Looking ahead category archive
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?
Nothing but baby and thesis around here for 27 more days. I have help every day. A babysitter, my mom, JJ. I work all the time, until 12 or 1 every night. It will get done, but only if I stay extremely focused. Finishing a dissertation really is that hard. Yesterday, an hour at the beach with JJ and Basil, playing in the sand and watching the sailboats. It was like having one bite of dessert, a small taste of what it will feel like to relax together again.
It’s 7:30 at night and the house is quiet. I hear a car pass heading uphill in the clear, winter night. I make a cup of chamomile-peppermint tea in my favorite hand-thrown ceramic mug, and prepare a plate of chocolate cookies and almonds to nibble. Then I sit down to work on my thesis, joining the thousands of working mothers across the country whose second shift begins when the children are in bed.
This is my last semester in grad school; I file my thesis in May. The finished dissertation will be about 200 pages. I have 127 written, of which 111 are the important ones, the pages telling a story of my research into the changes immigration brought to two Barcelona schools in 2009-10. It all needs rewriting and further work, but I’m getting there. One night at a time.
What will I do when I’m done? Here is what I thought when I applied to grad school in 2005:
“In my Ph.D. study I aim to further develop my analytical skills and research expertise while looking more closely at poverty and inequality in education. Specifically, I want to learn to evaluate educational reforms using quantitative and qualitative research methods while examining issues around school funding, equality of opportunity to learn, and education and development.”
I know. Stilted, boring, and so serious! What was I really aiming for? I know I was ambitious, and hell-bent on making a different life than the one I grew up in. I’d always been good at school, and continuing to study seemed like the answer. But really, I had very mixed feelings about what I was doing.
Nearly 7 years later, in the home stretch of my program, I’ve concluded the academic life – at least as I understood it then – is not for me. I love the writing and teaching parts, but not the research. The pressures, pretentiousness and pettiness of university jobs weigh too heavy, obliterating the joy of learning, teaching, and discovering new ideas that also come with being a professor. And, it turns out, I want a life a lot closer to the creative one I grew up in than I was willing to admit at 26.
So I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be. Most of us aren’t, it turns out. But I am loving writing my thesis. No exaggeration. Loving it. Sure, working the second shift is tiring, and I get stuck at times. But working on the thesis has shown me I really am a writer. And I’ve learned enough about self-discipline, and managing unwieldy, long-term projects to write my first book, or start my own creative business, or possibly found a school one day.
For now, another late night of writing awaits. See you next Tuesday, if not before!
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to claim the identity of writer. To come out of the closet, so to say. To stop thinking my obsession with stories and words has to be private. I’ve written and written and squirreled away hundreds of pages over the years, everything from conversations to descriptions of the cities I’ve called home. I’ve read about other writers’ process, and listened to radio interviews, and read books with an eye to metaphors. But I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer.
What does it take, to claim what we’ve always wanted, or known ourselves to be?
For years I ached to have a child. In 2012, I had my Basil at last, a squirming, sunshiny boy who’s now 10 months. I claimed the identity of mother instantly and completely when I pushed him out, worried over him in the NICU for 48 hours, brought him home to our snug apartment. But then I claimed it little by little as I got used to how others saw me, what it was like to go everywhere with him. I continue to claim it as I learn about naps, and cooking for a family, and what it means to parent with JJ, and how to be myself while caring for my child.
Claiming the identity of writer has never been instantaneous or complete. I heard Barbara Kingsolver once say in an interview that she didn’t imagine she could be a writer as a kid, because only dead, white men were writers. And look at her now. In Animal Dreams, her fourth book, she writes as part of a letter from one sister to another:
“[T]he very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof (p.299)”.
I figured out a long time ago that I hope to write. It’s time now, at the dawn of 2013, to live inside these writing hopes, occupy them as a place where sunshine can pour through windows, where flowers can bloom, where writing can become something that belongs to me.
A new year. A new beginning, on this blog. An essay|story|post here, every Tuesday.
Want to join me? What do you hope to begin, this year?
Have I mentioned my plan to write a draft of my thesis in 100 days? I’ve been working on it since October, and day 100 falls on January 25th, about 3 weeks before I’m due, which feels just right for sending off a draft of my thesis before settling into having my first baby; that’s when lots of mamas start maternity leave anyhow. I was inspired to make a 100-day plan after reading an article about development projects getting accomplished in 100 days. The idea is that we can all imagine 3 months ahead; it takes us “out of the realm of business as usual” and focuses our efforts. So I sat down and made a 100-day plan, and so far, it’s really helped focus the daily work on the thesis.
That and the very real deadline of having my baby, and wanting to be able to enjoy him and not have the thesis hanging over my head. So I spend early mornings at my desk writing, and afternoons in the library. My belly grows closer to the table every day, the baby’s wiggles spurring me on and reminding me why I’m working this hard. I’ll let you know how it goes!
What do the possibilities of 100 days make you think of? Anyone want to join me?