The Three Body Problem*

The postpartum period is one of highs and lows: hopefully cuddling a tiny baby and getting some sleep, while trying to make time for all important self-care that’s beneficial for recovery, including one’s mental and emotional health. But life throws curveballs. Two weeks after my kid’s birth, my partner and I found out that our kid has been diagnosed with what some would call a rare and severe communicative disorder. [I won’t get into the politics of calling it a disorder; I’d disagree with that terminology. But it’s rare enough that it could be fairly easy to identify it and our family, so I’ll stay vague on this one.] So we’ve been to a lot of doctor’s appointments already as a family, and it’s only the beginning.

I’ll be honest: the news was devastating at first, although when I would try to reflect upon what exactly was so upsetting, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Once a few months had passed, I was able to see in hindsight that it wasn’t the diagnosis per se but getting it simultaneously so early (my kid having a set of labels on them before I’d ever gotten to discover them and get to know them as their own person) and without warning (no family history, no indication during pregnancy, no potential to prepare ourselves, home, and extended families for this new reality). We are fortunate that our kid’s condition is such that with individualized education and years of multiple therapies, they should be able to communicate their thoughts, to understand others, to live independently one day, and to enjoy so much of what this great world has to offer. But there’s a lot of milestones to reach before then, and it’s going to take some radical changes in how my partner and I imagined parenting our kid. And this brings me to the three body problem.

As a graduate student partnered to a fellow academic in a time of decreasing full time academic positions, the assumption is that we can and should move anywhere for a job. Others have posted in the past about some of the problems with this expectation. Positions are limited and all over the place, but the specifics of the location where the institution is matter. A lot. In my case, I’m now trying to square away how we will not only be able to find meaningful work for my partner and me – but will the place be able to provide for the special medical and education needs of my child? And to be honest, it’s starting to feel like that’s a much more important question for our family. Every parent wants the best for their kid, and no one can predict the future, but it’s almost 100% certain that moving to a rural area or small town for work would not mean good things for my kid. Even in my current university area, which one could reasonably call a large town or small city, there (surprisingly) isn’t a provider of the therapy he needs within an hour’s drive. [A story for another time is how my university doesn’t outline sick leave for graduate research assistants … so whether or not it’s cool to take all this time off to take my kid to all these doctor appointments is entirely supervisor dependent.]

We’ve already learned some horrifying statistics about how isolated kids with this condition can feel, especially as teens, and their perceived lack of adult role models. There are a few cities in the US with both the medical and education expertise that our kid should ideally get. Not surprisingly, other families with this condition move to those areas, so these places are also spots that our kid would be much more likely to meet kids and adults like them, helping to ensure community and hopefully higher self-esteem, especially later in life. So now we’re asking ourselves: should we move to one of those cities? Should we focus our academic job searches there? Should we forego the possibility of academic careers if we can’t get a position in or near one of those cities? Presumably it’s best for our kid if at least one of us is employed (duh), but how much can we compromise on their needs for the sake of a particular type of employment, even though we’ve invested a decade each in this path? For now, my partner and I are thinking we can’t. How this will play out in practice is yet to be seen though, as I go on the market next year, and my partner is on the job market now. I’m already trying to make connections and find potential opportunities in these cities though.

I recognize that the three body problem isn’t unique. There are many stories of the challenges (and blessings) of the one body problem and the two body problem (here and here). Factoring in three people is similar to the two body problem in that the question is about the best collective outcome for everyone involved, which may be different than the ‘best’ outcome for each individual.   If you have a story about balancing a kid’s needs (or other dependent/s or elder care, etc.) and are willing to share your thoughts and experience, please do.

* Just to be clear, as I am fairly sure that no one referring to the two body problem actually means that they consider their spouse an actual problem, I am in no way saying that my kid is a problem. They’re my first and only kid; so obviously I think they’re absolutely perfect. 🙂

18 thoughts on “The Three Body Problem*

  1. Personally, I think adding kid(s) – special needs or not – makes it automatically a three-body problem, as we contemplate how our career decisions affect our children (should I go to a remote field site for 3 months? should I take a new job when my kid is in high school? etc.). You’ve just won the lottery of an extra super hard three body problem. Best of luck to you as you continually adapt and figure things out.

    • definitely – well put. I’ve already thought that with things like ‘should I apply to this semester long opportunity abroad?’ — and now I feel that with most –if not all — of those opportunities, the potential lack or availability of appropriate med/ed resources for my kid would decide that for me.

    • thanks for sharing that post! I’d not seen that. And yes, it’s great and refreshing to see someone (especially a man!) acknowledge his and his family’s reasons for moving and changing priorities.

  2. I wish you all the very best in sorting out the things that are most important to your family. There are always compromises to be made, but the health of the kids is a very important consideration. Just remember later not to beat yourself up about decisions you may make. People never make “bad” decisions – they always make the decisions that seem best at the time, with the information available at the time. I am sure – given this thoughtful post – that you and your family will do the very best for all of you, and I would hate to think you wallowed in “what if”s later on. Keep confident in the knowledge that you will always do what works for you, and that is all that matters.

