Are You Alive Still?
Maintaining a healthy marriage in the face of graduate school challenges
“Are you alive still?” the text read.
My wife Alex woke up in a panic. 4:41 AM and the bed was still empty next to her. My team and I had been working in the urban design studio on our final proposals for a development in Union Square since 9 AM the morning before.
I laughed. Her texts and reactions always seem so dramatic to me.
I replied, “Are you awake?? We’re printing and pinning up!!” I’d end up getting home about an hour later; Alex wouldn’t fall back asleep until I got home.
Since coming to MIT last August, I’ve come to think that graduate admissions packages should include a warning to students about the tension between keeping up with the workload and maintaining a healthy relationship with your spouse. Maybe something like, “Caution: Don’t expect to see your spouse as much as you used to. Your workload is your new spouse. ” Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But it’s safe to say that our pace of life is not quite the same as it used to be.
We moved up to Boston from Washington, DC, where we attended undergrad, got married, and then worked for a few years. We’d usually spend weeknights at home having dinner, catching up on the day, maybe watching an episode or two of The West Wing (sidebar: be prepared for more Aaron Sorkin references) or even inviting friends over (we had 11 friends who lived in our apartment complex). Weekends were spent exploring DC via our taste buds—Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Salvadoran food were all favorites—and in company of good friends.
These days, I’m usually home for dinner when I don’t have class in the evenings. Or group project meetings. Or a class event. Our time spent relaxing together is much shorter; some nights I pass out on the couch from exhaustion. Weekends are a mix. We often find time to head out for dinner together, but they usually end with me at my desk, typing away at my keyboard or tackling the week’s mountain of reading.
But it’s worth it. I love MIT. From the moment I met my classmates, they’ve impressed me with their thoughtfulness. On Admitted Students Day, we were asked how the election had affected our future plans. One of my classmates, a Muslim woman, answered that she learned there was a whole group of rural Americans who felt their needs had been ignored, and that we needed to learn how to address them and empathize with them. Talk about blown away! And I’m constantly learning from them. Sometimes it’s technical knowledge (like how to use Adobe Illustrator). Other times, I’m learning about their countries and their cultures or a perspective on the world that’s different than my own.
We all struggle together with the opportunity that studying at MIT is. We brainstorm how to remember that the inequalities and injustices in cities we’re learning about are suffered by real people. How do we create lasting change? “Mans et Manus,” the motto goes.
But the fact of the matter is it’s challenging to meet all my responsibilities perfectly. And I’m sure I never will. But that doesn’t mean that my marriage has taken a backseat during grad school. It’s just that caring for it now takes more time, effort, and forethought. It also means understanding our respective needs, and making sure those are met.
That final week, I crushed my workload. I was on top of my game, and my design group ended up with a final project we can use in future portfolios. But it meant I spent very little time at home. And for Alex and me, that lack of time together led to trouble communicating (you know it’s a problem when trouble finding a parking spot downtown leads to an argument) and a disconnect in our relationship that took a few days of meals and more than one episode of The Newsroom (Hello again, Aaron Sorkin) to work through.
On the other hand, other weeks we spent fun weekends together—rooting against for the Red Sox at Fenway or giving her parents a Boston tour—only for that Monday to bring a wave of anxiety and a pile of work left undone. Sometimes that anxiety stretches to the following Friday, when you find yourself wishing you’d written those 2 1000-word essays the weekend before (thank you midterms), with that 8PM deadline looming heavily over you.
Even worse, I often found myself taking that stress out on Alex.
What’s helped us through is being honest. From the beginning, I made it clear to Alex that I was going to fail, one way or the other. And she’s been forgiving and flexible with me. We know that grad school is just one season of life, and things won’t always be as busy.
It’s also been important for me to recognize the sacrifices that she has made in order for me to pursue an education here. She left a job in journalism she loved (I loved how she’d come home to tell me about the newest random bit of information she learned), deep friendships, and a vibrant church community in order to move to Cambridge with me.
And recognizing these has grown my appreciation for her and keeps me grounded when I’m overwhelmed. The least that I can do is honor those sacrifices by caring for her needs and making the most of my time here.
Graduate school is immersive by design. There’s always going to be another paper to write, another book to read, another event to attend, and another classmate to meet with. I could work 24/7 and still have plenty of work left to do. But I do know that without Alex’s support, I wouldn’t have the privilege of studying at MIT.
And hey, who knows. Maybe next time, I’ll make it home from school before my wife wakes up panicking.
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