The Struggle Bus is Running Out of Gas

These past few weeks have been very hard on me. I keep writing that sentence every time I blog, but things have gotten worse. Or harder. Maybe I’m hitting that wall that we were supposed to hit back in September. Maybe I was too optimistic about a vaccine being ready this year. Maybe it’s the weight of the election. Maybe it’s all of the above.

I keep reading these articles about how women are the ones holding onto all the responsibilities in the household. I know plenty of women whose partners just expect them to do all the things. I am not married to one of those men. But, I do struggle with letting go of control. Things need to be just so. I’m also the queen of guilt, which makes prioritizing things difficult. In my head, I might want to stay home and read on the deck while my kids go for a bike ride around the neighborhood, but then I feel guilty because shouldn’t I *want* to be with them?

I mentioned this to my psychiatrist yesterday (I had a regularly scheduled check up for my ADHD meds) and she was quite gentle with me. Honestly, I am with my kids all the time. Even when we are in different rooms, we’re still together. Motherhood does not need to turn into a sacrifice where we lose ourselves. When I had L1 8 years ago, I dealt with postpartum depression because I lost myself. I felt like all I did was exist within this bubble with this little baby that demanded and demanded and no matter what I did, it wasn’t enough. I recognize that feeling here. I am trying my hardest to make things as “normal” as possible, and I’m sacrificing things that are so important to me in the process– time for reading, my research (that I actually enjoy!!!), and just enjoying quiet time.

The other key in this is letting go of control. Did I mention how wonderful my husband is? He is truly my equal in all things. Over the weekend, I mentioned how stressed I was and he was asked what he could do to help. And it was sincere. But, it wasn’t until my psychiatrist asked me what I could give to him to do. Because, here I was doing all THIS stuff, and he was asking what he could help me with and I kept saying “I got this” when clearly I didn’t. So, this morning, I asked him to take over our daughter’s preschool “curriculum”. Basically, my mom watches her while I school L1, and my mom likes us to have a list of things for her to do: read this book, do these workshops, this craft/art activity, and this math/sorting activity. It’s pretty straight forward, and yet it is a bit time consuming to get ready, so instead of killing myself to get it done, it’s now my husband’s responsibility. Of course I’ll help him, but it’s now on his plate, not mine.

So, next time someone asks what they can do to help, LET THEM DO IT. It might not be done in exactly the same manner you are doing it, but does that matter when it comes to your mental health? (the answer should be no, but I also know how long it takes to get to that point.)

You Are Enough

September 25th is National Psychotherapy Day. One of my mom friends who I met when I was pregnant with L1 through a Birth Month Board *is* a licensed therapist and posted about it last week as well as her own journey through therapy. I thought she had such courage in sharing and wanted to share my story too. I forgot about it until I read about Chrissy Teigen and John Legend’s pregnancy loss this morning. I’ve always admired Chrissy since she spoke out about her infertility and IVF journey. As I shared this with my husband over coffee, I was reminded once again how sharing normalizes things like therapy and loss. So, I made this a priority.

I started seeing a therapist regularly in 2014. To be honest, so much of my own self-worth has been wrapped up in being the smartest person in the room. When my chair and then my dean broke ranks with the department and college committees who recommended tenure and promotion in my case, I was broken. I had been counting on the dean to remedy the situation created by my chair, and when that didn’t happen, something inside me just broke. It was right before spring break and I spent a few weeks just laying on my sofa, staying at the ceiling, numb. I had been on anti-depressants since my struggle with postpartum depression after my son’s birth in 2012, and I called my doctor to have her adjust the meds. She suggested that I start seeing a therapist and I thought that it couldn’t hurt, especially since I had insurance. My therapist, a man my age, really helped me realize that I was struggling with imposter syndrome and finding my own self-worth.

Unfortunately, I started seeing him in his last few months at that practice. I was reassigned to another therapist and she was not what I needed. She would forget details and (in my opinion) did not provide a space for us to deal with triggers in my every day life. So I stopped seeing her. I was at a place where I felt stable enough. If there is one thing I have learned during my therapy journey, it is that you need to find the therapist that works for YOU. Don’t just stick with one because that’s the one you found. You are just wasting your time.

About a year later, I was gutted and triggered again by another incident at work. After seeing a different PCP at my usual practice (it’s almost impossible to keep the same doctor in a college town!), they suggested I see someone at a new practice that catered specifically to women and children. I called and was matched with a therapist named C. C was exactly who I needed at the moment: she too had dealt with infertility and, again, worked hard to teach me coping mechanisms and reality checks to get through my every day work life. She was one of the first people I texted when I found out I was pregnant with L2 (!!) and, because of life, a new baby, and a shitty election, I stopped seeing her as I felt like I had the tools necessary to move through life.

When I received my ADHD diagnosis in 2019, after spending years thinking that I was exhausted because I was depressed or fat or had sleep apnea (thanks American medical system). Nope. ADHD can actually exhaust you from the mental Olympics that take place each day. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me suggested I start seeing a new therapist to deal with my trauma after my breakdown at MPSA 2019. I remember this conversation. Her: “Yeah, I think your travel anxiety is trauma related.” Me: “What trauma? Nothing really horrible ever happened in my life.” Her: “Sure, that’s what you think. But your body doesn’t agree.”

