On (the impossibility of?) settling down

It seems to be thing. Couples who fall in love with each other, commit to a shared life together, then at some point discover their idea of home is — well, if not incompatible then with a pretty darn small overlap. I don’t mean here in terms of tidiness and mess (although, sure, that is no small thing either), but in terms of what country to live in.

I currently live in New Zealand, and indeed, my family have been in New Zealand since pre-treaty times.  In the nine generations intervening, very few of us have had the kind of resources needed to travelled further than Australia. You could say we have got pretty attached to this place.

When I was living in Australia, we would fly back to Wellington once a year, and my Dad would pick up the family from the airport. Sometimes we would drive around the bays, let the kids loose on on the beach at Lyall bay or Houghton Bay and just breathe (often, our own hair. Because of wind). I would run my hands through the sand or stones, look out to sea, and think, here I am. Here I am. Here I am.

Lyall Bay, Wellington

My dual citizen Australian/NZ children and husband however — well, they didn’t experience it in the same way. After a few minutes in the wind and — let’s be honest — 12 degrees Celsius, they would retreat to the car to sit and wait for mum to get back in and get on with the rest of the journey. Of course, I also didn’t experience living in Sydney the same way as they did, and lived in constant tension every morning when I would awaken at 5am to the sound of the traffic beginning, knowing I would soon be battling it on my way to work, either in public transport or car.

How we experience a place is so dependent on what our daily routine looks like. Someone remarked to me recently that in being an academic, the job looks pretty similar in most universities around the world — the big difference is what the place is like for their family or loved ones to live in. For those of us with children, the normal daily routine of where we want them to grow up is a huge consideration in where we live, even if it means taking a job that’s not quite right, or stretching the finances a little further than might be comfortable.

This is a frequent topic of conversation for me with many of my friends and colleagues. In previous generations, it might not have happened so often that one would partner with someone whose home — and idea of home — was so far from our own. Off the top of my head, I can think of five couples in academic work dealing with this, each with different compromises. A lot of tears have been shed over where one might live — and of course, often one person is wearing the consequences emotionally more than another. It almost seems to be exacerbated by the fact that academics are expected (now) to be relatively mobile — meaning that the chances of moving are always subconsciously present, even as we work to connect and embed ourselves in the place in which we live and work.

The long, hard work of making connections and forming a community around ourselves and our families in place is a huge investment and it seems people approach it differently. It can also be gendered — with academic women generally being less inclined to move (unless it is moving closer to family), because the relocation cost in terms of necessary relationships for support, childcare (let alone the emotional cost of moving children) is just too high.

I don’t have any answers here, but I think it is an issue we should be talking about more, especially for early and mid-career academics with families. I haven’t even gone into the complexities of the two-academic family, where you may even  have to try and find openings at the same university in each of your areas. I wonder what experiences others have had here — and whether it is something one can ‘overcome’, or just an ongoing source of compromise, grief, and growth in relationship.

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