There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

My own life has had some combination of those things lately, and I’ve shared a little bit (most notably about my own mental health). But there are other things that are going on, too, that I don’t want to share. This is especially true for a couple of things going on with my children, which is why Terry’s parenthetical statement stood out to me. It’s cathartic to tweet about the chaos that comes from the latest round of daycare pestilence to strike the house, and I think it’s useful as a way of giving insight into some of what science parents juggle. But Terry’s parenthetical statement stood out to me because, as my kids get older, there are things that go on that definitely lead to the same sort of juggle, but that I don’t want to share out of respect for my kids’ privacy. I don’t want them to have to worry about what I say about them on social media. And I definitely don’t want their lives made harder later because of something I tweeted or blogged about. So, for the most part, I don’t mention the parenting things that are taking up a non-trivial amount of time and emotional energy. I suspect I will post less and less about my kids as they get older, even though that won’t necessarily mean the juggle has gotten easier. The things we have going on now definitely impact me and my life and my ability to do work; based on tracking my #readinghour for the year, I realized that I made it into March – March! – before I had a normal five day work week in 2018. No wonder I feel so behind on everything!

I don’t want to sound overly dramatic – we’re fine and what we’re dealing with is nothing outside the normal things that people deal with. I don’t think I’m special. I know lots of people who are dealing with lots of things – which is part of my point. Lots of people have non-work stuff taking up lots of time and energy, but most of the people they interact with don’t know it.

In short, what Terry’s post suggestion made me think of is:

  1. Yes, absolutely, stories about how people juggle being a parent and a scientist and/or academic are interesting and can help, but, as Terry notes, privacy concerns will be really relevant too. There are things going on that affect my life and my ability to focus on science, but, in most cases, it is not my story to tell.
  2. There are lots of people with Shit Going On. It’s fair to assume that a lot of the people you interact with regularly (including parents and non-parents) are dealing with lots of things in their lives that they aren’t sharing with you for a whole variety of reasons.

This reminds me of this really excellent advice:

In short: Be mindful of others’ privacy, and be kind.

8 thoughts on “There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

  1. I was thinking about Terry’s last remark. Purely anecdotally, it seems like something that many people often say about a lot of issues. “I/others ought to talk more about [topic], because [topic] is a huge part of our lives and keeping this sequestered just amplifies [bad thing].” Indeed, I’ve said it myself (more or less) in my posts on my most embarrassing moments in science and my shadow cv. I wrote those posts in the hopes that it would help some people to know that they’re not alone, that everybody has some embarrassing professional moments and has papers and grants that get rejected.

    All of which is fine. But again speaking anecdotally, one sometimes sees a leap made from “it would be good if more people talked publicly about X” to “everyone is morally obliged to talk publicly about X, and anyone who doesn’t is a bad person who is free riding on people who do”. (Extreme example: the practice of “outing” gay people who didn’t want to publicly reveal their sexual orientations). I disagree with that leap. You and Terry identify one reason why it’s fine or maybe even obligatory for someone not to talk publicly about X–when doing so would violate someone else’s privacy. But I can imagine lots of other legitimate reasons not to talk publicly about X, including “it would be costly for me”, “it would violate my own privacy”, and even “I don’t want to”. That’s why I said at the end of my post on my own embarrassing moments in science that I don’t think everybody is under any obligation to share their own embarrassing moments.

    It’s a collective action problem: there’s a collective benefit if a sufficient number of people talk publicly about X, but yet no individual is obliged to do so.

    I had some other possibly-weird thoughts, but I’ve probably already derailed the thread enough so I’ll keep them to myself…

  2. This shouldn’t have to be written. But yes. I have a theory that ‘reality’ (i.e. scripted drama) tv & over-sharing have become so normal in popular media that some people can’t accept you have Shit Going On if you’re not telling everyone about it. I don’t like talking about my personal problems unless absolutely necessary, and I find people are so genuinely surprised when they discover I’ve had stuff going on for a while they didn’t know about – as if they really can’t understand why I wasn’t telling everyone!

    • That’s definitely a possible element, Manu. Though on my part, I have to say that I process things by talking through them, and also have a (possibly too extreme) desire to have other people understand what’s going on with me at any given point, and so am happy to fill in as much context is possible so that they can “scientifically” assess what’s going on with me with as complete a picture as possible. I suppose it’s another way of processing externally.

      Which is all to say that sometimes/often it’s just easy to forget that not everyone does or wants to process like I do. Not everyone wants to give you their whole context as they see it right now. This is of course often true talking to strangers, or only co-workers, but I’ve found it’s also true of some friends and loved ones. So sometimes some people really can’t understand why someone isn’t telling everyone personal problems because it seems so emotionally-intellectually natural. So perhaps we should all try to mutually appreciate virtues, drawbacks, and simple differences in how “share-y” different people are, and assume less that others are the same as us. More than reality tv, I think it’s just hard to get out of one’s own head and remember that other people’s internal realities, desires, and tendencies are just *different* than yours sometimes.

  3. I’m back here after low-key pondering this post for a week, and I think I’ve had some thoughts coalesce. As someone who processes a lot of my feelings by writing (often publicly), and who discusses what’s going on in my life with a LOT of people, and who is open online about all sorts of things, it’s been weird to realize that I now owe it to my life to *not* talk publicly about everything.
    1) Part of this stems from climbing up the academia ladder–most of what occupies my emotional energy isn’t anything that people who work for me need to concern themselves with, even peripherally by, say, happening upon it in a blogpost/tweet. Though it concerns only a couple of people at the moment, I want to set this precedent for myself.
    2) Part of this stems from other people being involved. Anything I write about the personal challenges of moving for/being a postdoc would involve talking about all kinds of relationships with all kinds of people. Some of these people are far more private than me, and some of these relationships are difficult, and a lot of the challenges are ongoing. I have no doubt that such writing would resonate with lots of people and may even help them, but I’m going to wait until I’m well out of this stage of my life before returning to write about it publicly.
    3) I’ve found it freeing to realise that I don’t have to talk about everything, even if it were to help people who might be struggling with similar stuff. Constructing an essay demands having at least some sort of handle on the situation, some sort of distance. Not requiring that distance from myself, for even issues that seem important to share about, feels like a kindness towards myself.

    Not sure if I’m adding anything here that you haven’t already said, Meg, but thanks for writing a post that’s made me think so much and consider my responsibilities towards the people in my life, including me.

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