Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Curriculum vitae, with tears

This article made me cry. Funny because I don't think it's meant as a tear-jerker. But for me, as I think it is for many women, work-family balance is a complicated and highly emotional topic.

The first part of my career, I wished away. I worked at a magazine on its last legs, which was emotionally difficult but actually offered me some amazing opportunities. As workers were laid off, I took on more responsibilities and ended up in charge of the whole shebang when I was only 23. So by the time we shut the doors for good, I knew not only how to write and edit the content as I was originally hired to do, but how to do the editorial budget and calendar, work with freelancers, supervise a team of editors, lay out pages in Quark XPress, and get a magazine to print.

And I was crying all the time because I wanted to be a mom. I'd been married since I was 19 and trying to get pregnant since I was 20. Yes, that might have been crazy, and I might have been partway lucky that it didn't happen. But it broke my heart.

After the magazine closed, I worked for a small software maker, subsidiary to an international mega-company. We made software for analyzing financial markets. It was used a lot by day-traders - remember that phenomenon from the late '90s? This was my entry into public relations, and I learned how to craft and distribute press releases, contact editors and reporters, plan and execute trade show displays. 

I found it mostly pretty meaningless, selling computer tools to help rich people get richer. I found some redemption doing customer profiles, getting to know individuals who found freedom and flexibility as traders that they had wanted in prior lives as nurses or truck drivers. I found a connection with my grandpa, who passed away that year. What I loved about my work as a PR person was the same thing he loved about his work as a newspaper reporter - getting to know people and their stories and helping to communicate that meaning. 

But really, I was focused on infertility treatments, then putting together an adoption file. I felt like I'd been in a long, dark tunnel, but at last the end was in sight. I was pretty sure the great quest of my life was motherhood, and there I'd find my true fulfillment.

The summer after I turned 25, my husband finished his Master's degree and we moved out of state. I quit my job without shedding a tear. Two months later, we adopted our first son. This was it: all my dreams had come true. I was a stay-at-home mom. We moved back to Utah, and I maintained some freelance work for my last employer, and for a while I went in and worked in the office one day a week. My son stayed with my mom every Friday. 

Almost in a whirlwind, our second adoption happened only 21 months after the first. We didn't think it would happen quite so fast, but it was all welcome. I did the gross parts of the job and the fun parts of the job. I stopped freelancing. And don't let this fact get lost: I loved my little boys. Crazy love. Silly love. Spoil them rotten love.

About six months after that is when things got crazy. I've talked about it before. I had a crawler and a two-year-old. It was winter. We had sickness and behavior issues. I think I got depressed. We went to a psychiatrist, me and the two cute baby boys. I cried. Because I was a mom, and it was so hard.

The psychiatrist perceived pretty quickly that I had not adjusted really well from being a professional woman to being a primary caregiver for small people. His main recommendation was that I find two or three hours a week to be away from my kids. (He entirely missed the fact that my oldest son had ADHD and several other complicated issues, but the kid was only two, and nobody diagnosed those things that early in those days.)

I stayed with those guys all the time, with the exception of those few hours here and there, until they were three and five. That's when I went to work for the university where Dr. G. was getting his Ph.D. I was conflicted about going to work, but it was a financial necessity, and when I prayed about it I knew it was the right choice. I knew my boys would be fine and I knew that we needed to get stabilized and ready for the kids we hadn't found yet.

And I loved my job. It was like my whole job was writing the customer profiles. I got to talk to interesting people all the time, about interesting things - physics and digital libraries and water systems. I was helping establish something new - the university officially opened about a year after I started work. It was a PR dream. Everybody wanted our story. We were gatekeepers rather than street hawkers. And I felt like I was doing work that meant something. Higher education was something I wouldn't have minded selling door-to-door if I'd had to, especially for the historically underserved populations for which the school was being built.

I had one run-in, exactly one, that first year, with a non-supportive work environment. My husband was out of town for a prestigious summer research internship that would advance his progress toward his doctorate. Accordingly, I left work at a reasonable hour to pick my boys up from daycare. The vice chancellor - my boss's boss - heard my heels click down the hallway and called out, "Somebody tell that girl what kind of hours we work around here."

I poked my head into his office and said, "They don't serve dinner at daycare."

That was the end of that. The guy retired later the same year. I don't think anybody really missed him.

I didn't have this blog yet when that happened. Still, it's taken me eight years to write about it. That's curious. I think there is a stigma attached to talking about clashes like that. Mostly I prided myself on being able to get all the work required of me finished in the limited amount of time I had for work. Truth: I worked like a superstar. And I still cooked and shopped, read the bedtime stories, cleaned the bathrooms. Dr. G. picked up some laundry duties (I still did lots - there was plenty to go around) and often picked up the kids after work.

