A post about leaving, and then leaving, and leaving again — and how frequent relocation can exacerbate the issue of social isolation. Written for the March Carnival of Aces.
In academia, the term “two-body problem” is used to describe a set of logistical hurdles faced by academic couples: When landing a job in your field is hard enough as it is, how do you both coordinate to land two jobs in the same city? Usually, what ends up happening is that one person out of the couple finds a job first, and the other one settles for underemployment. As you might expect, there’s a gendered pattern to how that usually plays out. And even in couples where just one person is an academic, relocating for someone else’s career can be hard on a trailing spouse.
Extrapolating from the same concept, I went looking for articles and blogposts talking about a “one-body problem”… and found some applying it either in terms of navigating a limited dating pool, recruitment issues (due to a limited dating pool), stress management/mental health issues, or even the exact same thing as the two-body problem, except where the couple in question involves an academic partnered with a non-academic. This ChronicalVitae article at least mentions some other problems that may be faced by single academics, such as a heavier workload and personal insecurity, but the focus is still mostly (again) on that limited dating pool.
For the purposes of this post, I want to apply the term in a different way altogether. If the two-body problem describes the logistical hurdles of relocating together and pursuing academia as a couple, then the one-body problem is relocating solo and pursuing academia alone. You might assume that being single would negate the whole issue, but to the contrary, I figure the demands of academia can only make sense within the breadwinner-homemaker model. The two-body problem arises when a couple tries to operate with two breadwinners instead of one; on the flipside, if you try to operate as your sole breadwinner and homemaker both all on your own, you’re going to find yourself straining to fulfill both roles at once. That’s certainly how it felt for me in my MA program, trying to keep up with extensive reading, grading, research, writing, and other assignments while also cooking enough food to eat, doing the dishes, doing the laundry, cleaning the kitchen, getting enough sleep, and connecting with other people enough to keep from losing my mind. Not quite sure I managed that last one.
Realistically, though, who has time for all that? I’ll tell you who: a person with a trailing spouse or homemaker figure they can offload some of the work onto. If you’re in grad school, or academia generally, it’s functionally expected that you have a support system to absorb some of those demands.
But this isn’t just a post about that. This is also a post about getting there in the first place — before the work, before balancing act: the struggles of repeatedly uprooting yourself and relocating while single.
This level of transience is a new development for me. For most of my life, until my mid-twenties, I had lived only one area of one singular U.S. state. When I got into my top choice of a MA program, though, I packed up my things and moved halfway across the country to attend. After two years, I finished my degree there and moved out of town to another state — not back to where I started, but somewhere else, again, completely unfamiliar to me. A year after that, now that I’ve been admitted to a PhD program, I’m going to be moving across the country again, for a third time. And if and when I finish that degree, I’m probably not going to be sticking around in that city, either.
That’s a lot of moving, from my perspective, which is lamentable because moving is the worst. Worse still is having no one to share the burden with. For me, the most agonizing part of moving by myself is that once I set out, I’m completely alone. I’m never as lonely as I am on the days when I have to spend hours on the road, focusing on the task of driving, unable to chat or text or blog or even passively experience the company of familiar people. It’s just me and the highway, for hours upon hours of mind-numbing boredom. One of these days, I’d really like to coordinate with someone else, buy a set of radios, and move in tandem as a caravan.
Since cutting contact with my family, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my current (lacking) support system and what to do about it, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to notice the impact of repeatedly uprooting myself. To begin with, I’ve always been an unhealthily isolated person, and I try to work on that, but the problem is that the going is slow and that each time I move, I have to start all over again. In my home state, at least I was part of a few different communities (including my local ace group). At my MA program, I tried to find more of the same, but my social world essentially narrowed to just the fellow members of my graduate cohort. Since finishing that program and moving away, that social world has shrunk even further. And now I’m planning to move again — I can’t not — and I have to wonder what’s going to happen to me, at this rate.
Each time I move, I lose what connections I had in the place I’m leaving behind. The friendships on the basis of shared interests and shared identities. The friendships with coworkers, sometimes merely civil, sometimes more than that. The community members who helped me fix my car and refused to let me spend Christmas alone. Many of these relationships take a lot of time and effort and awkward vulnerable putting-myself-out-there to build, and then just like that, they’re gone.
Maybe that sounds too fatalistic. Sure, we could still text each other sometimes. Realistically, though, many of these are relationships formed through proximity and wither without it. In most cases I feel like I never really reach the stage of intimacy with people where I could reasonably count on maintaining the connection long-distance. Which, individually, is fine, but in aggregate, it functionally feels like I’m in a downward spiral, way too slow at putting down roots compared to the rate at which I’ve been pulling them up.
If I’m going to put a stop to the cycle, I’m going to need to build something of a more permanent connection in my life that won’t fade away again as soon as I move. Problem is, I feel like there’s really only one category of connection that you’re guaranteed to take with you wherever you go (or that’s expected to sustain itself long-distance), and that’s family. I’ve already lost mine. If I’m going to join another one, then traditionally the simplest way to go about that is to find a partner. If I’m going to find a partner, then I need to make myself a more desirable prospect. And if I’m going to do that — well. I need to figure out a way to mitigate or compensate for everything that makes me undateable, including my sexuality, ’cause there ain’t a lot of fish in the puddle for me.
It’s funny, you know, all these articles about the two-body problem and how relocation is so hard on a partner, and yet here I am still feeling like all this relocation is exactly why I need to find one. It’s not an easy life either way, but like I said, academia functionally operates on the expectation of a trailing partner — a role I would be willing to take on myself, if I had a partner to trail. Without one, I find myself facing what I consider to be the real one-body problem: the problem of being just one person, with only myself to fall back on.