is where I am from, and part of my daughter's heritage..with fewer bigots than FSP suggested.

Alex said...

Looking at the web sites of physical sciences departments at the military service academies, it appears that a full professor may be the equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel. That may impress them.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are both SPs, in the same field, and yet my male relatives only acknowledge that HE is a "Dr." and a professor. They think that I just teach a few hours a week and get paid too much for that.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'll add my sympathies to the mix! And I, too, would like to respond to the first Anonymous: it is useful to recognize that people like FSP's male family members are not some sort of weird, marginalized Other, as one might think if one spent all one's time in college towns, but a significant chunk of the population. FSP's daughter may find it easier to deal with such people later in her life if she is exposed to them now. Not to mention that learning to navigate family tensions is also a useful skill. Anyway, "home" for the daughter is with FSP and her husband, not with FSP's extended family.

Anonymous said...

I'm a MSP and its about the same for me. I finally came to the conclusion, that 1) They don't understand it, 2) They don't try to understand it, and 3) They will never understand it. After 17 years of college-grad school-postdoc-tenure track, they still don't get it. Someone even pulled my step-dad aside and asked: When is he going to get a job? So being a MSP is a complete failure in life. Don't take this the wrong way, but I might actually be viewed as a FSP, like yourself. I'm not a real man! I've given up, and lately I've been getting snippy. I can't wait to go home this coming holiday season, because this time I can wield "I have tenure now" and start saying things like, "I'm glad I don't have to worry about my job like YOU must in this economy." That sounds immature and nasty, but I don't care anymore!

chall said...

All I can say is that you at least (sic!) have a husband and a child, right?

If all else fails, you have at least done "your duty as a woman and become a mother". Others (i.e. me) has failed with this.... "and who cares about a degree in natural science anyway?! It's not like you are a proper MD or a priest".

I wish you a good vacation within the vacation and hope you can shut out the talks from the uncles.

(word verification is unche...)

Anonymous said...

So don't go to the reunion. Families are supposed to love and support each other, not tear each other down and make each other feel worthless. Would you normally choose to hang out with these people if it weren't for the fact that they are blood related to you? Would THEY normally choose to hang out with you if you were not related? (well except for the fact that they seem to enjoy bullying you.) And if not, then why does the blood relation make any difference?

If you were childless, would you still feel an obligation to visit your blood relatives? I don't see how it can be healthy for your daughter to witness her mother being disrespected. When she's an adult, she can decide whether or not she wants to forge relationships with them on her own terms, so I don't think that it is necessarily helping her to put yourself through this unnecessary resentment-building event right now.

it's one thing to be open to dialogue with people you dislike and disagree with. But why spend time with people who look down on you and don't respect you?

Comrade Physioprof said...

You should stay drunk the whole time, and every time someone asks you an obnoxious question, start asking *them* obnoxious questions about their absurd wackaloon religious fuckwittitude and their pathetic war-mongering uniform-worshipping obsequy.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes what constitutes a writer. My grandmother loves to talk about her granddaughter the writer who wrote "a real book." The two granddaughters who who write obscure academic things of course don't count.

Never mind that my work was quoted by the New York Times today, I'm not a real writer because I write for public administration and government types.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I suggest preparing a Bingo board (like the Bullshit bingo) with all the things you are expecting to happen. You secretly keep score (although you may scream "Bingo!" or "Eureka!" when you get 5 in a row). Treat yourself for every bingo you got when you get home.

Anonymous said...

I concur with anonymous @ 8/10/2009 01:50:00 PM. I've limited to almost nothing my relationship to parts of my family (for different reasons than yours). It's not perfect but it's the solution I prefer. Every time we get back in touch together, I am reminded why. It helps that I leave in a different country. Family is overrated...

Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

Sounds like it is very common for high achievers to feel ostracized from their families. I can't say that my family actively denigrates me, but they definitely do not understand my choices. Still, my family is part of who I am, and who I am not. Children can tell the difference between right and wrong and between whom they should choose as role models and whom they should not. FSPs daughter shouldn't miss out on getting to know her grandmother and aunts (and cousins?) because a few of her uncles are ignorant. And, she should see her mother hold herself tall against the attitudes of her uncles. Unfortunately, FSPs daughter will likely have to battle similar attitudes as she grows.

Anonymous said...

I dont' get it....so you hate going to these family visits (and with good reason). And it sounds like your family doesn't really think much of you either. It sounds like they would be just fine and happy to not be associated with you. So...why are you going??

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic! I was feeling quite torn due to a similar situation. I should have gone 'home' for the entire summer but just could not bear to do it - I spent a minimal amount of time over there, then ran back to the small, sleepy town in which my university is located (much to the surprise of everybody around me, since 'home' in my case is a big, great city with much renown).

Thankfully, as I have started teaching, my mother can relate to that a bit. She quit nagging me about children, having reached the conclusion that I was doing my share of child-rearing with my undergrads already (in addition to living in my suitcases). To their credit, my UG do not need any rearing up on my part really, but I did not want to point that to her and have her go back to her discourse on yours truly needing a 'nice man to whom to bear some babies'.

