request for advice

I’ve referred vaguely to the big changes in our life recently, in terms of my quitting academia. I’ve talked about how grateful I am that it is at all possible for me to try to segue into writing full time. But it’s hard, really hard, and I’d like to ask for some advice. Mostly I’m asking for strategies from other people who have tried to do anything else while being at home with their kids full time, but if anyone else has ideas, I’m all for it.

Josh continues, obviously, to work full time as a professor. I teach one night a week for the university, and one Sunday morning a week for our synagogue. The latter doesn’t take up much more time than just the morning, but obviously giving up a Sunday morning free means less time with the family (although Samuel’s there at religious school anyway) and for errands. So far, we can’t find a financial way for me to quit teaching one course per semester, and the little bit of money from Sunday helps. Also, I love my fifth graders.

We can’t afford childcare for Jonah. That’s just a fact. As some of you know well, an assistant professor doesn’t make all that much. We already don’t have cable, eat as cheaply as we can while still eating healthfully, wear old clothing, get hand-me downs for the kids, don’t travel to places where we don’t have friends and relatives, and don’t get a babysitter more than once every two to three months. We still go into debt during summers because we never seem quite able to save enough. There’s not really anything left to cut.

Anyway, our bank account is not my point. I’m doing this because I want to make a change. I don’t want to just accept any job I can find because that would be miserable. Yet I am just not finding enough time to write as much as I want, and I can’t figure out how to give Jonah the entertainment and enrichment he deserves AND manage to keep up with cooking and cleaning. That’s three things I’d like to do better, but I’d really settle for two.*

So let’s start with, does anyone have any ideas for how you organize a day home with a very active toddler and still manage to cook dinner and not live in a disaster zone? If I can at least do that, maybe I’ll have the energy to write a bit after they go to bed.

*Actually finding the time to keep up with friends and send holiday cards and all that other stuff so many of you manage to do would just be icing on the cake!

a literary mother

Recently, I’ve been rereading Anne’s House of Dreams, the novel in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Green Gables series when Anne finally marries Gilbert Blythe. I remembered it from my childhood and early twenties as a novel of unbridled joy, in which Anne’s perfect life continues (perfect at least after her adoption by the wonderful Cuthbert siblings). It’s not. I, of course, remembered that Anne is a savior for her community–always resolving other people’s heartbreak and loneliness, bringing laughter and love to everyone she meets, and generally being an ideal woman even if people were consistently pointing out that she’s not traditionally beautiful. I remembered that she always approaches life with joy, brilliance, and the perfect response to every situation even if other people (Mrs. Rachel Lynde….) criticized her.

So I was surprised to read this line in the opening pages of the novel, a description of beautiful Diana, “cuddling Small Cordelia with the inimitable gesture of motherhood which always sent through Anne’s heart, filled with sweet unuttered dreams and hopes, a thrill that was half pure pleasure and half a strange, ethereal pain.”

That: “a strange, ethereal pain.” I forgot, or couldn’t understand when I just a child myself, that the Anne novels are such a beautiful story of discontent, striving, disappointment, and acceptance.

“Strange, ethereal pain.” I breezed over those words as a little girl. They’ve stuck with me now. I remember the first time I felt it. Josh and I decided in the summer of 2005 that we would try to have a baby after he got back from his dissertation research in Kyiv and Moscow that fall and winter. It was like someone threw a switch inside me. Throughout that summer, fall, and winter, every time I saw a pregnant woman or a new baby, it hurt a little. Not nearly as much as it would later, but just a bit — an odd little pang, a pinch in my chest, a catch in my throat.

I think L.M. Montgomery must have felt it herself. She got married at thirty-two years old (after a romance with an “unsuitable” man and a broken engagement with her cousin) to a minister who was a “suitable” match, but for whom she did not feel any passion, at least according to her biography Caroline Parry. As a nineteenth-century woman, she must have wondered after she turned thirty if she would ever get married and have children. And she put that pain into Anne. I never noticed it before.

a short year, a hard day

In December of 2007, my cohort of loss bloggers and I unleashed our dark humor on the calendar. For the most part, we agreed that 2007 could go f*ck itself. We’d seen a lot of pain that year, collectively. We had a litany of reasons for why the year sucked, and lists of what could definitely go better in 2008.