And wouldn’t you know, she was right. I started seeing a new therapist in August 2019, who specialized in ERDM therapy. ERDM has been used to help soldiers deal with their PTSD, and let me tell you… it is incredibly effective. My psychiatrist was right: there was some childhood trauma that I had buried way down deep and convinced myself that it didn’t affect me in the way it had shaped my own self-worth in reality. That whole idea of “if I’m not the smartest in the room, who am I?” originated here and basically shaded every major depressive episode in my life, as well as my everyday life, who I trusted, who I related to, as well as who I dismissed as not worthy of my time and energy. I stopped seeing my therapist in June 2020, because we had been doing teletherapy and I didn’t want to try ERDM in that manner because I was worried about a lot of things, but it is amazing to see how this experience has changed my life, made me more aware of myself in relation to my children and my extended family, and also, has changed my own personal view on my worth as a person, mother, and friend.

I am not afraid to say that I am probably at a better place in my life than I have ever been. It’s just a shame that it took me until I was almost 40 years old to deal with my trauma rather than continually diminishing its effects as being not “traumatic” enough. Sure, people have experienced some really crappy and horrific things in their lives that I was lucky enough to avoid. But my trauma is mine and I see now how it shaped the way I interacted with everyone and even how I saw myself. I still struggle with certain triggers, but I can now recognize these feelings rather than letting them take over my life.

All this to say that good therapy works. I have no shame in saying that therapy has changed my life. Without it, I’d be repeating the cycle of triggers and depression because of my lack of self-worth. Therapy is a very basic form of self-care. You aren’t alone. Therapy can help.

Adjusting Never Hurt Anyone

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. I sent a message to a (non-academic) friend yesterday that I had told her was “BIG NEWS” on the personal front. Later that day, another friend sent me this tweet and a few hours after that, the tweet showed up in a COVID parenting group I belong to. In other words, I think the universe was shouting “YOU ARE DOING THIS RIGHT!” to me and so, I’m sharing it all with you.

So, Dr. Aisha Ahmad tweeted about how many of us are talking about hitting the wall and how exhausted we’ve been throughout September. I mean, I have. I feel like my brain has just given out. Process thoughts? No thanks, I’d rather watch Cobra Kai (oh, c’mon, you know you loved every second of it too). Keep track of my to do list? No, I’d rather procrastivity-ly collect articles for my next project, which will only happen after I wrap up these projects in motion. But, as she points out, it is almost hard to believe that six months has passed since the pandemic began.

What have I been trying to do over the past three weeks? Oh, yeah, ram my head through the wall. And it is exhausting, mentally and physically. I can’t begin to count how many naps I’ve had in September, how my give a damn is busted, how many stupid arguments I have gotten into on social media because I don’t want to deal with what is right here. I’m *really* great at procrastivity: I look busy but it’s because I don’t want to do what I really want to do. So, if I’m facebook fighting with my county commissioner, obviously, I can’t read a book related to my research. If I’m writing my first novel, obviously, I can’t finish a project I’ve been planning for ages.

Oh, you never knew I was writing a novel? The truth of the matter is… I did, last summer. And, last fall, I shopped it around to agents and entered Pitch Wars, a contest where I would have been paired with an agented author who could help me revise my manuscript. Interestingly enough, I had a few agents (and one PW mentor) ask for my full manuscript, which I’m told is a good thing, but… no one liked it enough to pick it up. I got some feedback from some starting authors (Denise Williams is so generous with her time… be sure to get her debut novel in December!) but between my actual job, being a mom of two, and then the pandemic, well, nothing happened. Last week, I opened up my manuscript for the first time since March and decided I was going to enter Pitch Wars again. I honestly think I gritted my teeth and said “I’ll show them!”

Oh, wait. One of my goals is to stop caring what other people think and live the life I want. I had a goal to live without fucks by the time I turned 40, but it’s still a worthwhile goal to pursue. So, who was I going to show? The $6 billion romance industry? Academia? My own little gallery of haters? That’s a big old nah. That thought set me back on my heels. I also heard the voice of Patricia Sung, the host of one of my favorite podcasts, Motherhood in ADHD. Look, I don’t think you need to be a mother or have ADHD to take Patricia’s advice. She’s doing a series on executive function and last week’s episode hit me so hard when I was listening to it in the car during my grocery pickup time that I went home and actually took notes.

Patricia talked about how, for ADHD’ers like me, everything feels big and important because we can’t distinguish what truly is important. That makes prioritizing impossible because of our executive function disorder. She said “I used to tell myself how I didn’t get enough stuff done and I had to stay up to reach this ideal level of productivity.” Um, hi. It me. I have my fingers in way too many pies right now, not to mention this constant buzzing in the background of living through a global pandemic. So, Patricia advised her listeners to ask themselves: “Is this my priority right now?” By doing this, I should be able to get rid of the distractions in my mind.

