Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Working Mom

I go back to work next week. If you remember the saga of my employment, my university is closing the campus where I work. Rather than attempting to consolidate faculty by offering early retirement packages or critically evaluating performance based on the annual performance reviews we’ve had to do, we were not offered opportunities for employment at the other (much larger) campus, but have all been laid off as of May 2020.

I’m finishing up the semester there and then starting a new position in January as manager of the honors program at another university in St. Louis. In many ways, this is a good move. I was directing the honors program at my old job, on top of all my other duties, so this feels both familiar and full of promise (imagine what can be done with more time and university support!). My interview there confirmed for me that college campuses are my jam. I love the energy, I love smart and motivated young adults. I love how much they teach me about what’s cool. The people I’ll be working with seem great. The campus is beautiful. My office has a big window and creaky hardwood floors. I love it.

But I won’t be an English professor anymore. Or, rather, I feel like I’ll be an English professor doing something else. And on the one hand, that’s fine. It’s premature nostalgia that has me forgetting the frustration of seeing blank, apathetic, unprepared gazes (or total lack of eye contact) in the classroom. I won’t be in the classroom every day, but I also won’t come home knowing I still need to read or grade or prep for the next day. I’ve never had a work/home divide—It’s always been a messy overlap and the thought of leaving work at work is delightful!

That said, it sounds like next year I will have the opportunity to teach freshmen in an honors seminar of my own design, which honestly sounds like a dream come true. One class? Taken by students who want to be there? About any subject we find mutually interesting? I’m already daydreaming!

The major downsides: lower salary. And—the kicker that almost prevented me from accepting the job—it’s 12-months. I’ll have to work in the summer.

Some folks are likely (and perhaps rightly) rolling their eyes at this, but I have wept over this situation more than I care to admit. I want my summer at home with my kids! It’s taking a lot of pep talks for me to begin to feel ok about it. I’m telling myself that I have vacation days and I will take them. That perhaps after being the best employee ever for a few months, I’ll have a bit of room for negotiation in terms of schedule flexibility. That there are plenty of summer days when I’d love a break from being at home. That my kids didn’t even blink when I told them I would be working this summer and just asked if they’d get to go to more camps. Of course, not having those months at home with Vieve is weighing on my heart. I’m telling myself that this path doesn’t have to be forever—if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I am capable of finding something else. In the meantime, it’s certainly the most appealing of relatively few options, and I do feel lucky to have been offered the position. It seems reasonably flexible in terms of hours (I already brazenly inquired about taking a long lunch during my first week in order to give a presentation on a poet to a women’s group and my boss was very gracious about agreeing to it). I do get holidays off for which the university is closed, so I don’t have to take vacation over Christmas.

Another realization is how stressful my previous position had become, which I didn’t fully realize until stepping away from it. We were running a skeleton crew with what often felt like the bare minimum of administrative support from the higher ups. Requesting things like pizza for a department salon was virtually impossible, so professors just used their own money. I was managing adjunct faculty, teaching four classes, directing the honors program, and serving on various other committees, and the only thing that made it bearable were flexible hours that I could set myself—but which always met bringing work home with me. Of course, I love teaching literature, but that was only one component of a lot of other things I was doing. This job feels like I may have less autonomy (as a team member with a direct supervisor rather than a faculty professor) but it will definitely require less of me, while still promising to be meaningful and fulfilling and—hopefully—fun. It just feels like less pressure.

So I’m trying to be optimistic and at the same time acknowledging the grief I still feel about the big loss of my job. It’s a hard thing. I hope I love the new position, as the benefits are great and the summer sacrifice is big.

Meanwhile, I go back to my old job next week to finish out the semester. I have a few projects I’m helping with, senior theses I’m overseeing, and I’ll be packing up my office, giving away books, and saying goodbye to my first real job, which I’d hoped to have forever. Not to mention the enormous loss of working daily with dear friends, whom I will miss so much.

I have a friend who has so generously agreed to watch G for me these few weeks as I’m back on campus, and I’m very grateful to her. It’s making the transition back to work a bit easier, though I’m currently holding a baby who has now been sleeping for over an hour and I should have put her in her bed, but I just want to soak her up, you know? I can hardly believe she’s already six months old.

