I was writing my dissertation and contemplating career opportunities when I had J. I had thought I would finish my dissertation before he was born. The plan was to enjoy a few months with him and then begin the job search.
His extremely early birth rewrote everything. Everything.
Instead, I finished my dissertation in his first months home, in tiny spurts while he was napping. I graduated when he was 10 months old. I was really proud to achieve my dream even during the middle of the nightmare of having a baby so early.
For a year, I was an adjunct instructor. I loved teaching. I loved the freedom of being a part-time employee. I could come and go, teach this semester and take the next one off. It was what I needed at the time.
For months now, I've been sitting at a crossroads, contemplating my next move. It's not all about me any more, which makes the decisions that much more complex.
I am outside the norm of what someone with a PhD does. There isn't much room for a woman like me, someone on an alternative career path. I believe it says something about academia, and maybe something about me too. Despite the outside perception of academia, the demands on faculty can be rigid, and I would not have made a very good professor, nor a very good mother, if I had been forced to do both these last few years. My primary job has been to get my children healthy, and whatever professional penalties I'll pay, I did the right thing.
I had a graduate professor once warn my entire class away from ever taking a part-time job in academia. "Once you get off the traditional tenure-track road, you can never come back," she said. How true that advice is remains to be seen. But, where does that leave the mother of special needs babies? Should I be punished for my decisions?
I do feel punished sometimes.
At an academic conference a few months ago, I was introduced to a colleague of a friend. She noticed that my introductions came with no professional title. "What do you do?" she wanted to know. It was rude and ugly, the way she said it. We should be careful about making assumptions about people, and any middle-aged woman should be seasoned enough in life to know it. I tried to be friendly. "I have two tiny babies. They were both born really early, and I've been getting them healthy," I said. But, she couldn't be put off. "Yes, but what do you do?"
What do I do? What do I do? I am the house cleaner, the shopper, the planner, the cook. I am the school-picker-upper, the nighttime nanny, the insurance caller, the diagnosis researcher, the intervention scheduler, the therapy supervisor, the butt wiper, the closet organizer, the coupon clipper, the child hugger, the boo-boo kisser, the lady who gets it all done. Most days my job begins at 6 am and ends at 10 pm, if I am lucky.
It was one of the ugliest moments of my professional life, when I fully realized how some in the academic world view me. I am a bon-bon popping, feet-propping lady of leisure.
Taking this road less traveled has opened my eyes. I see everything in a new light.
In my area of research, there are disagreements about industry insiders ruining the journalism profession and academics whose research has failed to save a dying industry. People cast stones, point fingers, and squabble about faculty hires, funding, and how to teach classes. Of course, it all matters to the people in the trenches, to the people whose livelihoods depend on the outcome of these power struggles. But, to people on the outside, we're all a bunch of unappreciative eggheads, universally irritating to Middle America.
It used to be that I didn't understand these battle lines. I wandered through grad school trying to decide which camp was mine. After I had J, I realized that I wanted the camp that didn't want to argue, the Get-It-Done Camp. So much is broken in education that I want to spend my energy trying to fix it. I want to teach classes that not only prepare students for future careers but also open their minds to all the possibilities of the world. I want to make a difference in their lives. I want to write books that live on after me, and I want to read books, lots and lots of books.
Lofty dreams for someone who spends days cleaning poopy bottoms.
At the end of every day, even really terrible ones, I say to myself, "At least I don't have a baby in the NICU," and I mean it. I have perspective. The gift my NICU babies gave me is an opportunity to have my life rewritten, to find the independent-minded girl I lost along the way. Gone are the debates about what is the political move, what will look best to the rest of academia. I don't have time to be anything but authentic. I care now about doing the right thing. Not thinking about doing it. I want to be a person my children admire. I refuse to have my successes measured by someone else's stick. I have my own compass, and now I follow it.
That doesn't mean the direction I'm traveling is always clear. It doesn't mean that some of the insults don't still hurt. It doesn't mean that I don't feel frustrated that my professional life is lacking substance. It means that I now know my own strength and value, that I am no longer afraid of the unknown, and that I understand that life's twists and turns have a purpose we often don't see when in the throws of it.
I refuse to be discarded. I refuse to be told there is no place for me. The saying, "Life is the thing that happens while you're busy making other plans." That's me. And I refuse to let circumstances negate my purpose and value. I refuse to accept that a few years of divergence from a straight-and-narrow career path will preclude me from 40 years of potential in my professional life. Close the front door, and I will find a side entrance.
I know my day will come.