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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Where I work
September 28, 2009 - 10:45pm

Once a week or so I leave my house in the morning at the usual time, bag packed, computer stowed—but instead of heading straight to my office I go elsewhere. Specifically, I head to a very public, chain bookstore café — one with free wifi — where I order a cup of coffee, plug in my laptop, and work for a few hours before heading in to my office. The place is hardly welcoming. It’s the opposite of “Cheers,” where “everybody knows your name” — in fact, that’s part of its appeal. I am anonymous here, and I relish the anonymity.

At some level this seems, even to me, like fairly strange behavior. After all, I have an office. It has a phone, and a door, and most of my books. Scattered across my desk are the remnants of yesterday’s projects—and, truth be told, of many much older projects as well. I have a window that opens and a cherry tree right outside it. It’s a lovely space, if somehat cluttered, and I spend many hours a week in it. I have a home as well, with a home office space that I share with the family, but that is usually empty during the day.

And yet, the hour or two that I spend in the café is almost inevitably more productive than a morning in my office — and when I get to my office after my “vacation” off-site, I’m more productive there as well.

I think it’s because I know my time in the café is limited that I find it so rewarding. It’s not really all that comfortable, but I can manage for a couple of hours, I tell myself. I don’t have all my books, but that means I have to concentrate on the ones I do have — the ones I really need right now. My phone might ring, but it will almost certainly not be a student or colleague, since I don’t give out my cellphone number to any but family and close friends. It won’t, as at home (and increasingly in the office, too) be a telemarketing call that disrupts my train of thought with its insistent ring, but leaves no message on the machine. In fact, my cellphone rarely rings — as I’ve said before, we’re not really phone people at my house. I do hear crying babies, occasionally, or folks trying to plan a future meeting or discussing the books they’re reading. But the noise is usually muted and, because I know I’m not responsible for responding to it, it’s easy to ignore. I plow into my grading, or my reading, checking my e-mail occasionally but mostly just letting it sit there while I sip my coffee and, contentedly, work.

I hesitate to make this confession. I’m afraid, I suppose, that people will start trying to track me down. Or that folks will note—rightly—that not everyone has such flexible work and that I should be grateful for my office and not inconvenience people who might need to reach me by staying away. I am, indeed, grateful for my office — I’m sitting in it right now. And I realize that not everyone can work in a café when the whim strikes. (I am struck, though, by how many people do seem to do business in the various cafés I haunt—are they like me, fleeing the distractions of the office, or are they freelancers and traveling salespeople, working wherever they can?) But as long as I can take an hour or two, here and there, to play a little catch-up in my anonymous office-away-from-office, I’ll doa it. And then maybe one day I’ll clean my office (and change my phone number?) and turn it back into a productive workspace. But probably not before the summer.


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