Campus Life pondering possibilities

MIT life from the kitchen sink

The uncertainties of being the wife of a graduate student

Surrounded on all four sides by the short, squat buildings of student family housing at MIT, the large, inviting playground is the focus of the view from every kitchen window, presumably positioned to enable mothers to call Johnny, or Ahmed, or Xiao Ming home for dinner. A plethora of languages are spoken here on the playground, but the main language is that of uncertainty.

“I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here,” is the usual refrain, followed tentatively, sometimes even furtively by, “depends on his… advisor.” Ah, if only the academic advisors of our husbands knew that the power they wielded over our husbands’ sleep, dreams, and nightmares also presided over the conversations of desperate-for-graduation housewives at the playground.

The esteemed names of these professors inevitably come up alongside discussions about the weather, the kids, and the price of mushrooms. For the international families whose husbands and fathers at MIT are aspiring academics, questions about the future often reverberate back without clear answers.

Four years ago, I left my classroom of mockingbirds, Shakespeare, and gerunds to move thirteen time-zones away and start a new life as the unwitting wife of an academic wannabe. “It’ll be fun!” I thought. I had imagined that I would play house and cook for him. He, fueled by my nourishing soups, would graduate from his PhD program in four years, if not five, tops.

In my free time, I would attend free lectures in the universities around the area, have a couple of babies, and borrow intellectually stimulating books from some of the world’s best lending collections. He’d graduate, get a faculty position at a university, and we’d move out of our 660 square foot apartment with 2.2 kids in tow for a settled domesticity at a college town. Life would finally begin.

Upon my arrival on these river banks of academia, however, I was caught unprepared for the gamut of uncertainty that I encountered in the heart of a PhD student’s life in research — the question of passing the qualifying exam, the fear of being “scooped” by a competing lab, the option of a post-doc, the endless hunt for a faculty position, and, only then, the final seven-year publish-or-perish hurdle of tenure.

But first, he must actually graduate. There’s the June date, the August possibility, and the January back-up. Or there’s always staying another year. Or eight.

As aliens on a myriad of visas, we international wives and mothers soon learn to tread water together in this ocean of uncertainty. We have death, taxes, and each other as companions. Glad to finally stop floundering individually, we take refuge in finding each other around the gritty sandpit. We cheer each other on to keep our heads above laundry and dishes, meeting under the pretext of supervising our children on the playground.

This is where we encourage each other in varying accents to stand on our own two feet on American soil — put one foot in the present because this is our new home for now “so let’s make the best of it, ja?” one foot in the past “because our children need their roots, no?” and one foot in the future because “it’s important to plan ahead, si?”

We laugh at our math and joke about how we’d never get into MIT without our husbands’ help. But deep down, we want to believe that our husbands will never get out of MIT without us, the ex-doctors, ex-teachers, and ex-lawyers who choose to cook, clean, and care for them while waiting for a time horizon that is constantly shifting.

The playground with its slides, swings, and see-saws beckons to my three-year old daughter. Glancing out of my kitchen window, I see my friends gathering. There will be more celebrations for that great job offer, more questions about possible school districts, and more agonizing over when he will graduate — that’s for sure.

“Get your jacket on, sweetie!” I urge my little one, whose only uncertainty is whether she’ll get to read two books or three at bedtime.

“It’s time for Mummy to go to the playground!”

Anonymous over 7 years ago

Really nice essay! We graduate students wonder when we will graduate too. It's nice to hear the other perspective.

Anonymous over 7 years ago

Thanks for sharing, it's important for us to talk about this to connect and support each other!