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.

crazy mama drama

Something has been bugging me. We love Samuel’s new preschool. His teacher’s really warm, wonderful, and so experienced. The program is well organized. He only goes three days a week, but he’s learning so much, not just academically, but about Judaism and more importantly, good character.

His teacher has a wonderful way with discipline, but more importantly, she’s warm and a great model for compassion and thoughtfulness. Yesterday, I just knew I was hearing some of her influence when he said to me randomly, “Mommy, it doesn’t matter who you love, it just matters that you love them.” I mentioned it to his teacher this morning, and told her that obviously that’s a value we want to impart to him, but I wasn’t sure where he got the language. She told me they do talk a lot about keeping their hearts open.

I’ve been excited ever since we decided to move to Memphis that Samuel would spend more time around other Jewish kids, that he’d get to experience holidays and such with more friends, in a consistent and familiar environment. Our synagogue feels like home to him. But for the first time yesterday, I realized there are other benefits to sending him to a progressive Jewish preschool. Obviously, this kind of discussion might be problematic in a secular school, or a public school. Because while I don’t think he was thinking about homosexuality in particular, I do think that that kind of discussion about keeping your hearts open and celebrating love “no matter what” will translate to making it easier for Samuel to reject homophobia and other kinds of hate. He’s already asked, and we’ve already talked about how in some families there’s just a mom or just a dad, or two moms or two dads. I just really like that his preschool models and shares our values. Anyway, that’s not actually where I meant to go when I opened this post, which is meant mostly to complain and ask for advice about a problem I’m having.

So, now, to the drama: Samuel has a favorite friend at preschool. We’ll call him Bobby. Samuel talks about Bobby all the time. He wants Bobby to come over, and when we’re at birthday parties or see Bobby’s family, he asks me to go talk to Bobby’s mommy and get her email address. I have tried. I haven’t just walked over and said, “Hey, can I have your email address,” but I have tried to introduce myself. She manages to always be talking to someone else, or to somehow not see that I’m trying to approach her. I get the feeling she really doesn’t want to talk to me.

That sounds crazy, right? But it’s real. Last week we were both at a meeting of preschool parents about fundraising and parties and such. I sat next to her, and she turned away, talking pointedly to a woman on her other side. Mean girls as this sounds, she’s the only mother to do this to me! I’m having perfectly normal encounters with other parents so if she weren’t Bobby’s mother, I’d think rude words about her and be on with it.

In the beginning, I thought maybe she was just timid, uncomfortable around new people. I know plenty of people who come across as snobby, but are really just shy. So I kept trying. Then a couple of weeks ago, I was at an event with one of the teachers in the school. Bobby’s mother came up in conversation, and the teacher called her “a piece of work.” I also teach religious school with another one of the teachers. That teacher, an incredibly nice woman, asked me last weekend how Samuel likes school, I told her he loves it. She mentioned Samuel and Bobby, and I told her that it seems like for some reason Bobby’s mom doesn’t want to talk to me. She rolled her eyes, and said Bobby’s mom is something of a wannabe social climber, who only talks with people whom she thinks can help her socially. She told me actually, that there’s been discussion among the teachers about Bobby’s mom alienating parents not in her social circle, and because she’s a room mother, making it more difficult for teachers with her kids to get much participation in their class.

I feel like we’re living in the late-19th century. We may not have major connections in town, but chatting with me is not going to hurt her standing in the community. It’s completely weird. Plus, she knows nothing about us other than that we’re new in town. Perhaps it’s because while she looks like she’s going out for an evening even at 8:45 am, I am often dropping Samuel off wearing yoga pants and a bare minimum of makeup, and often have baby slobber on my shoulder.

I’d pretty much decided to forget about Bobby and his mother. Samuel’s perfectly fine at making friends, and there are other parents in the class with whom I can organize play dates. I really don’t care about being her friend.

