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. 🙂