By Susanna Childress

The Commuting Life

I met Susanna Childress in 2005, in Madison, Wisconsin, where she had come to accept the University of Wisconsin’s Brittingham Prize, awarded annually to the best book-length manuscript of original poetry submitted in an open competition. Childress has since finished her PhD in creative writing from Florida State University and has been commuting from Holland, Michigan, to a teaching position in Indiana at Valparaiso University. Expecting that there are many readers at The Well who commute to their jobs or may consider taking a position that would involve a significant commute, I asked Susanna for an interview, knowing she would have a thoughtful response to the commuting life. I caught up with her during her spring break at home in Holland, Michigan.

Last time we talked you were finishing your PhD in poetry. What has happened since then? How did you come to this commuting position?

It seems to me something of a small miracle when both people in a couple can find meaningful jobs in the same location. It seems even more miraculous when those two people are in academia, and miraculous beyond that when your specialties happen to be located squarely in the Humanities. Josh, my husband, is an Arts Pastor, a rare breed of ministers who are not particularly marketable. As an English professor, I’m not very marketable either, unfortunately. So when I was offered a job at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, at the exact same time Josh was interviewing at Hope College here in Holland, Michigan, we knew we were in something of a pickle. In fact, I had to give an answer to Earlham before Hope College gave us an answer. However, we had such a strong sense that Hope was where we were supposed to be that I turned down the job at Earlham; it was just a three-year position and, honestly, we were tired of moving. Additionally, it seemed more likely that I would get a job in this area than he would get a job in Richmond. It seemed wise. I was all for it.

And for two years things went smoothly; we even worked together here — one year I was teaching as an adjunct while I finished my dissertation and one year as a sabbatical replacement, as a visiting professor. But after that, there was nothing here for me, not even adjunct work.

I applied to a number of schools that were two or three hours away, jobs which were tenure track, and I was very encouraged about a position at Wheaton College but entirely unsure I could commit to do the commuting long-term, so I withdrew. I knew from the beginning if I took a position that involved commuting, it would need to be fixed-term. That was the saving grace of the post-doctoral fellowship I accepted at Valparaiso. It was a two-year appointment. This was my thinking, and it was grad school that taught me this: I can do anything for two years. I might be miserable doing it (thankfully I haven’t been miserable at Valpo) but there’s an end-point in sight. If I were in a tenure-track long-distance commute, I think I would feel incredibly trapped.

What is your schedule like?

I know there are different types of commuting scenarios, but mine involves dual living locations. I’m gone from Holland for a portion of every week. I drive off Monday morning and return Thursday night. It takes me about two hours, dependent, of course, on weather and construction, to get to Valparaiso. So I spend four hours on the road a week, which is not as much as someone with a daily 45-minute commute each way. Of course, I don’t get to come home each night. However, it’s doable the way it is: 3 ½ days there and 3 ½ days here. And while I am there, I try to be all there and to not bring my work home on the weekends.

Do you rent an apartment there?

I actually share an apartment with a friend. This was an element of the setup that seemed providential, like the doors were opening for me to take this position. During the interview weekend at Valparaiso, I met a woman who had been a college classmate of my husband’s. She lives in Valparaiso and was looking for a roommate. I knew from the outset that, if I could avoid it, I didn’t want a second, separate living space — I’m really concerned about my footprint (and all that driving makes it a big one to begin with). So sharing an apartment with someone I enjoy has been the greatest blessing. She keeps the apartment and I have a room there; she’s been very generous to let me use her hairdryer and her frying pan so that I didn’t have to go out and purchase a second set of appliances for my time in Valpo.

What has been your experience with the commute?

I wonder if I’ve had a singular commuting experience because the folks at Valparaiso have been very accommodating. They wanted to make sure I would to be there during the week, that I was going to live there and participate in the community, and I committed to doing that. They have otherwise structured my time so that my week is bookended with a colloquium on Monday afternoon and a symposium on Thursday evenings; all four semesters they made sure my teaching assignments were on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And I teach great classes; this semester it’s Poetry of Social Justice in the honors college and an Introduction to Creative Writing course.