Usually when folks think about ADHD, they think of hyperactivity– outwardly. That’s not me. I can be hyperactive but not in the “oh my goodness, she’s unstoppable!” kind of way. The Facebook page, More than One Neurotype, shared this a few weeks ago and I forwarded it to both my mom and my husband. Their reactions were the same: it fit me to a T.

Anyway, one of my ADHD superpowers is that I am an idea generator. I am incredibly creative and I have always wanted to be an author. I specifically chose not to go down that path when choosing my career, but that shouldn’t mean that dream is gone now, right?

But, is this dream a distraction? Why can’t I ever be fully present with my kids? I’m always thinking that I should be doing more 1) actual paid work and 2) writing fiction. I also find myself sinking into social media and getting upset over stupid posts. So, after listening to Patricia’s podcast, I have tried this week to be more aware of ideas that try to grab my attention as well as hyperfocus on something that isn’t important. Like, something will pop into my mind and instead of saying “OMG, I need to do that right now,” I can say “Hi friend, not now. Maybe later.”

Back to my novel: I spent a good two hours on Tuesday night writing up a draft for this year’s Pitch Wars (that writing mentoring competition) where I was going to submit my manuscript from last summer again. But honestly, I don’t have the time or the focus to write. I should be prioritizing other things that will make my life better, like family time and self-care. So… I think I’m going to set my “ooh, I really want to be a successful author” goal aside. Right now, it’s just a distraction. Also, when I look at other authors I adore, a good bulk of them either 1) don’t have kids or 2) don’t have outside jobs. And those that do are just plain old unicorns.

For years, I have had this high expectation for myself to be the best at everything I try and then I get frustrated when I’m just juggling way too much. Also, I’m trying to make self-care a priority. I’m trying really hard to exercise three times a week. I want time to relax… and actually relax not do some other work (ahem, writing) that is not relaxing. I want to be present, which is a good goal to have, because a lot of times, I am just NOT there, even when my kids are sitting beside me. I’d say this week has gone a whole lot better than I expected once I had that realization. But it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be a journey. I don’t expect to get there all in one week.

Considering The Effects of Our Choices

Last night, I was really upset seeing those photos of WVU students not social distancing or wearing masks downtown. I went to bed angry, and I felt that anger rising in me this morning. Instead of indulging the anger like I did last night, I wanted to share some thoughts, not blame.
No one is enjoying this pandemic. No one wants the anxiety, worry, anger, or just plain sadness that has ruled our lives for the past six months. This is not a vacation for anyone. But, when I hear folks call the virus “fake” or “just like the flu”, I cringe. It is a brand new virus. We’re learning about it right now as we go along.
We don’t know the long-lasting effects of this virus. Is it like the flu? My kids get the flu, are miserable for a few days with a high fever and then bounce right back. We know that isn’t COVID-19 because it takes people months to feel normal again, if they recover fully. Is it like the chicken pox? So many of us have had the chicken pox as children… and that virus stays dormant until some of us develop painful shingles in adulthood that rise up due to physical or mental stress. We don’t know. This virus has only existed for nine months. We literally do not have that data. So, when you repeat some stat about who dies from COVID and who doesn’t, remember, death isn’t the only outcome that many of us are worried about.
I don’t want to take school away from our children. I don’t want to take sports away from kids. My kids are missing ballet and karate, but when I ask them if they want to do it in person. with masks and social distancing, they forcefully say no. Maybe you will say that I raised my kids to be scared of everything. I’ve given my children age-appropriate explanations of COVID so they understand what is going on in our world and why we’ve been home for so long. I need to respect their feelings. Feelings are real and you feel what you feel. Tell me and others that we’re taking away from your life is creating more divisions. Mutual respect for one another is so key in this pandemic. (I admit that I have a hard time respecting people who dismiss my concerns… empathy is also key in getting through this pandemic.)
The divisions in our society are so apparent, not just among right and left, science vs. alternative views, but also those that have resources vs. those that do not. I’m tired of people saying they don’t want to talk politics. Friends, *everything* is political. Politics is literally the study of the division of resources and who has control over that distribution. Politics isn’t just who you are voting for, your core beliefs on societal issues and rights, but how we live our every day lives: does everyone have access to a good education? Are some schools better than others? Why do some of our students have to work 2 or 3 jobs where others don’t? Why do some of us have healthcare and others do not? Why can some of us choose to keep our kids at home while others do not have that choice if they want to keep their jobs? If this understanding of what is political offends you, well, then, I don’t know what I can say to get you to understand a basic fact about how politics touches your every day life. You may not read the news, but trust me, every day, you are leading a very political life.

So, these students who chose to go to whatever bar downtown last night did not consider your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, because they can claim that they *needed* social interaction. But the ramifications are far reaching: How many in the WVU and surrounding Morgantown community will get sick? We saw this happen over July 4th, when COVID positive numbers jumped up in Morgantown. If the university shuts down again, how many students will return to homes that are abusive? How many students will deal with the mental stress of social isolation? (I’ve had these conversations with many students in the spring… it is hard. Our hands are tied. You just need to hope and pray that they reach out to the therapist you suggested they see and not turn to drugs or alcohol or some other option to numb the pain.) How many faculty and staff will be laid off from WVU if we close? If bars shut down again, how many service industry workers will not be able to make rent because they have no income? When this is all over, what will High Street look like? Morgantown?

