Unexpected love

Grad school, they tell you, is the wire mesh mother. At best, they say, it’s the wire mesh mother. In Harry Harlow‘s experiments on baby rhesus monkeys, you recall, that was the one that never promised love. The little baby monkeys preferred the cloth mother doll, even if she was cold, or offered no food. They preferred the cloth mother even if spikes came out of her and stabbed, and they’d come back, again and again, trying to make the cloth mother give them love. The baby monkeys didn’t expect love from the wire mesh mother, who offered nutrition and warmth, but nothing soft to hug.

The grad student, we are told, is the kind of fucked up baby monkey who prefers the wire mesh mother, because at least she doesn’t lie to you. I knew all these things, and I was that sad, perverse little monkey who wanted to cling to the wire rather than feel betrayed.

Can I tell you what I found, though? The wire mesh mother taught me how to love.

I finished my education yesterday. I thought when I started my Ph.D. program that, if I survived, it would be after years of constant, clenching fear, watching my back while covering my gut in case of a sucker punch. What I’d been told about grad school was exactly what I’d always heard about life; everyone’s out to get you. If I got the chance, I’d have to eat the weak.

What I learned was that everything else about life is like that. Career is the wire mesh mother. Dating is the wire mesh mother. No one knows how to be kind, so they aren’t. If you offer someone your tender baby monkey paw, they’ll bite it off. But grad school?

When I showed up, I didn’t know how to be kind. I’m still not good at it. When you think everyone wants to eat you, you don’t know the first thing about how to be actively helpful without looking to strike a deal or make a scam. A professor welcomed us by saying, as he did to new students every year, We chose you for a reason. We want you here. We also chose the person sitting next to you. We want that person here too.

This guy who said this wasn’t a particularly nice person. He could be cutting and flippant, and he was super-cool and brilliant, so I assumed at first that it was some shit people say. It took me a while to figure out that what he meant was, Don’t disrespect us by being a crappy student, and don’t disrespect us by being crappy to each other. My job in school, I was finally learning, was to be smart and do good work, not just for myself, but for all the people who would give me support and help, and never to prevent someone else from doing well.

This was policy in my program. When someone else succeeds, even if you’re envious, or you hate them, or you think they don’t deserve it, you fucking smile and say congratulations, or you walk out of the building and vent to some other friend. When someone fails, even if you hate them, you offer them the help you can, or you go take a nap if you can’t.

Because I was a nasty little monkey—most of us were during our first year—I didn’t see the point. I made allies, and even some good friends, but I quickly formed a cool kids’ club with some other women who hated the same people I did. We’d roll our eyes about how dumb this one was, or how that one needs a new girlfriend. We couldn’t see then what we know years later, that this wrote a brilliant dissertation lickety-split and is a ridiculously talented writer, and that one is a sensitive, quiet man who would devote his life to a massive, slow-burning intellectual project while raising a baby. All we saw then were what we perceived to be edible weaker monkeys.

I had my first psychological crisis during my second year. I’d gotten some bad birth control that contributed to my certainty that I was losing my mind. I ended up in the emergency room of the psych ward with uncontrollable rage. I was afraid of myself, and crying at school about my stupid hateful life. And then a woman, a more advanced student who I know thought I was not cool, came up to me and said, “You need to be gentle with yourself. Just, be kind to yourself right now.”

I had never in my life heard anything like it. My people, we don’t do that. Did she mean some kind of Cathy comic strip scenario where I get frustrated trying on swimsuits and then eat a bunch of chocolate? Because that’s not really my… “No. I mean, today, just go for a walk. Get a pedicure. Sit under a tree. Something that isn’t about… this.”

She didn’t have to do that. She did, though, and it changed everything. My boyfriend at the time was always trying to get me to fix myself; I was always trying to fix myself. That day, I just tried to be myself for a few hours. I’m still learning how to just be myself.

And that, it turns out, is love. Or it’s the love I learned in grad school anyway. Everyone is constantly telling you you’re not rich enough, smart enough, pretty, strong, nice, dedicated, sane, excellent enough, and then someone reminds you that you’re good enough to spend a few hours sitting under a tree not hating yourself. That’s kindness.

I’m not naturally kind. I’m self-absorbed and paranoid. I still gravitate to the wire mesh mother, given the option. But because of the brilliant and kind people I met in grad school, I have something to say to the student weeping in my office, or the near-stranger in the hall who is freaking out. It’s something I said many times to other people in my program who were losing their shit, and something that has been said to me countless times by them when I’m struggling. Be gentle with yourself. Ask for the help you need. You belong here.

8 responses to “Unexpected love”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I guess for my brief stint in PhD-land, it was good to be in a moribund field at a school where people usually staggered around for eight years and then dropped out. Nobody was competitive. It seemed too absurd. So I lost my mind a little on account of being horribly ill-suited to academia, but everybody was basically kind.

    so I assumed at first that it was some shit people say.

