The phrase “fake it ’til you make it” has been popping up in my head a lot lately. I am teaching my first college level course as a professor. Not that I haven’t taught before, but this feels different. No one is watching me, no one is checking that I am teaching the material well, or even the right material. The class of about 50 students is all mine, to teach whatever I want to, for 3 hours a week. Even though the material is fairly basic, and the course materials mostly recycled from a previous iteration of the course, and even though I have a PhD, I still feel like I have no business being at the front of that class. So I’m just faking it, and I think it’s going well enough.
The funny thing is, I realized recently that no matter how much you “fake it” you never really “make it.” At least, not in the sense of losing that feeling of faking your way through something. A more senior colleague who is a full professor in my department confided that this semester she is teaching a new graduate level course, and it’s difficult and stressful for her. In an academia, full professor is pretty much as high as you can go. She has definitely “made it” career wise. So if she’s still faking confidence in teaching, then apparently this phase may never end. At least I know I’m not alone!
Since my daughter’s diagnosis, I’ve been meeting with a lot of different therapy, service, and healthcare providers. I’ve also been meeting a lot of new people just by virtue of having recently moved to a new state. Recently I’ve noticed that I tend to get the same two questions over and over, and I have mixed feeling about them.
The first, and most common question I am asked is “Do you work outside the home?” This is always asked with pretty much that exact wording. It seems strange to me because in the place we moved from (a major city in California) I was never once asked this question. In the place we live now (a medium sized midwest town) I gather it is far more common for women to be stay-at-home moms; thus the question. I have mixed feeling about this one, since it’s based in a realistic observation (many women in this area don’t work outside the home) but it’s still inherently sexist (my husband has never been asked this question). My usual answer is “Yes, I am a professor at (University Name).”
That answer often elicits a surprised look, followed by the next most common question I am asked, namely, “Oh, what do you teach?” Again, this question gives me mixed feelings. Yes, I do teach 1 class at the moment. But I am a tenure track professor at a research university, so I see my job as much more than teaching. The accomplishments I am most proud of are my published papers and my recently funded research grant. The question is based on the misconception that a professor’s sole job is to teach. I’m not quite sure how to answer this one yet. I usually just give the name of the class I teach, but in some contexts I have attempted to inform the asker of the other aspects of my job, if I thought they might be interested. I can’t help but wonder though if the same assumption, that a professor’s job is just to teach, is applied to older white male professors. I happen to be a young white female professor, and I suspect that may have something to do with it.
I’ve been concerned about my daughter’s development since about the time she turned 1. She wasn’t talking yet, not even “mama” or “dada.” By 18 months old it was clear she had a substantial speech delay, and we started seeking early intervention services. By 22 months old she still had no words, and was showing other strange behaviors, so I brought her to a special autism and developmental disorders diagnostic clinic. She underwent about 4 hours of testing and evaluation, including the ADOS. You’d think after all this I would be prepared for the diagnosis, but I wasn’t.
When the lead psychologist on the evaluation team came in and told me my daughter was being given an official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, I was initially calm. Hey, I thought, this isn’t really a surprise and it explains her delays and behaviors, plus it means it’s not my fault! But after a day or two, reality started to sink in. My kid was going to need 20 or more hours of intensive therapy every week, just to have a 50% chance of being able to function normally. My husband and I both work full time and love our jobs, plus if one of us quit we would need to give up the beautiful home we just bought 2 months ago (our first house!). So how are we going to make this work?!
But what hit me the hardest was the loss of dreams. No matter how much we know we shouldn’t, I think all parents dream about their children’s futures when they are babies and toddlers. What they might be when they grow up, what their favorite subject in school will be, what sports they’ll be good at, how many friends they will have. Both my husband and I had trouble making friends as kids and we were determined to make our home an awesome place for our daughter to invite friends over to play so that she would be well liked. Both of us are also gifted and good at math, and we figured our daughter would be too. Suddenly, all that went out the window. Our daughter will need special education services and have social difficulties. Our hopes and dreams now are on an entirely different level: we hope she will learn to talk. We hope she will learn to use a toilet. We hope she will complete high school and be able to get a job, any job. We hope she will someday be able to live on her own. Only time, and intensive therapies, will tell us how many of these hopes will come true. The one thing I know for sure is I still love her just as much as always, and she’ll always be my daughter.
I’m an assistant professor in an earth sciences field at a major research university. I am also a mother to a young daughter with autism. I couldn’t come up with a better name than austisticmommyprof, but just to be clear, my daughter is the one with autism, not me! I’m starting this blog so that I have a place to write and vent about the realities of balancing being a new professor, a wife, and a mom of a special needs kiddo.
I want to stay semi-anonymous, so if you figure out my “real world identity” please keep it to yourself.