Monthly Archives: April 2012

Life on the Slab: A Tulsa Memoir Part 3

This is part 3 of my series about growing up in Oklahoma, my love affair with the midwest, and other stuff. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. BTW, Jen and I are both in the throes of finals over the next week or two, so bear with us if updates aren’t as frequent!

I spent my entire life in Oklahoma defining myself as a not-Oklahoman. I knew my stay there was temporary, but I wasn’t sure how long my sentence would last. Five years? Ten? As we drove south through Illinois and then across the vast girth of Missouri to get to Tulsa for the first time, I wondered about this new place. I thought Oklahoma would be flat, dusty, and full of horses. I imagined that everyone wore cowboy hats, and tumbleweeds would bounce down my street.

But, the Tulsa I lived in looked more like this: Continue reading

Lipstick Kisses

This post was inspired by the Identity in Balance series at Balancing Jane. Go check out all the amazing posts on this topic!

The writing prompt from Balancing Jane:

We all wear many labels. Some we wear our whole lives, and some shift as our relationships to those around us change. We are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, teachers, students, friends, feminists, Democrats, Republicans, daughters, sons, employees, bosses, and a host of other identities that weave together to make us who we are in any particular time and space. Sometimes those identities easily merge together, but often there are excesses in the overlap, spaces that might confuse us, spaces that make it challenging to figure out who we are. Balancing Jane maintains that it is in those spaces that we find out the most about ourselves, that when we are forced to simultaneously own two labels that we might not have placed together we figure out what we stand for. It is also by inhabiting those spaces that we learn to appreciate other people, for if we can be more than one thing, then so can they, and that means that our preconceived notions of them are always–at best–an oversimplification.  

Pick any two labels that you wear (by choice or necessity) and reflect on how they intersect. Start with I am _________ and _______.

I am a feminist mom, and I wear lipstick.

To be clear, I am not interested in the question of whether feminists can/should wear lipstick. We can; I do.

What I am interested in is what it means to put on lipstick in the morning while my 5 year old daughter stands next to me in the bathroom, wanting just a couple more minutes with me before I leave for work. I love these moments together. Sometimes I tickle her nose with a fluffy powder brush. Sometimes she asks me for lipstick kisses, and I press my lips to a tissue for her. I find them behind the couch, in her bed, tucked under her plate when I clean up the lunch dishes. She holds them tight for a few minutes at the start of the day, when she’s missing me, and then they drift out of her hands.

She loves princesses, sparkly shoes, tiaras. She loves dinosaurs, frogs, digging for worms. So far, so good. I worried that going to preschool would mean immersing her in gender roles and norms, but she hasn’t let on that she has much of a sense of toys or colors being only appropriate for boys or girls. But she has asked to wear makeup.

“Can I wear blue sparkly eye make-up to preschool?”

“Nope. It’s for grown-ups.”

She pointed out that one of the girls in her class wears blue sparkly eye make-up. “She’s not a grown up, Mom. She’s 4 like me.”

“Every family has different rules, sweetie, and in our family, blue sparkly eye make-up is for grownups, or maybe for dress up, but not for school.”  She wasn’t satisfied, but she let it go. I went to pack my laptop; she went to the toy room. She reappeared by my side with her Ballerina Barbie doll.

“Ballerina Barbie wears blue eye make up.”

“Yup. Is she a kid, or a grown up?”

“A grown up.”  Pause. Then the kicker. “But I bet if she had a little girl, she would let her little girl wear blue sparkly eye makeup to preschool.”

I could not have imagined that there would be a moment when my child would compare me to hypothetical mother Ballerina Barbie and I would come up short. But there we were.

We have tried hard to provide options, not restrictions when it comes to gendered toys: Barbie AND dinosaurs. But I wonder about what she is learning from the ways I perform gender and femininity, from my lipstick kisses. Is this how she sees beauty? Am I setting her up to see herself as inadequate because on some level, I see myself that way? How much will she think pretty matters?

I’ve lived a lot of different versions of femininity. I wear lipstick most days now, but I haven’t always; but this is the only me she knows. How much will any of it matter to her, my lipstick, my shaved legs, my unshaved armpits, my perfume? I know what beauty looks like and feels like in and on my own skin.  I want her to know those things too. I’m worried the lipstick will distract her. I’m worried she’ll waste time feeling ugly or unlovable, the way most teenage girls do, the way I did. I’m a feminist mom, and I wear lipstick, and I want to raise daughters who know they are gorgeous through and through.

Having a Baby as a Life Organizing Strategy

A miracle occurred in my house on Sunday: my two year old slept all night, by herself, in her bed. For the first time in her life.

Finally, she sleeps!

I’ve written about my children’s terrible sleep before, so this bears repeating: my twenty-seven month old daughter slept through the night for the first time last night. I remember that it was also April when my older daughter started sleeping through the night, too: something about the spring after turning two must flip a switch in the brains of my children that says, “Hey – sleep is grand. Let’s do it some more.”

This means I slept through the night, too! For the first time! In over four years! I woke up at 5 am and could tell that it was way later than I typically got to sleep before being called back to the kids’ room. I squinted at the clock to bring the numbers in focus and couldn’t quite believe it. Then I fretted in bed for thirty minutes, assuming that she had not woken up because ya know, she was probably dead. 

It’s funny: co-sleeping is so often characterized as reckless endangerment of a child, but to me it offered ironclad knowledge that my kid hadn’t suffocated. I felt like a neglectful Mom when I woke up the next morning, having slept all night in luxury and not made sure my child was alive once. But she was alive! And I missed her little body in that moment, her snuggly ways and how she always jams her feet under my side. I know she will probably continue to wake up sometimes (like, ya know, the very next night), but I also expect that, like her sister, this will be the start of her kid years. She’s not a baby. She’s almost not even a toddler. She’s almost a kid. I’m almost to a place where I might sleep, all night, in a bed, maybe even with my husband (if he doesn’t snore).

So it might surprise you (it certainly surprises me) that I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I want to have another baby. Not only did my youngest child do something that tells me she’s not so little anymore, but it’s my breeding time of year. I got pregnant with Robin in June, and Holly was accidentally conceived during a post-finals week high in May two years later. My body is telling me it’s time to get back on that horse: my body really, really thinks it would be a good idea to get pregnant yesterday.

My heart also kinda wants a baby: I love newborns, I love fat baby faces and snuggles, and I’d love to see my 4-year-old dote over an infant (she often asks me to have another baby, and often asks when she can have a baby). And there’s nothing like the anticipation of a new baby. It has this open possibility that is scary but intoxicating: you know life is going to change completely, and you also know you are about to fall hard for someone completely new and wonderful in ways you can never anticipate and never knew you needed. I found this especially true with Holly (our 2nd) because we were no longer so terrified of the baby thing, so we really enjoyed her infancy and getting to know her little personality. The idea of seeing what else our genes could come up with is tempting. A brown-haired child (finally)? A boy? It’s not that different than gambling, in a way – and it has tremendous emotional and cultural payoff. Nothing is as hard as having a small baby, but on the flip side, nothing is as powerful. In the right circumstances – support, security – a desired pregnancy is enormously LIFE ORGANIZING. It has its own gravitational pull, a centripetal motion that brings everything else into focus and order in a way that’s really gratifying.

I’ve been rereading The Feminine Mystique and one of the themes that comes up again and again is that women have another baby to solve problems in other areas of their lives. I say this not as judgment but as fact: I think anyone committing to having a child does it for myriad reasons, some selfless or laudable as “in the child’s best interest” and some personal, relational, and complex. I didn’t have kids when I did because the timing was perfect and we have pre-established college funds, etc. It was a complicated blend of biological imperative, life timing, and personal desire. In Friedan’s analysis, women of the 50s and 60s kept having children because they’ve been culturally conditioned to see mothering as the only valid use of their time and abilities, and when their littlest becomes independent, they have a personal crisis. I don’t think that’s the case any longer: certainly, all the women I know understand that there are many paths to a fulfilling life and work can be a part of that; but at the same time, we still expect, and experience, an intense devotion between mother and child that can feel and be engulfing at times. It makes sense that coming out of that, and deciding to end that time (no more kids) creates new space for questioning and wondering that’s a bit scary to negotiate.

Sweet Baby Robin

Pregnancy really forces you to get your shit together. You get house projects done, you quit drinking or smoking, you start eating better. Suddenly, you are flying through your dissertation or push a big project at work through because you want to be done before the baby gets here. For some women, pregnancy is really good for them: they love their bodies, sometimes the hormones even relieve persistent problems like depression or anxiety. In some marriages I know, the time around pregnancy and birth is a time of harmony in the home: conflict and disagreement are set aside while both parents focus on the new baby. It might not be “right” but babies can temporarily repair broken relationships, broken minds, and broken bodies. The needs of an infant are urgent, primal, and utterly reasonable (love, food, clean bum). Priorities become crystal clear. Life makes sense. Nothing quite brings together personal desires, biological urges, and cultural cache quite like babies. And I think it does allow us to kick down the road some stuff we’re just not up for yet. Betty Friedan specifically asks,

What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one, when she must decide who she will be, is simply the terror of growing up – growing up, as women were not permitted to grow before? What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one is the terror of freedom to decide her own life, with no one order to which path she will take… What if those who choose the path of ‘feminine adjustment’ – evading this terror by marrying at eighteen, losing themselves in having babies and the details of house-keeping – are simply refusing to grow up, to face the question of their own identity?

