Sunday, May 11, 2008

Emotional clutter: The only child, the lost career

We have a lot of stuff; this blog didn't get the name "The Clutter Museum" for nothing. However, aside from piles of paper and Lucas's toys and art supplies, this clutter doesn't tend to clog up the house.

It's all in the garage.

See, I'm very much of a save-and-purge mentality. I want to save up enough stuff to warrant making the trip to the thrift store to donate, or enough to have a yard sale. That, however, is a lot of stuff. So I tend to accrue piles of things I no longer want or need, but that are still in good condition: books, clothes that are in classic styles but no longer fit, toys that Lucas has outgrown.

It's this last category--all the material culture that accompanies baby- and toddlerhood--that I find particularly difficult to deal with. My approach has been to put my maternity clothes and Lucas's outgrown clothing, as well as his infant toys, into big plastic bins in the garage. I was saving them for our next child.

A few months ago, Mr. T and I decided to try to conceive a second child, but it quickly became clear to us that we lack the emotional energy, the physical energy, or the financial wherewithal to care for a sibling for Lucas. I'll soon be going back on the pill.

I'm 32 (soon 33), so I know my years of easy conception are waning. Sure, I understand I haven't closed completely the door to a larger family; after all, I could go off the pill within the next few years and still have a statistically low-risk pregnancy, or we could grow the family through adoption.

However, Mr. Trillwing is 13 years older than I am, and he does not want to be a raising teenagers when he should be enjoying his senior citizen years. I don't blame him. The thought of putting TWO kids through college--financially and emotionally--makes me uneasy. Really, despite my dreams of providing Lucas with a sibling--I can't imagine not having my own sister in my life--on paper the decision to have only one child is a no-brainer. Financially and environmentally and in terms of marital stress, it makes perfect sense.

But back to the stuff in the garage.

One of the hinges that raises and lowers our garage door broke a few days ago, and the landlord is sending out someone to fix it this week. To make the repairs, the door installer needs everything in the garage to be cleared away from the door to a depth of ten feet.

That's a lot of stuff--mostly Lucas's baby stuff. The automatic swing, the vibrating bouncy chair, the toddler play center, the playpen and safety gates, the bathtub that fits neatly into the kitchen sink. Numberless onesies in newborn and infant sizes, bearing their embroidered puppies and bunnies, their tiny cars and trains.

I need to figure out what to do with all of it. Giving it away means acknowledging, at least for the time being, that there will not be another baby in our lives, that we will never again share the joy of a first smile, of early giggles, of first steps and babbled words. (It also means no more sleepless nights or mastitis or runny poop, but of course I'm overlooking all those experiences.)

It means acknowledging, in short, that Lucas's babyhood is behind him. I might have come to grips with this development sooner, since he is almost three and a half feet tall. But I've noticed that every week Lucas grows less interested in the last of his baby toys. Even though he's young enough still to sleep in a crib, he's old enough to be afraid of the dark and whatever lurks in it. This week he requested a night light for the first time.

To be honest, many of the trapping of Lucas's babyhood will be easy to give away--I never was fond of them anyway, except that they have a connection to my son. But I do tear up when I think of the vibrating aquarium bouncy chair:

The chair sat by my desk for many months as I was writing my dissertation. Lucas snoozed or looked at soft books or gazed, fascinated, at the bubbles and lights and sounds of the "aquarium." I can still summon the buzz, its exact pitch and cycle rumbling against the ball of my foot as I gently rocked Lucas, and I can still hear the sounds of waves that emanated from the speaker--still see, in my mind, its little light show. During those naps of Luke's, I sat in the dim dining nook that served as my office, the only sounds the vibrating chair, the recording of waves, and my typing. My dreams--of a completed dissertation, of motherhood, of a tenure-track teaching job--were illuminated then by the white light of a laptop, and by the gently pulsing, colorful lights meant to soothe an infant.

Getting rid of that chair means not only acknowledging that my little boy is growing up and that I'll likely not have another baby, but that another window is closing: All that academic training I had, all those aspirations and hopes of being rewarded in a traditional way for my intellectual efforts--my hopes, in short, for a tenure-track teaching job, are also passing away. We all know that working outside the classroom, that not publishing regularly, within the couple of years after graduating, can indicate to search committees a lack of intellectual resolve, a lack of loyalty to the ways and culture of the academy.

I remind myself of how much I love my current job. But in many ways accepting an academic staff job is like going back on the pill--it's one way of assuring one's intellectual progeny, if one has any at all after committing to an 8-to-5 gig, will not be taken as seriously as those on the tenure track.