An element that can be both positive and negative to the commuting experience is that, if your work requires a lot of you (and I don’t know what academic workload doesn’t, especially the first few years when you’re worrying about publishing and developing course curriculum) and you are living apart from your spouse or family during your commute, you don’t have to be home at a certain time. When I’m in Valpo, no one is waiting to eat with me at 6:30 each evening. So I can work at school until 9 pm — or even midnight. That allows me on the weekends to be totally at home. That has been, for the most part, a positive thing — and very familiar. I was single all during grad school, so I had very few restrictions on my time. I was pretty focused and ambitious, so it worked well to work right through dinner and into the night writing or researching, and now I’m able during the week to continue that kind of schedule. But one might need to learn some boundaries—say, if one wants to maintain a meaningful relationship with her spouse or have children (I’m 32 weeks pregnant, so this isn’t just hypothetical!).

An entirely separate topic is this: how do you transition from single/grad school life to family life? I think Josh and I had done this pretty well the two years we were here together because I did not want him working late and he did not want me working late and we held each other accountable to a more “normal” schedule. But now we’ve moved back to our old schedule, so we’ll have to transition once again to a more family-friendly lifestyle and figure out how to get the same amount of work done.

One of the major drawbacks of the commute is the difficulty in trying to invest in two communities in addition to all the other things I am trying to do — be a professional, write, research, keep my relationship(s) whole and stable. Investing in people around and in my community, buying local food, supporting local businesses, all those things have tended to fall by the wayside these past two years. How much can you be part of a community if you are gone every weekend? You can’t be part of a church, and you aren’t participating socially in that community on the weekend (and a good amount of campus events happen on the weekend). For instance, I missed every single department party for two years because they were scheduled on the weekend, so I had to decide whether to go down especially for events on the weekend or miss them entirely. And I ended up missing out. My colleagues and peers hear me talk about Josh, but he’s not part of the picture at Valpo. In addition, I miss a lot here during the week.

Besides missing my husband and having a long-distance relationship during the week, that, to me, has been the hardest part of the commute: how do I maintain a place in my “home” community during the week? It’s very difficult to regularly see my friends or to make time to volunteer; I can’t be part of a CSA here because Josh can’t eat all those beets by himself! Even seeing our neighbors and those spontaneous things that happen around town just don’t happen because I’m gone for half the week.

Interesting that you had the two years here so you knew what you were missing. You had already established a community base here in Michigan.

Yes, I’m grateful for the social groundwork laid in those two years. But you’re right, I’m not as available to those friends right now; it’s a struggle to maintain those relationships.

I think, too, the general weariness that’s typical for the middle of the semester is compounded by all the driving and what I call my “bifurcation” — always leaving one place for another, continually leaving something undone at one location to get something else done at the other location. Packing a bag every week. Doing grocery shopping here and grocery shopping there. It may sound silly, but I am very aware how much energy it takes to maintain this, and sometimes I am chagrined to think of how much of this energy I could’ve been putting into my writing or my research. However, I also realize I would have missed out on a good deal of professional development — the classes I’ve taught and the personal connections I’ve made — these are things I couldn’t have done on my own.

What kinds of stressors have there been between you and Josh and how have you mitigated that?

The first significant stressor is how to communicate long distance; my husband is a fantastic creature, kind and giving in many and sundry ways, but he’s not someone who enjoys the phone at all. He has this whole philosophy about needing to see the face of the person with whom he’s communicating, so we do some videoconferencing, but even that’s not a substitute for actual face-to-face time.

I’ve lived long distance from a majority of my friends and family all throughout grad school, so I’ve gotten comfortable with the phone, but he hasn’t, and that has been pretty rough. I forced it for a year, but now we’ve found some middle ground: we maybe have one substantial phone conversation Monday through Thursday instead of trying to talk every day, which would be my preference.

There is something interesting about being married and being apart — you do sort of have your own little world again, but then three days later, you’re back together trying to communicate effectively, trying to accommodate two schedules, trying to meet each other’s needs and be present to one another.

