This month’s Parenthood and Ethnomusicology series features Justin Hunter, who shares his experiences of fatherhood, fieldwork, and dissertation-writing.
Eleven years ago when I started my trek in ethnomusicology, parenthood was not on my mind. I was content to be the “cool uncle” to my niece. Nine years ago when I got married, parenthood was still not on my mind. My wife and I were then the “cool aunt and uncle” to our two nieces. Four years ago, in the second year of my doctoral program, parenthood was still not on my mind. My wife and I were the “cool aunt and uncle who lived in Hawai‘i” to our three nieces and one nephew. Get the idea? My family was growing back home and indeed many friends from high school, college, and graduate school were growing their own families, but my wife, Heather, and I still felt we were just fine as two.
The “bug” finally hit us in October of 2011. Happily, and a bit shockingly, Heather was pregnant by late November! We were thrilled and quickly worked to prepare. I was finishing coursework that year so we decided the best route for us was to move back to the mainland. My committee chair was supportive but worried about time constraints and the distance from UH to complete. But the idea for me was that a baby would be no big deal. I’d prep for comprehensive exams and work on the dissertation while the baby slept, and Heather would continue her work as a nurse. What could go wrong? We found out when our daughter, Anna Jo, arrived in August of 2012. The usual: no sleep, constant worry of “getting it right,” the elation of seeing milestones, some sleep, breastfeeding at night and pumping during the day for my wife, diapers galore, a modicum of sleep, social time with other people? The baby learning more and more each day, actual sleep (sometimes), bottles, solid foods, etc. Where was the time for exam prep? Where was the time for fieldwork? How did the dissertation even get written? How did Heather survive all of this while working so hard as a mom and breadwinner for our family?
We had to learn (not so quickly) that balance was key. Finding the flow for our family was a challenge—Heather worked nights for a while after our daughter was born—but we meandered our way through. Learning to rely on our strengths as relatively relaxed people and to not stress over every detail of life was so important. But the stress of it all still bore heavily on us at times. I remember one night of frustration while Heather was at work and the baby would not sleep. I posted my frustration on Facebook asking, “How in the world am I supposed to study while trying to console an infant?” Sean Williams gave me the advice to sing what I was reading in slow, lullaby-like tunes. So then, my daughter was soothed by the words of Nettl, Hood, and other big names in the ethnomusicology world. It didn’t always work, but that night she did finally fall asleep on a particularly riveting (yet soothing) read of Merriam.
The struggles of parenting while transitioning to fieldwork and dissertating made balancing parenting and work so much harder. I spent a few months in Japan when Anna was about a year old. That trip was painful for Heather and I, but thankfully with Skype we were able to connect daily. Being so far away added a new stressor for me: what if something happened? What if I couldn’t get home in time for this unknowable travesty? My fears were unfounded. Other than missing a couple more milestones, our daughter survived missing her dad. When I returned to start work on writing the dissertation, timing was so tough. Naptime was still a gold mine for time, but remained somewhat inconsistent. Skype calls with my writing group were (and at times remain) often interrupted by a little girl not wanting to take a nap. So working at night is a must. But long hours of working into the night take a toll on my attitude to deal with the daily grind of parenting. At some point I became a recluse trying to get things done. Relationships got frayed and emotions ran hot for a while. The only way I got through it was Heather’s amazing strength and willingness to allow me the time I needed to work. But the time lost from family is still a guilty burden I carry.
Life and time changes. Our daughter is now three. Heather works days and is finishing her own graduate degree, and I am adjunct at the University of Arkansas. I defended the dissertation in May 2015, and we are planning for the next stages in our lives. Many a night is still spent away from home to work on job letters, articles, and revisions for projects; even this blog post. We strive for balance, but from time to time we lose hold and so we reset. Even though work and study tug at us, Heather and I try to stay committed to family time, especially for quality time spent with our daughter. Taking the time to be with each other for family walks, family dinner (most nights), camping trips, visits with out of state family, all mean so much more than meeting every deadline. I’m of course not saying to put graduate school or professional obligations aside; these things have to get done. But it is more important to be present with the family. I may not make every friend’s kid’s birthday party and my wife may have to miss bedtime to finish an assignment, but we make up for that with meaningful and intentional time together with our daughter. The time spent away for fieldwork or unintentional distancing for long stretches of writing were so tough on us; something we wish not to repeat. So even as these times arise, we try to find the time for each other and for our daughter.
A dear friend shared on this blog that “there’s never going to be an ideal time” for kids. Charlotte’s words are so right. We had our daughter at one of the most stressful times in our lives, and it still can be stressful three years later. But the joy and excitement, the tears and exhaustion, the fear and hope of her being in our lives outweigh this not-so-ideal time. Someone recently asked me if I’d go back and change anything. I wish I had done better with time management and stayed more diligent in finishing my degree—but that would have taken me away even more from my family when they needed me most. I absolutely would not change anything about having our daughter when we did. She trumps all frustrations, even if she causes some of them.