Then, this morning, I dropped Samuel off, and Bobby ran right over to him, and gave him a big hug, saying, “I am so happy you’re here Samuel!” Samuel’s teacher told me that every morning Bobby arrives and asks if Samuel’s going to be there that day (Samuel only goes MWF). She told me they’re inseparable in class, that it’s a really sweet friendship. I love that Samuel has that here–he misses his Mississippi friends so much that his making new friends has been a major concern for me. Bobby then came up to me and asked if he and Samuel could play together at home some day. I said, “Well, you’ll have to ask your mommy about that.”

Then I left. Bobby’s mom was talking to a mom with whom I’m friendly in the parking lot. This mom is married to someone important in the community, but doesn’t strike me as someone who shares Bobby’s mom’s attitude. The mom waved to me, and started to coo over Jonah’s cute new pumpkin outfit. I decide to try again with Bobby’s mom, to be nice. So I say, “You know, Bobby and Samuel are becoming such good friends. Samuel talks about him all the time.” She says, “Hmm, Bobby’s never mentioned him,” and angles herself away from me. Seriously. Insane as that sounds, it happened.

Having written this out, I realize I don’t need the advice for which I started out asking. Obviously, I am not going to chase her down and beg for a play date. I am not going to try to break through her snobbery or prove myself worthy of her attention. I feel badly for her son. I hope he takes their teacher’s lesson to keep his heart open and doesn’t become as pretentious as his mother.

But, what should I tell Samuel when he keeps asking for a play date with Bobby? I can’t keep saying I don’t know how to contact his mom–I see her all the time. Yet, somehow, “No we can’t hang out with Bobby, because his mom is a big snotty meanie” doesn’t sound quite right either.

on being a mom in an election year

Facebook friends and I have been commenting on and complaining about the preponderance of “I’m a mother!” type justifications for political activity and political activism at the national party conventions this year. As I work through why the tendency or trend annoys me, I think about how and if parenthood has changed me. Obviously it has. So often I hear that parenthood changes you because finally you have to think about someone else. In that case, I guess parenthood justifies political activity and participation, and might explain why you should vote for someone who’s a particularly good parent (however that is measured), because the presumption is that a parent will have more empathy and more of an investment in the future. The better you are as a parent, the more loving and concerned, the better you will be as a political actor–or so the talk seems to go.

As an historian, I’m immediately reminded of ideas around Republican Motherhood, the Republican Wife, and the Republican Family first explicated for me in the works of Linda Kerber and Jan Lewis. To explain the concept in its most basic form while teaching, I use this image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Artist_and_His_Family_James_Peale.jpeg. [I had no idea until just now that Wikipedia used it too for the same reason.] The first thing to understand is that I don’t mean a partisan Republican family, I just mean a family in a republic as idealized in the late 18th-century. In this ideal, the family is the building block for the nation. The man and woman play separate, but essentially equal roles, hence in the painting their arms are linked and they are the same height. Every female in the picture, however, gazes at another person or something within the private domain of the family. The two male figures in the picture gaze out of the frame, the father towards us, the viewer, the son towards something off in the distance outside the family (the future?). The woman’s place is to care for the virtue and well being of the family; the man’s place to be the mediator between the family and the public or political sphere. Hence a man votes as the head of a family, on behalf of himself but significantly also his dependents (property laws for suffrage during the period contributing to this idea). A woman wouldn’t need to vote because her husband does so on her behalf. Yet she would need to be educated because she could participate in petitioning her government or in parades or other non-voting or office-holding political activity. And of course she had to help educate and raise virtuous future citizens.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Of course, women have the vote now and can hold office. Of course, none of the women we’ve heard have defended being active in politics because they have children. They have used it, however, to explain how and why they became involved. See for example Elaine Brye, the mother of the four soldiers, who kept saying, “I am not a political person” and Stacey Lihn who was there to support health care reform based upon her daughter’s illness.

