Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Four-Body Problem

Academic interwebs are full of articles about the “two-body problem.”  (My own most recent contribution to the genre is hereb.) The two-body problem refers to the dilemma that couples face when opportunities don’t come in pairs.  When one member of the couple gets a good offer in a desirable location and the other doesn’t, they have an awful choice to make. They can move, with one person accepting underemployment, and try to keep resentment from spilling over into the relationship.  They can try to maintain the relationship over long distance. They can split up. None of those is appealing.

But possibly because of the time of life in which academics are most commonly on the market, we see much more about the two-body problem than about the four-body problem.  That’s what happens when you add school-aged kids, especially in the teen years, to the mix.

Very young children can move easily enough; their worlds tend to be small, and memories short.  (Childcare is another issue.) Adult children can usually be expected to find their own way. But kids in junior high and high school can be much more place-bound.  They have deep and powerful local ties outside of the family, and they can’t reasonably be expected to find their own way yet. Their worlds are thick and sophisticated, but also, in a basic sense, along for the ride.  

The teen years can be bumpy rides in their own right, even if everything else is reasonably stable.  Parenting at this point takes on a very different cast. My own version of it involves encouraging autonomy, which means backing off on many things, while still holding fast on the fundamentals.  Music I don’t understand, or haircuts that strike me as silly? Sure. But nobody gets in the car without a seat belt. The idea is to let them ramp up their risks at the right pace. As any parent can attest, the “right pace” changes frequently, and without notice.

If you have more than one kid, and they aren’t twins, that tricky stretch of years can go on for a while.  It can easily get out of sync with career rhythms, leading to the four-body problem. (And that’s before even considering the extra costs of trying to stick with strong school districts.)  

As difficult as the two-body problem is to address in any sort of systemic way, the four-body problem is that much harder.  

Historically, elite families dealt with it by shipping the kids off to boarding school.  No shade on parents who choose that, but for most of us, and for many reasons, that’s not an option.  Some dealt with it by telling the kids to suck it up, and sometimes that’s the best available option. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I’m guessing that the relative silence around the four-body problem is partly a function of the lack of solutions.  It feels a little like complaining about gravity; you might be right, but it doesn’t help. But in the spirit of truth, it’s worth some thought.  Even if it doesn’t have a snappy conclusion.