This past summer, after taking five months off to be with my newborn, I went back to work. My department chair was, I think, trying to do me a solid, and he assigned me to teach two online classes. This made my days completely flexible: we got Maggie into daycare part-time, but I could be home with her when I wanted to be, nurse her often, and sleep in or take naps when neither of us was getting much sleep. But it was also a brand-new endeavour for me, being a working mother, let alone teaching online. And to top it off, my online classes made for very little face-to-face interactions with anyone from work.
A few weeks into that summer semester, I was riddled with anxiety. I’d find myself actually shaking as I sat down to open my work email or to check the class discussion boards. What if, this time, I really was stumped by the questions students asked? What if the students weren’t interested or, worse, were cruel? But also: what if this was not the most productive or efficient use of my time? That question slayed me — I’d bounce back and forth between fear of working to the point of burnout and fear of not working enough. My panic that I was spending my time badly led to me feeling the need for a mental break, which led to Facebook, which led me down the rabbit hole that is the internet, and there would go thirty minutes I could have spent responding to the two simple questions my students had asked.
Within those few weeks, my confidence flew the coop, and my pleasure in my work flew after it. I was going through the motions, doing the work I needed to do, but without really investing in it. I was staying on the edges of it, keeping my distance out of fear. I stayed tentative and leery for fear that I’d be found out as an impostor, or for fear that I’d fail, or for fear that, after all of those years preparing and planning, it would turn out that I didn’t even like being a faculty member.
One root of this problem was the lack of feedback. Even informal feedback, like a nod from a colleague when I share a teaching strategy or a question from a student that shows they’re thinking hard, was missing. When I did go to campus, I’d walk down the empty hallway to my office past rows of closed doors. People just aren’t around much here, especially in the summer. And then there was the fact that I’d received no official guidance or training for teaching online (ah, academia, how disorganized we are). Another steep learning curve, with no feedback to let me know I was doing okay or where I could improve. There have been so many of those curves lately, and I’d thought that would all be over after grad school.
I spent a lot of time in grad school dreaming of my “real job” and everything I’d do with the time, money, and confidence that would come with it. I dismissed those who said that life was busier after grad school and clung to the stories of those who managed to find good work/life balance on the tenure track. I ignored warnings that things aren’t so financially hunky-dory past grad school and instead pinned new couches and fancy kitchen equipment to the Pinterest board I dubbed (no joke) “When I Have a Real Job.” I imagined myself in a stunning blazer and crisp-but-casual dress pants (I’d magically lost weight, too, in these scenarios), breezing into my sunlight-filled office on my way to an important meeting, stopping generously to chat with the adoring undergrads crowded around my office door. Yes, I knew there would be some challenges, but none of them could be as soul-crushing as graduate school. After all, I’d have freedom.
Over the past year, I’ve certainly been free. But I’ve also been very alone. I was utterly unprepared for the intense isolation that came with this “real job.” With no cohort to fall back on and no graduate classes or dissertation writing groups or TA meetings to provide a sense of collaboration, I’ve felt like I was flying solo. And with that feeling has come a lot of self-doubt. For someone with strong extroverted tendencies like myself, this isolation has been crippling.
My work fears this summer seeped into other aspects of my life, too. I was anxious every day my baby girl went to daycare, worried that she’d be unhappy, or that it wasn’t the best fit for her. Or, on the strange flipside, I worried that her caregiver wouldn’t be happy with me! The anxious mind is so creative. And I’ve gotten anxious about other things, too, that shouldn’t be a big deal, like our attempt to buy a new couch — the most major piece of furniture we’ve ever invested in. My husband, Andrew, and I have been hemming and hawing over couch style, colour, and price for literally months now. I keep thinking, “What is wrong with us? It’s just a couch!”
I’ve been trying to figure out what shifted, and here’s what I think: I’m trying to create that perfect self I had in my mind all through grad school. Yes, when I was explaining to Andrew how nervous I was about my fall classes while we anxiously pored over couch fabric swatches, he ventured, “It’s like now it’s for real, so it all has to be perfect.”
I know that much of this anxiety is normal. I’m juggling a lot of new things at once, and any one of them could cause me to be fearful. I think it’s important to just put this out there — to say that I’m scared, and to reiterate that the transition from graduate school to a faculty position is really scary. And I think it’s important to stop expecting some ideal life for myself and instead enjoy the life I have. Of course, that means learning to trust — trust that it’s not about me or my idea of perfection but about God and his perfection. Trust that things will change, that this time in my life — and really, this life — is not the end of the story. And, at the same time, trust that God delights in me even now.
I’m sure that many of the readers and contributors to The Well know what I’m talking about, so I’m curious to hear about your experiences stepping over the threshold after grad school. What was that experience like in terms of your confidence and pleasure in your work? How did you respond to fears?
Stephanie White is a member of the English Language and Literature faculty at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. She teaches writing and rhetoric while researching composition pedagogy and service-learning. She and her husband Andrew have a darling baby girl and very helpful neighbours.
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