I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m not sitting in judgment of people who might have babies to defer dealing with life problems or “facing the question of their own identity.” Nor do I think people who want to have lots of babies or who are in the middle of growing their families are necessarily “avoiding” growing up. I’m just speaking to my experience and from observation that sometimes we have babies for reasons beyond a simple “I want another baby.” I’m in the middle of the “terror” Friedan describes right now, albeit 10 years later than the women Friedan writes about, because both my childbearing years and my whole vocational concept are coming to an end at the same time.  So, I have to be aware of the fact that I might be fantasizing about another baby not just because I want another baby or it might be fun or good. It might also be – hell, it probably is largely because – I’m not sure what’s happening next in my life, and having experienced the power and pleasure of mothering a baby, that seems like an awesome option. My very own brilliant and wonderful partner wrote me this email back in February when we were trying to make sense of this emerging obsession:

I do think you should try to think about this stuff in the context of grad school falling apart. I remember after grad school feeling suddenly very old and somehow more aware of my own mortality. There’s something about being launched into the real world that is very disconcerting and makes you feel like there’s no time, or that you have to make up for lost time or something. In your email you say, “I always wanted to mother a lot of kids but maybe I’m just not cut out for that, and that’s ok, but kind of sad to acknowledge.” To me that sounds like a classic I just got out of grad school and I don’t know what I’m good at anymore statement. It makes perfect sense that you would want to replace your sort of stillborn grad school career with the thing that made the most sense to you and brought you the most fulfillment, but the reality is that you might not actually want to go through with having another baby. I can see how the idea of having a fresh little person to dote on would seem attractive to you right now. It’s unfortunate that the thing you are fantasizing about (having a baby) is also inextricably linked with some of the most unpleasant memories you could possibly conjure up (months of nausea, vomiting, sleep deprivation, etc.)… The point I’m trying to make is that you might need something new to think about. You might need something new to obsess over.

Jolly Baby Holly

This is why I’m not making any big decisions right now. As much as having a third baby might be a great thing for our family, I don’t want to get pregnant because I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas when it comes to life after grad school. I don’t want my knee-jerk reaction to the fear of what’s next to involve a human life – at least not a new human life. Having a baby is compelling but it would also shut down a lot of possibilities – writing? A magic job that may or may not be in the works? Moving? Travel? The point is, I may not know yet what I want from my future, even though my instinct is to grab on to something for dear life. I want to keep as many doors open as possible and go through the terror of “growing up,” as painful as it may be, because I want to keep possibility open and see if life surprises me. So right now? I’m sitting tight with my two kids, watching some Spongebob, and doing some more writing.

(Chat) The Push-Pull of Motherhood, Careers, and Other Grown-up Pursuits

This week’s chat is our take on the whole Mommy Wars/The Conflict/work-versus-home dilemma we face. Ultimately, we agree that there needs to be less at stake for mothers who want to both be there for their kids and have a working life of some kind. We also wonder what alternatives there are to identifying through an occupation, and how do you become a “real” writer, anyway?

12:20 PM Lauren: Holly slept through the night last night, for the first time in her life.

In her own bed, too.

12:21 PM Jennifer: WOW. AWESOME!!!!

Do you feel like a new, well-rested, human person?

Lauren: Well, I woke up at 5 convinced she was dead.

So I’m still kind of tired.

12:22 PM But yeah, it’s exciting. It was April when Robin started sleeping through the night as a toddler, too, so maybe this trend will stick.

Jennifer: I hope so!

Lauren: Me, too.

12:23 PM So, how’s the old work/life balance treating you today?

Or identity-discovery-through-vague-means?

12:24 PM Jennifer: Today was Wacky Wednesday, so it took longer than usual to get ready. But the girls were very happy and excited, and my schedule is more flexible, because it’s exam week, so we actually had a really nice morning.

12:25 PM Lauren: Nice!

Jennifer: Of course, next week I have 2 days of professional development and 2 field trips to the zoo and no childcare lined up yet, so this happiness probably has an expiration date.

Lauren: I *hate* the scramble for childcare.

12:26 PM And I don’t even have family around for that kind of thing!

12:27 PM Jennifer: I’ve been thinking since I posted yesterday about why is it that I feel stressed so much of the time when I have what appears to be a functional balance. And I think child care is a huge part of that stress.

The cost to put the girls in full day care would negate my financial contribution completely.

12:28 PM Lauren: That makes sense. Just the fact that your schedules shift every week, so you can’t just say M-F 12-4 or whatever…

Jennifer: But also, our schedule is different every single week, because Tyler’s schedule is different every week.

Right.

Lauren: Yeah, that’s our situation right now. Which is why me going to making very little money but staying home more doesn’t make much of a difference.

(Can we have a moment to acknowledge how much retail SUCKS?)

12:29 PM Jennifer: It’s so hard. So hard.

12:30 PM And because we are pulling multiple sitters/moms/sisters as child care, every week is a weird patchwork: on Monday, Dad will be home, and on Tuesday, mom will drive you to school but Grandma will pick you up, and on Wednesday the other Grandma will watch you all day and take you to school, and on Thursday…

12:31 PM Lauren: I have to say that sounds nightmarish to me, I hate that scrambling. We went through that last year when Holly was more of a baby…

OK, every morning you’ll both go to daycare but I’ll pick you up BEFORE lunch.

Then in the afternoon, a babysitter will come but different sitters at different times, oh wait she’s suddenly unavailable, how will I ever get anything written, etc etc.

12:33 PM Jennifer: Right. It’s insane. But any time we talk about going to a more structured care schedule, the cost seems insane, and then we start saying, oh, wait, sometimes you’re off on Wednesdays, so why would we pay for care every Wednesday when at least 1 of those we won’t need, etc, etc.

Lauren: Totally.

This makes me so glad our daycare has us pay ONLY for the hours we use. But yeah, most places you pay for a “slot” rather than per hour, which makes it really expensive.

12:34 PM Jennifer: Do you try to work at home while you are also parenting?

Lauren: Not really. I pretty much gave that up when Robin was a toddler and kept trying to “help” me grade or read with me.

I just end up getting really pissed about being interrupted.

12:35 PM Sometimes I can write (personal stuff, not academic stuff) with the girls playing nearby.

Jennifer: I had to give it up too. Sometimes when I’m in a real crunch to grade I can get a few things done while they watch Dora or something. But mostly it’s a lost cause.

12:36 PM Lauren: I can’t straddle those worlds.

I can move between them, but not inhabit them simultaneously.

Jennifer: Same here. I’m happier and more productive if I draw firm boundaries.

12:37 PM Lauren: So, why can’t we feel satisfied with our partial commitment to mothering/homemaking, and our partial commitment to a profession?

Why isn’t adjuncting enough for either of us? Why isn’t SAHMing appealing?

12:38 PM Jennifer: For me, I think I love my job too much to SAHM. I would miss it. My colleagues, my students, the time in the classroom– I really like what I do.

12:40 PM And I feel like I am maybe unusual in that I also really love the more SAHM type stuff: classroom parties, field trips, going to the Childrens Museum, playing in the garden. But I don’t think I want to give up the fulfillment of my job for it.

12:41 PM Lauren: I have realized that I like the SAHM stuff that involves interacting with the girls.

If I can take them to the park, play with them, hang with them — awesome.

I just need someone else to do the cooking and cleaning while I’m out.

As I’ve said before, I like the maternal but I’m not wild about the domestic stuff when it comes to SAHM.

12:42 PM But I don’t get INTO it the way some people seem to. I don’t relish planning crafts or whatever.

Do you think a full-time CC teaching position would be fulfilling?

It seems like it would be pretty ideal.

Jennifer: I like cooking and gardening. I despise cleaning and organizing.

12:43 PM I would love to have a full time teaching job at the university I’m at. Because the stuff I teach is interdisciplinary (WGS, lib studies) I’m less likely to be a good fit at a CC. But conceptually, yeah: a full time mostly classroom gig is my dream job.

12:44 PM Lauren: Duh, I thought you were at a CC — sorry.

Jennifer: No prob.

I feel like even though it would be more work hours, it would be less stress.

12:45 PM Lauren: Well, having the income of a FT position is really helpful.

No doubt about it. And the benefits.

Jennifer: Right. Better finances means more childcare options means less chaos.

12:47 PM I do like the balance of working very little in the summer and closer to full time in fall/winter.

Lauren: I kind of like a steady stream of work

I wish I could work part-time all the time

And do work I feel really good about.

12:48 PM But I worry that PT teaching is leading to burn out. I’ve felt very checked out an uninvested in my teaching this year.

12:50 PM Jennifer: Do you think that has to do with the status of part time faculty?

Like, if part time were valued equally in the university hierarchy, would there be less adjunct burn out?

12:51 PM Lauren: Maybe.

I really think if I was around more, and had some space on campus, I’d feel more hooked in.

But right now I’m in and out, as bad as any adjunct who’s a ghost, you know?

12:52 PM Jennifer: I recommend pretending that a popular lounge is your office. That strategy has worked well for me. Although it is also kind of crazy.

Lauren: We only have one TA lounge and it’s kind of a drag.

ANYWAY: I think it’s a mindset thing more than anything, but I’m trying some new things out instead of assuming that I have to be or want to be a FT teacher.

Jennifer: What’s your game plan?

12:53 PM Lauren: I have absolutely no game plan.

