No more Brand-ing

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Detail from cover of “We’re going on a bear hunt” by Helen Oxenbury

Is it right to move your kids for the sake of your career?

I wrote recently about how my lab might close due to a lack of research productivity and consequent loss of funding, and that this will mean an exit from academia.

This latter consequence doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. As a friend pointed out, if simply being in academia is the goal – or, more ambitiously, if getting tenure is the goal – then as long as I’m willing to move then that’s achievable. There are always opportunities somewhere. The younger brasher me used to say that if things fell into place then I’d end up as tenured faculty in a reputable institution, and if they didn’t work out then I’d end up as tenured faculty in a disreputable institution, which basically reflected this same mindset. Now I’m saying that if my lab in Würzburg closes, then I’m done. So what changed?

Simple – I now have kids. I have two boys, aged 2-and-a-half and 6-and-a-half, and I’m not willing to relocate them for my sake. 

The first duty of any responsible person towards their dependents is to ensure that they are safe, well-looked after, and happy. It’s not about subordinating their needs to the service of personal ambition.

Such a mindset is represented in its extreme in Ibsen’s verse play “Brand”, a tragedy about an uncompromising man in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. This pursuit is so absolute, so all-consuming, that at one point he insists his family stay in a poor climate, knowing that to do so will endanger the health of their only child (spoiler: the child dies). I remember seeing this performed on stage with Ralph Fiennes in the title role, and the younger me found something to admire in this single-minded dedication to a higher cause; the older me, the one with kids, is repulsed by it. What was previously uncompromising now seems selfish and self-absorbed on a monstrous scale.

To embrace the role of a parent means to acknowledge and accept the fact that you are no longer the most important figure in your own life. It means giving up your energy, your focus, and above all your time to devote to your offspring. It’s about doing what’s best for them, not necessarily what’s best for you: providing for them financially, being an active participant in their lives and not a peripheral figure, and encouraging them to develop their interests and avoid your mistakes. 

As academics, our role is not only to discover new knowledge but to communicate it. And perhaps the most important audience for what you have learned – for that vast, above-average repository of information that you have accumulated about the fabric of the universe, of matter, of life – is your own kids.

Of course, relocating your family doesn’t automatically mean that you are putting career first. There are plenty of people who moved around a lot as children and were fine with it, and probably wouldn’t hesitate to relocate now. But I didn’t. I literally lived in the same house until I was 18 and went off to university. I feel I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least try to provide a similar level of stability to my own children, seeing as they’re presently happy where they are. Who am I to uproot everyone and go through all the trauma of relocation simply on the off-chance that this time, this time, things really work out?

There’s few absolute rights and wrongs with parenting. So many of the decisions are child-specific or parent-specific, and there will be success stories and disasters for every one. At the end of the day, it’s about being able to stand in front of the mirror and say “I did the best I could, and I don’t regret any of the decisions I made”. It’s about being able to justify your decisions to yourself. For me, right now, that means staying put – even if that means leaving academia.

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