As for my research - nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody wants to hear. Last time I checked, my mother still thinks that I am in art history - the first major I picked and abandoned one term later, years and years ago. But I still like to stress some points about it. "Whatever it is that I do exactly and about which I will spare you the details" is a *real* job, in the strictest sense of the word, and as demanding if not more than that of everybody who is listening. And I bring proofs of that (usually in the form of a lot of crankiness and anxiety, looking extremely sleep-deprived, much work to do at home and long lists of tasks accomplished or needing to be done). Hardly pleasant, but it keeps everybody in check. I have had to deal with too many in-laws who just could not grasp the fact that my job does not end at 4PM, week-days only.

They might still think that what I do, whatever it might be really, is useless or not worth the stress it brings me, but at least they keep their opinions to themselves. Or they sympathise and end up a bit happier about how their job really is not so bad in comparison. I would rather deal with their pity over my high level of stress due to a very demanding 'real job' and have them think I am bumming off.

But yes - it is all very draining. I would hope to be able to go back 'home' to relax and enjoy some time with my family, but as it feels more and more like a chore, I just do not bother. Why should I?

Anonymous said...

I love my family alot, but coping strategies are definitely needed when one's path diverges from the expected norm. I love the idea of a vacation within a vacation- what a great idea! I definitely intend to implement this one.

My in-laws are highly religious with very conformist views about women. On one hand, I am an enormous disappointment because I am not a full time mother, rarely clean my house (and worse, don't consider it important), and never attend church. On the other, when I graduated with my PhD a few years ago I was really touched that several members of the family congratulated me in a meaningful way, despite having very little idea of what I did or do. I realised I had on some level become a role model, which was very interesting. So perhaps we touch other people's lives in rather strange but unexpected ways.

Anonymous said...

"As for my research - nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody wants to hear. Last time I checked, my mother still thinks that I am in art history - the first major I picked and abandoned one term later, years and years ago."

To the last anon: what is your research on? Hard to imagine that nobody knows or cares. Everything has some value and relate to something that other people (the public) can understand....like explaining it to a 5 yr old :)

Kevin said...

Interdisciplinary Introspective said, "Sounds like it is very common for high achievers to feel ostracized from their families."

I think that it is possible that the majority have good relationships with their family, and so don't have much need to blog about it.

Although my family is not much given to gathering together (the last time was a few years ago for my mother's funeral), we don't irritate each other the way FSP reports. Although I'm the only professor in the immediate family, the extended family has several professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers, school teachers, and other professionals, so it isn't a big deal.

I think my father *would* like the family to gather more---he spent a month traveling this summer, visiting all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as a few of his cousins. It is somewhat easier for a retired widower to travel than for all the family to come to him, so I suspect this will become an annual event until he gets too old to travel well.

mareserinitatis said...

Being close to family has its ups and downs. My husband's dad was SO proud of him for working on a PhD, but other family members obviously thought it was stupid and a waste of time. I suspect those same family members believe that about my doctoral aspirations.

I'm fortunate that my parents really have been supportive of me, and any relatives who may disagree (on my side of the family) are either incommunicado or too far away to care.

Susan B. Anthony said...

Wow, after reading all the comments here, I feel much more appreciative of my parents, who are both academics. They are not scientists and don't really understand the content of my work, but they get why I do it and can relate to both the stresses and the joys of the professorial life. I guess I'm lucky!

dunelady said...

Wow, FSP, that makes me feel better in comparison. I don't see my extended family often enough for them to treat me like that - I'm too much of a stranger, so they're more polite. I don't even know how they really feel about my work, and I'd prefer that it stay that way.

My immediate family is full of its own issues. My father is a retired engineer who just can't wait to sit me down and either 1) enthusiastically show me some new idea of his regarding my field of study that is mildly interesting but irrelevant or not worth studying, or 2) go through my most recent paper or proposal and tell me what I did wrong, as if he knows my field better than I do. Regardless of what I say to either topic, he won't believe me when I tell him patiently and gently why his thoughts are reasonable but wrong. He clearly has some sort of mental block when it comes to listening to me explain something to him. I'm not sure why. Is it because I'm female? Or his little girl? Or is he just crotchety? Should I let him have his moment of glory or should I tell him how much these conversations irritate me?

My mother and sister don't have careers. They respect mine well enough, but I know I'm not allowed to talk much about it around them. It would seem too much like bragging about something I have that they don't have. I patiently sit while they recount stories of silly things I did when I was little. I'm not allowed to recount stories of silly things my sister did, I'm pretty sure they'd gang up on me.

I, too, try to take mini vacations within my vacation home.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had that many priviledges in life, but having had a family who respected and supported my scientific interests from an early age and always was one. Good on you for becoming the wonderful successful FSP that you are, and finding ways to manage your time with your family.

PT said...

Your post and the associated comments made me realize many of us in science have a similar experience to quote. Although funny, this article really captures the passive response often required to weather a visit home:
The Onion - 95 Percent Of Opinions Withheld On Visit To Family

Another Alex said...

It's funny how different things mean a lot to different people. It meant almost nothing to my relatives when I was admitted as an undergrad (and later grad) to the one of the top schools in my field, nothing when I interned at NASA, but the summer I took an internship coding for Google, it was suddenly a huge deal.

I suppose I'm lucky in that though thye may not understand or respect the work I do, they respect and love me as a person.