Of course, 2008 sucked just as much, and even more, for some people. Some we knew, some we didn’t. And 2007 couldn’t entirely suck for me–Samuel was born in December–cementing my mixed relationship with grief, and for that matter, pregnancy. Long years, short years, bad years, good years. They’re all happening at once, for all of us.

We are currently in the week between Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year/New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Because of the way the Jewish calendar year works, it has only been about 11 and a half months on the Gregorian calendar since last Rosh Hashanah. So you could say it’s been kind of a short year.

Last year, I wanted to work on being more patient, on enjoying each day as it came. It was a hard year for me, but not the hardest, with so many changes. Josh was commuting, Samuel was in childcare 15 hours a week, and Jonah was a newborn. I loved being with the kids, but I struggled constantly to entertain a 4 year old, nurture a newborn, and take care of a house. I had no idea how to balance all of that. Of course, now that I have an idea, the year’s over. Samuel’s in school, and Jonah’s a toddler.

For most of our relationship prior to last year, Josh and I had either been students or employees in the same history department. Except for the time he spent away on research, we had seen each other a lot. I’ve only recently come to realize how different it is spending so much time apart, even if it is only two or three days a week. I miss getting coffee together or popping into one another’s offices during the day. Our relationship has changed, immeasurably.

Yesterday, I was alone with Jonah from 8am until 3pm. Then it was just Samuel, Jonah, and me, until 6pm. I was working all day on Josh’s birthday cake,  cleaning, and dinner, while also trying to take care of Jonah, who was increasingly cranky (I now realize he was showing signs of the virus that really peaked this morning at 3am.)  I didn’t freak out. I didn’t lose my mind. I only swore a few times when I messed up the first cake and had to start over, only to realize I needed more eggs and couldn’t find my car keys.

Added to that very mundane rocky day, I got very bad news about someone I care for deeply. There were moments yesterday when suddenly, in the midst of trying to get through the tasks, I felt broken, tears welling up, my breath catching. During one of those moments, I leaned down and put my head on the counter. Suddenly, I felt a little hand tugging on my dress. I looked down, to see Jonah gazing up at me. Five minutes earlier, he’d been screaming his head off, flailing. But now, he said, “Mama?” I knelt down and went to hug him, figuring he needed attention. Instead, he grabbed my head, and pulled it gently toward him, until our forehead and noses touched, “Aww, mama,” he said again, and then kissed me and patted my back. He wanted to comfort me.

There are moments, like when I got the news yesterday, that mortality seems like a horrible curse. When the randomness of certain events in the universe feels like a cruel joke. But then there are other moments, moments where the very frailty and mutability of human life feels like a gift.

I never thought I could feel the weight of Yom Kippur and the words,

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

 How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who shall attain the measure of man’s days and who shall not attain it;

as strongly as I did the year I was pregnant with Samuel, after Natan died. But I did yesterday.

Last week, coming upon an article about the relative earliness of the Jewish holidays this year, I commented that the actual shortness of the year reminded me that life doesn’t wait. Our Gregorian calendar gives us the mirage of consistency, as if time is always the same. This year, I’m thinking of how it actually is different for each of us, and different for all of us at different times. We’re always wanting it to slow down, or speed up.

Yesterday, even as I was struggling to get through my to-do list, I did not want the day to speed up. I kept thinking about people who would do anything to have more time, and about how hard we struggle to have the power to give it to them. The song, “It’s a Great Day to be Alive,” would not leave my mind, strangely. I sang it ironically at some moments, but like a prayer at others. I was hoping that was a true phrase, and striving powerlessly to make it so.

this southern life

The exterminator came again last week. We don’t have an extraordinary bug problem. We just have an old house in a hot, humid city on a rather big river. After he sprayed his cat and child-safe spray outside, he came inside to look for where the bugs were finding their way in. The cats were sleeping on the couch. He went to greet Tom and said, “Remember that girlfriend with the cats I told you about?” That’s right, I see this man often enough for him to say that to me. And I did remember.