I am adjuncting one class in the fall.

I just interviewed for a position doing advocacy for a campus union that’s super PT.

Otherwise…..??? I don’t feel pulled strongly to a JOB, you know?

I like the idea of income, and the idea of having somewhere to BE, and of feeling like I make a difference

But I don’t want to just go out and work at Kmart, you know?

12:54 PM I don’t want to work for the sake of working, especially if it means being away from my kids. If I leave my kids, the job had better be meaningful.

12:56 PM Jennifer: Yes. I definitely agree. And I feel lucky that I have stumbled into a job that feels that way. I feel like a lot of what’s missing for me is structural support.

Lauren: YES

Jennifer: I have purpose as a mom and a prof. But I need better pay and health care and more flexible/affordable child care.

Lauren: Don’t get me wrong, teaching is awesome. I LOVE IT. I just need a break from it.

Definitely

12:58 PM Jennifer: I would also like the flexibility to move in and out of full time/part time/time away without fearing that I will be replaced/be seen as replaceable.

Lauren: Right, the dreaded MOMMY TRACK.

Jennifer: Yes.

Lauren: People have been so serious in warning me that I shouldn’t stop teaching

JUST IN CASE

Because ANY GAP in employment is the kiss of death, I guess

12:59 PM It might hint that I think my kids are more important than teaching the 4 adults who attend my reading class on MW mornings.

Jennifer: And how could that possibly be, right?

But ti does feel that way.

it.

1:00 PM Lauren: Especially when they’re very young, yes, my kids trump teaching.

Jennifer: And I don’t even know if that’s a real fear or if it’s just a thing everyone says but that wouldn’t actually matter because I have never attempted to find out!

Lauren: I don’t know if I should be a SAHM but I do think I should be Canadian. I think I’d have thrived as a Mom in a system that pays you for a full year after you give birth.

I needed it to be ok that my babies mattered more for awhile. Not permanently, but for awhile.

1:01 PM Jennifer: Yes: Structural Support. Why do so many Americans think that is bad/crazy/socialist/evil?

Lauren: EYE ROLL

1:02 PM I don’t know but it makes me nuts. Actually…

I think I recently heard that there is a lot of bipartisan consensus among people that more/better family leave is good.

It’s probably businesses that have the clout there,

Jennifer: That makes me crazy.

Lauren: I think it’s interesting that we met in a writing workshop, but neither of us has really considered what role writing plays in our developing sense-of-selves-as-mothers.

1:03 PM Can we talk about fulfillment outside of “occupation: housewife” or “occupation: teacher/whatever thing that is paid”?

Jennifer: YES.

1:04 PM So, the thing about me is that I basically let go of any self-identity as a writer when I left grad school. I had been beaten up for so long about my writing that I just…. stopped.

1:05 PM And then, just before Margeaux was born, I started thinking about blogging, and I talked to Marian (from Runaway Sentence) about the logistics.

And then I found out that somebody else had the blog name I picked out, and so I totally gave up on the idea.

Lauren: Oh no!

1:06 PM Jennifer: And I honestly couldn’t tell you why I decided to go to the workshop with Ariel. There is no logical reason why I should have driven to Iowa in the winter and left all my girls home and gone to a writing workshop when I was not a writer and had actually not written anything in years.

But I did, and there you were.

1:07 PM Lauren: I did it because I needed an antidote to grad school.

I don’t know about you, but writing is working for me: the more I do it, the more I want to do it.

Jennifer: YES.

Lauren: But I have no idea how to translate that into some kind of life path, you know?

1:08 PM It feels like I should DO SOMETHING MORE with it than just post it for free online! 🙂 Yet I don’t know if it needs to be a paid gig or something to “matter.”

1:09 PM Jennifer: Right. the blog has been an amazing, awesome experience for me. I love writing. I love reading your posts. I check our stats. but… are we writers?

If we want to be WRITERS, should we be, like free lancing for Parents magazine?

Is that a thing writers do?

1:10 PM How would we even do that?

Lauren: I’ve looked into it

Jennifer: HA!

Lauren: It looks way too much like doing homework 😛

Jennifer: I love that you have looked into this.

Lauren: It’s a lot of filing and reading to figure out what the editors want and then matching up your voice to theirs.

I mean, I would love to do some freelancing, but I don’t want to write articles like “Ten Ways To Beat the Heat!”

1:11 PM Jennifer: Nope. Well, maybe? No, probably not.

Lauren: I really spent a lot of time one weekend being like “I could do this!!”

And then feeling like I was still in grad school, having to do research to write a paper that would meet a teacher’s needs but not mine.

1:12 PM I want to be able to write in a way that includes my perspective. I want to write personal stuff.

1:13 PM Jennifer: Yeah, me too.

Lauren: I guess I feel like if I’m taking time away from my children, and doing something that requires me to pay for childcare

1:14 PM Then I have to be earning money

Jennifer: Yes.

Lauren: I have it in my mind that next year I’d like to have more time to devote to writing — whatever THAT means — but I don’t know how to have a job that pays enough and takes little enough time that it’s possible to do that.

I love teaching but if I teach more than 1 section, grading will suck up that down time.

I like the idea of the job I interviewed for but it might be time intensive at times, and that makes me nervous.

1:16 PM But I feel like a heel because I am not a “real” writer

Right?

I’m basically taking time off to UPDATE MY WEBSITE

Jennifer: Most days I feel like I’m not a real anything.

I’m not a real writer.

Lauren: It has this cheesy geocities feel to it.

1:17 PM Jennifer: I’m nto a real prof.

I’m not a real SAHM.

Lauren: Right. YES. When do we hit that threshold so we can feel REAL at something?

Jennifer: And the thing is that to my students, I am a real prof. And to my girls, I am a real mom.

1:18 PM Lauren: So whose eyes are we seeing ourselves through?

Jennifer: EXACTLY.

1:19 PM So how do I stop the madness and chaos and self doubt and insane scheduling and too much mac and cheese and find some peace in doing what I’m already doing well, for teh most part?

1:20 PM Lauren: Right.

The whole “bloom where you’re planted” thing

I suck at that. I’m never satisfied with now.

Jennifer: We need a cutesy Mary Engelbreit graphic there.

Lauren: yuck 🙂

1:21 PM Jennifer: I kind of love M.E. Not sure why. More importantly:

WHY AREN’T WE BLOOMING?

Lauren: It’s like we’re blooming, but we can’t see our own blooms, because we are wearing the BLINDERS OF PATRIARCHY

1:22 PM Jennifer: ALSO THE BLINDERS OF CAPITALISM.

Lauren: Fuckin’ capitalism man.

1:23 PM Basically: how can we feel really good about the non-Mom stuff we want to do, even if it doesn’t pay

And about the Mom stuff we do want to do, that isn’t Pinnable

1:24 PM Jennifer: Yes. I want to be able to see my self and my strengths more clearly. I want to be able to enjoy the days I spend with my girls and the days I spend at work.

1:25 PM I want good healthcare and flexible, reasonably priced child care.

I can’t figure out if these desires make me feminist or Buddhist or Socialist or all 3.

Lauren: I want better maternity leave so you don’t have to plan your birth around a semester schedule.

Jennifer: YES.

1:26 PM I feel so grateful and lucky that we got pregnant with Margeaux when we did, because if we hadn’t, I don’t know if we would have tried for another month, because a July birthday seemed really scary if I was going back in August.

Lauren: Totally

1:27 PM I remember doing those feverish calculations in my mind as a grad student

How can I plan babies so as not to fuck up everything?

Of course when push came to shove we just rolled the dice and hoped it wouldn’t be too disastrous.

But those semesters were incredibly stressful. I was back in the classroom — not for long, but still having to negotiate all that shit — 4 weeks after birth.

I’m not one of those bounce back from birth mamas

1:28 PM I like to sit for like, 3 months, and do nothing after I give birth

I needed more down time.

1:29 PM Jennifer: I feel like the moms I know who have been able to immediately reintegrate into normal adult life are moms who are DISCIPLINED. I’m just too… loose, I guess.

1:30 PM Lauren: I’m just a mess, kinda, I need a lot of adjustment time.

Jennifer: Again: If we were Canadian, this would not be an issue.

Or Scandanavian.

Lauren: (I’m geeking out because Obama is speaking at Iowa right now and I’m streaming it!)

Right.

One of the things I think I’m learning from rereading Feminist Mystique

Is that women go through some identity shit when their babies aren’t babies anymore

Jennifer: YEAH OBAMA!

1:31 PM Lauren: In the 60s, the only option they felt they had was to become

a Mom again

They would just have another baby to maintain the necessity of their devotion or whatever

Or some would go on to a career or whatever, but that was viewed as a huge deal

Now we have more options, more acceptable options anyway

But I think we may just be hitting a sort of identity THING that women at this stage may go through

1:32 PM What’s next? Who am I? Etc

I just want to keep doors open to possibilities beyond a job in terms of fulfillment. But I know I need something more than “just” mothering.

Jennifer: Yes. And I think if you are part time, it’s harder in some ways to sort through because I can’t fully integrate into any of the worlds I move through.

1:33 PM Lauren: Yes, the shifting is so hard

Jennifer: I can’t join the playgroups, or keep going to breastfeeding support group to be social, because I have to work.

But I can’t go out with the women at work, or go to the more social events (like holiday parties or retirement parties) because I’m needed at home.

