Rosemarie Emanuel’s piece last week on bifurcating  really got me thinking. My first thought was that I was glad that I have long ago shed any guilt about not volunteering in my kids’ schools, and my second was a brief nagging sense that maybe now that my son’s in a new school I should try making an effort again.
But it was really one of the comments  on Rosemarie’s piece that spurred me to do more than feel either relieved or guilty. “Anon” asked a question that I remember asking myself all the time: who speaks for me? Whose writing “writing reflects the jarring disconnect between trying to be a super intellectual at work and coming home to, well, scooping poop”? I remember once spending the day at home with my daughter, when she was around three months old, and then coming in to the English department where I was a supposedly-dissertating graduate student. I walked around terrified that I would run into someone and only be able to say “where’s your pretty smile?” with that high-pitched voice that I swore I would not use with my children—but did, regardless. I felt like a fraud.
I’m not in Anon’s shoes any more, but I was. I was a graduate student with a small child, and later a tenure-track professor with a brand-new baby. I remember being exhausted, all the time, but I really don’t remember much else.
Except that I did get help. Nothing taught me to ask for help like being a parent. I got day care when I could afford it, and set up a babysitting co-op when I couldn’t. I had an involved partner who did what he could—which was a lot, because he was unemployed part of the time, and even when he wasn’t, he realized that we were in this together and pulled his weight. He couldn’t breast-feed, but he did everything else, from changing diapers to pediatrician’s visits to volunteering at the kids’ schools.
I did, too, of course. We both did as much as we could, and we got help when we couldn’t do any more. If that meant not volunteering at all one year because we both had full-time jobs, then we didn’t volunteer. I gave up wanting to be the mom of whom others said “I don’t know how she does it.” I opted for a little invisibility at school instead. Sometimes I worried that it affected our kids’ social lives—in fact, I know it did, because the volunteer parents arranged playdates while they held committee meetings or just got together to chat. But I couldn’t worry too much about that—it was more important that the kids have a roof over their heads than playdates, so I had to keep teaching and publishing and doing the service that was both part of my job and, to be honest, a pleasure.
In the end, that’s what I decided: I loved my job (I still love my job). I was a better parent when I could do my job whole-heartedly, because I was happier then than when I was not doing my job. On leave, I still came in to the office to do some of my work—it was the best place for me to be. At home, the undone chores mocked me, making me resentful but not really inspiring change. In my office, I could read and think without interruption, and that made me a better person when I came home to the inevitable interruptions of life with children.
I also, as I’ve said before, developed new intellectual interests from being a parent. It took some time—I didn’t just develop into a children’s lit scholar as soon as I became a parent. But I did start applying the skills I’d been honing in graduate school and as a professor to the books I read to my kids right away. Later, I realized what I’d been doing, and shifted fields accordingly. I still have some catching up to do as a scholar since I didn’t start out in this field, but the many hours I spent reading aloud to both children served as a kind of professional training that I still draw on in my classroom.
I know not every parent can shift fields, even partially, as I’ve done. But I have found that those of us who find ways to involve our kids in our work—talking to them about our classes and our research, bringing them to campus, and so forth—seem to find it a little easier to achieve balance. Of course, in the early days, balance is just a baby on one hip and a diaper bag over the other shoulder, anyway. And even now, with one child each in high school and college, I can’t say I feel balanced—but I do feel whole.
I don’t know if this helps, Anon—as you say, I’m not in your shoes (any more). But I’ve been there, as have most of the rest of us blogging on this site. No, we weren’t blogging when our kids were small—we were too busy, as you say, “scooping poop.” Now that we’ve come up for air, we’re here to say we made it this far—it can be done.