Two years after I started work there, we became foster parents. What an insane thing to do for a working mother and a grad-student father! Longtime readers of this blog know the story. Z joined us as a newborn in November 2006. K came home at the end of the following June, when he was almost 3. 

Now, I know I chose to become a foster parent. If I'd cared more about my career, or maybe if I'd understood how all-consuming the foster system was going to be, or both, I could have chosen differently. And I generally try not to whine too much about having needed to give up my job. My employers tried to be supportive. There was not a clear path to follow, for them or for me.

It is pretty unusual for a working mother to have more than two kids. When we hit three, people in my workplace raised their eyebrows. When the fourth joined us - I don't really remember. I was too stressed out to care what anybody thought, I guess. I knew at that point I'd bitten off more than I could chew. There was simply nothing to do except keep chewing.

But if I hadn't chosen to become a foster parent, something else could have happened that would have made it nearly impossible to continue having a full-time job. It doesn't necessarily matter how the parenthood happens. I could have unexpectedly become pregnant with twins with special needs, for example. The demands and stresses on me would have been similar. At least there would have been a clear procedure for maternity leave, but the system likely still would have been inadequate to keep me on the same career path.

The sheer number of appointments was overwhelming. Social worker visits and birth family visits and WIC and attorney meetings and doctors' appointments and court dates; receipts and reports and classes. Imagine this with four children total, ages 1, 3, 5 and 7, and two very busy professional parents. We had a lot of chaos and a lot of drama. 

Nobody talks about how much more complicated it is if you are a working mother whose children are in any way non-typical. In my experience you may find lightning coming out of your ears at all times and start getting kinda mean. 

I hung on for more than a year. I tried to make adjustments. My employer worked with me to change my schedule (and paycheck) so that I could work 30-hour weeks for the whole last summer I was there. I took the kids on vacation by myself so that G could have some focused time to try to progress on his dissertation. We could not find the balance. After a lot of soul-searching, we made the leap: I resigned in August 2008. 

When I left this job, I cried.

For most of the time since then, I've maintained connections with my old office and written at least one story a month for the university web site or e-newsletters. Still, I miss my professional life a lot. I believe I chose correctly when I quit (the first time in 1999 and the second time in 2008) to focus on my kids and be the primary parent. But it's always on my mind - the wonderful job I had, and what I'm going to do next. 

This week, I decided not to apply for a PR job for the regional energy company. I just didn't feel excited about it. While there could be some great opportunities to talk about green energy, I felt like it also had the potential to be almost as meaningless for me as trying to promote stock market software. Maybe worse. We have some tough-to-win energy situations in Montana - a huge power line that could interfere with ag lands and wild lands but promote development of wind energy in the state, for example. If I were to go back to work, I would want to back to my old job. One of my former co-workers just did - she's single and childless. For me that's impossible. We have a two-head problem of the first order. We live in another state now, and Dr. G pretty much has his dream job. There's no going back for me. And I am pretty stinkin' happy with just about every aspect of my life. I would be a dummy to complain.

My husband spoke on the phone yesterday with an important colleague, an accomplished woman professor who was wonderful and understanding about his efforts to parent equitably and support my career. Her teenage daughter has been experiencing very serious mental and emotional issues. The parents, both professors in a small town, have moved 2+ hours away from their jobs to a major urban area in order to be near high-quality mental health services for their daughter. They're commuting. I don't know how they are managing this. I wonder how long they will be able to keep it up. Talk about sacrifices. But like Anne-Marie Slaughter's colleague told her, sometimes there really is no choice. If you didn't put your family first in these situations you'd be some kind of evil robot.

Love is important. Our partners and our kids are important. I will speak the feminist blasphemy and say sometimes they are more important than our dreams and our accomplishments. I believe that all the way. But the sacrifices we make for those things take a toll on us, too. And the system absolutely could and really must serve us better to reduce those costs.

For now, my path is not so different from what Prof. Slaughter describes in The Atlantic. My plan right now (it feels good to have a plan) is to use my time to write and pump up my freelance business until January 2014. Then my husband will have been in his faculty job for five years so that I can become a student at any Montana university at half-tuition, and I'll get a Master's degree before my oldest son finishes high school, when I'm almost 43. Then I can do instructor work, or get a higher-level communications-type job, or go on for a Ph.D. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I'll have 20 years or more of good career time to figure it out. I have to thank Anne-Marie Slaughter for pointing that out, because it really is encouraging.