SIUE faculty member Saba Fatima is Associate Professor of Philosophy and and indispensable member of the Women’s Studies program. Here, she reflects on the wisdom of learning that one’s own time and joy is valuable in and of itself, not only for what it might bring to others.
I left my kids for 18 days. This may not be a big deal to many, and to others it is unconscionable.
It was not the first time I left them. I am in academia, so I have been going to conferences since they were young, though initially the kids traveled with me. One time (and this was when our family was really broke because both my husband and I were students), we went to a colloquium that was kind of really low stakes, but I thought that I needed all the lines on my resume I could get before hitting the job market. I had taken a massive break for the birth of my two children and was eager to get back in the game. The talk was a disaster. The faculty tore my paper up into a million pieces (metaphorically of course) and some of them were apparently so upset at my critique of Rawls that they were shouting at me for half of the time. I drove back in tears in a snowstorm with the family, feeling utterly dejected. Not only did I feel deflated about my academic acumen, but also felt terrible for dragging my entire family through it all. I felt that it was not worth the financial expense, the time, and the hassle of dragging two babies along for a chance to present my paper to folks who think I don’t belong in academia because I am not smart enough. I almost gave up after that.
This feeling of: ‘is it worth the hassle for my kids?’ has stayed with me since. As they grew older, I began going to conferences for short periods of time – never more than 3 to 4 days at a time, about 3 to 4 times a year. When I left them for the first time for a conference (with my parents, my brother, my sister, and their respective spouses all vacationing together – so lots of loving supervision!!), I cried a ton before departure. Needless to say, it was an awkward goodbye with my siblings’ spouses who had never seen an otherwise confident me cry. Upon my return a day later, I learned that the kids were just fine (duh) and played with their cousins all day long.
Fast forward to now, my six month sabbatical. My kids are 9 & 11. I have a wonderful partner in life who had been encouraging me to travel during my sabbatical. I had been meaning to visit my sisters and my brother in England for quite a few years, and hubby and I never agreed on England during our collective vacation time in the summer. So this was my chance to finally take that trip. But it seemed strange to take only a few days for an international trip and even more so, to leave my kids to go see family for an extended period of time. I asked around and got myself invited to few universities in UK so that I could justify to my soul that it was worth leaving the kids. I told myself (and others who questioned my decision to leave the kids): I had always travelled for work. And this was work. Also, I was going to write with one of my sisters (also an academic). So it was also a writing retreat of sorts. But deep down, I knew I was travelling to essentially see family, because at the end of the day, I could have gone anywhere in the world but I chose England.
I had a wonderful time there. My siblings and I went to Paris for a weekend, and then London for a day. We hung out. I also wrote uninterrupted with my academic sister and lectured at several places. I received valuable feedback on my sabbatical project, and I made a lot of progress on my paper. I took every opportunity to tour wherever I was lecturing. I ate a lot of halal food which was readily available everywhere I went. Everywhere else, things were clearly labeled with a V for all vegetarian products, making experiencing packaged food oh so enjoyable. There were centrally located Muslim praying facilities in all the universities. There were brown people everywhere. It was all so refreshing and just delightful!
But then there were some nights I cried, homesick for my kiddos. I missed them and felt terrible that they missed me. One night my daughter called me crying because she was having a terrible day (it was quickly resolved by her father as soon as he realized it). On these nights, doubts would creep into my mind and I would find myself talking out of them. Why have you left your kids? I have not ‘left’ them alone or with someone who doesn’t love them as much as I do. They are with their father. How could you put them through this? They are having a blast with their dad! What about the crying daughter? Kids cry all the time when they have bad days, even when you are sitting right next to them.
I could hear my worst critic: me.
But other than these few nights where I doubted my decision, I have to say that this trip was amazing. This is not just because of all the reasons I mentioned before (great time with fam, touring, writing, lecturing, feedback, etc.), but also because I thought of myself as good enough to be deserving of this time when someone who loves me offered to free me of our shared commitments. If my husband insists that he is fine with the kids alone for 18 days, why should I still feel obligated to stay? I know years of patriarchy have made me feel like it’s my job to take care of the kids primarily. But I also know that my husband is great at parenting too. I was proud of myself for not holding myself back when someone who loves me is more than happy to propel me forward.
I think it is because of my kids that I appreciate my time better. I know myself enough to say that if I didn’t have kids, I would have wasted much of my time away doing absolutely nothing (I know that’s just me). Since having kids, I write more in the same periods of time, because that time is worth more to me. Because I love my time with them (ok fine… I appreciate my time with them – not every minute is pure joy), the time that I spend without them ought to be worth somewhat as much. Teaching my students and researching on matters of social significance matter to me because (in my head at least) these activities change other’s lives and I owe it to others who pay me for my services. But before this trip, I didn’t count my non-work related activities as worthy because benefits from such activities were solely for me. It has taken me so many years where I am finally in a position to see myself worthy enough to experience joy independent of the benefit it provides anyone else.
But even now, I can hear myself: you are basically saying, now you have finally learned to be selfish.
Now shut up!