Tag Archives: Life

Let’s Talk about Debt, Part 3: Debt & Regret

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

The long and short of it is that the culture of debt in grad school supported my dumb decisions. The problem is both individual and systemic. Because the system gave active and vigorous windmill high-fives to my desire to avoid adulthood or cope with poverty and bad choices, there was no pushback on my decision to subsidize my very long and mostly pointless degree(s) over and over again with government money. I had to force myself to lift that rock and peer at the gross stuff, on my own, and because human beings like to avoid pain and embarrassment, it took me a long time to have the guts to do that. As in, years. And when I finally decided to leave, some still encouraged me to stick with it, just for a few more years.

But, now we’re there: we’re looking hard at our budget, we’re coming up with a plan to reduce our debt and be able to afford things like, ya know, FOOD, and it’s very painful. Ask yourself the last time you looked up your outstanding balance on student loans, or did the math on how much interest you pay on your credit card every month. It hurts.

It’s very easy to say yes to loans when you’re 22. You think, I will be done in 5 years. You think, This is an investment. And you think, as I mentioned before, that at some point you hit a threshold past which the amount of debt doesn’t really matter (a mountain is a mountain, right?).

But it does matter. Everest vs Mt. Hood matters. K2 versus McKinley fucking matters. There’s a world of difference between 60k and 20k in debt; between 120k and 70k. (Even if you don’t have debt going into grad school, how many grad students go debt-free during the average 8.2 years it takes to complete a PhD?)

Let’s say you only have student loan debt when you finish your degree (no credit card debt, even!), and you decide to aggressively pursue debt-free status. You are a very, very lucky PhD and you find a job in the midwest that pays 45k a year. You’re single and don’t have kids (or pets): bonus! You pull a Joe and share an apartment with a friend and are able to live on 25k a year, doing the rice and beans thing and keeping costs low. Putting 20k towards student loans, which doesn’t include interest and all that stuff, it will take this much of your life to repay the loan:

  • 20k in loans = 1 year
  • 40 k = 2 years
  • 60k = 3 years
  • 100k or more = 5+ years

Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.

So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.

Loans are only an investment if they pay off. Going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced degree that is highly unlikely to get you a job that pays more than an entry-level salary is idiotic. We are crazy for thinking this was the right thing to do. Because we end up on food stamps. Or we end up realizing we should have gone in a different direction in our careers and go back to school, again, for a different, practical degree (I know PhDs who are becoming librarians, midwives, doctors, high school teachers: they could have saved years of time, effort, and money without the scenic route through a PhD, although few will outright say that they regret the PhD). I’m starting to agree wholeheartedly with the boom-and-bust “higher ed bubble” theory because my decision to go to grad school parallels so closely the heartfelt and utterly misguided desires of folks who bought houses during the real estate bubble and ended up with homes worth less than the money owed on them. A PhD is worth so much less than the debt incurred to earn it. The PhD, in most cases, will cost you way more than it’s worth in debt and regret. But when you are inside the system, it’s surprisingly difficult to see the writing on the wall. People are so certain that they will regret quitting more than anything else that they stay on even when the thrill is gone. This is bonkers. Quitting is awesome. Quitting is freedom. Debt sucks. Debt is prison.

I’m in my early thirties and I have two daughters, a house, two Master’s degrees and a ton of worthless graduate credit hours. I have dreams for my daughters that may never be fulfilled. I have dreams for my own life that will be on hold indefinitely, and may go completely unfulfilled because the next decade or more of my existence is dedicated to paying for mistakes I made when I was young and willfully ignorant.

Fairy Garden Pinterest Challenge Complete!

Hey, remember when we did the breakthrough to 4k giveaway? Renee won the Pin Us To It Pinterest challenge, and she chose this fabulous fairy garden project for Lauren and I to complete.

