*This piece was originally published on Marisol's blog, "Grad School and Grieving"
My mom was my number one fan. From taking time off work to see my elementary school award programs to spending money we didn’t have for plane trips to Parent Weekends in New York when I was in college, she was front row for everything I ever did.
More important than just showing up, though, was my mother’s ability to make me feel unstoppable. I think she truly believed I could do anything I put my mind to.
Me & mom during a Parent Weekend This was completely at odds with what I thought about myself. For as long as I can remember I have always pushed myself really hard and held myself to impossibly high standards in everything I do. I’m a textbook tryhard, so taking pride in myself is a real challenge for me. I was an okay student, but my real redeeming academic quality was tenacity. I knew this about myself, so I worked hard to make sure my professors knew that I was doing everything I could to succeed even if it wasn’t being shown directly by my grades. Even then, being proud of whatever the grade was at the end of the semester was so hard for me. I never worried too much about being proud of myself though, since my mom had enough pride in my accomplishments for both of us.
It was easy to do everything I did for her.
My kindergarten awards ceremony, photo taken by mom
I recently received a relatively prestigious award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which basically enables me to fund my own research for 3 years of my PhD. It’s a pretty big deal. It’s been long enough now since she died that when I found out about the award, the sharp pang of my mother’s absence did not immediately hit me (which I’m going to take as a blessed sign of progress).
Instead, my grief manifested itself through the realization that I had no idea how to be proud of myself.
I had absolutely no practice. Why would I? My mom kind of handled the pride thing. Seeing her happy was the real the prize for me. But she’s gone now.
So who the fuck am I doing all this for?
I had been wrestling with this question for a few weeks when I received a message from a former college acquaintance asking if I had time to talk with him about grad school applications. I was more than happy to oblige, so we set up a time to chat via Facetime. When the time came, I asked him about his goals and to talk about his experiences. I could tell immediately from how seriously he was taking the meeting that he was an extremely hard worker and was willing to do whatever it took to make a career for himself in science, so I gave him an extended account of my strategies to applying to school and how I feel that process played into my receiving the GRFP award. As I walked him through my logic, I realized two things:
1) I had done a shitton of strategizing and implementation to get into grad school, and 2) he was willing to do the work.
I mixed these two realizations around in my head like aqueous solutions in a freshman chem lab, and what crashed out of solution was that this boy’s future meant everything to him, and my GRFP-verified methodologies could help him get there. I realized for the first time in that moment that I could actually meaningfully empower passionate young scientists to achieve their goals. As I was examining this precipitate of ideas, I began to feel a familiar sensation, which I eventually identified as the joy I derive from facilitating someone else’s happiness. It certainly wasn’t identical to the feeling of making my mom happy and proud of me, but it was powerful and motivating in a way I had never experienced. The interaction between myself and the hopeful pre-grad student thus led me to a surprising conclusion: a loophole.
Though I have not exactly navigated how to be proud of myself yet, I discovered that my motivations to keep moving forward could still be fueled by making others happy in an extremely impactful way through mentorship and leading by example.
Maybe I won’t ever figure out how to really take pride in my work, but I’ve got inspiration again and that’s worth a hell of a lot to me.
My name is Marisol Dothard (@microbiomarisol on Twitter) is a grad student at BU who writes a blog to share my progress on deciphering the complexity of grief with others (in particular to sad grads) who might be feeling trapped by the nonlinear nature of how we move through our grieving.
Please check out all of her amazingly honest and beautiful posts on her blog: Grad School and Grieving