Working Hard – On anxiety, laziness, and imposter syndrome

For me, one of the hardest aspects of pregnancy has been the conflict between not wanting/being able to do work, feeling obligated to work, and my impressions of other people’s expectations for my work. While this is a tension that reflects a perfect storm of being pregnant while also having a fairly work-intense job, the basic dynamic here is common to academia broadly.

I went to a “breastfeeding twins” class a few months ago (I’m a real go-getter!), and the first thing the lactation consultant leading the class asked us was “are you planning to go back to work?” I floundered for a second before managing to reply “you mean, like, EVER?” And was then scolded that my 12 weeks (at most) of maternity leave is not enough, even though it is only now the required minimum in the state of New York. As crappy as it made me feel to be told (yet again) that twins are a lot of work and I shouldn’t expect to have a life outside of motherhood once my kids are born, there was an important recognition to this shaming: it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to work when you have personal obligations to sort out.

Throughout my years of schooling, I’ve struggled with how to justify taking the time I need to take care of myself. Before we had a popular notion of “self care”, “taking a mental health day” was just a euphemism for playing hooky. Meanwhile, I spent my teenage years battling largely untreated depression and an increasingly unstable home life that resulted in my largely living by myself for large chunks of high school. Perhaps because of these things or perhaps for other reasons entirely, I didn’t know how to succeed in school, and was often told I was lazy because I couldn’t or didn’t want to complete my assignments in the ways I was supposed to.

But, like most young-life struggles, this conflict between my mental health and my ability to do work got better as I got older. Not because I was more mentally healthy – that came later – but because I gained more control over my work situation and the people I worked with became more understanding, which together resulted in a more flexible work schedule and honest conversations that gave me the space I needed to get better. When I got sick or had a major depressive episode in college or my MA program, my professors and other students didn’t doubt that I was really unable to show up to class or do my work, and I could spend the day recuperating.

When I got pregnant, though, things became harder again, because I wasn’t prepared for just how much pregnancy would damage my ability to work. My doctors have mostly attributed this to having twins – twice the baby means twice the hormones, and, eventually, twice the weight gain. Starting around month 3, I was throwing up daily, falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon, could barely walk up a single flight of stairs, and experiencing swings in my body temperature and balance. I couldn’t get anywhere before 10 am and couldn’t do any kind of work after 5pm. Compare this to 5 months earlier when I was teaching class and attending TA lectures 5 days a week at 9am, writing grant proposals for 10 different programs, reading 1-2 books a day for my orals, and drafting my dissertation prospectus. Pre-pregnancy, I was motivated and energetic – I maintained a regular schedule of up by 7:30 and in bed by 11, and I was working at full speed and succeeding. Becoming pregnant didn’t just feel like running into a brick wall, it felt like a personal failure – yes, I had done all this work the semester prior to free myself up for pregnancy, but I still thought that I would be able to use that time to do research at a leisurely pace and write a decent chapter draft. I couldn’t even make it to the one class I was auditing. And what made it hard to justify was that it wasn’t just physical – I didn’t know how to explain to my adviser that I just had no motivation to work, or maybe that my motivation was completely overshadowed by anxiety. After a while, though, when I realized that his concern for my well-being was genuine and generous, I began to have more honest conversations with my adviser about what was stopping me from doing what I felt I needed to do.

It helped fuel these conversations that a few months earlier, I had already opened up to him about my anxiety. I consistently have a lot of anxiety around foreign languages, and was having an extremely difficult time passing my language exams. My adviser recognized right away that the problem wasn’t mechanical – it wasn’t that I didn’t know the languages, or even that I didn’t know how to take the tests (although he gave me a lot of helpful pointers there) – he saw that I was freezing up during the exams themselves, in our conversations before and after, and even as I tried to do other work when I knew I had an exam coming up. He worked with me through the strategies that would make the tests easier and rely less on my ability to think in the moment – processes for translating quickly so that I didn’t have to rely on my brain connecting the dots of the sentence fluidly – but then he also told me to just take a break. He reminded me that if this was really going to hold up the rest of my progress, we could find a way to have me complete the exams later on, or move my orals and prospectus defense if need be. The most helpful thing he said, though, was to stop working and go outside for a few days. Remove myself from the whole thing and just remember how to be a person again.

This advice for self-care really resonated with me, not only because it’s what I had habitually needed in the past, but also because it’s how I typically work. I think that mentally-intensive work requires a lot of passive thinking time, that if you’re constantly trying to think or do or write you don’t have the opportunity to reflect, and reflecting is what allows you to find connections and craft ideas. When my oldest brother, R, was getting his PhD in Math, he used to say that all he did in a day was think. And really, when I saw him working, he was usually leaning back in his chair staring off into the upper corner of the room. After about an hour of this he might spend 10 minutes furiously scribbling notes or a proof or diagrams onto a sheet of paper, and then he would go back to just … thinking. When I used to do this during my MA program, my cubicle-mate, D, would comment that it just looked like I was procrastinating. I would play puzzle games on my computer or write lists or organize my desk. It looks, and often feels, like laziness. But there’s no work to put down on paper without the preceding thought, and I needed these long stretches of passive thinking time to have anything to write.

It’s difficult to justify needing to take a break or slow down, though, especially for mental/emotional reasons. Academia is constant. We take our work home with us and we are what we do. We juggle five different projects at once and we wear a lot of different hats. And we live a year in the future because that’s how funding and conferences and publishing work, even though we’re studying centuries in the past. And because of these things, if we can’t handle the constant work, we feel that it proves we just weren’t cut out for this life. Imposter syndrome is very real and insidious and constant. I feel it around languages and getting up early in the morning. I felt it when my colleagues were writing 10 drafts of their grant statements and passing them around to their friends, and I was writing 3 and keeping them to myself. I feel it when everyone else is posting to Facebook about staying up until 1am reading with a glass of wine in hand and I can’t do work past 9. I feel it now, as I sit at home in my third trimester, the same size at 31 weeks as a typical 40 week pregnancy, unable to be outside more than 2 hours a day, totally unmotivated, and overwhelmed by anxiety every time I get an email, seeing posts from my colleagues as they settle into foreign countries for the next 6 months. I’m not a real historian I think as I look at their pictures of exotic foods, I don’t want to be away that long. And I feel this way even though I know that they’ve arrived in this place and they are unsure of their language skills and miss their families and don’t know what they’re going to find in the archive or whether they even have 6 months of work to do.

It’s hard to remind myself that this is temporary, and that no one – not the people whose opinions matter, anyway – expects me to be doing more right now than I am. I’m still working, if at a glacial pace, and I’m still sorting out all these other aspects of my life, like moving across the country and embarking on my own research year and taking care of my body. But the most important thing is recognizing that it’s still ok to need time, even in less trying circumstances. Time is good for thinking, and time is good for staying healthy.

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