I feel so grateful that I’ve gotten this time with her, also angry that six months home with a new baby is practically unheard of for working moms in this country. Work life is hard.

Part of me is craving the return to days that have more structure, adult conversation (I miss laughing with my friends at work!), and most of all—uninterrupted stretches of time during which I can finish a thought and keep myself focused. That’s the hardest part of staying home for me—the frittering away of the day into teensy tasks and bits of time so disconnected that it’s a good day if I’ve done a load of laundry and everyone has eaten! Staying home feels like treading water or paddling against the current or some other metaphor in which it’s hard to feel a solid sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I see the danger of basing self-worth on productivity (damn you, capitalism!) but last night I moved a laundry basket of clean, folded clothes off my bed so I could go to sleep and thought about all the things that didn’t get done. At least I did 20 minutes of yoga? I’m happier when I have time to think and work on projects and write and read, and some days I get that at home, but always truncated by wake ups or fussiness or pick up time. Or, like today, I’m literally sitting on my tush to hold a sleeping baby because she’s so precious and it’s so fleeting!

Anyway, I’ll take all the good vibes as I move into grief season and holiday season and budget stretched incredibly thin and we pay for two daycares on a lower salary season. Optimism is not always my default—I vacillate wildly—but I know that the antidote to anxiety is gratitude, so that’s where I’m trying to land.

I still feel some of the mom guilt about working, but I’m finding that’s really externally imposed. In my own heart, I know that I’m better at momming when I’m working outside the home because I’m more fully myself. And I know that while staying home is the better choice for some women, I’m happier when I am contributing in other places besides my own home. And my kids benefit most when they have a happy mom, even if that means sacrificing quantity of hours I spend with them for quality of my own mind and energy. I also recognize that other people land very differently in regard to what gives them energy and fulfillment, and others can’t really even afford the luxury of making an active choice.

So I’ll just be here, hoping I can squeeze into my work pants and breathing into this baby’s bald head in my nights and weekends.


  1. Congrats on the new job, Brooke! It sounds great. I can totally relate to the guilt you feel about missing summers, and especially about missing the time with baby Vieve. I was doing my PhD and had E in daycare part-time until she went to kindergarten, but M went to daycare at 15 months full time (I know that sounds like he was practically grown up, but...Canada!!) and I still - 5 years later! - sometimes feel guilty about that. But I know it was best for all of us in the end. I've never heard that 'the antidote to anxiety is gratitude' but I'm going to remember it: I think it's true. Final commiseration on mom guilt: I am on a work trip in Italy (!!) right now and as I was leaving I met this really kind(seeming) older woman before boarding the plane. We talked about all sorts of stuff but then she asked how old my kids were and when I said nearly 11 and 6, she frowned and said, 'oh, six is still pretty little for you to be doing trips like this.' Thanks, lady. Thanks a lot. Enjoy the baby snuggles this week.

  2. Congratulations on the new job! It sounds like a pretty good fit for you, and that the benefits balance out the negatives, like having to work through the summer. (((Hugs))) as you wrap things up at your old job. I am glad that you have some time to say goodbye.

    I am angry on your behalf about the lack of mat leave in the States, too. 21 years ago, I would have gotten 9 months with my daughter... not long afterward, it went up to a full year. These days, I believe Canadian moms can get up to 18 months (although I'm not sure all 18 months are paid*... but 18 months is 18 months, right?).

    * mat leave is funded through your contributions to the federal Employment Insurance program... of course, your mat leave pay is nowhere near your regular work pay -- I think it's about 55%, up to a certain maximum (I Googled & the current max is $562 a week). A few big companies will top up your mat leave pay to 100% of your full salary for a certain period, generally the first six weeks of your leave.

  3. Another Canadian mom here! My son started daycare (3 days per week) at 12.5 months. Like you, I think I am a better mom working outside the home. Congratulations on the job! As someone who is frustrated with her students right now, it sounds like an ideal option!

  4. Yay! Congrats on the new job! I, too, have never had a work/life split,. and it sounds intoxicating. The summer would be a deal breaker for me, too. I bet you will find flexibility you didn't know existed. Although, the concept of long lunch was jarring to me. It would be weird to have to account for my time at work, you know? BUT I bet you will find that you are able to do full time work in a fraction of the hours in a day and will have TONS of time to write your book, etc. SO exciting!