Lauren: I have absolutely NO social life.

Jennifer: It’s hard.

1:34 PM Even to get together with my friends with kids, it’s hard.

Lauren: I have been asking other Moms how they do this and it sounds like a job itself

Making calls, following up on things, having parties and snacks

Facebook event creating, etc.

I wish, wish, wish I didn’t live 20 min away from most of our friends. But that’s another topic altogether.

1:35 PM Jennifer: I fantasize about living in a neighborhood with other parents who I like and who have casual social gatherings.

I know people who live in neighborhoods like this, and I envy them deeply.

1:36 PM Lauren: I basically want to live in a housing co-op

I really should have been a hippie.

1:37 PM Jennifer: I want the support network: I want to be able to say to my neighbor, Can you pick D up from preschool on Wednesday when I’m at the zoo with Lucy and I’ll be by to pick her up from your house in an hour?

Lauren: Can you watch Holly while she naps so I can pick Robin up from preschool?

1:38 PM Jennifer: Can you watch Lucy while I take D to get a tetanus shot because she cut her finger on a can in the recycling bin?

Lauren: Can you take this $10 and get me some milk and bread while you’re at the store so I don’t have to run errands with no bra on and screaming children?

1:39 PM Jennifer: This is why people used to live with their extended families.

Lauren: The whole village thing really makes sense.

1:40 PM Jennifer: Because it creates flexible support, which is what we seem to need most, especially when we are trying to be present in more than one grown up world.

Lauren: Right

To not have either mothering nor working make or break the other thing

1:41 PM Being a mom shouldn’t negate my ability to work

Working shouldn’t negate my ability to be a good mom

Jennifer: The stakes shouldn’t feel so high.

1:42 PM Lauren: RIght

Not at this vulnerable time of intense personal transition

This has been a lovely chat!

You need to prep, though, right?

Jennifer: I should try and finish grading this batch of essays before I go in to hear their presentations.

1:43 PM This has been an awesome chat.

Lauren: Have a great class!

Jennifer: Enjoy Obama!

Lauren: You know it!

1:44 PM Jennifer: I’d offer to find an ME Bloom Where You’re Planted image, but wordpress hates it when I use pictures.

Lauren: I’ll take care of it 🙂

Jennifer: Thank you 🙂

TTYL!!

Lauren: TTYL!

You can’t throw a shoe without hitting a recent post about The Mommy Wars or Elisabeth Badinter’s controversial book The Conflict, so I’ll spare you the links. What do you guys think?

 

Off balance

Since giving birth to Dorothy 5 years ago, I have done every possible combination of staying at home and working. I worked full time for the first year of her life, lost my job unexpectedly and stayed home for the next 7 months, then went back to work part time as an adjunct prof, teaching 2 or 3 classes during fall and winter semesters and staying at home during the summers. I had 6 weeks of paid maternity leave after D was born, I was unemployed when Lucy was born, and we planned Margeaux’s birth for summer so that I wouldn’t have to take fall or winter semester off. I have had very little structural support in the way of maternity leave or formal child care; we rely on friends, family, and a couple trusted baby sitters to care for the girls when T and I are working.

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say that adjunct teaching doesn’t pay particularly well. I value the opportunity to teach regardless of the pay because I love to be in the classroom, writing on the board, talking about books and ideas that transformed me; because I love the moment when a student realizes something about herself and her place in the world for the first time; because teaching gives me a reason to keep reading new books and a community to talk about those books with; because my colleagues are smart and funny and thoughtful and kind; because my students are often all those things too.

In addition to trying to work my way through what seems to be an endless number of essays and reading prep self-evaluation worksheets this week, T and I are also trying to figure out what our fall schedule will look like. This schedule involves full day kindergarten 5 days a week, half day preschool 4 days a week, me working 3-4 days per week, T working 5-6 days per week (but his schedule and days off vary each week because he’s in retail), ballet on Fridays, and Margeaux, who snuggles and plays full time.

The practical choice right now would be for me to stay home, or to only teach night classes so I could cut my on campus hours to the bare minimum and do all the driving to school and ballet. I could possibly SAHM full time, or easily SAHM by day, adjunct by night: keep up with the laundry and dishes, sign the permission slips, cook healthy meals, have a few hours with Margeaux each day while the girls are at school. We would certainly save money in gas and food. The household would run more smoothly. I would have more time with the girls. We would eat better. I could use our moms and babysitters to cover a few hours here and there while I went to the Valentines party or the pumpkin farm or got my hair cut.

Financially, there is very little to gain from teaching days instead of evenings; to any outsider, SAHM by day, adjunct by night probably looks ideal. So why did I sign on for a full schedule for fall, teaching 3 classes? Why bring on the childcare stress, the driving, the frustrated students who email me and don’t understand why I don’t respond immediately when I am at home on my off days, making macaroni and cheese and folding mountains of leggings and Hello, Kitty underpants? Why cobble together a childcare patchwork of grandmothers and babysitters on a week by week basis that will leave me stressed and exhausted as I struggle to keep up with driving and Halloween parties and prepping and grading and maintaining an on campus presence so my colleagues know who I am if the interview for that elusive full time position ever comes around?

One reason is that I am afraid if I opt out of the standard academic work day, if I no longer see my colleagues on a regular basis, I will cease to be thought of as a viable candidate for a full time job, should that job ever exist.  Out of sight, out of mind. The quality of my teaching wouldn’t change, but if a 3 page essay jams in the copy machine and no one is there to replace the toner…. Or something.

I share an office with approximately 8 other part time faculty, which means that outside of my allotted 3 hours per week, I work in a lounge. And while this set up isn’t ideal, I have grown to appreciate certain aspects of the arrangement: I am in the middle of the hall. Want to go to the bathroom? You walk past me. Want to make a photocopy? You walk past me.  My presence in the lounge is a clear and obvious reminder that I work here and I want to continue to do so.

But beyond the desire to maintain a physical presence, I value the interaction I have with my colleagues. One of the hardest things for me about being a SAHM is the isolation, the long hours, the endless housework.  I find myself crawling under the table and picking up the Polly Pocket boots for the 200th time and wishing a trap door would open that would drop me into an alternate universe with money trees and robot housekeepers and an awesome playgroup full of moms who are sassy and spunky and feminist and okay with drinking wine roundabout 4 pm. Coming to work means the opportunity to talk to people I like and respect. I value this community. I like having the opportunity to talk through a new ad I’m thinking about analyzing in class, or find out what new book someone is using in the Life Journey class, or share how I used that theatre of the oppressed power game. Coming to work in the evening, arriving to a mostly empty building, might pay the same amount of dollars. But the entire experience would change for me in a way that I find hard to accept.

Even though it would simplify the laundry and the driving and the cooking. Even though it might mean more time with the girls.

Here’s the thing: I am good at my job, and I find it fulfilling and challenging, and I don’t want to give it up, or do it on lesser terms, even if doing so would simplify my kids’ routines and commutes.  Is that selfish?

But also: I am a good mom, and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So why am I so certain that being a SAHM is the wrong choice for me, when practically it’s so obviously the right choice?

And for the record: although I don’t find it fulfilling, T and I have learned to manage the housework with enough success that we don’t usually run out of clean underwear or spoons or milk.

So shouldn’t all that add up to something pretty close to domestic bliss, the perfect balance? Work 3 days a week, home 4 days, clean spoons and chocolate milk for everyone? Why is it such a struggle? Is it the identity push pull, the sense that I really should choose one or the other and immerse myself? Is it fear that I must be selling someone short—my kids, my students, my professional identity? If the goal is work/life balance, I have that. I don’t have Friedan’s problem with no name; I have some weird new hybrid problem. It probably has 3 names, or a hyphenated name, or it goes by some nickname unrelated to its given name. Whatever you want to call it, today I feel like it’s got me beat.

Field of Dreams: A Tulsa (and Iowa) Memoir Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of posts about moving around as a kid and spending a lot of time living in Oklahoma. Check out part 1 here.

Of my immediate family, only my sister still lives in Oklahoma: my parents finally made their escape just two years after I moved away, and now live in Kansas City. Whenever I think about how much I love living in Iowa, I recall a passage from the novel Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. Shoeless Joe inspired the film Field of Dreams, and was written by a grad student at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been teaching and attending for eight years.

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees. I looked up at the low gray sky; the rain had stopped and the only sound was the surrounding trees dripping fragrantly. Suddenly I plunged my hands wrist-deep in the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and I knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

I bought Shoeless Joe in early 1994: I know this because the dated sticker from the used bookstore is still on the cover, a 1982, pre-Field of Dreams mass-market paperback edition. I bought it because I’d loved the movie and considered myself a Midwestern ex-pat. I wanted to connect to the place I considered my true home and my ultimate destiny. I was fourteen years old and I’d been living in Tulsa for two years. I read that passage and thought, I want to go to there.

I’d moved all over the Midwest as a young child – hopping from Missouri to Illinois and then Indiana. We moved for my father’s work in the soft drink industry (yes, we really called it that in our house). Crush, R.C. Cola, A&W: the complicated gerrymandering of your regional territories forced us in and out of quite a few states before Dad left the world of soda altogether. Certainly, there are cultural, geographical, and meteorological differences among Kansas City, Peoria, and South Bend, but they all share a soft topography and a genial, white Midwestern mildness that made them feel more similar than different. They (we?) are friendly by default, but not excessively warm; and because we (they?) abhor conflict, no one will inquire about your religion, politics, or those funny plants you’re cultivating in the backyard, as long as you return the favor.