    Shit My Dissertation Advisor Says–a sitcom starring William Shatner. (Sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like if more people who are smart in the sense I understand smartness were on tv, like what if there were *a The Real World type show that had thoughtful, good-hearted people instead of beautiful horror-shows. ((That asterisk is for Dave.)) )

  2. A White Bear says:

    I wonder if part of why grad school sucks for so many people is that, when you’re younger, being smart can be really isolating. In elementary school, the smart kid gets picked on, and in high school, no one will date the smart kid. If you’re on the upper end of smart at your college, classmates might not make fun, but they wince a little when they hear your name. The problem is, no one gets through a PhD, or one of many other graduate degrees, without kindness and help. It’s too hard. It’s no coincidence that people tend to find longterm relationships around then, at least partially to have someone who might open a beer for you and make dinner sometimes, or, if you’re really lucky, read a draft of something.

    As someone who probably will never have a second date again before I die, I really needed smart friends. I envied the marrieds, but my fantasies about a longterm relationship were all about making someone my 1950’s housewife, and I wouldn’t respect that person. (Someone, please, please bring me a glass of bourbon with a big ice cube in it while I sit with my eyes closed and wait for you to finish making dinner. Later you can copyedit my dissertation and please me sexually.) The next best thing is having a big cloud of super-smart reliable people who want you to do well, even if they’re not your best friends, and that’s what I got. That is: grad school saved me from enslaving someone in a relationship.

  3. swells says:

    Wow, this one was a weeper, and made me reconsider my relationships in graduate school and remember the professors and older students who were kind in my dark hours. It’s great advice for the world, though, not just the spiked dungeon of the ivory tower–remind people to take care of themselves and love themselves.

  4. A White Bear says:

    I think a big part for me was figuring out that it takes almost zero effort to possibly save someone’s life–or at least give them a lift when they need it, so you don’t have to save up all your kindness for loved ones or cool people or folks with power.

    Last night, one of the friends who celebrated with me was at school earlier in the day, and was there to give me a very necessary and tight hug while I waited for the result of my defense. This is someone who, in her first year, while going through an insanely difficult rough patch (of the sort that does make one rather hard to get along with), called me at 3 am and told me she was going to kill herself. She didn’t really have friends, and my number was distributed for an administrative role I was in. So I woke up and gave her directions to the emergency psych ward I went to when I went crazy. I said they’re nice, it’s free, and it’s easy to get to.

    I didn’t rush over to her place. I didn’t beg her to live. I barely knew her. I just gave her directions. Now, because she’s alive, she’s one of my kind, thoughtful, intelligent, funny friends who takes care of me when I need it. How hard was that?

  5. PB says:

    This was really lovely. Although your essay is framed in a grad school context (a particularly “wire” environment), I find there are assholes and there are people weirdly willing to reach out and offer human kindness in every circumstance. And I alway seem nonplussed when someone is a jerk, as if I expect it, and always so amazed when someone is lovely, as if they are fireman rushing in to save a cat. Why is that? I think your post asks that question in such a thoughtful way. I have been trying to be nicer in the past few years. Not go all Sicilian to people who piss me off. People are always similarly surprised when I get it right. We are messed up monkeys.

  6. A White Bear says:

    Yes, PB, and I’ve found it even works as a strategy for moving forward, even with my students. When they’re stonewalling me, or just doing bad work, or no work, sometimes just sitting them down and saying, “You’ve got to start taking care of yourself, setting aside some time for yourself so you have the energy to do the work,” it’s often effective to get them to start getting them back on track. Compassion isn’t weakness and self-sacrifice; sometimes it’s how we can start doing good things together.

  7. LP says:

    As someone who never aspired to graduate school and very happily ended her formal education immediately following receipt of her BA (if not actually a couple months before, when it became clear I would pass my final semester’s courses and could essentially stop studying), I have heard enough horror stories about graduate school to feel doubly, triply, quadruply grateful for my innate lack of desire to attend.

    My god, people who get PhDs all seem to have been through a war. They should be called PTShDs.

    And so, AWB, to this – “I finished my education yesterday” – I say: Huzzah! Hurrah! Congrats. I’m glad you made it through in one piece.

  8. AWB says:

    I honestly think PhDs really don’t have to be as miserable as everyone says. Part of what makes them horrible is that other people had a horrible time and want to pass it on to you. If you’re not having a horrible time, people get angry and feel like they have to prove to you that it’s actually horrible.

    The pay and lack of health insurance are, yes, completely demeaning. Trying to come up with a significant book-length study of something never done before that is somehow interesting to other people is difficult. But let’s be honest. Even while working 12-hour days for miserable pay, I was surrounded by fun, nice, interesting, intelligent people and had 5 days a week of unscheduled time after my coursework was over. I was in two bands. I slept around. I lived in the greatest city in the world. I’m not going to regret this.

    But one of the reasons I refused to suffer was that I don’t want to be one of those people who says, “Oh, grad school is MISERABLE HELL.” Because it’s not. It’s just hard. It’s not fighting in a war, or trying desperately to get promoted at Walgreen’s. I didn’t even really have a boss.