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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Life Without a Real Job
July 11, 2010 - 6:57pm

For most of my working life — including school vacations in high school and college — I have worked at full-time, on-site jobs. This was what my father did, and my mother when she returned to work after my younger brother entered high school, and it’s how I had always defined "working." I took time off to be with my son when he was small, but that was understood to be temporary, and it was.

Several years ago, though, I lost the job where I had intended to spend the rest of my working life, and a combination of medical and family circumstances made it inadvisable to plunge right into another demanding position. I also got a book contract, which occupied much of my time for the better part of a year without bringing in significant income. Fortunately, my husband was working, and I kept up my small private practice, so we were able to get by, though it was clear that we couldn’t coast forever, with college looming for my son.

When I’d recovered from the illness and family crises, I knew it was time to return to the workforce, but I found the idea of regular, full-time employment stultifying. It was as if I’d taken off my shoes after a long, hot walk, and now finding that my feet refused to squeeze back into them. So, instead, I’ve cobbled together several part-time and freelance gigs, which seem to add up to more work for less money than I ever made working for other people, but which allow me at least the illusion of freedom.

Since others repeatedly express either envy or horror when they hear my schedule, I thought it might be fun to keep track of what I’m doing for a week when normal people are working, going home to dinner, and socializing and sleeping at usual times. So:

Sunday, July 4: We live in a 20th-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights with a great view of the East River, so we traditionally have a fireworks party. This year is no exception, but I’m copyediting a fascinating but problematic novel that’s due Thursday, so I’m reading and writing frantically between bouts of cooking and shopping. Sometimes I try to do both at once, which accounts for the cookie-dough grease spot on p. 207 (sorry, Kristin). I stash the manuscript just before the first guest arrives. The party is great.

Monday, July 5: More work on the manuscript, and on an essay I committed to write several months ago, which I just realized is on the verge of being due. My husband and son are both home, watching the ball game in the living room. The living room table is the only surface large enough to spread out everything I need to deal with this manuscript. Friends keep calling to thank us for the party or to ask about items they left behind. I am happy to hear from them, glad we’re all home together, but I don’t get much done. In the evening I have my voice class, where, unusually for me, I don’t get much done either.

Tuesday, July 6: I wake up in a panic at 4 AM, realizing that yesterday was not Sunday, as I kept thinking all day because my husband and friends were home, and that this manuscript is due in two days. However, I have already committed to go to the beach with a friend who also works weird hours. We end up compromising — we work in the morning, then go in the afternoon. I get a lot more done, because my husband is back at work and my son sleeps in. And the beach is fabulous.

Wednesday, July 7: Clients all day, starting at 9AM, with a hole in the middle through which I race into Manhattan for a song rehearsal. I stay up most of the night finishing the manuscript.

Thursday, July 8: I slap together a cover letter for the manuscript and race into Manhattan to hand-deliver it, then back to Brooklyn for a singing gig in a nursing home. Everything goes wrong technically but the audience is very sweet. Then back to Manhattan to visit a friend who is ill, then back home for a special dinner for my son before he leaves for camp.

Friday, July 9: I commute to Queens for my Friday and Saturday job supervising clinicians in a psychotherapy center that serves high-risk clients. I use the 1-1/2 hour train ride to write this column and prepare for Litopia After Dark, the British literary podcast on which I’m a regular guest panelist, thanks to Skype and a flexible clinic director. In the fifteen-minute breaks between sessions (& the show), I will try to catch up on paperwork, polish off that essay, and tackle my part of a book proposal a friend and I are collaborating on. That is, if there are no emergencies. I’ll repeat the process tomorrow. Sunday, I’m leaving for a week’s vacation, but I’ll bring along any unfinished projects.

This is not the career I envisioned in graduate school. I don’t think I work harder than my former classmates who have gone on to work full-time in hospitals, schools, and clinics. But I know I’m more scattered, more likely to drop balls, to let friends down through forgetting birthdays and neglecting correspondence, and that I have more difficulty committing to regular dates. And I’m exhausted much of the time. Yet this life suits me — at least for now.


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