 

You’re right. I can’t make you stay home. I can’t make you wear a mask. I certainly can’t make you get a vaccine when a safe one is available. I keep telling myself that I need to focus on my own circle , what I can control, but it is so hard when the blame game persists. We are all dealing with the mental health fallout of this pandemic and the concurrent social distancing/isolation. All I can do is ask you to think about the far reaching effects of your individual choices and actions.

T’Challa and Colonization in the Classroom

This weekend, between Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death at the age of 43 from colon cancer and the Romancelandia uproar over romancing colonialism, cultural otherism, and slavery, I started thinking about what white people know about colonialism.

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I (thought I) understood what slavery was, why we fought the Civil War, and why Black people are angry in America. I grew up in the 90s, where we saw LA destroyed by the Rodney King riots and the racial tension surrounding the OJ Simpson trial. But I observed these comfortably from my white communities. My high school was overwhelmingly white and my college, more so. I knew I was going to major in political science, but my sophomore year, my advisor suggested I double major in history. I was all for it as it gave us the context of today’s politics. As someone obsessed with all things European as a way to learn more about my family and where they came from, I started taking European history classes. I certainly wasn’t interested in American history classes. By complete accident, I ended up in Dr. Frank Chiteji’s class on African history after 1880.

Dr. Chiteji was an awakening to me. His stories about growing up in colonial Tanzania, how his degrees were both funded by the Soviets and the US, based on alliances at the time, and how European greed and lies of moral superiority put Africa on their current trajectory. Until this point, white men had taught been my history teachers. I never had a Black teacher, let alone, professor until Dr. Chiteji. I took three of his courses during my major, and ended up in his senior seminar on decolonization because the European senior seminar didn’t fit in my schedule. I sometimes wonder what that must have been like for Dr. Chiteji, to teach decolonization to a bunch of privileged white kids at a place like Gettysburg College. During this semester, he introduced me to the writings of Frantz Fanon, which became the basis of my honors thesis.

Today, I’m a professor of political science who teaches international political economy at a predominately white institution. Because of Dr. Chiteji and the other professors who stressed the importance of understanding the connection between European and African history, I make sure we discuss colonialism at length in all of my classes. And yet, I am amazed when students tell me I am the only teacher who has discussed colonialism in the political science classes. How, and better yet, why are white professors allowing this narrative of American exceptionalism to perpetuate in 2020? When we talk about systems of power, why are we excluding a discussion of historical white supremacy in both domestic and international contexts?

In my Global Issues through Film class, I made a conscious decision to teach Black Panther as the counterfactual to colonialism. What would Africa has been like without colonialism? Black Panther is an important movie because of the introduction of a Black superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The representation isn’t lost on Black Americans who have been waiting for this moment (check out this video for just a snapshot). But what do white Americans see when they watch this movie? Do they feel Killmonger’s anger, not just toward Wakanda and T’Challa for their roles in his life, but also the colonizer. Do white audiences recognize that they are the colonizer? Echoing T’Challa, we may not have held slaves ourselves (or even our families), but we benefit from these structures of power that have perpetuated for centuries. The answer is, in some instances, yes.

killmonger

But in most, many, white people don’t. That’s why we are still having these conversations about systemic racism and trying to convince white people that systemic racism exists. Sometimes I’m so shocked at this but then I remember how history is taught in our schools, what I knew (and didn’t know) as a college freshman who was interested in history, and how much of this history isn’t taught or is glossed over even at the college level. In standing in front of a classroom, either in person or via zoom in this weird world we live in, each one of us should consider how we’re contributing to the perpetuation of systemic racism by ignoring empire and colonization. The gift of being a college educator is being able to share knowledge with our students– and if you don’t find the history of colonization and how that had an impact on the body of work you teach, it is time to reflect on that and see how you can incorporate it in your classroom.

 

Catching Up and Moving Forward

I’ve been thinking about blogging again for a few months now. I find myself writing incredibly long threads on Twitter, which no one will ever read because they’re too long. And, anyway, Twitter isn’t a blog. It’s supposed to be quick, off the cuff thinking. So, I’m brushing off my long-neglected blog.

The coronavirus pandemic was a surprised to all of us in many different ways– how our country has been unable to control it due to mismanagement, how a few weeks at home has turned into five months and counting, and how we are hopeful about a vaccine in 2021. My family has changed from one that went out separate ways in the morning, and regroup after bringing our kids to various activities in the evening.  Each morning, I’d put L1 on the bus to his school and then drive to campus for my day at the office. My husband A would drop L2 off at daycare and then drive to his office on campus. Then, depending on the night, we’d bring L1 to karate or Scouts or L2 to ballet class (or on special nights, we’d divide and conquer when both kids had to be at different places). Homework, dinner, showers, bedtime. Start again in the morning.