Don’t get me wrong: Midwesterners are as opinionated, judgmental, and full of shit as anyone else in America, but this was the stew I’d grown up in and I was too young to have that kind of meta-awareness. I was a Cubs fan; I knew what snow smelled like; my houses had basements; and we drove through miles of cornfield ribbons to get to Grandma’s house. I love the look and feel of old Midwestern homes: the pastel interior paints, peeling linoleum kitchen floors; arched doorways, white clapboard siding, creaking stairs with plastic tread protectors. The powdery smell of old bathrooms; the rotten stink of well water; hooked rugs. When we bought our house in rural Iowa last year, we bought exactly the kind of home I always fantasized about: a 1937 cape cod with light, wood floors, gauzy curtains, and a telephone cubby.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

My Mom’s family is Irish Catholic. She has nine brothers and sisters and they were raised in a town near Chicago. Grown up, they scattered across the Midwest, concentrated in central and western Illinois, the suburbs of Chicago, and Wisconsin. A few of the sisters – my Mom included – left the Midwest altogether. There’s just something about this family: full of charisma, music, great hair, and extreme volume, every holiday with them was an event of a lifetime. As a child, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling, wondering how my brainy brownness fit in with these fair-haired wild wondrous people. I sat in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the noise of forty people trying to talk over one another, and was all ears. I used to write and rewrite the list of names, anniversaries, and birthdates of everyone in the family: Linda Jo, Kathleen Ann, December 1, May 10, etc etc.

  • Fact: their last name is a synonym for “angelic.”
  • Fact: as in a sitcom, each member of the family is fabulously attractive and talented.
  • Fact: this family has been known to spontaneously burst into song and dance.

After four years in Missouri (from about age 4 until 8), we spent three years living closer to family (in Peoria and then South Bend IN), and I finally got to see my many cousins more than once a year. We went to christenings, 4th of July parties, random weekend visits, and every major holiday. I couldn’t get enough of being in the mix, eavesdropping on my aunt’s conversations, wondering at my cousins, who were a thousand times more cool and plugged in to culture than I was (they introduced me to NKOTB and the entire concept of “making out”). After we moved to Tulsa when I was 12, our attendance of family gatherings dropped to once a year, maybe twice. Tulsa is in the middle of the country but it’s so much further south: it really feels a million miles from everywhere.

I felt cut off from the universe: missing Thanksgiving felt like missing the party of the year. If I wasn’t there, I was going to be forgotten, and somehow being in this family felt like my one chance at being cool. And being in that family meant being in the Midwest. Thus as a pre-teen, my whole sense of personal possibility was set in a cornfield.

(More to come…)

I’m an Adult Woman With Kids in Search of Myself (and I need some new options)

This week, I’m rereading The Feminine Mystique. Look forward to more posts about how it resonates with my life as a young mother nearly fifty years later.

When I was growing up, all I wanted was to settle down. I wanted to move to a small town where everyone would know my name. After 4 moves in as many years, I wanted to live in the country, preferably close to my family, and never move. I have long considered myself a bit of a homebody and not much of a risk-taker. This has been backed up by a long history of being pretty wussy about change and trying new things (like driving a car, flying on planes, etc).

But lately I’ve been extremely restless. My uncertainty about the future and desire for change has taken on a new urgency. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re in the waning weeks of my final semester in grad school; maybe it’s my anxiety about how to fill the time as a (mostly) stay-at-home parent. Something in me is scared and the thing I’m scared of is: stasis. In reflecting on my life history and how I got here, I’ve been reevaluating myself and my choices, and I have come to the conclusion that I am a change junkie. I don’t often seek out action in the physical or visceral sense, but I seek out constant stimulation in my mind. In high school, I shifted from obsession to obsession, immersing myself in worlds of music and books. I fantasized constantly about what was next: a guaranteed ticket out of Oklahoma, a man to love me, and music. I wrote long stories about this future life (yes: I will share them with you, later). Then I had college, an intense time packed with experimentation, work, and fun. Grad school was the ultimate, brainy gamble: a career version of Russian roulette, except the revolver has five bullets instead of one. Soon after starting grad school, I became obsessed with having a baby and learned every single possible thing about babies and birth and breastfeeding. Then I changed programs. Then I had a baby. Then I (accidentally) got pregnant again. Have I mentioned that the longest I’ve lived in a house or apartment since leaving my parents’ home at 18 is 3 years? And every semester in school is a fresh start. That’s 3 months before a total shake-up.

I’m a change junkie.

Nowadays, it’s manifest in little ways — the constant email checking, constant Google reader reloading – and big ways: desperation for a job or a big project; thinking about a new baby or moving or whatever. It’s all part of the same giant problem I’m staring down:  I’m scared of being bored. I’m scared that in three weeks, I’ll start the “rest of my life:” a life lived in one place, doing the same things, with the same family. I keep trying to implement my Radical Thing-Doing plan, but I’m doing the dishes thinking, “Jesus, I just keep having to do the dishes.” I clean the floor and in an instant, it’s showered by cornbread crumbs. I’m not getting zen.

In college, when I read Betty Friedan and Anne Sexton and became a feminist, part of the powerful persuasion of second wave feminism was its revulsion at the tedium of conventional motherhood. I shared their utter outrage at the marriage and family manuals and women’s magazines of the 50s and 60s, which glibly suggested that caring for a home was as stimulating and challenging as traveling, writing, working, anything else. That in the day-to-day challenges, emotions, interactions, and triumphs, a smart woman could find satisfaction. I hated that notion. It insulted me. I told my then-boyfriend (now husband) that my worst nightmare would be a house in the suburbs and a minivan full of kids. I think that has carried over a bit in my reaction to mommy and lifestyle blogs that make it all seem so satisfying, so engaging and rewarding. I don’t find it to be that way. I know there are Moms who do… I envy them. I believe mothering should be defined by the relationship it represents – mother and child – but it is often discussed as and characterized by the things mothers do, especially in the early years when, as Jen eloquently describes, we have so much intimate participation in every functional aspect of our children’s lives.

Having kids certainly changed my perspective on mothering as a nightmare: I deeply wanted them, and I love having them in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But, this shit is not working. I am struggling – really struggling – to find myself – my whole, individual self – in any version of “adult woman with kids” available out there. (Saying “mother” always, already feels so loaded. I’m a woman, and I have kids. I’m trying to figure myself out here.)

I don’t identify as a SAHM: as I’ve said before, I’m mothering by default. I’ve done the natural mothering thing and philosophically, I’m on board, but once you move past the urgency of infancy, AP is compatible with almost any lifestyle. I don’t have to SAHM it up to be an attached mom.

While I can and do “work” at “home” – trying to grade papers while the kids make a mess with waffle syrup, or writing a blog entry in a running car with a sleeping 4 year old in the backseat – it isn’t exactly work, and it’s not exactly fulfilling. I’m not about to start my own Scentsy franchise or whatever. Most of my “working at home” is characterized by the desperate desire to be left the fuck alone so I can concentrate. The push-pull is intense when you are constantly interruptible.

At least for now, I’m not a career woman. While momming 24/7 seems like too much, working full-time feels wrong at my core, and as long as my husband has a 50 hour a week job that pays the bills, it makes sense for me to spend more time with the girls, which requires being at home and doing all that home stuff. I don’t feel a strong calling to a full-time occupation. Nothing I can do is worth the sacrifice of 90% of my time with my kids, at this age, anyway. (Writing? But that doesn’t pay.) While I adore teaching, I’ve worked with diffident eighteen year olds long enough to know that investing my identity completely in their success is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. A job won’t make me feel better at mothering: if anything, the more I’ve been away from the home this year (struggling towards comps in grad school), the more chaotic and distressed our home lives became. Things fell apart. I am needed, however much I may suck at domestic tasks: something about me is a kind of glue to our household.

A few months back, I read an interesting post on this topic at Her Bad Mother. Catherine Conners recently moved her family from Canada to New York so she could pursue her dream career. Because of this transition, her husband became the caregiver in their family, and he… hated it. I could relate completely to her description of his feelings about stay-at-home-parenting:

If I write the words Kyle does not like being a stay-at-home dad, Kyle does not like being dependent upon me, Kyle is not comfortable being the ‘wife,’ it just sounds wrong, it seems open to misinterpretation, to misunderstanding on the part of anyone who would read those words and not get that he loves his kids, and that he loves being with his kids, and that he loves me and is proud of me, and that he wouldn’t want me to be anyone other than who I am, that all of these things are true and important, more important than the ‘and yet…’ that follows them. And yet he doesn’t like being at home I cannot do justice to the complicatedness of his reality. I cannot do justice to the complicatedness of his feelings.

I can relate completely. Kyle and I are on the same team here! Wow! But can you imagine this being about a wife? This family been in this new life arrangement for a few months – how many years of dissatisfaction with stay-at-home-motherhood do women weather without anyone being seriously concerned about their fulfillment, or seeking alternatives? Other than fellow Moms who completely get where I’m coming from, does anyone read my blog and feel sympathetic to the “complicatedness” of my feelings and reality? I think it speaks to Catherine’s own complicated experience as a mother that she can sympathize and respect her husband’s experience, even as it imperils this fragile plan they created so she could pursue her own dreams. But as I write this, I imagine readers stumbling across me and being like, “Ugh, another bored white mom complaining about her privilege.”

