Something I’ve been meaning to tell you…

We ran into one of Anna’s former preschool classmates, and his mom looked as put together and happy as she has every single time I’ve ever seen her, whether she was hosting a bouncy-house birthday party or dropping her son off at o-dark-hundred in the morning.

I was reminded of how much I’d always admired her, and even more so now that I’ve left the workforce. I admire her differently, now, in a way, the way a finalist admires a champion, that only someone who has attempted the same feat can relate to. She asked how things were going and we agreed I’m very lucky to have had this option but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t man up and tell her the most important thing, the context, if you will: I would be a working mother if I could have managed it. I wanted to be, had always intended to be, tried to be… but I couldn’t.

That’s the heart and the truth of it. I simply couldn’t do both. I don’t mean that as an excuse or to be flip or … or really as anything; it’s just the way it is. For me. Maintaining a career and taking care of my daughter proved, for me, exclusive. In part that’s because I lack what seems an essential skill; I can’t, I don’t know, cognitively multitask? Intellectually sort and pile? Cerebrally categorize?

What I’m getting at is that while I am as capable as anyone of preparing dinner with one hand and braiding hair with the other while sweeping the floor and phoning my mother, I can’t think about more than one thing at a time.

I understand that the idea is to compartmentalize, and I tried. I had schedules and Google Alerts and a BlackBerry and a hands-free headset. I reflected at night and planned in the morning and wrote everything down in a hundred places. It all looked great on paper but in execution, my mom self overflowed her banks, snarfing and gobbling everything in her path. I’d open my briefcase to find it stuffed not with academic journals but with picture books overdue for return to the library. I’d grade papers while I supervised bathtime, only to get them blotched with bathwater from an exuberant splash. I can’t count the number of swim-lessons days that I dropped Anna off without her swimsuit — a high crime for the preschool set — or how many times I made her nanny late to class or forgot to re-stock diapers or missed faculty meeting.

And there were plenty of days like the one when the nanny was sick and I had to take Anna to class with me. Allan was able to collect her about an hour into the session, but that left plenty of time for her to throw all of her toys out of her pack-n-play, squawk “Slippery Fish” over students trying to speak, screech to be picked up, crawl around everyone’s feet and, loudly and fragrantly, poop. It’s no wonder I was asked to, well, make more secure arrangements next time.

In short: for a full two years, no matter where I was, I felt like I was supposed to be somewhere else.

Perhaps it’s the nature of my profession, at least as I know it to be. Once you’ve pledged your troth, academia hugs you to its bosom and does not like to let go. For me this affair began long before I met my husband and it remained sustainable well into marriage, when we were DINKS, when my husband could travel to conferences with me and when staying up all night to finish a paper didn’t destroy three schedules and when travelling for work to Qatar or Pakistan didn’t feel flat-out impossible.

Whatever the reasons, the result was what mattered: we weren’t functioning. More to the point, I wasn’t functioning. I got sick, scary sick. That the stress strained our marriage was unambiguous. My daughter cried too often, threw too many tantrums, had too many night terrors. We did the only thing we could do. It was survival.

My best heroes today are the women I know, the professors and researchers and teachers, who manage that world and do it so well, kids and all. I know how hard it is (cf finalists & champions, above). I’m not forgetting mothers who are doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs — I just can’t relate as proportionately — nor, of course, do I discount dads (and to answer the next logical question, yes, Allan kept up his end of things. All I share here is my own story.). It’s probably salient that we live far away from our families, something I’d change in a heartbeat. Who knows what will happen when Anna is older; if I’ve proven anything to myself it’s that I’m more flexible than I thought I was, and that I’d better stay that way.

If I had thought for one hot second that I could have regained my professional standing and gotten a grip on motherhood and been able to do both reasonably, even tolerably, well, oh, I would certainly have done so. The decision to leave was the most portentous — and authentic — choice of my adult life, and I will never know the full effect. And it wasn’t pretty: it hurt, it was confusing, and it was messy.

But one of the key skills my beloved profession taught me is to recognize when a design is not working — no matter how dedicated to that design I might be or how many resources have been invested — and to know when to make the hard call that it is time to re-direct finite energies toward a different approach.

So that’s what I did.

Published in: on March 24, 2011 at 6:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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