    • Thanks for your thoughts and support. There are SO many decisions to make about the best therapies/technologies/educational adaptations/etc for our kid that we don’t want to also second guess choosing to live in a place where we have the privilege to choose (as in, there would be sufficient expertise and community to actually have choices). We joke that we ask ourselves ‘what will our kid hate us less for as a teenager?’ and then accept that they’ll presumably go through periods of second guessing / disagreeing with our choices for them no matter what. Hopefully, way down the road, they’ll understand that we tried our best.

      • yes, it is good you are aware of that now – you are excellent parents already. Seriously, as long as you can explain to your teenage kiddiwinkle exactly WHY you made those decisions, the “hate” will not last long. Again, all the best from the bottom of my heart. And head.

  3. Thanks for writing. While I have two “typically developing” (so far, anyway) kiddos, the challenges remain. You put your finger on it when you say you have to make the best decision for the family, which is not always the best for the individual. I think academia is way behind in recognizing that women (and men) leave for this very reason and that it needs to be addressed. I, for one, am done moving (3 cross-country moves in 4 years, all with kiddo#1 is enough, thank you). I am living in an area with lots of job possibilities (including academia), near my family and some old friends, and within driving distance of my in-laws. I love research, I love the people in academia, I have so much fun here, but I stop at all the “sacrifice” nonsense. If I stay in academia, it will be in part due to luck — luck that there is a position available for me in this location where I am choosing to stay put in. I don’t know any successful dual academics with children who haven’t chalked up a big part of their success to luck — luck that the opportunities they encountered were good for the whole family. Fear not, though, life outside of academia is rich with fun and challenge and great people, too. I cross my fingers for you for good luck — that the best for your family will also coincide with the best for each of you, your partner, and your baby.

  4. What a tough situation, but it seems that your priorities are straight.
    My spouse’s job requires us to live overseas for long periods of time, so am very familiar with the two body problem, and now our children’s needs are increasingly influencing our choices.
    We’ve felt that we are happiest where the needs of the entire family are balanced.
    Best of luck to you and your partner in the job search!

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  6. I’m in a similar situation, but a few years further along with a child now in the early stages of school. All I can say is that if your experience is anything like mine, it will be very hard to determine which way to go, as the services and the willingness of the school district to provide them will vary from county to county and state to state. I’m in one of the top rated school districts in the state, I pay more in school taxes than I do on my mortgage. Even then it is an uphill battle with the school district. I learned quickly that I needed to be “that mom” who is super engaged in the process and willing to fight to get what my child needs. The first time I stepped into a “meeting”, good lord it was like entering a court room, except the judge had already decided the verdict and was just there to present the evidence supporting it.

    Trying to navigate the endless meetings, evaluations, paperwork AND tenure is daunting, but I’m starting to see real improvement with my daughter, and you can’t put a price on that.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. And yes, I completely already understand the insane bureaucracy and county-by-county variation in services. We’re already having to pursue formal mediation in order to get our kid appropriate early intervention services; it’s so much time and energy – but as you said, I want to be a parent who is super engaged and fighting for what my kid needs. Glad to hear your daughter is doing well!

  7. We too needed to be (and stay) in a city with an excellent children’s hospital, and that limited the academic job search considerably. When considering applying for jobs in Montana and Alaska, I learned that nearest pediatric neurologist (and all their critical equipment) is in Seattle. We happened to be in Seattle for an extended post doc, and we decided to figure out a way to stay. If you can position yourself in a city that will have the resources your family needs, you may be surprised to find jobs outside of academia that are appealing. It can force you to think outside the box – a box that I appreciate you have built very carefully and is overflowing with dreams. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the same curiosity and perseverance that allowed me to go deep into a subject in research can be valued in non-academic jobs as well. Best of luck.

      • I had to laugh at “solution”, because it seems like it is an ever evolving process and I wish I felt like we’d solved something. But like another mom posted, we are now into the early school years and while our child’s situation is not stable, we’ve learned to roll with it. If it feels like you’ve been hit by a truck, you’re not alone. Navigating the birth-to-three early intervention world, while you’re still adjusting to having a child, is incredibly rough. If nothing else, I hope my note encouraged you in thinking there are and will be options. Your situation will probably bring out talents you never knew you had (advocacy for one). This is starting to verge on cheesy, so I’ll stop, but I truly wish you the best.

        • you’re right, solution is probably not the right word. But I’m all about the cheesy! Between the nursing hormones and the incredible moms I’ve met in this state trying to help us deal (battle) with the inadequate early intervention programs here, there’s a lot of crying – but a lot of that is gratitude, especially for the inspirational parent role models. thanks again for sharing your experience.

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