It’s afternoon and the sky has turned gray. Gusty winds bend the redwood trees and whistle through the window cracks of this old house. Since we got back two weeks ago, it’s been gray almost every day and I’m struggling to see beyond the clouds and the moodiness they bring. Daily writing is a collage of fog and doubts about what to do next. Today I look out the window and imagine the fog bank rolling inland all night long, unspooling like an endless misty ribbon. I imagine the edges, how the cold, damp gray hits the heat of the dry golden hills inland and finally evaporates into the wide open sky when the sun comes up. The radio announcer tells us to expect little change in the weather this week, “low clouds and fog, temperatures from the mid-sixties near the coast to the mid-nineties inland”. It feels endlessly cold and gray, like winter in New England. And like long, snowy winters in other places, the summer here turns me inward toward questions about who I am and where my life is going.
This summer, having finally finished my degree in May, I’m thinking about what to do next. Like most women with young children, I want interesting, stimulating work that’s flexible while my children are young. I stepped off the path of tenure-track jobs two years ago, feeling, as many women do, that its demands were incompatible with family life. Now I have these Ph.D. skills that could take me in a lot of different directions, from research consultant or policy advocate, to adjunct teacher or writer, to something yet to be discovered. I’m excited to have options. And I’m excited to inject more creativity into whatever work I do, to shape my own career path. But I also feel like I’m going into an unknown world; I’ve never in my life not had a job or school directing my time, and most often through the years I have had some combination of the two.
A crucial turning point for many women’s careers is this period when children are young. Caring for babies and toddlers is a full-time job, and as one of the women in The Mommy Wars says, ‘we can either do that work ourselves or we can outsource it’. Thus, for many us, whether and how much to work becomes a choice we make in the years when we’ve first become mothers. As I talk with people, it seems like everyone has a story about a woman they know who did the math and found they earned just enough to pay for childcare, and so they decided to stop working while their children were young. Family finances are of course the most important factor in choosing whether and how much to work. But if the finances allow one parent not to work, then a host of other issues factor into the decision, including what our children need, childcare options, our qualifications, the jobs available, and our passions and ambitions.
In my family, we can live on one salary, at least for now. But I cannot imagine not working. And I want to be the main person caring for my children while they’re young. So on the foggy, introverted afternoons of this post-dissertation summer, I’m trying to craft a meaningful career direction I can work on part-time for the next few years, and full-time once my kids are in school. No pressure, right?
We are back home in San Francisco, where the redwood trees bend and sway in the cold foggy wind, and the heater is on. From a high of 97 degrees in Spain to a high of 60 with a foggy wind chill. We have lived here for nearly 7 years, and it still surprises me to wear boots, a jacket and a scarf on a July afternoon. I am so glad to be home. But I wish we had more of a real summer here.
I have a post about traveling with toddlers in the works, and another about our last days in Spain. I’ve also been writing about women, work, family and the balance I’m finding. And I have an idea about a series on raising bilingual children, and would love to interview or have guest posts, so if you or someone you know grew up bilingual, or is raising bilingual children, I’d love to talk.
That’s all for now. Time to put this jet-lagged family to bed!
I do not find it hard to write every day.
Like the explorers of old whose journals have taught us about history, I feel hardwired to write things down, and when I’m traveling, even more. After a very late night with friends talking and arguing over Spanish politics and history, my head hums with ideas. I get up after 2.5 hours sleep, give Basil breakfast, and then sit down and type 1000 words. When we were in London a few weeks ago, I stayed up later than anyone else, writing about the party boats sliding by on the Thames outside the window, the book I was reading, and the meaning of losing oneself in a novel. When I’m at the park with Basil back home, I notice the conversations children have, or the group of nannies I see there every day, and later jot things down in my notebook on the way home.
Gathering material is not the hard part for me. The challenge is turning it into something I want others to read. This is why I blog, and why, since finishing my degree, I have started working more on the craft of writing. I have never had formal training in writing and I feel like I have a lot to learn.
Stephen King says, in his book On Writing, that if you want to be a writer, you should do two things: read a lot, and write a lot. So I read the latest Atlantic cover to cover, noticing how the essays are written. I play around with beginnings for an essay about my research on language and national identity. I re-read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. I go through The Best American Essays 2012 and read the first paragraph of each essay and copy down the first sentence of a dozen. Then I work on my essay, trying to incorporate elements that the best writers use.