You don’t, however, have to be a parent to be a good person and to see why our healthcare system and the insurance industry are broken. You don’t have to be a parent to be a good person and see that our financial system needs reform. You don’t have to be a parent to be a good person and see that the American educational system needs to do better. You don’t have to be a parent to deserve to benefit from these reforms. Furthermore, you don’t have to be a child to deserve to benefit from them. Specifically, though, since as a friend pointed out, this discourse doesn’t implicate men as much as it does women (although both Obama and Romney do mention their children quite a lot), you don’t have to be a mother to see these things.

Those of us who are parents might not see clearly how the language is exclusionary, and how it is condescending and even a little infantilizing. Yet it is. When I look at my own life, I don’t think parenthood matured me any more than not owning a home until I was 35 kept me a child. I have grown up more in the past 5 years, for sure, but not more so than my friends without kids. I have not become more compassionate or a better person simply for having kids. I have become so, I think, because I’ve experienced more of life. So have my friends who haven’t become parents.

We run two risks with the language using motherhood as a justification for our worldview. Firstly, we run the risk of excluding women who don’t have children from having a say in politics. I would have thought that idea was ridiculous a few years ago, but the insane focus on reproduction and women’s sexual behavior this year has made me wonder about our communal vision of womanhood in this country.

We also, I think, limit our vision of the sources of human compassion. I’m not less self-centered because I have living children. In fact, I might be a little more selfish. It’s just that I have two little parts of my self running out and about in the world to make my selfishness seem dispersed. (Actually, only one of them is running yet, the other just kicks his legs around like he wants to take off as soon as possible.) I am more protective of my time. I am less generous with my money because I need more of it. I spend less time calling and checking up on friends. The last time I did something really political I wrote to my representatives about progesterone drugs for preventing preterm labor and about the effect Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment would have on a pregnant woman with my history. James Madison might decry me as particularly interested because these two actions were directly a result of my pursuit of motherhood–a self-centered goal.

Not that my actions were a bad thing, but they represent an interest that might overshadow other interests. Someone without children might have as valid an interest that’s not related to parenthood. They might want to promote a cause simply because they’re a good person. And that’s why I hope to do ultimately, as well. Not to fight for something or vote for someone simply because I’m a parent, but because I’m striving to be a good person. Parenthood has highlighted certain issues for me, but they’re not more important than what I was interested in before. In so many cases, actually, they overlap.

“I’m a mom” makes for a good story line. I get that. But I would love to hear a woman be able to stand up and justify herself with a different emotional appeal–just simply the fact that she’s a person. She can look outside of her self and see what’s needed in the world too, just as well as any man, parent or not.

if it weren’t for the titles

I swear I would blog more if it weren’t for the need to title these posts.  I hate titles. I’ve only had one confirmed good idea for a title in my life, and I used it for my dissertation. My “novel” maybe has a good title, I’m not sure yet. It only has three chapters, though, so whether it even needs a title remains to be seen.

How are things going? (and thanks to Ellie for the push) All is well, but we put the computer on the second floor and all action happens on the first so getting up here is difficult. We just finished our second week of the semester–I’m teaching one course. Samuel will finish his third week of his new preschool today. He attends three part days a week and loves it. It’s a wonderful place.

I wish I could occupy his time at home better. Jonah is still breastfeeding a lot, and is just entering a very alert phase, so I find it difficult to plan a day’s activities with any accuracy in terms of time management. I have a workbook for Samuel and I read about all these science experiments we can do at home, yet I constantly find myself having to pause them to do something with Jonah. He does nap well, but during morning nap we have activities at the library and the botanic garden, so we just have afternoon nap. I’m trying to fit working out in then. Early morning would probably work better for that, but I’m doing Insanity and our house isn’t so large that my jumping up and down won’t wake up folks in the next rooms.

So if anyone out there has tips on how to schedule a day with a 4.5 year old and an infant, I’m up for them. I feel like if all I were trying to do in a given week was take care of everyone’s basic needs and do a few fun educational things, I’d be set. I’m doing pretty well at that. But how to also fit in working out (which I need after months of bed rest), paying bills, doing laundry, writing, and organizing our still new house?