I decided to reread The Feminine Mystique because more and more I’m dissatisfied with the options available to me – which can be boiled down to public/private or public/domestic, work/home – but despite wave after wave, there still aren’t many in-betweens or alternatives. Either you find yourself in or through the home (SAHM, WAHM), or you have to reject the home (WOHM). Right? So what else is there? Is there a place outside the home where I can find myself as a woman and a mom? Is there an out-walking-around-mom? A driving-around-and-talking-mom? A reading-and-writing-sometimes-cranky-always-loving-always-thinking-mom? We need more options for individual fulfillment beyond work and home. We need some new spheres.

Can somebody refill my magic please?

My younger sister had a baby this week: a beautiful, healthy, baby girl with fuzzy hair. At our house, Margeaux is the baby, but holding my niece, I was struck immediately by two thoughts:

  1. Margeaux is enormous.
  2. I WANT A BABY.

Neither of these is exactly true, although Margeaux does have deliciously chunky baby thighs and a round tummy.  Snuggling Paige, I felt a mix of longing and sadness and relief, that I won’t have those newborn moments again.

I don’t miss the sleepless nights, obviously. That kind of physical fatigue is awful, deadening. At our house, it inevitably led to middle of the night shouting matches; when Dorothy was a baby we had to institute a rule that anything we said to one another between midnight and 6 am didn’t require an apology in the morning. We recognized that when 3 am rolls around and it seems like you have been awake forever and it will be dark forever and this night will never end and this baby will never stop crying it is possible that you will shout something like “You will never understand how I feel right now! She’s not latched on to your body 24 hours a day! IT’S LIKE YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A BABY!”

I don’t miss the physical fatigue. Although Margeuax doesn’t sleep through the night, nursing and cosleeping have been a tremendous relief for me. I’m sure in an alternate universe where I have no children I would be even more well rested, but mostly, I feel okay. I am certainly not stumbling around in an exhausted haze the way I remember doing in those first few weeks. These days, I struggle with a different kind of fatigue. There’s no longer a 24 hour per day demand for my physical presence, but the intensity of their waking hours some days leaves me similarly deadened.

Partly this is because they are too little to have much independence: someone has to make (and clean up) the meals and the snacks, turn on another episode of Dora, get the crayons off the counter, find the stickers, remind them not to run willy nilly in the parking lot, snap the princess dress up dress in the back, tie the ribbon leash on the stuffed giraffe, resolve the dispute over the iguana puppet. I have heard parents say that you shouldn’t get involved, that they need to practice solving their own problems and that conflict will bubble up and blow over whether or not you intervene. Apparently those people’s children are destined to be brokering Mid-East peace treaties while mine are ruling tiny nations as benevolent dictators. My girls fight hard, and they don’t back down.

To be clear: they don’t fight or bicker constantly. They love to play together, and most of their day is spent in a swirl of pretending. “I’m the mama and you are the sweetie,” Dorothy will say, and then they put on hats and drive the laundry basket to the grocery store. Or they are vets taking care of sick animals, bandaging stuffed animal ears and legs with ribbons. Or they are teachers, or pilots, or explorers, or doctors, or princesses, or ballerinas, or some strange combination of the two.  Bathing suit, tutu, and a toy stethoscope? Ballerina doctor. Sparkly dress, sun hat, and backpack? Explorer princess.

The fights spring up out of nowhere: one minute they are happily playing fairy princess school and the next minute they are sobbing and screaming and occasionally even hitting or pushing. I NEED THE GIRAFFE AND SHE HAS THE GIRAFFE AND I AM THE GIRAFFE DOCTOR AND SHE CANT BE THE GIRAFFE DOCTOR GIVE ME THE GIRAFFE NOW NOW NOW! Or this gem from a couple days ago: I PUT MY MAGIC ON THE LADDER AND SHE TOUCHED THE LADDER AND MY MAGIC GOT ON HER AND I AM OUT OF MAGIC AND ITS NOT FAIR!

What?

The sharing disputes are fairly easy to resolve: set a timer, accept that there might continue to be tears until someone loses interest. But ladder magic?

The emotions, the needs, the desires are so intense these days. When they are happy they are overjoyed and when they are sad the world is ending and when they are angry they fling themselves at one another or the floor full force. I’m realizing more and more that my parenting energy is spent helping them learn to manage the tides of their emotions: yes, you are sad that the balloon deflated, let’s acknowledge that and then shift our focus to something that makes you feel happy, like drawig a picture of the balloon. Yes, you are angry, let’s work together to solve this problem. Use your words to say how you feel, ask for help from a grown up, think about how the other person feels too. Can I use my mama magic to refill your magic?

None of this work seems like it should be exhausting, not in the way that actually going without sleep is exhausting.  But at the end of the day, when they are finally tucked in, the relief is tremendous, and the desire to check out mentally with a cocktail and tv is fierce. During their waking hours, I feel held open, spreading myself wide to shelter them, trying to be chef and nurse and peacemaker and traffic cop and chauffeur and teacher and maid and cruise ship activities director, trying to make sure they are whole and healthy and safe and joyful. It’s not that they need me every minute, it’s that the moment of need could be any moment, so I can never really be present or focused on anything else. I am always waiting, listening, watching out of the corner of my eye for tears or danger. By the time bedtime comes and everyone is safe in dreamland, I have so little left. It’s hard to find the energy to be really present in conversation with T, or to focus on a book, or writing, or anything that requires more thought than rum punch and Dancing With the Stars.

Last night at my book club (wine club) a friend whose sons are in high school and college pointed out that although they need you less as they get older, the worries you have are so much bigger. What if they are in a car accident, what if they lose the scholarship, what if they make terrible decisions about drinking or drugs? Thinking about the scope of those fears, I felt grateful for the fights over ladder magic and the pink My Little Pony.

Holding my niece at the hospital, I felt keenly aware of how quickly time passes, how quickly they grow to be chubby crawling babies like Margeaux and then explorer princess doctors like D and Lucy. How can it all happen so fast when the days themselves feel so endless? How can I be more present for them and for me, not caught up in nostalgia for baby days or impatient for the next milestone? Would these issues seem less fraught if I worked less, or more, or if we all went on an epic road trip?

I’d like to spend another hour writing, thinking, but Lucy’s sitting at the other end of the couch drinking chocolate milk, and T is patiently emptying the dishwasher, and it looks like it might be a good morning for a bike ride. Time to pour the next cup of coffee and gather my strength.

Jen and Lauren Chat: Sisterhood is Powerful

Jen and I chatted this week about sisterhood, family, and babies. Conclusion: sisters are awesome. So is Eight is Enough.

Lauren:  Let me know when you are ready to chat!

Jen:  I am ready!

How many sisters do you have?

Lauren:  I have one younger sister.

How about you?

Jen:  I’m the 4th of 5 kids; I have an older sister and a younger sister. I also have two sisters-in-law (2 older brothers).

Lauren:  So you are both a little sister AND a big sister.

Jen:  Yes.

But my family is a little odd in that we are two separate generations: my parents had 3 kids close together, waited 9 years, then had 2 more.

Lauren:  So you and your young sis are the two littles?

Also, sidebar: what were your parents thinking??

(I say that in admiration and awe.)

Jen:  Yes: we are “the little kids” or “the girls”.

Do you have any other siblings? Or is just the two of you?

Lauren:  It’s just us two: we are 2 years apart.

My Mom came from a huge family and wasn’t interested in having more than two, nor was my Dad!

Jen:  My mom is the oldest of 5; my dad is the youngest of 3. (He has 2 older sisters.)

Lauren:  So did you feel it incumbent upon you to have more than 2 kids?

Jen:  I always wanted a big family. In fact, when I was pregnant with Margeaux I secretly hoped she would be twins, because I sort of knew I wouldn’t have another but actually wanted more than 3.

Lauren:  I adored my Mom’s huge family and fantasized about having eight kids.

Then I scaled it back to 4.

But I am probably done with my two girls.

Jen:  As I kid I wanted 12, like Cheaper By the Dozen.

Lauren:  YES

Or Yours, Mine and Ours

Or Eight is Enough

All movies/shows I obsessed over as a kid.

Eight is enough to fill our lives with loooove!

I think I really wanted to BE in a big family, not necessarily give birth twelve times or parent/pay for that many kids.

Jen:  Yes. I definitely had no idea what it would be like to birth/parent multiple children.

Though I imagine it will be substantially easier when they are older and not so needy.

Lauren:  Yes, I look forward to that as well.

I loved the idea of all those different personalities, all the hubbub at holidays.

Jen:  And for me, having a lot of siblings has been awesome because I have been closer to different sibs at different points in my life.

Lauren:  My sister married a man who has TWELVE siblings!

Jen:  When Tyler wanted to stop at 2, I worried about the pressure on them to be EVERYTHING to each other.

I still kind of fantasize about having 12.

Lauren:  I also really cherish my close relationship with my sister and parents, and I don’t know if that’d have happened if we had five other sibs.

I have half-joked with my sister that she is my true soulmate/long distance relationship, because I feel destined to get back to a life where we live close to each other.

Jen:  My sibs and I all live within an hour of each other; my sisters are both within 15 minutes.

We share clothes and take care of each others kids and pets.

Lauren:  That’s so awesome.

I’m deeply, deeply, deeply envious of that.