Everyone says that if you want to be a serious writer, you need to submit pieces for publication. I feel like I’m in kindergarten when I think about publication. Sure I show up and write, but who am I to publish something? Blogging is wonderful because it’s a place to put my writing out there, and experience how writing is a conversation. It’s a community where I can appreciate others’ writing, and be inspired. It’s a way of practicing the craft of writing, and support others in doing the same.
But blogging every day? I have been trying hard this month since joining Megsie in the challenge. And I am seeing how good it is. How it becomes more of a conversation with other blogging friends. How it has me trying harder to implement what I’m learning about essay writing into my posts. How it pushes me risk a little more, try a little harder.
So I get back on the horse and post, though I’ve missed a day. I think about what my goal will be after July.
And I keep writing, every day.
Yesterday there was a morning walk under the pines, cut short by a squirmy toddler. But not before we heard doves, and saw them perched among the branches. Not before we saw the tall rattlesnake grasses, as high as my shoulder. Not before we felt dry, golden grass against our legs. Not before we heard the sound of our feet crushing crispy brown pine needles. Not before I felt my muscles working as they pushed the stroller up and down the hills, and remembered how a morning walk opens things up like nothing else.
But the day was still long afterwards. Wednesday, the middle of the week. When the heat bears down all day long, it’s easy to go stir crazy. To feel like a prisoner of the air-conditioned house. To crave an outing of any kind. But even a walk around the block or to one of the parks nearby has no appeal when it’s 100 degrees outside. When the black asphalt radiates heat that is almost visible in its intensity.
So in the evening we went to the library. The county library here is in the top floor of the Alcazar, the famous and imposing fortress that reigns over Toledo’s skyline. From the windows there are sweeping views of the city, and the wide open plains beyond. I look through the wooden shutters into the distance and imagine a watchman warning of the approach of an army in the distance in centuries past. Basil jiggles with giddy excitement at the sight of another child, toddling up to him and offering a book. “Hi” he says, and when the other small boy says nothing, he tries “hola”. I smile at the mother and wonder if she’s as glad to have her child entertained as I am, or if I should redirect my enthusiastic little boy.
After the library we went to a park. The parking garage where JJ’s parents have passes hugs the side of the hill by the Alcazar, its roof level with the street next to the fortress. There is a big square on top of the garage, and in the late evening when the sun goes behind the buildings and it finally cools off a bit, children play there. Parents sit along the edges talking and looking down at the river below, or have drinks in the café tucked in one corner. Basil watches a group of boys playing soccer. He follows two little girls riding their bikes around. And then he toddles into the play area and climbs up the slide behind a much bigger girl. I watch his cheerful attention to the other children, and feel guilty for how little he sees other kids here.
Now it’s Thursday and I can feel how things are shifting towards the end of our trip. Basil’s abuela has started saying she can’t wait until he leaves, which is her way of saying how much she’s going to miss him. Abuelo has begun to ask Basil for kisses all the time, linger longer over him at mealtime, and get jealous when we spend time with Great Grandma. JJ comes back from Barcelona tomorrow. We are going home soon, and a sense of possibility has replaced the mid-trip restlessness.
The restlessness continues, fueled by the oppressive heat that keeps us indoors most of the day. Basil still takes two naps, so that keeps us close to home too. He’s still afraid of the water, so the swimming pool is no fun. A storm finally blew through tonight, dropping rain for just 10 minutes but cooling things enough to enjoy being outdoors again. The smell of dried summer grass wet from the rain reminds me of the fog-drenched hills in Northern California right now. The curtains swoop and billow in the wind, and the air feels cooler than it has in days.
There was a visit to Great Grandma tonight. Raindrops on my bare arms as we walked to her house, a ground floor apartment down a narrow cobblestone street in the old town. She has lived there for over 70 years and her house is full of dearly loved china, photos at toddler level, and old-fashioned fans that whip around and entice small fingers to explore. Needless to say, I spent the visit managing Basil, trying to let him look and climb but not break anything. The best was opening and closing the shutter, looking out at the street below, saying “hi” to people passing by.
