Tuesday, October 13, 2020

When The Two-Body With Children Problem Turns Into The Divorced-With-Children Many-Body Problem

Artist's concept that illustrates Kepler-47, the first transiting circumbinary system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
Much has been written about navigating the two-body problem in academia. Any field where it is typical to assume that people will be able to move across countries and continents every 2-3 years until their mid-30s is an impediment to long term relationships. This is compounded by the fact that many astronomers have relationships with other academics, who are commonly other astronomers, and so navigating two people who need to do that can become very difficult.

Sometimes relationships don't work out—so it is also important to talk about that. In particular, what happens when pairs of astronomers have children and are then expected to move for their careers, while no longer being in a relationship with the other parent? I certainly don't have definitive answers to this question, but I do have personal experience which I will share as an example of how it can work.

I am an astronomer who was married to another astronomer. We had our first child while living in a city where I was a postdoc and my spouse was finishing up her PhD; we shortly moved to another city where both of us had postdoc positions in the same department and had our second child while living there.

At that point, the usual two-body problem issues reared their head. We both applied for a variety of jobs, and each received one offer that made sense for each of our careers—for me, a faculty position, and for my spouse, a postdoc position that appeared very suitable. They were, however, in different states a 12-hour drive away (and absolutely no convenient way of flying), and there were no acceptable positions for either of us close to the other person's best option.

And so we lived as a married couple in different states for several years. Our children lived with my spouse, and I drove back and forth every couple of weeks—I would run out of class on Thursday at noon, jump into my car, and arrive at 1am; spend Friday through Monday morning with my family, and then drive back ready to teach on Tuesday morning. It was not ideal, but we never came up with any better solution.

However, a few years later we ended up getting divorced, and the academic two-body problem was a major factor—it is difficult to maintain an emotional relationship when you spend years where you are apart most of the time. Like about 60% of divorces, ours involved children. So in my case, what did divorce look like? In the end, not all that different than what came before. I still drove back and forth every couple of weeks to spend the weekends with my children. The only major difference was that the kids and I would stay in a different house while I was there. It turns out that having to come up with an arrangement to deal with the two-body-with-children problem had given us most of the tools necessary to deal with being divorced-with-children.

My children still live with my ex, and I still come as often as possible. They have moved across the country and it now takes a flight to get there instead of a drive (modulo the pandemic, which has scrambled the usual plans), so I can't visit quite as often or as spontaneously. But I fly there on Thursday, stay with the kids at an AirBNB, and fly home on Monday. The kids are now getting old enough that having them fly to me instead sometimes is an option that is opening up. And they spend half of the summers with each of us.

There are many ways that the situation sucks. I don't get to spend nearly as much time with my children as I would like. They don't get to spend nearly as much time with me as they would like. My ex has a wildly disproportionate share of the burdens of parenthood, and I can't take on those extra burdens easily when something comes up. Flights plus accommodations plus car rental combined are a huge expense.

But in many ways, we had advantages in dealing with this situation. Although my ex and I are no longer in a relationship, we still get along very well, so even when we occasionally disagree with how best to navigate some of the practicalities, we have no problem discussing it and coming to a conclusion amicably. We live in the same country. My department is understanding that seeing my children is an immovable obligation, and they structure my teaching and service accordingly. My ex and I have both been successful professionally. And we had already developed many of the tools needed to navigate this life before we got divorced. Many academic parents in similar circumstances obviously do not have these advantages, and I consider myself very fortunate given the circumstances.

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