I hope this post doesn’t sound overly negative. Jonah’s absolutely wonderful. Like Samuel, he sleeps well. Actually, because we jumped right into our swaddling, shushing, swinging routines, he’s done better. We’ve been getting 4-5 hours straight a night for two months, and are now onto 5-6 hours straight of sleep a night. I’m not exhausted and I’m having so much fun with him. Samuel has some jealousy issues–this morning he asked me why I don’t sing “You are My Sunshine” to him as much as I do to Jonah, so I started singing it to him and he told me to stop. That’s why I don’t sing as much to him anymore. Life is good.

Ohp, Jonah’s awake! Guess this is as interesting as this post will get.

blargh, I’m tired

In the grand scheme of things, all is going well and I’m content and happy as can be. But in mundane terms, yikes it’s been a rough week. I have a thoughtful post saved as a draft, but I’m having trouble finding the time to complete complex thoughts. Hence, a venting vomit on the page post seems sufficient for today before too much time passes without my writing here. I’m finding writing here again tremendously helpful, getting my thoughts on a page helps my mind feel clearer.

Jonah is three weeks today! It seems already like he’s always been here. Samuel’s doing well with him, but definitely craving more time alone with me. I’ve been working hard to find moments to spend playing with him, but it’s really hard. Jonah’s still breastfeeding every 1,5-3 hours (really more like every 2-2.5) and still has his nights and days messed up. I’m not complaining about that, it’s to be expected. But it makes each day feel like I’m in a hamster wheel, where I struggle to just meet needs moment by moment and worry about whether I’m giving everyone enough attention, and whether I’m being too impatient with or negligent of Samuel.

Speaking of, Samuel’s trying so hard to behave and keep everyone happy, but I can tell he’s struggling a little bit. He keeps telling me elaborate stories about things that clearly didn’t happen just to get my attention. Such as, last night as I was feeding Jonah, he yelled out, “Oh no! Tom peed under my bed.” Didn’t happen. This morning he told me a complicated story about how he fell in the pool yesterday after the maintenance man filled it up too high and his grandma saved him. Also didn’t happen.

So I’m tired, and it seems like as soon as I finish nursing Jonah, it’s all I can do to finish tasks like keeping up with email, dealing with house and household stuff, before it’s time to feed him again. We’re moving in a week, and I cannot wait to be settled. We’re so cramped in this apartment, and I’m tripping over toys and boxes and shoes all the time.

Meanwhile, Josh is out of the country. My mother-in-law is here, and it’s helpful but adds to my sense of disorder. Yesterday was a total mess because I got about 2 hours of sleep and then it turned out that Josh’s luggage is lost and none of our credit cards or his debit card is working abroad, all for a different reason. So he was without money, clothing, or toiletries. Definitely relearned our lesson about packing carryons and to never travel without cash, but honestly with a newborn and our having closed on the house on Friday, this was hardly his most carefully and conscientiously planned trip. So my bank, acknowledging their mistake, agreed to wire him money out of our account and they’d pay the Western Union charge. Phew. I’m still waiting to hear if it worked and he has the money.

It’s kind of funny. A few days ago I asked him if he was looking forward to 5 nights of unlimited sleep and free time. But what’s really happened is he’s spent the last 2 days in the same clothing and without access to money while in a foreign country. Fun fun. Fortunately he’s been at a conference where most of the food is provided.

And that’s where we are today.

What’s in a name?

Wednesday was nuts. We got up and out of the house by 10am, to make the 1.5 hour trek to our synagogue for Jonah’s brit milah/naming at 1pm. We needed the full 3 hours and I am so glad we’re moving closer. But anyway, we made it and even accomplished our first public breast feeding sessions, at a Panera’s, at the synagogue and at a pizza restaurant. I would rather not have taken Jonah out publicly yet, to avoid germs. Yet I was less excited to breast feed him in the car, especially on a 90-degree day.