Lauren and I are both ambivalent about Pinterest, though I have had some successes with recipes and art projects. I decided to use the concept of the fairy garden without following the instructions too literally. The girls LOVED this project. Continue reading

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 2: The Catch 22 of Grad School Economics

The impossibility of the Grad School Economy really hit home for me last summer (2011). We’d just moved to a bigger place after squashing into a 2-bedroom apartment for years. Like the woman in the Grad School to Welfare article, we live outside our university town because it is more affordable. My daughters were 3 years old and 18 months old at the time, and I was gearing up to take my comprehensive exams in the fall. Because summers in the past have been terribly tight (more on that in a minute), I took a job as a part-time writing tutor at my University. We could only afford half-time childcare for the girls, which meant they spent the mornings at school and I either tutored or worked towards comps during that time: this meant commuting between their schools, my school, and our house all between the hours of 7:30 am and 12:30 pm. So, my schedule looked something like this:

7:30 Leave with both girls and all my school stuff to take Kid 2 to infant daycare in nearby town.

7:50 Drop off Kid 2, drive Kid 1 to hippie daycare for preschoolers in university town.

8:15 Arrive at writing center, check email, tutor anxious grad students on mind-bending dissertations about standardized outcomes language in nursing or African-American porter unions or bio-mathematics.

10:30 Finish tutoring, get out comps stuff and start getting head into game. Read articles, look up references, start taking notes/drafting.

12:00 I just got into a writing rhythm, but I have to pack up and race to hippie daycare because I’m already running late.

12:20 Drive to nearby town to pick up Kid 2 as fast as possible, because if they fall asleep in the car on the way home, then they won’t nap, and if they won’t nap then I am SOL in terms of work time.

12:40 Drive home with the radio blaring to keep kids awake. They scream in my face.

1:00 Shovel food into their gaping maws as fast as possible, nurse one or both to sleep. Get comps stuff out, find where I’d left off, and start drafting or note-taking, while feeding myself with my non-dominant hand.

2:15 Shit! Someone is setting off firecrackers. Please don’t wake up please don’t wake up. If they wake up, I am ruined. RUINED.

3:15 They slept and I got a paragraph of summary written. Now it’s time to be a Mom, fix dinner, clean up, do bath time, and do bedtime.

8:45 They’re asleep! Now I have to decide if I’m going to work some more, have sex with my very neglected husband (oh yeah, that guy), or go to sleep.

9:15 Sleep wins.

Other than being completely crazy-making, the Catch 22 of this economy flummoxed me:

  • If I wanted more time to write, then I needed to have more money to pay for childcare.
  • If I needed more money for childcare, then I needed to spend more time working on a job that paid.
  • If I spent more time working at a job that paid (tutoring, nannying, adjuncting 1-2 sections at a local CC, all of which I’ve done as a grad student), then I had no time to write.
  • If I spent more time writing during “free” time (evenings and weekends), then my marriage collapsed like a dying star and I became a stranger to my children.

We know firsthand how painful and terrifying it can be to go broke. We went broke in 2010, the first summer after our second baby was born. I was too exhausted and clueless and desperate to calculate the full cost of childcare for two children. The pregnancy was a surprise, and I wanted to prove that I could balance family and school, so I was bound and determined to have a sitter for the girls and get some work done (any work, progress is progress, right?). But my summer income is zero: my TAship was a 10-month contract, and July and August are always tight. By the time I realized that there was simply no way for us to afford childcare for two young kids relying solely on my husband’s salary, it was too late to regroup and come up with an alternative plan. I pulled both girls out of childcare and spent that summer as a stay-at-home-mom, letting go of all work time to take care of my family and painstakingly attend to our budget. We made it, but it was extremely stressful, and I lost a lot of momentum towards comping, which was what I felt I needed to do so I could get to the part where I made actual money.

But after that, we prioritized money over grad school progress to avoid repeating that experience: I tutored in the summer, and taught anywhere from 1 to 3 additional courses each semester (in contrast to my usual one). My husband got a promotion at his not-beloved-but-solid job; he also works a second, part-time job every other weekend.