You parents: how do/did you manage to enjoy visits to non-childproof grandparents’ houses with toddlers? I feel like I need to plan for it like I would plan for a flight, filling my purse with snacks and entertainment. Otherwise, I spend the visit chasing him around telling him “no” like today, and where’s the fun in that?
There’s an arc to every trip here. A recognizable shape that my body knows, and my mind and heart weather. First there are The Arrival Days. Everything is bright and chattery. Phone calls to welcome us, an uncle stopping by, a first trip to the old town to visit Basil’s great grandma. Glorious quiet during Basil’s naps, and time to myself in cool morning breezes. Late nights writing with bare shoulders outside on the porch like right now. Day after day of dresses and sandals, never once taking out the light sweaters I brought.
Then about a week or 10 days in, The Restless Days hit. Suddenly I’ve been away from home long enough. I am tired of how little we do here, how it’s the same day after day. How I’m not working towards anything, and I want to be. How we get not family time just the three of us. How it’s too hot to do anything.
On the first morning after the restlessness comes, I lay down on the cool grass by the lavender and listen to the bumblebees and honeybees at work. I look up at the blue sky and feel the grass prickling my back. I play with Basil and take pictures. By 9 he’s ready for a nap and it’s too hot to be outside much longer. But the pictures of the lavender fill me up the rest of the day. Somehow their wistful purple against the unchanging blue sky captures the yearning I feel.
On Sunday the mid-trip restlessness drives us to brave the furious evening heat to walk around in old town Toledo and get frozen yogurt at our favorite place. The sun had finally left all the main plaza’s benches in the shade. But it was still so hot that I burned the back of my legs sitting down on one stone bench. It was like sitting on the roof of a car after hours of driving. We had to eat the ice cream fast because it turned liquid at the edges with each spoonful. Basil watched other children playing and turned to us for bite after bite. Then we wandered in and out of a couple air-conditioned stores looking at the sales, and I bought a light cotton white sweater appropriate for the more mild temperatures of home.
I came home a little bit renewed. Mostly from the sweet time with just the three of us. But the mid-trip restlessness continues. Today, JJ left on the first train for Barcelona, and I started making lists for my week. What to cook. What to write. Where to go with Basil when my in-laws are off doing their work and activities. It helps a little.
Later this week when JJ gets back we’ll go into the final chapter of the trip, The Last Days. There will be favorite meals made. Technology for JJ to install. Last visits to family and friends. Suitcase conversations three days out. And tears because Basil is more fun every time we come and it’s harder to say goodbye. Every trip has the same arc, the same familiar shape like an old tree outside your kitchen window. The hardest part is the restlessness of these middle days when I’m still firmly here, but wanting here to feel different.
As in-law relationships go, I have a very good one with JJ’s parents.
I know I love them, and they love me. JJ and I have spent a lot of time in Spain since we met nine years ago, so we’ve had ample opportunity to get to know each other. I already spoke Spanish and had lived in Spain for two years when I met them, so we had an easier start than other international families. “Que suerte has tenido” JJ always tells his mom, teasing that she’s lucky I speak Spanish since she knows little English despite private lessons once upon a time. We know each other well enough that we’ve been able to navigate the inevitable clashes over how JJ and I are raising Basil without lingering resentment. Lately, I talk to them as often as JJ does so that they can see Basil over Skype. We’re all comfortable together.
This trip to Spain is more of a business one for JJ. He is spending the weeks in Barcelona, the weekends here in Toledo. It’s the longest time I’ve spent without him at his parents’ house. With Basil at the center of things, it feels easy. I know their routines well, and I have my own here. We all know what to expect of each other.
But I know they’d always rather have their son, just like at the end of the day, I’d rather have my family. It’s the way it is, with in-law relationships. These ties created by marriage. Strengthening the ties, turning them into real feelings of family, takes time and effort. When you are crossing cultural, national, class, political boundaries, it takes a lot of patience and humility too, like learning a new language. And even when you’ve done all that, when the relationship is pretty good, you’re still the in-laws to each other. They didn’t choose you, and you didn’t choose them.
I feel good about the relationship we have. But I know we’re all glad to have JJ home for the weekend.
If you are married, how is your relationship with your in-laws? I’m especially curious, if you crossed some kind of big boundary in your marriage (religious, cultural, etc.), how have you navigated the differences with your in-laws? Do you spend much time with them without your husband or wife?