Tuesdays with Zazoo: What a dog and a doctorate taught me about work-life balance
I always get mushy in mid-January. My birthday has passed (December 25). Christmas has passed (also December 25, it so happens). Holidays have passed. January 1 has come and gone, and with it a suite of admirable resolutions that were made and swiftly unmade. Even “dry January” has gotten a little, er, wet again.
So, what’s the big deal about the middle of January?
Well, on January 14, 2008, I walked into an office in London, took a seat facing two senior women I admire greatly, and answered their questions for an anxiety-inducing hour. What did you mean by this? they asked. Why didn’t you say this instead of that? What is your justification for quoting this person? What was your underlying framework? Your driving motivation? Your ultimate outcome? In short: Defend yourself! they demanded. The conversation twisted and turned along with my stomach. And after the one-hour-that-seemed-like-ten, these two women abruptly stood up, shook my hand, and said “Congratulations, Dr. AbiRafeh!”
I slid my damp hand out of their grasp and asked “Did I pass?!” as I wiped the sweat onto my dress. Yup. I passed.
Why pursue a PhD? people asked me. It’s not marketable in your field, said one knowledgeable friend. It’s not going to do much for your career in the United Nations, said one field-savvy friend. It’s intellectual masturbation, said one witty friend.
I was a field rat, after all, an emergency junkie, an aid worker. What would a PhD do that some hard-earned experience would not?
It started in 2002, on a plane to Afghanistan, veil bobby-pinned to my hair, $20,000 down my pants, and next to no clue what I was supposed to do.
As I climbed down the rickety stairs of the Ariana Airlines flight, the dusty summer wind blew my carefully-positioned veil out of place. I was twenty-seven years old, and the newest addition to an emerging army of aid workers. Expertise-in-abstraction, I remember thinking. How could I possibly be of use?
At the same time, the needs for women were overwhelming, and I wanted so desperately to ‘get it right.’ Most of the time, we didn’t get it right. I’ve written two books about this already.
In 2003, while still working in Afghanistan, I started my PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science so I could “bitch constructively,” as I called it. I really wanted to understand what was happening, and how we might do it better. I remained in Afghanistan until 2006.
I moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Papua New Guinea, where I finally finished my thesis, flying from Port Moresby to London to defend it on a freezing January day. And then I was “Dr,” after five years of intellectual sweat and late-night promises to myself that — if I passed — I would read nothing more sophisticated than Cosmopolitan for the rest of my life.
I passed. And the response was mixed. Now what will you do? one professional friend asked. One way ticket to a career in academia! one friend responded. And spinsterhood! added another. You’ll never get an “Mrs. Degree” now, she concluded.
Why do we celebrate engagements more than accomplishments? I wondered. In retrospect, I realize that I should have celebrated myself better. I should have had a bigger party. Or any damn party. I should have had a registry! Now I’m wondering how to upgrade my kitchen appliances?!
Ultimately, it’s this: a PhD is a thing I did for myself. No one calls me Dr — unless you ask if I’m Miss or Mrs. Then it’s most definitely Dr.
Dammit, I’m going to register at Williams Sonoma one day. Just for me. And my degree.
Fast forward a few years. On January 15, 2014, the day after silently celebrating my PhD-versary, I celebrated myself again, this time by picking up the little guy who changed my life — Zazoo, my Shih Tzu.
Why are you getting a dog? the chorus of friends asked.
I have always wanted one, I said. But I couldn’t get one before. Because I chose my work first. Above all else.
How will you keep working in warzones with a dog?! they echoed.
I won’t, I said. I need to stop.
I had been at it nonstop since I first placed my toes overseas — Bangladesh, 1997. You never forget your first, they say. And warzones nonstop since Afghanistan, 2002. It was time to stop — or at least to find a different way to do this work.
The thing was, I didn’t know how to stop.
I was good at my job. I loved what I did.
What did I do? I worked on addressing sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies. My task was to try to prevent it, try to respond to it, try to mitigate risks, try to coordinate actions, try to help women and girls feel safe. I tried, surely. I undoubtedly failed on all counts.
Still, I believed I had a duty to do it. I gave my head, my hands, my heart to this work. And during that period, my life was this work. No home, no stability, no notable relationships. Everything was “the field” — my friends, my peculiar ailments, my sleeping arrangements.
And so it went, day after decade.
Getting a dog was the one thing I could think of that would keep me from going back. Suddenly there was something I was responsible for, something I loved more than my work. It was seismic for me, leaving the frontlines, the war, the only life that felt comfortable to me. It seemed I was only comfortable in crisis.
I did this just as the conflict was re-escalating in the Central African Republic. I was in Bangui the day Zazoo was born. And I said yes, I’m going to do this. Yes, before I say no. Yes, before I say, I’ve got to go. Because that’s what I always said before: Sorry, I’ve got to go. This is more important.
Now, something else was more important.
Did I feel guilty? Did I abandon my career? Did I drop it all while at the top of my game? More importantly: Did I abandon women?!
Did I abandon the very cause I said I loved and was devoted to? Wasn’t there another way I could do this?
I wonder why I never allowed myself that same choice.
Did I stop? Not entirely. I worked remotely. I went into the field when I could. I got a job in Lebanon — and Zazoo came with me. We made it work, this little guy and I. And I love having a little blip of life outside work.
By day, I fight the patriarchy. At night, I serve the pupriarchy.
And I’m still doing the work I love, the work I believe in, the work that pisses me off and ignites my fire every single day.
So what? What’s the point of me getting all mid-January mushy and personal? Because, all of this is personal. I wouldn’t have started doing this work in the first place if it hadn’t been personal. That’s where the passion is. That’s where the anger is. And that’s where I sit — at the intersection of passion and anger.
But I also sit more firmly in my own space now. I’m no longer only my work. I’m a Dr. I’m a dog-mom. Both dog and degree gave me grounding and perspective, ultimately strengthening my conviction in the world I’d like to build. It helped me see what is important. And, I made it work, even when the chorus told me no.
In mid-January of this year, I celebrated 15 years with a PhD and 9 years with a Zazoo.
When I got my tattoo of Zazoo, the Arabic calligrapher who helped me design the image asked: “What do you want it to say?”
“Really,” she continued, “What do you want it to mean?”
Balance. Anchor. Home.