So you always have that reentry.

Yes, every week we transition into being with each other and then transition out of it, so I am either missing him or getting used to him again. That takes more work than I thought and would have liked to admit; if you leave things unsaid or not quite right between the two of you — fighting on a Monday right before I left was always the worst — you have the whole week to think about it; even if you apologize, the residue of that altercation lingers because you’re not with each other to live into more peaceful moments together.

Another stressor for us is logistically managing a household when one of us is gone. Josh admits he tends to regress into bachelorhood. He is satisfied with how he cooks for himself, how he picks up after himself. These are sort of stereotypical issues for couples, but when one of you is gone, those mundane details still exist — is there food in the house, who is doing laundry, and why didn’t the dishwasher get unloaded? Seems like things you can hammer out pretty easily, but for whatever reason, it is a stressor for us. Not that it was a smooth operation before, but my being gone half the week exacerbates it.

Another stressor is that we are very jealous of our time together when I am home. I want to be part of my community, so during my time in Michigan I have to balance connecting with friends and neighbors with making sure my relationship with Josh isn’t suffering. If I haven’t seen my husband all week, am I going to go out with a group of women or am I going to spend that evening with Josh? Nine times out of ten it is going to be with Josh. He’s definitely an introvert and I’m right on the edge of being more of an introvert than an extrovert, so maybe the way we’re spending our time right now complements our personalities in some small way: we have the weekdays to ourselves and the weekend to be together. But it does mean we’re excluding anyone else.

What counsel did you hear from others as you considered commuting?

I think most people will end up hearing two very different types of advice.

From the academic community you hear, “Couples do this all the time. This is what you have to do to be successful; think of it as paying your dues.” It’s advice that normalizes a very abnormal and potentially strained lifestyle. Your academic peers will be thinking about your professional and academic development, not your personal relationships. There’s something understandably myopic about what goes on your CV, so it takes moxie to think outside of that—“How stable and successful is my home life? Am I a good friend? A good citizen of my community?”

On the other hand, family, friends, and community members might be shocked and disapproving about the commute; they might be harsh or skeptical about how it will affect you personally without understanding what it could mean for you professionally. They’ll ask, “Why would you want to do that?” and “Is this going to be good for your marriage?”

It’s a confusing decision to make since you’re getting such conflicting advice, and since it seems like neither community understands the more holistic perspective, which is that, of course, you want to flourish professionally and maintain healthy and meaningful connections with those around you. Isn’t this the conundrum most women (especially in academia) face? It must be a personal decision—only you can know whether you’ll handle the difficult circumstances of commuting well or whether it will cost more than it’s worth.

What advice would you give to someone considering commuting?

I am actually glad that I did it. I think it would have always been a temptation for me to consider commuting, so I’m grateful to know now it is not something feasible for us. I have to admit that when I look at job openings, I still have this urge to apply for jobs that would require a commute; I wonder if that’s because the pull is so strong to keep working when you have spent so much time on a Ph.D and you enjoy what you do in academia.

I think the long-distance commute is worth considering it if it is a fixed-term position, and, if you are in a relationship, it’s a strong, stable one that can withstand the hassles, tension, and heartache endemic to such a commute. It is a powerful thing for women to have options professionally — I know it was very important for me to be able to continue working these past two years — but whether it is you commuting as a woman or your husband, you’ll want to consider the potentially corrosive elements of it. I suppose it could be a sustainable lifestyle for some families, but Josh and I found out in a meaningful but difficult way that it is not sustainable for us. In that way, it was a good scenario to help us become better acquainted with both our limitations as a couple and the knowledge of what we want in our marriage, which is to be together — every week, all week long.

About the Author

Susanna Childress writes short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She authored poetry volumes Jagged with Love and Entering the House of Awe and a forthcoming collection of essays, Extremely Yours. She earned her Master's degree at University of Texas at Austin, her PhD at Florida State, and held a Lilly Fellows Postdoc at Valparaiso University. Currently she teaches at Hope College and lives with her family in Holland, Michigan.

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