Jen:  When I lived in Iowa, we trained for a 25k road race together one year and then I came back to GR to run with them. It was awesome.

Lauren:  My Mom is close to her many sisters in that way.

Several of them live in IL/WI and they collaborate to care for my aging grandma.

Jen:  My mom and her siblings are taking care of my grandpa, who has Alzheimers.

Lauren:  Here’s the thing:

My sister is definitely my best friend.

I assume that Robin and Holly will be best friends for life: I basically teach them that.

But when you add more sisters to the mix, does it work out that way? Or does it change the rel?

I know some people who hate their sisters, or have gone through phases where they hate their sisters.

So how does this work?

Jen:  My sisters and I have gone through phases where we are very close and phases where we just didn’t have as much in common. But I definitely feel like my siblings are people I can COUNT ON.

They painted my house. They watch my kids. They have given me furniture. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together.

I know that if I need something, they will be there for me.

Lauren:  Exactly.

My sister is the first person I call for practically everything.

With the exception of three-ish years around junior high, we have always been super close and one another’s biggest fans. I named my firstborn after her.

Lauren's Sister/BFF

Jen:  Sometimes Dorothy gets mad and says she doesn’t love Lucy. I just keep telling them, “You might not like her right now. But you will always be sisters.”

Lauren:  There is TOTALLY an ethics of sisterhood in our household.

Sisters are tops. Sisters are number one. We treat our sisters the very very best.

Jen:  Right. Because even though they don’t get it now, I think that establishing that early on matters.

Lauren:  When I was pregnant with my second (we did not find out the gender), we both hoped and hoped and hoped it would be a girl, because I really wanted Robin to experience having a great sister. When Holly was born we were OVERJOYED.

Robin meets her sister for the first time.

Jen:  The other day, Dorothy said, “I am not going to come to your house to visit!” Meaning, when they grow up. And Lucy totally didn’t get the threat and said “We live in the same house.” But I thought it was interesting (and hilarious) that D understands the significance of that as a threat.

Lauren:  Lucy’s like “We will always live together.”

Jen:  I didn’t know the sex of any of mine, but we definitely hoped Margeaux would be a girl.

Dorothy and Lucy Meet Margeaux

Lauren:  As kids, we had family friends with three sisters and they fought terribly.

I mean, they treated each other horribly. But now, as adults, they are all super close and take care of each other’s kids, etc.

So is it in the genes?

Jen:  D and Lucy fight sometimes. It’s intense. And it will be interesting to see what happens when Margeaux grows up enough to really be in the mix.

Lauren:  My little sister (her name is Christine, and she’s 29 so I guess she isn’t really little) is insanely beautiful, smart, and talented.

So most of my anger towards her was motivated by jealousy.

She also has this amazing social life and always has, and I wished intensely to be more like her.

Gratuitous Image of Lauren's Sister

Jen:  I have friends who are brothers who are close in age but grew up in different states because of divorce/custody issues. They are really, really close friends, and they have a ton in common. But they have said that they think they are so close as adults because they didn’t grow up competing with each other.

Which would have been the case, if they had grown up in the same household.

Lauren:  Interesting.

It seems like there’s no way of predicting how things will turn out, but siblings trend towards (at least in our tiny and totally unscientific sample) awesome relationships.

I remember that Chris and I had this intense argument in high school that ended up with us both sobbing in the bathroom

Complimenting each other “You’re so amazing, I wish I was like you!”

“No! You’re amazing! I want to be like youuu!”

Jen:  HA!

Lauren:  I think that was our last major conflict, other than the time I adopted a cat without asking her if it was okay (we were living together at the time).

Jen:  My little sister and I worked together for a while in an after school program. Super fun.

Lauren:  We lived together for 2 years in college

And if it hadn’t been for evil grad school, we probably would live next door to each other or something.

I still fantasize about moving close to her. If only she didn’t live in stinky old Tulsa!

Jen:  Do you guys have any family in Iowa?

Lauren:  No.

We have family in IL and WI — my Mom’s sisters live in that area. But the closest people are still 2.5 hrs away.

Jen:  Does your sister have kids?

Lauren:  No — they are planning to get pregnant very soon.

That’s killing me, I want to help her out so bad.

Not with getting pregnant

With having a newborn.

Jen:  My sister had a baby on Monday.

And my girls are really close with their cousins. I think it would be so difficult to not have those connections.

Lauren:  I spent most of my childhood growing up far away from my cousins/aunts/grandparents.

I yearned to be closer to family in the midwest.

Jen:  I took the girls up to the hospital yesterday and Dorothy sang to the baby and told her about dolphins.

Lauren:  That’s really sweet.

Jen:  It was so amazing. I feel really lucky that they are growing up so close to my brothers’ and sisters’ kids.

Lauren:  They are lucky. You are lucky!

I wish I had that feeling of geographical and… heart… centerdness.

If only all the people who really matter in my life also lived in the same place, and that place did not suck.

Jen:  I knew, even when I was actively working on the phd, that I wasn’t interested in going on the academic job market because I wanted to come back to GR. And that was totally devalued by faculty. But seeing Dorothy singing to Paige? I feel like I got it right.

Not that there aren’t other ways to be right. But for me? This was right.

Lauren:  Because my family lived in a state where none of us felt quite at home

There was a lot of desire to “get out” of Oklahoma

Grad school was that ticket I had been seeking since I moved there in 7th grade.

My parents even moved away, two years later (they live in Kansas City, which is right between Tulsa and Iowa!).

I always thought that the kind of place you grew up was really important, because I’d lived in a place that felt so strange.

But, now I think I may have got it all wrong, because I miss my family like a pain, and raising kids without that support is more difficult than I ever could have imagined.

Jen:  Maybe your sister could move to Iowa?

Lauren:  We actually tried that…

It just didn’t take! She has a really amazing group of friends that have been close since jr. high.

She had a serious boyfriend who she ended up marrying… and he works for the Air Force base in Tulsa…

And his enormous family is all in that area….

So she’s pretty much there for life.

Jen:  So what’s holding you in Iowa?

Jobs, house, a million things, probably.

Lauren:  For the time being, yes —

Brian’s very decent pay at a not-so-great job, and our house.

But yeah — I don’t think I anticipated as a kid the amount of PULL my relationship with my sister would have on my adult life.

I think it was after HS when we were apart that we realized how much we like being around each other, so when we lived together in college it was like roomie heaven!

Jen:  Right. I would never have imagined that my adult life would be so deeply intertwined with my family.

Lauren:  She taped American Idol for me and we even shared a car for awhile without fighting.

Jen:  I put a picture of Lance Armstrong in my sister’s locker at work. We sent in an audition tape to The Amazing Race. I am trying to convince Tyler to move into my older sister’s neighborhood.

I eat dinner with parents or siblings (mine or Tyler’s) at least once a week.

Lauren:  My sister is the only other person in my life who I just never get sick of.

I don’t get tired of talking to her, hanging with her, etc.

(Other than my husband, is what I mean.)

Jen:  So, did our parents do something that made us connect with our sibs this way? Or would it have happened regardless?

Lauren:  I don’t remember my parents placing a particular emphasis on the bonds of siblings.

They were close to their sibs but we didn’t live near my aunts/uncles so I never had that modeled for me.

Jobs took us away from family pretty early on in my life, so it was all phone calls.

Jen:  My parents have always been very insistent on everybody showing up for one another: if there was a birthday or a graduation or some event, you were required to BE THERE. And if you were living out of state, you called. It was expected.

Maybe after a while, all that mandatory attendance tipped over into us actually knowing each other and valuing that?

Lauren:  I think that explicit messages about the importance of family make a lot of sense.

Otherwise, how would we have anyone on our side when we do stupid shit or make a big mistake?

You know? When we get depressed and alienate all our friends and smell bad, who is going to dig us out of that?

I really want my kids to understand that we value family in a way that goes beyond mere liking.

(’cause otherwise we’d have some real problems with members of our extended families!)

Jen:  Right.

And I think as we grow up and change and our identities shift, our friends and peers are often around only for a small piece of who we are. But our families are there for the long haul. They see ALL of us.

Lauren:  Yes

Exactly. Through thick/thin, with a full appreciation of all our complexities.

Which is probably why those relationships are so satisfying as adults. I don’t have any adult friends (other than Brian!) with that depth of connection.

Jen:  Right. And I value my relationships with my sisters-in-law too, even though they don’t have the same amount of history, they are there for the not-so-pretty parts of family life.

Lauren:  Totally.

Plus, I appreciate that my brother-in-law appreciates how fantastic my sister is.

Any mega-fan of her is a friend of mine.

Jen:  Right on

Lauren:  That was basically my wedding toast for them.

Funny stories, then stories about how brilliant my sister is, then complimenting my BIL for having such good taste.

Jen:  In my sister’s wedding toast I talked about how we all listened to my now brother in law’s voice mail at work and evaluated whether or not she should call him back.

Lauren:  Haha

Awesome!

My sister was the first person I called when I decided to quit grad school.

She was the first person who knew I was pregnant (I was visiting, out of town, and Brian wasn’t there).

Jen:  And actually, they met because a childhood friend of my older sister’s ran into my mom at the grocery store, heard from my mom that my little sister was single, and then fixed her up with a guy from work (now my brother in law).

I gave birth to Lucy 2 days after their wedding.

Lauren:  Aw!

Jen:  I was the most pregnant bridesmaid ever.

