My mother died last month. That fact appears to have little bearing on my career in education. Except when it has everything to do with it. 

This week I read several posts by a career coach blogger. She appears to be an experienced, astute former college professor whose blog relates the steps to attaining success in academia, a topic of considerable interest to me. But with each post I became more discouraged and depressed.

I have done everything irrevocably wrong. I failed to even try to publish my dissertation. I did not apply to any R1 institutions. I did not immediately embark on my second research project. I did not ditch the small college teaching position that financially sustained me through graduate school. I put my faith in the unfounded trustworthiness of personal work relationships. I declined job opportunities because they required a move.

I can attest to the accurateness of her advice – all of these (in)actions came with a hefty price-tag. I work in a dead-end, disrespected, poorly paid position. My stellar GPA, scholarly awards and fine teaching evaluations do not help pay off my student loans. My age is a detriment, not a sign of my extensive life and work experience.

And then I thought of Mom. Mom, who was just sitting on my couch a few short weeks ago, enjoying a piece of sweet potato pie. Mom, whose voice is still on a phone message asking what food she should bring to Christmas dinner. Mom, who was supposed to look after our cat when we go abroad in a few weeks. And she helped me put life, and success, into perspective.

As a read the positive blog comments, many from folks in their 20s who had plowed through college, grad and PhD programs, I began to get angry. I thought of my beautiful kids and the hours spent playing, watching, helping, guiding; how many auctions and yard sales Mom and I had attended; how often I just sat and talked to my grandparents, aunts and cousins; the times I worked with my mother or went on little excursions with the kids. I thought of working to build a loving, positive home while struggling with an abusive relationship and the loss of a child; of setting up a cooperative preschool or facilitating groups of other grieving parents. I thought of finally setting myself free to pursue the educational path I discarded many years before. These episodes and accomplishments mean nothing if I use “success in academia” as my paradigm. 

This perspective is not an excuse for failing to achieve. It is a way of seeing that I have achieved. It is my grounded theory of priority. I still plan to succeed in academia, but on terms I set for myself. This is the freedom offered by education; a freedom I earned along with my PhD. It is the vision clarified by the pain surrounding Mom’s death: serve my own goals, make family and friends the priority; career “success” is meaningful only when those integral to my life are with me to share in it.