• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


One Plate I Definitely Don't Want to Drop

For a few months there, I thought I was finally getting a handle on this “balancing work and life” thing.

February 7, 2010

For a few months there, I thought I was finally getting a handle on this “balancing work and life” thing.

My private practice was doing pretty well. I felt I’d found my groove at the part-time supervisory job I started last fall. The work is sometimes intense — some of our clients are fairly high-risk — but the therapists I supervise are all competent, creative people; the cases tend to be fascinating; and I feel generally comfortable and well-liked there. I was completing my freelance writing and editing assignments on time, and still managing to see friends and hang out with my family. My fifteen-year-old son is a gifted guitarist, and he sometimes likes to use me as a backup singer, which I enjoy a great deal. I started to breathe again.

I guess that was my mistake.

Over the holidays, one of my closest friends had a major heart attack. He had no risk factors and there were no previous warning symptoms. It was terrifying. Then, when we thought he was recovering well, he had another event, which required additional surgery. He has been struggling since. Another good friend, a two-time cancer survivor, learned that her tumor markers were up, and she is not doing well on chemo. A third friend is going through a horrendous family crisis too personal to describe here.

There is not much I can do for my friends besides be there; I try to do that. I also worry, a lot, and probably work less efficiently than usual. I almost never play with deadlines, but I had to ask for a couple of extensions during this period. I let some correspondence drop that I would have wanted to continue. I let go of some volunteer work, hoping that my attention to my friends would pay off any karmic debt I was incurring. I got a little sharper and crankier than I’d like to be, and than my family would like me to be, but I still felt I was managing.

Then, a few weeks ago, a permanent freelance editing job that I had applied for months ago came through. It had been so long that I’d assumed I had been rejected, but it turned out to be just a bureaucratic snafu.

When I applied to this company, I really, really wanted to work for them. They pay pretty well, and the books they publish are fun to read. But that was before I took the supervisory position, and before my friends got sick. I couldn’t imagine how I could take on another project now.

At the same time, I didn’t see how to turn it down. Jobs like these are not easy to come by. I had an “in” because I had worked with one of their author-editor teams on a brilliant but technically problematic manuscript, and they had recommended me. But if I refused, I might not get another chance — and as a self-employed individual, I have a fairly financially precarious existence. So I accepted.

Last week, they dropped a gigantic manuscript on me with a quick turn-around time and a sheaf of instruction sheets that require more manuals and online reference sites than I have ever been exposed to in all my years of editorial work. I spread everything out on the dining table — the only space large enough to hold it all — and threatened my family not to touch anything on pain of death.

As I work through the book, I’m finding that the learning curve is not as steep as I’d feared; many of the instructions make intuitive sense and are thus easy to internalize. But in the beginning I was overwhelmed.

Then my son was hit by a car. He’s fine — a badly skinned knee and some ugly bruises — but the stress level in our household ratcheted up several notches.

After waking up at 3AM last Wednesday in a panic that someone had died overnight (nobody had), I shifted my panic to the manuscript, feeling that I would never master the instructions, let alone finish it. I got a cup of coffee and hunkered down until 7:30, when it was time to nag my son to the subway and get ready to start seeing clients. By this time I was about halfway through the book, though still feeling pretty shaky. I had a four-hour break between my last afternoon client and my first evening one, so I ran home and picked up the manuscript again — and discovered that I had misunderstood one of the instructions, resulting in a huge mistake starting from the first page. I would have to read the whole damn thing over again.

At this point, my son walked into the room, playing his guitar. “Stop it!” I snapped. He strolled past me, still playing. “Do you understand that if I mess this up, they won’t use me again?”

“No. I had no idea. That’s why I was putting my guitar away.”


“It would be nice if you would give me the benefit of the doubt just once, you know.”

This might sound like a normal exchange between harried parent and sarcastic teenager, but not in our house. I have the nicest fifteen-year-old in the history of the universe. You have to push him pretty far to make him snap. Yet we had another such contretemps a few minutes later.

“Did something bad happen today?” I finally asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you seem on edge.”

He stared. “Me?”

Right. Not him. Me. For weeks now, going on months.

I know how easy it is for women to fall into the trap of excoriating ourselves for every decision—for spending too much time on work and neglecting our families; for having fun with the family and slighting our work. But something has gone seriously out of whack here. This is not what I want him to remember of his teenage years — his mom hunched over style sheets, cursing to herself and yelling at him to shut up. I have to let something go. I’ll figure out what it is, as soon as I have a moment to breathe.


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