Instead, the four of us have been together at home since March 14. March 13 was L1 and L2s last full day of school. A and I became remote workers on March 16. And here we are, on August 22, still at home and preparing for the school year. We all struggle with treating this as normal or as a continuing emergency. I worry about the social implications my children will have when they do return to the classroom among their peers. I hear quite often about how much they miss school and their friends. A and I are right there with them.

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We decided a few months ago that I was going to homeschool L1 this fall. L2 would be in the preschool room at daycare, so she will be getting some “school” as well (because, let’s face it, she needs to do everything her brother does). But her “school” will be play based and fun with an overarching theme. She’s asked us to teach her how to read, which is amazing. Our parenting philosophy is that things come to kids in their own time, and that we don’t need to force something to happen. L1 struggled with reading, so we did not force it at home. We want our kids to love learning, not build anxiety and perfectionism around the process.

And that is what we are carrying into our homeschool adventures. Second grade was a transformative year for L1. In October, we had him tested for ADHD after our parent-teacher conference. She said the same things that we had heard in kindergarten and first grade about L1: He was a bright kid, but it was next to impossible to keep him on task and focus his attention. Each year, we asked if that was age appropriate: in kindergarten and first grade it was, but in second grade? His teacher said that by third grade, students would have to self-regulate and engage their executive functions. As someone whose ADHD was not diagnosed until she was an adult (just two years ago!), I understand the frustration between knowing you have to do something and not being able to do it. I used to describe it as paralysis: I literally could not get myself to do the thing until a deadline was breathing down my neck. I didn’t want that for my son. It was no surprise that he was ADHD. After talking to our doctor, he mentioned that therapy usually helps older kids and that the medicine would have a more immediate impact on L1.

Both A and I hemmed and hawed. We’re 90s kids. We were socialized to be derisive towards ADHD diagnoses. After all, wasn’t everyone a little ADHD? (the answer is NO). A mom friend put it to me this way: If my son was diabetic, would I withhold insulin from him? Of course not. So, why wouldn’t I give him something to help him be himself, but fill those gaps that occur in the ADHD brain? We started him on a low dose of methylphenidate, the lowest possible for his weight, and overnight, we (and his teacher) saw a difference. Between October and March, our son moved up six reading levels. He went from reading below grade level to reading at level (and almost above)! His self-confidence has soared. Prior to his diagnosis, we’d ask him why he couldn’t focus, and he’d say “I don’t know.” Same thing with his temper tantrums. A and I felt like crying when he’d say “I don’t want to be this way, I don’t know why I do this.” That is not what you want to hear out of your seven year old’s mouth. We don’t hear that anymore and it’s wonderful.

Back to homeschooling: In March, all teachers were put in an awkward position to do a quick switcharoo to online instruction. As a professor, I had to do it too. I understand how we cannot compare spring’s instruction to anything that would happen in the classroom. L1’s teacher would zoom with the class twice a week. I remember the first time I sat in on this meeting: my 40 year old brain was spinning. Kids were unmuting themselves to ask to go to the bathroom, to ask random questions… 90 seconds did not pass without some sort of interruption. Worse was when the teacher had to keep reminding the students to stop drawing on the zoom screen while she was trying to teach them something. As I told A, I was pretty sure that my son’s teacher either had a bottle of wine after each zoom session or took a nap. It was exhausting all around.

When we first started considering our options for school this year, our district made it clear that we could either do in-person/hybrid, distance learning, or homeschool. In-person is off the table for us for multiple reasons. We recognize that we’re incredibly privileged not to have to fall back on school to go to work and that not everyone is in that position. We’re not here to judge other people’s decision-making. I’m explaining ours. We considered virtual but there were a few things that never sat very well with us. In the spring, L1 did a lot of work that seemed like it was a time filler, especially the computer programs they used in school. Many days, he was doing schoolwork from 10AM until 3:30PM! And that’s for second grade! Many parents at our school and district were proactive, saying that ways too much for 7 and 8 year olds, and our principal agreed. I didn’t want to struggle through that again. What also worried me was that in the virtual school options, they kept stressing that students need to be self-motivated. For an ADHD student who already has executive dysfunction, that seemed like I was setting my child up for problems, let alone failure.

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After finding out at that another academic mama was going to home school her three boys (and she so very graciously shared so much information and reassurance with me!), I started looking into it more. My immediate reaction was “I can’t do that!” but I read more and more. I looked at various homeschool curriculum and more creative options of homeschooling and realized I landed somewhere in the middle of structure and freeflow. I also spent too much time looking at our state learning goals, which fall in line with Common Core (how is this still a thing?!?). I got overwhelmed and almost gave up and then realized that I could cover these things if I considered them topically rather than point by point as the WV learning goals presented them. I decided to have more structure when it comes to math and reading and allow L1 to have more input on his science and social studies assignments/topics. And, in true professor form, I considered learning objectives and settled on an overarching one of “Grow in our love for learning.” That’s it.