Focusing on income cost me dearly as I struggled to prepare for comps in 2010-2012. I deferred again in Fall 2010, and again in Spring 2011. Last summer, I was determined to comp in September, but Grad School Economics made that impossible. My adviser was skeptical that I would be ready to comp in the spring (2012). I was absolutely determined to make it work, and I took drastic measures to sprint my way towards comps readiness: I hired a cleaning lady, put my kids in daycare full-time, and started writing nights and weekends. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often immediately scrapping what I’d just spent weeks on. I was still floundering with topics and focus: maybe I was just not academically ready to comp at this time, but I didn’t really have the time to come to that realization, nor did I have the time to concentrate and solve that problem. I was out of time: I needed to comp as soon as fucking possible. I was dug in and furiously working away in a not-very-productive manner, but I knew that our family could not sustain this life for long, so I thought if I really hammered at it and got through comps, I could slow back down after that, maybe even work a part-time job while I dissertated and the girls got into school, whatever. I needed to get over this ENORMOUS mountain.

But at my first meeting with my adviser in the spring semester of 2012, it became clear that I was nowhere near ready for comps and had miles to go before I slept. I’d lost my way and would have to work harder, for longer, to reorient myself and get back on track. I was not up for that. It felt impossible to continue in this way, so I quit.

(To be continued!)

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 1: the Real World Economy versus the Grad School Economy

Lauren Does Math and Has a Brainsplosion

I sat down to work on our family budget yesterday and it was… unpleasant.

I am not a math person. I’m not a person who thinks well in this way. I worked extremely hard to get an A in basic college algebra. It takes considerable effort and a lot of repetition for me to do math right, and even then, my brain trends towards the unrealistically optimistic. I’m a “round up” kind of gal. I had been working on a budget for awhile, here and there, using estimations of biweekly payments, etc etc — estimations that I thought were very conservative. But, I was off by about $600, which is a lot of money to “find” in an already dramatically scaled back “Lauren quit grad school and ruined our lives” plan.

I’m not the only one facing the harsh reality of the real world economy, versus the grad school economy. A much-circulated Chronicle article about PhDs on food stamps makes it clear that whether you finish or not, the transition from grad school economics to real world economics is devastating to a lot of people. And if you have the stomach to read the comments, you’ll note that many of them are a variation on the theme of “They got what they deserved” or “How could they be so stupid?” or “What part of ‘loan’ did they not understand?”

And it’s true, it’s insane that we all fell for it and made chronically bad choices when it comes to economics. But, here’s the thing: everyone else was doing it. First of all, insane willingness to take on debt has staggeringly obvious precedence in every facet of American life from the housing bubble to the net bubble to the national debt. PhDs aren’t the only ones being blithering idiots in a culture predicated on getting what you want right now and paying for it, literally and figuratively, later on.

But beyond that, I think in grad school there is a special economic culture; or at least, I felt like I was part of a strange little world in which there were different economic expectations and rules. The sort of unspoken rule I — and many of my peers — operated on went along the lines of, “If I’m going to be paying this debt off for the rest of my life, the amount of debt I’m in really doesn’t matter.” Continue reading

Report from the road: How much does where you live matter when it comes to who you are?

I’m posting this from a library in south Tulsa, where my youngest is screaming and kicking because this library doesn’t have a slide! The nerve! I wrote this post a few nights ago. I have very spotty internet access, so I’m sorry I haven’t been updating at my usual breakneck pace.

May 11th

Interwebz!! I’ve missed you so much!

I’m writing this in my in-law’s living room in East Tulsa. It’s dark: my in-laws have left to go to a dance at the American Legion; the girls are finally asleep after an evening playdate with high school friends and their kids; and for the first time in days, I’m alone. The TV is playing something called Sonic Tap 814: Modern Country. I believe I just heard a song called “Redneck Yacht Club.” I could turn it off, but it’s fitting.

Its only day 3 of our epic trip and so far it’s been really lovely. The girls are great little travelers and have settled into our gypsy life with relative ease. Nothing feels very far away in Tulsa, so we’ve been all over creation, zipping from point A to point B so fast, and with so much to look at! We’re used to long and winding country highways with cows and fields: here, there’s something on every corner and in between. Today, while driving out of midtown on 41st Street, Robin said, “Mom, I love this neighborhood. It is just so beautiful.” We were surrounded by muffler places, shops and restaurants. They’re even sleeping well: snoring all night and not waking once.

