Traveling academics and the guilt from crises at home.

It is 2203hrs and I have urgent tasks to complete and a long soothing shower to take and half a Hiroshi Shinagawa film to complete and an apple to eat, but I cannot concentrate on any of these until I empty my insides here in a bid to reorder myself.

Tonight I am feeling quite helpless with being so far away from my home and my house and my person and all the people and places and things that I love very much.

There are many opportunity costs to pursuing a career in academia. I’ve made a list of these that I would like to write about as part of my PhD hacks, but tonight I want to write about how traveling alone frequently and for long periods for work (much less traveling alone as a young woman generally) can be really agonizing.

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I need to start by acknowledging that I am only able to pursue the career that I want, and at the intensity I am so doing, because I have a really supportive person. LDRs have been a recurring staple in our 13-year relationship. We cope with the intermittent distance through affective technologies, and the times that we do co-habit are especially tangible and precious.

Apart from the glorious succulents all around our home (that I hope have been kept alive in my absence), I don’t yet have any familial dependents. It sure makes for the traveling to be less emotionally-guilting and logistically easier to manage.

While I juggle (precarious, insecure, short term, serially contracted, underpaid) work in several cities in three continents, my person anchors our household in the most substantial and abstract of ways. For instance, I have never had to manage a mortgage payment because my person handles our paperwork; I just make sure I make enough money each month to keep up with our loans. And in the interest of transparency, I have also never mowed our lawn because I have not been home in a long-enough-consecutive-stretch to be annoyed by overgrown grass.

In academic circles, we speak a lot about the double burden of intellectual and household labour usually subsumed by women, but I’m really fortunate in that my person and I share this fairly equally when we co-habit, and when I travel they certainly do the lion’s share. We’re also the sort of folks who would rather have a messy but happy household than a spotless but tired one, so if the dishes go unwashed for one more day because we need to focus on something else or because we are lazy, we are totes okay with that and life still goes on.

All this is just to say, in every logistical, practical, tangible sense of things, we have learnt to adapt to 1) the demands of our dream careers, 2) co-maintaining a household, and most crucially 3) wanting to grow up and grow old together.

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What is especially difficult for me tonight is that my person is shouldering a sudden and unexpected commotion all by himself. I don’t doubt that he has the ability and resilience to pull through, but I am immensely overwhelmed with guilt.

All the self-preservation mechanisms that I usually exercise when I’m traveling for work, to cushion myself from being homesick and lovesick, just collapsed in a phone call. I keep wishing I wasn’t so far away and suddenly feel so guilty for pursuing my dream career and dream research project and dream fieldwork 13,699 km away from my person (I Googled).

Although there is no immediate action I can take to help alleviate my person’s agony, I am so tempted to drop everything and book the next flight home with just my laptop and the clothes on my back. I just want to be there right next to them. Maybe one day in the future I will look back on this and think myself melodramatic, but tonight I am crazily craving instant physical proximity so I can radiate solidarity from my body and hold them and look at them and tell them things are going to be okay.

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So, while still standing in a drizzle on the sidewalk outside a Myrorna in Borås where I was going to do fieldwork this afternoon, I repeatedly called to ask my person if I should fly home. But as the more level-headed and rational one between us, my person quickly assessed that things were under control and swiftly transited to calming my nerves. And then I felt even more guilty, because they were managing both the tangible labour of crisis management at home and the emotional labour of comforting me from across oceans.

I contacted our best friends whom I knew would apparate in an instant, and was so comforted to know they were already at our door. In a heartbeat, they became my surrogates in disseminating information, care, comfort, and prayer to my person.

Several phonecalls and FaceTime chats and text messages and panicked exchanges later, I exhausted my emotional capacity to do things and decided to just be. At that point, I checkpointed all my emotions and anxieties, and transited into kickass work mode to properly complete the day of fieldwork. And so I got out of the rain and walked into Myrorna and did my 100% professionalism thing. That was that.

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What else could I do while I was so far away?

Throughout the day, whenever I had minutes between interviews and fieldwork visits I rang my person on the phone several times. Even though I thought I was disseminating comfort as best as I could, to be honest this tele-co-presence was probably more soothing for me, serving as a placeholder for my physical presence. At times we got to exchange words, and other times I just listened to white noise and breathing as my person went about their tasks. Still other times I shared their POV (albeit pixelated and laggy and incoherent) through FaceTime as they multi-tasked several things at once. It felt nice to be there, sort of.

And then I beeped one of my closest friends and let out a long incoherent rant, and they downloaded more care into my system through our intimate vocabulary of twisted humour, recurring jokes, and affect through resilience.

And then I continued with my interviews and fieldwork and a dinner and grant planning with a colleague (all in A+ composure, I should add) and got back to the hotel.

And then I contacted the six or so people to whom I owe urgent emails/work to explain my immediate (but hopefully short) radio silence.

And so here I am now, sitting on the bed half-drenched and half-dressed while writing words into this space because I am too stressed out to complete my urgent tasks or take a long soothing shower or complete half a Hiroshi Shinagawa film or eat an apple.

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This has been a trying day of many gear shifts, of self-representation acrobatics, of crisis management tactics, of mediated affect from friends, and of care and guilt in a long distance relationship.

This has also been an exercise in public vulnerability and demystifying more of the opaqueness that shrouds an academic career, its latent demands, and its opportunity costs.

I will now wrap up this post and publish it and leave my laptop (for closure). Then I will open my calendar app and count the days till my flight home (for comfort). Then I will go through my diary to psych myself up for fieldwork tomorrow (for adrenaline). And then maybe proceed to shower, finish the film, and eat an apple (for because I want to).

Humans are resilient creatures. Everything will be better in the morning.

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