I also won’t lie that homeschooling will make it a bit easier on my family as well. Yes, I have to put in the work of prepping for a week’s worth of lessons. But I also won’t have to manage zoom meetings and trying to get my son to finish work that we both see as busy work (and basically lying through my teeth that he has to do it…did I mention how much I hate busy work?). Back in March, the Illinois dept of education put out this handy chart of what we should expect from our kids:
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A third grader like L1 has 10-15 minutes of sustained attention! That’s no surprise. As a professor, I know how hard it is to keep a class’s attention for a 75 minute period. I have to switch things up a few times to get them to refocus rather than imitate Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. How can I expect him to sit through two 1 hour long zoom meetings a day when 40 year old me starts getting antsy about 30 minutes into any meeting? Right now, until I know better, I’m setting aside 2.5 hours a day for our homeschooling. That allows me to focus on him for that time, build short breaks into that time (sometimes we go outside and shoot hoops for five minutes or he does jumping jacks/stair steps or he runs around the house five times), and then in the afternoon while his sister is napping and he’s doing his independent 30 minute reading and then his video game time, I can get some of my own *real* work done.

This is my plan. I can’t stress enough that I don’t know how things will work out, but homeschooling provides us flexibility that we wouldn’t get through other schooling options. I don’t need to worry about L1 burning out over zoom. I don’t need to nag him because his lack of executive function makes him unable to stay on top of things. And, once he’s done, he has the rest of the day to do his own thing. I also like that, if an approach to a subject or topic doesn’t work, I can figure out another way to do it.

We are still in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight. There will be knowledge gaps when we return to school in Fall 2021. Our children will also be traumatized in a way that we have never experienced. As a family, we’ve decided not to dwell on how “far behind” our kids might be in their schooling, but instead, keep their brains active and tend to their mental health as well with empathy, flexibility, and understanding. I’m glad you’re here on this journey with me!

 

 

Hustling for Worthiness

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with some younger friends. We all serve on our university’s women’s council, and the younger friend is easily a decade younger than me. She was talking about moving away from our college town and having a more “adult” life rather than living in her teeny tiny apartment at she was able to afford on her salary. I turned to her and said “do you know where I was when I was 28? I was in the middle of getting divorced. I was broke as all get out because of said divorce, the credit card bills that we both racked up but were in my name, and my student loans coming into repayment at the same time. And I was living in an apartment that I still call the ‘shoebox’ because it was literally shaped like a shoebox.” My friend looked stunned by my honesty and then thanked me for sharing that with her because she felt better about her own shoebox apartment that she had at 27.

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What I wish I had known in my 20s is that people who are in the 30s and 40s and seem to have their shit together all had times in their lives when they didn’t. I’m envious of those people who walked into their grad program and thought they were all that and moved forward through grad school with confidence. I follow some of those people on Facebook and Twitter and I think to myself, damn. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time in my twenties looking for and needing approval. Whether it was an A on paper, a faculty member who wanted to work with me on a project, or a boyfriend (!!!), I needed that approval. I took my chair’s tenure letter of non-support so hard that I cried for a weekend. (I’m sure others are devastated when they receive this letter too.) When my therapist and I talked about this, she described it: I’m a perfectionist, my (academic) achievements were always celebrated from my childhood forward, and I needed that pat on the head. That resonated with me SO much, and I’ve been very aware of this personality tendency for the past few years since she told me this.

However, the other day, I was listening to the Nasty Women Radio podcast and they called this “hustling for worthiness.” This phrase hits the nail on the head. We’re all hustling for worthiness. I posted the other day about my book project and how I gave up on it after someone who has always shitted on my work decided to do it again. So, guess what? Even though I’m tenured and promoted, I still don’t have my shit together. I still allow people to get in my head about my projects. I sometimes allow people to write my story (Reviewer 2, I’m looking at you). But it’s happening less and less as I realize that this is something I need to continually work on. I know my value. I know my worth (or that damn piece of paper in a nice frame on the wall in my office wouldn’t be there). I also don’t need external validation of my projects/my life/my worthiness. Obviously, I really do… thanks, peer review! Hustling for worthiness is fucking exhausting. You aren’t always rewarded for that effort either (ahem, my divorce). We need to cultivate a feeling of value in ourselves. The real question is how do we get there? I’m a big believer in that the answers I give are not “one size fits all” but I’ll tell you what worked for me.

First, finding an awesome therapist who was able to help me on this journey. She opened my eyes to a lot of things I couldn’t see about myself. I had defined myself solely in terms of my academic achievements (ie, if I’m not an academic, then I’m not marketable). She urged me to see that I’m so much more: I’m a wife, mother, daughter, friend. I love to garden and read young adult novels. I am thoughtful, loyal, and empathetic. I am not just my publication record and my methods skills. Some reading this might snort and say “well, reading The Fault in Our Stars isn’t going to get you promoted to full.” Nope, it’s not. But I wish I had learned early on in my grad school days to lead a more balanced life. This is something that I impart to my grad students as a faculty mentor.

Second, realize that your path isn’t someone else’s. Sure, we’re groomed from day one to get THEMOSTAWESOMEJOBPOSSIBLE. Being on the job market is trying for anyone. I remember when a friend got a job at a teaching college that he wanted to go to and other students were like “oh yeah, but it’s just a teaching college.” Is it possible that some of us are better teachers than researchers? If that’s the truth, then why do we all want the same thing other than… Laud? Prestige? Being able to say our department has a PhD? Comparing yourself to others all the time? That is exhausting. Embrace your path. Embrace what YOU want other than what others want. After all, this is your life, not theirs.