Other signs I might be acclimating–if I’m not in a hurry and no one’s behind me, I initiate small talk with clerks in a checkout lane. I remember to say, “How are you?” at the coffee shop before I place my order. I’m learning to recognize that I can slow down sometimes. I never believed I was too good to talk to baristas. I just assumed that they’re in a hurry, that they might not want to say, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” a hundred times a day to strangers they’ll never see again. I know I don’t.

I still get frustrated when I’m in a rush and the folks ahead of my are having a chat about the weather — completely ignoring the queue of 15 people on a Tuesday at 5:30 pm. The whole process, the talking to strangers makes me nervous. It’s possible to be friendly and hospitable without being forced to lie on a regular basis, but if that’s what it takes to get my hot chocolate made correctly, I’ll just have to do it.

Before:

After:

Sometimes, I don’t really like that hat.

My opt-out manifesto, of sorts, part 1

I have been struggling, a lot, to figure out what to do with my life. I have an incredible amount of angst and guilt that I haven’t yet found what I’m going to do when I grow up, because I thought that part was over more than 10 years ago. I would be an historian. I would teach at the college level and write books. For more than two years now, I’ve known that I no longer want to be a professor. Yet I’ve struggled to explain why, and what would come next. I’ve felt the disappointment of some of my mentors. I’ve felt the judgment of colleagues and peers. I’ve been reading countless articles and seeing references to women “opting out” on Facebook. I am at-home more than not right now. Yet I don’t feel like I’ve opted out of anything other than a profession and place that wasn’t working for me. I’ve tried to articulate why, and felt like I’m implicitly insulting my husband and closest friends–but really it’s just about me. I’m not satisfied.

When I die, I want to feel like I’ve done some tangible, positive good in life. I also realize I want recognition for that. I have taught hundreds of–maybe a thousand–students in my short career. Many do amazing things. Several keep me up to date on their lives. I’m well-enough liked by the majority. When I try to talk about why teaching doesn’t make me happy, I get advice. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s that it’s not enough for me.

I love writing and having my work read. I want a wider audience than I could possibly get as an academic historian. I know I could aim for a popular audience, and that might happen someday, but I don’t care to do it with a tenure clock clicking.

I’ve seen students go a long way towards accomplishing their dreams, and I’ve felt left behind because I was not getting closer to mine. I’m supposed to just feel proud of them, like that’s my reward. Instead, I often think, “when is it going to be my turn?”

I’m trying to figure it out. I almost made a major career change this summer, but in the end, it didn’t feel right. The decision came down to “would it make financial sense?” — and it didn’t. I was disappointed for a few weeks, but recently, I realized that if I’d really wanted the job, I probably would have thought of reasons we could go into debt for it. I’m irresponsible that way.

“Opting out.” I’m not doing that, and I wonder how many women implicated in this discussion feel that they’re not either?

I am opting to admit that even though I am in my mid-30s, even though I have two kids, I still have a lot of hopes and dreams that are just about me. Most importantly, I am opting to admit that I have more value in this world than the exact market-value of my skills. 

Recently, the rabbi at my synagogue asked what we wanted our children–our own kids and our students–to achieve in their lives. He said most people say they want their kids to be good people, but that they, in fact, reflect a different message that accomplishment, academic but mostly professional, matters most.

I’m still thinking about what I want out of my own life. I want to be “good” more than anything. I felt like I had no time to think about that when I was balancing full-time one year positions, my family, and the search for a permanent job. I knew I could keep striving and be rewarded some day with what was supposed to be the perfect job in a perfect place, but I have been doing that for so long. I know plenty of people in our field do that for longer, but I at least hope they felt more satisfied than I did with  the work they were doing in the meantime. I began to wonder, what’ll happen if I do that for so long and then suddenly my kids are grown up, or we’ve moved them around every few years of their childhood, or we’ve spent every Sunday and evening working and now the kids don’t want to go to the park or for a bike ride with us? I got sick of that striving for the future, and I wanted to focus on the present. I wanted to stop and to figure out how to do my best in the place that I was, with the family that I had. I’m still ambitious, but I wanted to start putting that drive into what I already have, not what I think I want.

