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Inward Summer Days 6

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?