Lauren:  I was pregnant at my sister’s wedding, too.

I found out right after the engagement, so she had me pick a dress first and then the rest of them matched up to me.

Jen:  So: sisters (and brothers, based on my experience) are awesome, and if our girls don’t grow up to love each other intensely, we will have failed as parents?

Lauren:  Pretty much

I mean, I would be devastated if that happened.

But, it seems like that is unlikely!

Jen:  Agreed.

Lauren:  I do expect some bumps along the way

Namely, puberty

But otherwise, I think R&H will be BFF most of the time.

Jen:  I think it’s okay if it’s a bumpy road. And I’m even okay with them not being BFF. I just want them to grow up knowing that no matter what else is fucked up in their world, they have sisters they can rely on.

Sisters 4 Life

Lauren:  Definitely.

And, I would like to be able to model that for them in person

Rather than just tell them stories about it

Jen:  So in conclusion: you and your sister need to live in the city, and I need to go see my new niece again because this conversation is really making me want to be with my sister and her tiny new baby right now.\

the same city.

You and your sister.

What happened to my typing skills?

Lauren:  Yes, I might move back to Oklahoma to be with her, and that is REALLY saying something!

Enjoy your niece. I’m totally jealous!

There are babies everywhere and spring is a notoriously pregnancy inducing time for me.

Jen:  YOU SHOULD TOTALLY HAVE ANOTHER BABY.

and with that unsolicited possibly terrible advice, I have to go teach my class.

Lauren:  If I didn’t get sick for 5 months straight, and then have kids who didn’t sleep?

I totally would.

Jen: I should go teach my class.

Lauren: OK! Great chat. TTYL!

Jen: TTYL!

What about you? What is your rel with your sister or siblings? What does family mean to you? How did your relationship to your brothers and sisters shape your idea of what kind of family you’d like to have?

4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School

Every day, someone finds our blog by googling about quitting grad school. This is awesome: welcome. I hope our writing has been helpful to you. I also thought it might be wise to have a landing strip for folks googling  “Should I go to grad school?”

My answer is: No. Don’t go to grad school. If you want a “yes” or a “maybe,” talk to someone else. I think more people, including advisers and professors, should actively discourage people from grad school. Even the smart students. That’s what I want to do with this post. I wish someone had said this to me, given me pause, made me reconsider. There were a lot of yeasayers when it came to grad school. I want to be a naysayer.

Don’t go to grad school.

I’m about two weeks away from being done with grad school. I go through phases where I feel profoundly bitter about my lousy decision-making, and I’m right smack in the middle of one right now. Bitterness is a common post-grad school emotion: for example, after leaving grad school, my husband changed his Facebook info to “Studied: Bitterness. Degree: MA in unemployable bullshittology.”

So yeah, take this with a grain of bitter salt. This is from my perspective, bla bla bla disclaimer.

I generally pride myself on being a smart person, someone who can see the big picture, weigh pros and cons, and come up with solutions to problems. I like being decisive, and I like being right. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I thought I was a good candidate for grad school.

A very quick sum-up of my grad school experience: I enrolled in a PhD program in American Studies, an interdisciplinary field, immediately after graduating from college in 2004. I quickly became disenchanted for a variety of reasons I won’t get into now. In 2007, I decided to leave that program with an MA and considered many, many, many other paths before applying to (get ready for it) another PhD program, this time in literacy education. It was a much better program and I learned a lot, but even so, after five years, I am now leaving that PhD at the comps stage. All told, I’ve been in grad school for eight years, and will leave with 2 Master’s degrees and a boatload of mostly useless credit hours.

Grad school has been an exercise in wishy-washy hemming and hawing, and pretty much every decision I made from the type of degree to pursue to the courses I took was wrong. It has been a comedy of errors, and sometimes I can laugh about it (really, most of the time I can), but right now I’m thinking about what I should have done instead of going to grad school.

Become a High School English Teacher

I was an Education major in college and came within an inch of finalizing my teaching license by the time I graduated. I student-taught 9th and 12th grade in a suburban high school, which was a fantastic experience. I should have earned my license and become a teacher.

I had good reasons for not wanting to become a high school teacher by the time I wrapped up my BS Ed degree. No Child Left Behind was just rolling in like a tsunami and I could see the impact it would have on classroom teaching practices, school budgets, and teacher life. I did not want to experience that. At 23, I didn’t feel quite ready to sign up for my lifetime career, and I wanted a chance to get out of Oklahoma. I was having a ball in my upper division, honors courses and wanted more of that. I was newly engaged and my partner also wanted to go to grad school. So, there were reasons.

That being said, I could have, maybe even should have, finished up that teaching license so that HS teaching would have been an option at any time when grad school started sucking (which it did almost immediately). While there are serious drawbacks to HS teaching, I love working with teenagers, especially goofy, immature, at-risk college freshmen. They are essentially high school students. I love teaching books, writing together, and the buzz of the classroom. I would have been happy in high school.

I could have taught for several years before having kids, and might have been able to arrange a part-time schedule when they arrived, or at the very least have paid off my student loan debt and put aside some money before they showed up. I can’t quite quantify for you the benefits of having earned money for most of my adult life, versus having borrowed my way into crushing debt. Even a few years of teaching experience would have been invaluable in terms of understanding what I truly wanted in a job and a graduate degree, so it would have helped me make better choices if and when I did pursue graduate studies. I still might pursue this avenue: ten years later, I am securing my teaching licenses in Oklahoma and Iowa so that I’m never more than a few bureaucratic steps away from being eligible to teach in public schools.

Earned a Master’s in a Traditional Humanities Discipline

I did not understand the differences between an MA and a PhD at all before deciding to go to grad school, and this led to some extremely bad decision-making. Retrospectively, I can’t emphasize enough the value of an MA, even if you drink the kool-aid and go on to a PhD (don’t do it!).

An MA provides a breadth of knowledge that is essential to teach at the college level, as well as make decisions about dissertation research. There’s no way I could have been competitive for English or History faculty positions at 4-year schools with the scattershot coursework I took in my interdisciplinary humanities PhD program. I did not have a solid grounding in any area or field because my program let me design my own very special and unique “plan of study” (ha) and didn’t require me to have a certain number of hours in a single discipline. Ergo, my Am Studies MA is a patchwork of English, History, Comm Studies, and Anthropology courses, and I am not qualified to teach any of these at the college level.

I can and do teach at a community college, which I adore. I wish I’d known that this was an option: I could have done Master’s work in English and likely landed a teaching gig I’d have enjoyed, without all this unnecessary extra coursework. But, because I don’t have a ton of graduate course hours in English, I’m not always eligible to apply for CC English positions, because they want that breadth of graduate coursework (MA-level courses in Brit Lit, Am Lit, etc). By definition, the “Master’s Degree” is the teacher’s degree. I currently teach developmental reading and writing, and I like this very much, but I am disappointed that there are limitations to the jobs I can apply for because of my crappy coursework.

I could have earned a traditional MA and had that intellectual experience I was seeking after college, figured out that PhD students are wackadoodles, and then left. I could have gone on to do just about anything without sinking myself further into debt. I would be exactly as competitive for jobs as I am now, with two truncated PhDs. That extra coursework is doing nothing for me in terms of job apps. The only thing my additional years of coursework has brought me is more teaching experience, but I could have been doing that anyway (profitably!).

A traditional MA would still have been beneficial if I’d moved on to a PhD. Another drawback to leapfrogging all that MA coursework is that PhD course reqs are geared towards specialization and research, not establishing a broad knowledge base. Thus, I was really hamstrung when it came to conceiving of a decent research project. I had to read, on my own, the entire back history of any field I was interested in, because I had not sat through the coursework that would have provided it. This was especially true in my Education PhD: I just didn’t have the background to dream up a good research topic in a field where I’d mostly taken courses on how to do research. I needed that interim step.

Found a Professional Master’s Program

I toyed with going into counseling or social work. I could have done an education-focused MA in student development or athletic services. In fact, my adviser is eager for me to switch to a Reading MA because it would be “right up my alley.” Any of these programs would have been interesting and challenging, and would have the benefit of actual applicability to a job I might have enjoyed, with the possibility of making more money as well. I knew absolutely nothing about professional Master’s programs when I wrapped up my college career. I wish, wish, wish I’d been less embarrassed to talk to my education profs about my interest in pursuing grad school (I felt guilty that I didn’t want to go right into teaching) so MAYBE someone could have floated one of these great options in my direction. I wish I’d done more research.

Opened up a dozen credit cards and spent a year bumming around in Europe with my husband.

I went to college in those days when credit card companies would set up tables in the south oval and give you free shit if you got a card. I wish we’d opened up a ton and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt traveling in Britain, Germany, France. I wish we’d bought unnecessarily elaborate travel gear and taken a hundred thousand photos. I wish we’d lived for two weeks in some ritzy hotel in Rome, smoked a ton of pot in Amsterdam, and bought ridiculously expensive Eiffel Tower souvenirs for everyone in my family. I wish we’d had our luggage stolen and slept in iffy hostels and skinny dipped in the Adriatic.

Wannabe Rick Steveses

I would have accrued less debt and wasted less time than I have in grad school, and my God, the memories! I don’t know if, between a family and student loan debt, I will ever, in my life, be able to afford international travel. It would have been foolish and irresponsible, sure, but so was grad school: at least this would have had bucket list payoff.