I’m not sleeping well. For whatever reason, I can’t settle into deep sleep (blame the beds? blame the snoring?). It reminds me of my Dad complaining about travel and how hard it was for him to sleep in a new place. As a kid I was like WHATEVERZ OLD DUDE but now I get it, and I do think it’s an age thing. I’m slipping into the middle age zone and my body isn’t that spry young thing. I recently started having chronic knee pain, of all things. It’s related to poor posture, even less cool: if only it’d been a rugby injury or something else kickass. I’ve been calling it “blogger’s knee” because I’ve been writing while standing up at the kitchen counter, locking my knees while I type. Apparently, this is anathema to crucial support muscles in my inner leg, because now I’m all creaky and groany and stiff.

I’m not the only one showing signs – small signs – of age. My gorgeous sister has several gray hairs (she’s not even 30! wtf!) and our parents – mine, hers, and Brian’s – are getting older, too. Not old old, but older. Like, arsenal of supplements and vitamins older. Like, multiple prescription medications to manage blood pressure and arthritis older. Investing in a longterm care plan older. Seems like my friends and acquaintances are also hitting new life stages: folks who’ve stayed close to home are ready for change, and all of us who left home are feeling the urge for the familiar. Seems like things are shifting all over the place, rearranging lives on invisible tectonic plates: jobs, marriages, divorces, babies, whatever.

I keep driving in Tulsa asking myself, “How’s it feeling? What would it be like to be here every day? What would it be like to live here? What about there? How about here? Where am I, anyway?” And the answer is…? OK? It feels fine. It feels like it always did: meh, but not awful, and ecstatically lovely in certain spots. The weather is beguiling: rather than blazing hot, it’s been cool and rainy, just like Iowa. I think it’s project what it would feel like on a daily basis: one moment, I’m thinking Holy shit, I love how everything is ten minutes away, it’s so convenient! The next minute, I’m thinking, How many fucking strip malls can one town sustain?? The whole landscape is characterized by retail:  no wonder living in south Tulsa felt like hell, it’s almost a parody of suburban life and parts are downright ugly.

I could go through all the calculus of the factors of which neighborhoods feel right versus which ones cost right or school right. There’s a ton of mental math happening, and it’s all in organized pro/con lists that run through my mind non-stop, especially when I’m trying to fall asleep while my girls are snoring. What I can picture for sure is: hanging out with my sister all the time. Checking out all the parks, going to Driller’s games, going to the fair. Having a house without a freaky portal-to-hell basement drain that occasionally belches human waste. Fretting constantly over the girls’ fair skin, new allergies, and freedom to play outside, unsupervised and safe. Feeling like a super minority in terms of both politics and religion, no matter how cool our neighborhood might be.

The big question I keep asking myself is: why. Why does it matter where you live? Does it matter? I know great people from shitty places and shitty people from Portland. It all seems like a crapshoot, but the stakes feel incredibly high to me. As I shuttle the kids from East Tulsa to midtown to Broken Arrow and back again, and interact with my in-laws and parents, I realize these questions point largely to issues of identity. What kind of people will my kids be if they are raised in a place like Tulsa? Or in a small farm town in Iowa? What if we make choices similar to (or totally different from) our parents: will we end up just like them, with the same tastes, politics, or regrets? How did our parents manage to raise intelligent and open-minded kids when they possess these characteristics only debatably? If we pick the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect school, and raise our kids perfectly, could they still turn out to be assholes? Could choosing a place to live make or break how good and cool they can be – how good and cool we can be? What if they end up unrecognizable? What if we do?

Meghan Daum writes about a concept she calls “domestic integrity:” the idea that the place you live in somehow matches the person you feel like you are inside. I am in search of domestic integrity, but I confess I worry about who I might discover I really am as we make these decisions. These are burning questions in my mind, because I desperately want to have a great decade. My twenties were somewhat squandered on the futile pursuit of a PhD. My thirties have so much potential. I want to lead an interesting life, and I want to raise ethical, thoughtful, open-minded, interesting, cool people, too. Where can that happen best? Are those two things mutually exclusive? Or what?

An art project called “Domestic Integrity Fields”

With those deep thoughts, I’m taking myself and my blogger’s knee to the other guest bedroom for some R&R. With any luck, the girls will stay settled without me in their bed, and I can get a solid chunk of rest. Cross your fingers for this old lady.

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?

 

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?