Third, and I can’t say this enough… surround yourself with good people. Seek out mentors who want to build you up with constructive criticism and are willing to work with you to move past problems. Find peers who want to read your work and give feedback (and you do the same). Don’t snark on other’s journeys. Some people don’t want to be an academic… and that’s ok. Some people don’t ever want to have children… and that’s ok. Some people only publish in the top five journals… and that’s ok. I truly believe what you put out in the world comes back to you, so only put out what you want back. And stop hustling for your worth.

 

 

Switching Off for the Summer

One of my absolute favorite movies is Hot Fuzz. Nicholas Angel is the quintessential parallel for an academic: he’s singularly focused on his work and doesn’t know how to “switch off”. It’s only when he meets his partner that he learns how to have fun and not be so serious all the time. I mean, who else doesn’t immediately relax while drinking a pint and watching Patrick Swayze rob a bank in a Richard Nixon mask?

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But it’s summertime and, like most academics, we’re faced with this race against the clock to “catch up” on everything that we didn’t do during the semester/school year/past decade. Sometimes, those expectations are mighty unrealistic. If you’re like me, I very quickly get frustrated when my plans go out of whack, and it’s midsummer and I didn’t accomplish much. I’m taking a different approach this year, and I wanted to share that with you.

First, I’m being much more realistic about my goals. It’s taken some time, but I realize how long it takes to write a brand new lit review or to revise a conference paper. This is one of the things that makes me pause when a grad student hands me a timeline for their dissertation writing. Working fast to get more done isn’t always smart nor is it doable. I advise my grad students that they will feel better if they finish a task BEFORE an estimated deadline rather than trudging past that deadline. That positive feeling helps you keep moving forward.

Second, break those tasks down! One of my summer projects is to start a paper on a brand new to me subject.  It is going to take me much longer than the summer to get it done (survey writing and implementation, etc) so I’ve broken it down into steps. I need to review the literature out there on this topic. I need to draft a survey instrument and have friends critique it. I need to get IRB approval for this study. These are all small tasks that are digestible rather than “write paper X”.

Third, I am switching off…sometimes. Just because I’m free from teaching for the summer doesn’t mean I have 24 hours a day where I can work. Summer is time for me as well. I love to read fluff books while sitting on my deck. My kids love hitting the pool for a few hours. Did I mention naps? Such decadent self-care! Summer is the time for you to get some sun on your skin (with some SPF in between). Get away for a few days, even if it means a staycation. Go hiking. Hit the pool. Sit on the deck at a coffee shop and listen to nature. Be sure to take some time for you and those who are important to you. It’s easy to fall into that trap of trying to get everything done in 15 weeks, but it isn’t realistic. Do what you can and be sure to take some time for you as well. I hope that you’re able to look back on this summer and see what all you’ve accomplished rather than what you didn’t.

The Best Time

It might have been in grad school that I heard this conversation for the first time. Now that I’ve participated as a mentor in the ISA Pay It Forward event for the past two years, it’s something that is asked of me.

When is the best time to have a baby?

As a grad student, this was something I fretted about. But then again, I had it all planned out. I was going to get my PhD, my first job, and married at 26, tenured at 32, and then a baby at 33. While I was in grad school, a few friends had gotten pregnant and had babies. We were told “oh, that’s a GREAT time to have babies. You’re writing your dissertation while they’re young and they won’t remember it.” Supposedly, babies make you more organized and more on top of your work. Babies are portable. Babies are easy! It’s the older kids that are hard! You don’t want to be TOO old when you have kids!

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Remember my plan? I did start my first job and got married at 26. I finished my PhD at 27… and then got divorced at 28. It was also around that time that I started having symptoms of endometriosis: dysmenorrhea that made me lay in bed for a few days a month, random bleeding, and pelvic pain. I got my diagnosis around the time I met my husband. I had my first laparoscopy three months after we got married. My doctor had told me that if we wanted to get pregnant, this would be our first step and not to wait. Plenty of women with endometriosis end up with hysterectomies in their 30s (which we now know is not the best way to deal with endo, but…) Two rounds of Clomid later, we were pregnant and our son was born nine months later.

At this point, I was still on the tenure track. A senior member of my department commented that I had gotten pregnant “quickly” while others whispered about my pregnancy. According to them, I had found that “best time” to have my baby… I found a method to delay my tenure clock and also to have a semester off from my teaching load. That “best time” looked a lot different to me… it was marked by recovery from a c-section, difficulty breastfeeding (who knew that you could get preeclampsia postpartum and have your milk dry up thanks to hard core diuretics?) and postpartum depression that set in when I realized that I was going to have to give my baby formula (what I then saw as a failure on my part…overachievers like those who pursue PhDs don’t fail at anything).  Strategy had nothing to do with it: my gynecologist told me that endo doesn’t wait for anyone and so I took my chance and went with it.