The bris was a success. thankfully. I was feeling awkward about it because we don’t really know anyone and no family members were around. So it was just Samuel, Josh, Jonah, and I making the trip to attend and complete the event. Also, honestly, the mitzvah makes me so freaking nervous I was happy to just get it over with. Fortunately, as the mohel pointed out, the mitzvah is in doing it, not watching it so Samuel and I hid in the lounge outside the ladies’ rest room.

We named him Yonah Nissim in Hebrew. Yonah is dove; Nissim is miracles. I have long loved the name Jonah–it happens that the first rabbi with whom I was close shares the name, but I didn’t really choose it for him. It’s just nice to have a positive association and I do hope Jonah is equally committed to Jewish learning and community. Nissim is a name I first heard applied to people in Israel. One of my favorite kids from the gan (kindergarten) where I taught in Jerusalem came from a family of Nissims. They were Sephardic so named children after living relatives, and he was not only the 20th Nissim in the line, but he was the 20th generation of their family to live in Jerusalem. I didn’t really name my son after a child I last saw when he was 5 years old, but I definitely think about that family and their history when I think about his name.

He’s also our third boy to have a name beginning with the letter Nun/N. I wanted the boys to all have something in common with their names. Natan means gift from God. Samuel’s middle name, Nadav, means the generous one. I didn’t know of any other names suggesting gifts or generosity, other than Matan, which is too close to Natan for my comfort. So shared letter it was. Nun does have some association with the Jewish concepts of falling and redemption, and this association feels poignant to me.

Awhile back, a discussion of where people were respectively in their grief circulated in blog posts. This is my life, and I am okay with it. I don’t really question it, and I don’t grieve very openly or cry very often over Natan. I think I’ve reached acceptance. Usually, when sadness or anger strikes, it has to do with the present and my fears about life now. I no longer really ask why me, because I’ve been given so much since Natan’s death 5 years ago. At this point I consider myself so lucky, I have no more reason to be mad.

new outcomes, better feelings

Today was a damn good day. Firstly, I woke up decently well rested. Since the PUPPS rash began showing itself in early May, I have hardly slept a night. So not sleeping has become a familiar misery. The rash is now a bit better, but not totally gone and according to the lactation consultant, it may get worse again for awhile because of breastfeeding. I will not let this itching make me stop; I’ll manage. Last night I slept for a good 5 hours in 2.5 hour chunks, though, so while I’m pretty exhausted now towards the evening, I’m pretty content too.

That in no way explains why it was a good day though–it was a good day because we overcame another big hurdle–the jaundice risk. Samuel had to be hospitalized in the NICU after one night home with us. My parents arrived that afternoon 4.5 years ago and were completely not helpful, because they ultimately still believe breastfeeding is ridiculous when there’s formula in the world. So I remember being driven crazy and encouraged to formula feed even as I was terrified and exhausted. So Saturday afternoon, when Jonah decided sleeping was better than eating, I felt like the floor was being yanked out from underneath me. I was trying not to tell my dad about my anxiety; Josh, Samuel and my mom were out. But then my dad said something about Jonah being a good sleeper, and I got a bit cranky. Then he told me I was eating cereal from birth and I could hear the accusation and judgment. Ugh. Stressful.

I went to our bedroom and had a total meltdown. That seemed to work–Jonah woke up and ate. Phew. But now I was nervous again. Would he get jaundiced? Was he losing too much weight? And why the hell won’t I stop itching? Yesterday was better; he ate a lot. But last night and this morning I began to suspect he was a bit yellow.

This morning we had a weigh in and the lactation consultant noted he was a little yellow. But he’s the same weight he was when he left the hospital, and down just 6% from birth (up to 10% by today would have been okay). The doctor recommended a bilirubin test, just to be careful given our history. It came back well below the upper limit. I felt so insanely relieved, I told Josh I wanted a celebration. I can do this.