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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Sometimes you feel like a nut...
October 15, 2012 - 5:31pm

I've been trying, more or less successfully, to complain less, work smarter rather than harder, and take some time for myself, this semester. In other words, I've been trying to avoid becoming one of the miserable professoriate described in William Panapacker's recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I really don't think it's my duty to be miserable--and, most of the time, I'm really not miserable. I have a great job with colleagues I like and respect, my time is usually pretty self-scheduled, and it would be worse than churlish to complain about committee work or excess grading when I am lucky enough to be employed, let alone tenured.

But. There's always a but, isn't there?

I spent a lot of last week feeling pretty miserable nonetheless. One of my big committee assignments was just kicking into high gear, I had another big deadline to meet, and to top it all off one of our cars was in the shop and had been for over a week. As far as anyone could tell, it was going to need a new transmission, though it somehow took the mechanic four days to figure this out.

Almost on a whim, my husband and I decided to have the car towed to another shop. It's an old car and it's really not worth replacing the transmission, but we also didn't want to buy a new car. And I was getting sick of riding the bus, even though I realize that I'm lucky to live on a bus line that actually goes directly to my workplace. (And, yes, we do have another car--but since my husband works from home and most often does any necessary driving during the day, I was the one using the bus or hitching rides with folks.)

So we took the car to another mechanic. He had it for a day, and when he called my husband with the news he prefaced it with "You'll never guess what was wrong." Now, I don't know about you, but those are not words I really want to hear from a mechanic. I want things to be simple and easily explicable, frankly. And I don't want to have to guess.

Luckily we didn't have to wait long to find out. The mechanic explained that he'd been skeptical that we needed a new transmission, despite the fact that the manual shifter wouldn't shift at all. "Transmissions don't usually just go out like that," he said. "You usually get some warning." But there had been none. The car had driven, then, hours later, was stuck in third.

Apparently it was stuck because, in the meantime, a squirrel had decided to use the undercarriage of the car as a storage spot for some winter supplies, and a nut had become entangled somehow in the shift mechanism. Don't ask me how--all I know is that we now have the nut, a little the worse for wear, and the car is completely drivable again. No new transmission, no new car, no big expensive bills--just a simple nut.

I feel as if there's a lesson in this, though I'm not quite sure what it is. Things aren't as bad as they seem, perhaps? Don't ever trust the first mechanic who looks at something? If a problem comes up out of nowhere, it may not have the usual solution?

All I know is, the news came at a perfect time. We got the car back just before two fairly complicated days, schedule-wise, and having it made it much easier for me to be where I needed to be without worrying about bus schedules. Fall break was just around the corner, offering a much-needed respite. And I had a trip coming up that was starting to seem self-indulgent, too expensive if we were going to be buying a car. Now we’re not, and we can hit the “reset” button for a little while. So, yes, the busy semester will continue, probably even getting busier before it lets up again--but when it does, maybe I'll remember the nut and realize that things could be worse. For now, they're not.


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