Right now, the place I am, literally, this neighborhood, is one of my dreams come true. It’s an urban neighborhood, with a great group of people involved in improving it. When I was a teenager and first realized the profound inequity in my own hometown, I thought I wanted to do something about that. It happens that in this neighborhood we randomly chose, the opportunity to do just that kind of fell into my lap. I went to a meeting about making the neighborhood more kid friendly, thinking I would meet some people for play dates, Instead, I’m now helping to organize an after-school and evening program for teenagers. I kept raising my hand and speaking at this meeting, and I had no idea I still had this hope inside me or those ideas. (Anyone want to donate?)

But my point here is, I do have ideas, and even though I have moments where I think, “Holy crap, everyone thinks I’m a failed PhD,” or “just a mom,” I actually have a heck of a lot going on. I stopped, I look around me, and something I wanted to do revealed itself to me. 

I’ve been working for weeks on a nerdy blog post about the “opting out” stuff, but it keeps getting lost in the tangents. Life never stops. We aren’t only valuable if we are always striving to achieve on some externally determined path. We aren’t only valuable if we have a job that lets us buy more stuff, or can pay for private school tuition, or lets us get our kids the after-school Chinese lessons. We aren’t only valuable if we’re someone’s boss, or if we break the salary barrier for women. I hate the term “child-penalty” because it gets me involved in what feels like the wrong debate to me. I don’t care that much about getting women access to the top of a system, when what I really want is to knock the top off.

Meanwhile, I still have my individual dreams, my hope for personal renown. But if I die never having published my novel, will it mean that I failed at life? Will it mean that quitting academia was a mistake? I hope not. I think not.

reflections on my decision to enter grad school

So, if you have a PhD and work in academia (the college and university system), or know lots of PhDs and academics (people who work in said systems), you have likely seen far too many articles about the state of the job market, and quite a few blog posts about the pain and frustration of applying for jobs in academia. But if you’re not a part of those two categories, here’s the short version: there aren’t enough jobs out there for people who earn PhDs in the humanities and social sciences and it really, really sucks to spend 5, 7, or 10 years earning a degree only to be unable to find a job in your narrow field at the end. Now, I know a lot of my friends are saying, “No shit. It hasn’t exactly been a cake walk outside of ‘academia’ or whatever the hell since 2008, either.”

I could go into how it’s different. The years of earning nothing or next to it make a difference. It’s not a treat to come out of school at 30 or 32 or 35 without any savings or retirement accounts, only to discover that you have to start over, that you can’t get the jobs you thought you had trained to get.

But, here’s the question: Do I regret going to grad school? I don’t. I am an historian, and that is much more than my profession. I approach every second of my life as an historian, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I can answer the big questions: the why and how of the American Revolution, the movements of people, politics, and stuff that produced the Industrial Revolutions, and I can talk for a long time to anyone who will listen (or just to myself) about why all Americans think they’re descended, intellectually if not genetically, from the Puritans. I think I can still probably tell you more about the history of celebrity in North America than anyone else out there. I can also have fun with the everyday stuff. When I sit on my front porch steps and see kids riding their bikes in the middle of my road, I think about the strands of time, change, and culture that made that happen. I can see the strands almost, pulling us all together through some pretty crazy stories and shifts of time.

Should my undergraduate professors have discouraged me from applying to grad school, because it turns out that I was one of those people who would eventually quit looking for a job in academia? First, of all, how could they have known? And second of all, it would not have worked anyway. My undergraduate thesis was really very good. I look at it now and think, “That was a high quality piece of undergraduate work,” and, lord knows, I know how to judge that now. My hours spent writing that thing in the Natick Public Library remain some of the most vivid, happiest hours and weeks of my educational life and I wanted to keep doing that, and to do it in more depth. They were right to think I could make it in graduate school. How could they have known what would happen to me personally and to the economy to push me away from academia?

