Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shut the front door and crack the window

Everywhere I go, I see stories that need telling in photographs, children that grow up before my eyes and fleeting moments that need capturing. Photography has been a hobby for a very long time, but become much more a part of my life over the past 6 years, since the birth of my first daughter.  In a way, it has been a malnourished part of the creative side of me. There is never enough time in the day to take the photographs I see, to learn new ways to present these images and to shoot just for the sake of shooting.  

My nose has been too close to the grindstone of my "ultimate career goal" (says the cover letter) of being a tenure track faculty at a primarily undergraduate institution. This is the path I chose for myself when I was fresh out of college. A 20-something who dreamed of having a small biomedical research lab and teaching wonderful, meaningful and thought-provoking lecture and lab courses.  

Enter reality. The number of Ph.D. graduates and postdoctoral fellows (graduates with way too much training) far outnumber faculty positions in a bottleneck of epic proportions. Many people on the academic track, particularly those with young families, are having to choose other avenues to make ends meet. Like so many other specialized jobs, getting the right fit at the right time is a game of chance. Landing the right job takes an immense amount of patience and an ability to pack up and move absolutely anywhere. It also takes a love of science that far transcends my own. 

It became clear to me that I was headed down the wrong path. Science became an obligation rather than a passion. In the midst of working as a temporary faculty member,  I found myself falling asleep putting lectures together but staying awake to edit photos into the wee hours of the morning; riding into work anticipating the lighting in my next photo shoot instead of thinking about writing my next lecture or what experiment to try next.

My options became:
1. Move our whole family to wherever-I-get-a-job and miss my children growing up.  
2. Stay in Charleston, wait for my ship to come in while fighting for adjunct scraps off the academic sow - and still miss my children growing up. 
3. Become a photographer, do what I love, get paid to do it and be there for my kids. 

My choice was simple (of course, starting a small business is not simple and being a professional photographer is not all roses). There were a few defining moments involved in this decision, one of which was last spring. 

I was running around like the proverbial chicken. There I was, in the midst of a faculty job search, running a massive research project and teaching 4 lab sections as an adjunct. I felt exhausted, overwhelmed and horribly guilty for missing so much time with my kids. After coming home late (again) one night, I went to tuck my daughters into bed.  Right after my husband came by to give my 4-year-old daughter a goodnight kiss, I asked her,   

“Do you know your Daddy loves you?”
“Yeah,” she replied with a sleepy smile.

Feeling guilty and jealous of the abundant time my husband had with the two of them, I needed some validation that I was doing something right. Maybe it wasn’t being there to pick you up from ballet class, maybe it wasn’t when you needed help putting on your doll’s dress, maybe it wasn’t when you needed me to make your dinner or give you a bath - but I’m here now…  

So, I asked her, 
“Do you know your Mommy loves you?”
After a long pause, she said, 
“Mommy… why do you have so much work time?”

My heart dropped to the floor. 

Not long after,  I was catching up on email's during my early morning coffee and came across Angie Mizzell’s Blog Post

One excerpt jumped off the page at me:

"Everything looked good on paper, but I felt completely lost without a sense of personal or professional direction. I felt stuck. I felt trapped. I worried that the ladder to success led to misery and that one day, I’d reach the top with a shiny resume and a hole in my soul."

I sobbed like a baby. How can I look at my girls and say that “you can do whatever you want to in life” or “follow your happiness” when they are making career decisions when I can’t take my own advice? How can I reply to the question, “why do you have so much work time?” when I don’t have the answer for myself?

But the guilt. Ah…. the guilt of betraying all of the time and energy spent toward this goal I set for myself in my twenties. In the end, we all face choices.  This choice came with a lot of soul-searching (some guts) and the tireless moral support of my husband and family.

I chose to follow my happiness.