I have given birth four times. Three of the four were actual babies. The fourth, well, labor lasted six years and granted me a degree that apparently only 1.7% of academics actually earn: a PhD. Oddly, the process of giving birth and finishing my PhD are quite similar. I produced them all naturally, without the assistance of drugs either manmade or from nature’s pantry. I was often beset by random food cravings that allowed me to try new things or simply just to put off what needed to be done. I was overcome with fatigue in the final stages of the process and inched my way to the finish line with the slow, deliberate pace of a water buffalo. All, of course, were painful, but the joy of motherhood quickly supplanted the physical struggle I endured in giving birth to my actual children. The latter—an ephemeral child born from the mind spring of research, philosophy, and creative writing—still gives me lingering pain. It is the Braxton Hicks of academia that reminds me that such a labor is intangible, offering only glimpses of joy in the month after you realize you’ve finally crossed the finish line. Since then, this child has sat in perpetual time out, a petulant being shelved within a digital catalog of random numbers until someone asks it to come out and play. So we wait, and I am the overprotective and fearful mother.
Interestingly, the usefulness of comparing the two—bearing children naturally and finishing a PhD—calls to mind the famous Tyler Durden line and the first (and second) rule of “Fight Club”: You do not talk about Fight Club. The achievements we garner in our lifetime are often made noteworthy by the culture that accepts or rejects them as being significant. Raising good children? Monumentally significant. Having those children naturally? Slightly significant. Earning a PhD? Significant only to those who appreciate the method and the madness. But I kid you not, for these two very personal choices and exercises, once finished, you now belong to fight clubs about which you do not ever talk. What’s important is not the need to boast about these choices; they are merely reflective of personal desire, ongoing research, and the determination to be a part of a process that is meaningful to the participant(s). It has very little to do with a “less than more than” equation that would take away from anyone else’s experience. Yet, in U.S. society, where the epidural rate at many hospitals is astronomically high and the PhD-completion rate is the polar opposite, the low percentage clubs are lonely places to be. And I belong to both. Of course, there are groups, organizations, and conferences that I could belong to or attend that would allow me to fill that therapeutic cup and find myself among the company of likeminded individuals. But in my day-to-day, when I see the common, fictionalized labor story in a movie or on TV, or I am working in spaces devoid of academia, from time to time I admit to feeling a little isolated. I cannot tell anyone what it’s really like, sharing the joy that derives from the outcome of natural childbirth or finishing a PhD. Nor can I be honest about the pain that accompanied all of these labors of love. All were tough. All took my best fight. In the end, however, I won every time. Regardless, I cannot fail to forget Rule Number 1: You do not talk about Fight Club.