What else would I have done? It would be nice to have more financial security right now, but I had a lot of fun in grad school. I loved my classes. I loved my research. Much of the time, I loved writing my dissertation. If I ever finish and publish the novel I’m working on, I will know that I could not have done it if I weren’t an historian. The real people I learned and read about, the true stories of the past, they are part of my narrative of humanity. They permeate every page I write, just as much as they influence how I see the world. I can’t imagine my life without the people I met in the archival documents anymore than I can imagine my life without the people I’ve met in the flesh.

I understand that some of my colleagues and friends feel trapped. I certainly feel that way at times, too (a lot…). It’s hard. It’s scary. I get that I’m different, because I only did a full search once, and because I actually decided internally, well before I could admit it to myself or out loud, that actually, I don’t want a tenure-track job, or to be obligated to keep writing and researching in American history. I think that, much like what I’ve experienced before, a lot of us are grieving the loss of some very significant life dreams. It’s going to  be different for all of us, and I’m not really up for judging how anyone comes to term with how much the job market sucks.

I had a family, and a husband who found a job that suited him in a field with even fewer options than mine, even if it was in a place that made me miserable (sorry, Oxford friends, but it is true). I don’t know how things would have worked out if that hadn’t been true. Maybe I would have been motivated to keep trying to like academia, to keep searching for a job, to get myself interested again. It’s impossible to know, so it’s pointless to regret.

But, still, I’m scared I won’t ever get anything published and that I’ll end up having to settle for a job I’ll like even less. I’m scared I’ll be bored. But I got to spend seven years thinking, reading, talking, and writing, and making some really smart friends. The last four years, outside of my family life, have been hard and boring. But graduate school, whatever happens next, that was lucky.

with the heaviest of hearts

We only spent 11 months in Ohio. It was a difficult year, my first year of full-time teaching. It was also a wonderful year, because we had the most fabulous people surrounding us. I didn’t realize then how lucky we were, to find such kindred spirits over so short a time. I know now that it is extraordinary to find a community so welcoming of strangers, and transient ones, at that. Professionally and personally, I now realize that that year in Ohio was a gift.

Among the friends we made were T. and K., who were building their fabulously up-to-date Brady Bunchesque family. They brought three older children into their relationship, had one daughter together, and were pregnant with their collective fifth. They were easy to talk to, active in the community, and on the correct side of all political issues (in my opinion). Their daughter, R., became one of Samuel’s favorite friends, and he cried over missing her for months after we moved. We’ve kept in touch via Facebook since we left Ohio, liking each other’s family posts. I also look to K. to keep me from being lazy in my politics.

Recently, they welcomed a sixth girl into their family, another K. But this morning I woke up to the news that baby K died unexpectedly yesterday morning, at 16 days old. I just have no words for the shock and pain of this news, and I know that’s absolutely nothing compared to what they’re feeling. I am so unfathomably sad for all of them, devastated that any of them have to feel this pain, that their other girls, especially the little ones, have to know how cruel life can be.

I drove Samuel to school in the rain today, feeling numbness, tinged with a familiar tingling sensation in my chest and arms. It’s grief, or the remnants of it, making it so even the most familiar of objects, a steering wheel, seemed to sting my hands. Obviously I was focused on driving the car safely, but I was also trying to think of something, anything I could do or say to help. There’s not much I can do, I know, beyond think of them, and say that I am.

They are a beautiful family, and the only comfort I can find is the certainty that their friends and family in that little Ohio town will rally around them. I hope they keep coming around, keep offering food and hugs for now, and love and support forever. Because at times like this, and when I’m struggling, I always remember the best thing anyone said to us six years ago: It never gets better, it just gets easier.

Whoever reads this, please don’t tell me you’re sorry or offer me words of wisdom. Please just think of them, and wish them comfort, peace, and eventually, joy again.