Last week was infertility awareness week. While I got pregnant with our son relatively effortlessly (one surgery and some clomid is relatively effortless on the infertility spectrum), trying to get pregnant again was insanely difficult. I definitely wanted to wait until I had my tenure letter in my hand (because I was waiting for that “right time”). During that awful stressful year, I ended up having emergency surgery that affected my fertility again. And then we tried. And tried. And tried. I saw the one reproductive endocrinologist in town who was a complete asshole to me (I later learned he was a complete asshole to everyone). I took clomid again. I did injectables. I did not get pregnant.

My gynecologic surgeon suggested I drive up to our closest big city, to the women’s hospital where he had done his residency. That’s a 90 minute drive, one way. A three hour round trip that would have to be done multiple times a week, for testing, ultrasounds, and any other monitoring that would need to be done if we did more invasive fertility treatments. All while teaching and doing research. Not to mention that my insurance (and my husband’s) doesn’t cover fertility treatments. I’ve had friends who did IUI and IVF, spent the thousands of dollars necessary to do that, and still had their hearts broken in the end. My husband and I thought long and hard about it and decided IVF wasn’t for us. Maybe if we hadn’t had our son, we would have been willing to invest the money into the risk, but we couldn’t justify it. The right time, that time that I thought would be so perfect post-tenure, just wasn’t.

I’m that annoying person who has a happy ending to my story. After giving up on baby #2, I got pregnant a few months later with no interventions. There are so many people who don’t get that happy ending. We like to point to fertility issues as an age thing, but honestly, I know plenty of women who have problems getting pregnant and/or staying pregnant for reasons not related to age. So, now, post-tenure me rolls my eyes at those conversations about “the right time” to get pregnant. (Or, worse, people who suggest timing your pregnancies to have the summer off! Kudos if you can actually pull that off!) So, when young women ask me when is the “right time” to get pregnant, I tell them there is no right time. You just need to take a leap of faith and do what is right for you and your family… and also not worry about the whispers that might follow. We academics are planners. We just need to make that connection that all that planning may not work out the way we want it to.

Enough is enough

One of the first things my (former) chair said to me when I started my tenure track job was to protect my research time. “Just do the basic service necessary. Review manuscripts, be panel discussants, the usual,” he advised. And, for years, that’s what I did. Post-tenure women are still advised to say no. While we excel at service, it is to the detriment of our research. And while it is important for us to increase our service post-tenure (in tune with our department and college/university expectations), research-focused schools do not reward service with promotions. However, how can you balance these guidelines with the impulse to get involved in this post-election period? I was in a meeting last week for one of my service projects (helping to start up the new Women’s Resource Center on my campus) and I found myself starting to apologize for not being involved in one of the new multi-generational feminist groups that started in the fall. I mean, when it started, I was on parental leave and then the meeting time didn’t mesh with my kids’ daycare pickup, and… I’m sorry.

I found myself apologizing to others for making the decision not to march in January. Two of my very good (local) friends were going, my university was sponsoring a bus to DC, and a few of my (non-local) friends were meeting up to spend the weekend together. Plus… it was my spouse’s birthday. It wasn’t a milestone birthday, but I didn’t want to be out of town without him that weekend. I confessed to one of my friends that I met through a campus women’s group that I was worried that people were judging me for not going to the march. I felt a lot better when she said that she struggled with the decision too. Crowds aren’t her thing (they aren’t mine either) and not going to DC didn’t mean that she (or I) had any less of an effect on the political process.

About a month later, I got a Facebook invite to attend an organizational meeting of a local NOW chapter that some colleagues and acquaintances had helped to initiate. This was exciting! This was activism at its finest! This was… not going to fit into my calendar at all. My weekends are reserved for my family (as are most evenings). I know that there are plenty of other women who are involved in this type of activism that have partners and kids and aging parents but… they aren’t me. The first NOW meeting passed with me feeling an immense sense of guilt. I convinced myself that I would make it to the next one.

I have a friend who is doing some local organizing to help find a challenger to run against her local congressman, all while raising two kids, teaching music lessons, and being a member in her local orchestra. The women who organized the local chapter of NOW are all professional women who have partners and kids and careers. The women who marched in DC are from all different backgrounds and ages and locales and they found time to march. Are all these people more dedicated than I am? Am I being lazy?

rest not quit

As I found myself apologizing at that meeting last week, I quickly stopped myself before the words “I’m sorry” ever made it out of my mouth. I do enough. I can’t be everything to everyone. I am involved in a number of women’s groups already, albeit concentrated in my campus service and my service to the discipline. I like that service. To me (and to others), it’s service that matters. And yet, I feel guilt for not doing more, especially in this political climate. However, what more women need to realize is that we do enough already. There is plenty of evidence for that.Those of us who struggle or feel guilt about not doing enough are probably doing more than others already… and I guarantee that we are making a difference to someone. And, while it rests on our shoulders to protect our rights and the rights of other underrepresented groups (because we have seen time and again that we can’t leave it to others to do the work for us), a division of labor is necessary to avoid burnout.