Once I get on this train of thought, it's hard to get off, as any depressive knows: I should have worked for a disciplinary, instead of an interdisciplinary, Ph.D. I should have researched a topic that has more contemporary relevance. (Hello? I started my Ph.D. program days after September 11, but did it ever occur me to look at Middle Eastern studies, even though I was in a program and at a university that could have supported such research?) I should have spent less time pursuing my many intellectually and aesthetic interests and more time focusing on publishable topics. I shouldn't have spent so much time teaching.

But: I'm a damn good teacher. I like my areas of research. I like that I have many interests.

I also love being a mom, and I've observed that pursuing a full-fledged academic career makes being an engaged parent very difficult. I know I've done a good job of triangulating our financial resources, Mr. Trillwing's and my desire to have careers, and our geographic location into a high quality of life for Lucas.

That said, I'm always considering alternative paths: different careers, ones that will let me spend more time with Lucas while he's still young. Different, less expensive towns. Ways to live closer to our family support network. Alternative, more productive or creative or fulfilling ways to spend my precious evening leisure time.

Making these decisions is tough. And there's a lot of physical and emotional clutter--a warehouse of vibrating aquarium bouncy chairs--between me and where I need to be.


Addy N. said...

What a great post! And I'm so impressed that you are considering giving away baby stuff. My daughter is 8 and just got rid of a lot of it last year. We still have her crib, high chair, strollers- some of it was given to family already who needed it for their baby, but the rest is down in the basement waiting for us to deicide. If you read my blog, you know I am struggling with some of the same issues- but I'm 38 this year and time is definitely running out for us. I also feel guilty when I think about having another child, though- with us nearing 7 billion people and how much more an impact an American baby has on the world, I feel incredibly selfish to even be considering it, but it's hard not to- especially after my recent loss. I wish you the best of the luck with your decisions- career-wise and family-wise. Take care.

the rebel lettriste said...

Ok, so I read yer blog all the time, and I totally STILL owe you an in-real-life email. Forgive that I comment here in lieu!

These are incredibly meaningful questions, to which there are no answers. So all I would say is this: give away what you can, hold onto the stuff that matters (both metaphorically and literally), and FEEL NO GUILT about walking away from the TT-thing. NO GUILT!

Either way you cut it--having a baby and forgoing the grind of the TT-job (what you did), or doing the diss. and TT-job while forgoing childbearing until "later" (what I am doing)--the situation is tough as hell. Your decision is and was a good one.

Think of certain older female professors of our shared acquaintance, the ones who devoted their lives to fearsome SLAC teaching and research, and whose cats didn't even like them very much.

And, then think about this: Lucas rocks.

Anonymous said...

I write this with all seriousness. "Selling out" is much better than I ever thought it would be.

You can still be as engaged as you want to be when you want to be, but then you can just kick back and not worry about perishing for lack of publishing, as well as feeling free to follow whatever interest you have at the moment, without guilt.

Plus, you get to spend much more time with the family, all without (or with less of) the money stress.

And knowing you, you'll still be a fabulous recreational historian/cultural critic.

About the only thing you don't have is that feeling of "If I don't finish this research paper by next month, I'm going to get fired." I suspect that you will still find a way to get the projects that are important to you done in a timely fashion. (Unlike me, I suck at finishing things without a deadline.)

What Now? said...

I found this a really moving post. I have no words of wisdom, but I appreciate your sharing some of your thinking and struggles.

flossie said...

Loved this post. I am about to take the "sell-out" path AND am seriously considering the "no-baby" path (as in none at all!). So your thoughts on these issues resonated a lot.

susan said...

On the child stuff: I have had a post in my head on all these issues for ages now. Having tons of boxes of Curious Girl's baby things in the basement meant that maybe, somehow, we'd adopt a second child, and I liked having that hope out there. I liked being the mother of a baby, too, and having the baby stuff held that identity open for me a little longer.

We're moving in a few months, and it became clear to me that we were going to have to part with the stuff. I gave most of it to two different friends, and that made it easier for me. I see some of the stuff used, and that makes me happy.

I also like the space it has freed up. Declutteriing is pretty liberating, in the end.

I've been reading a fair bit about organization (typical academic approach to a problem: research it!) and one clutter person-I completely forget his name--talked about saving things to honor the past, and how keeping a bunch of, say, concert posters stuffed int eh back of a closet where they got no attention isn't really honoring them. So he suggested picking the best to frame and highlight and giving away the rest. That made an impression on me--I've started thinkinga bout what am I getting out of savying this box, what is getting honored in the saving, what am I doing by saving it?

It's also true that getting rid of the stuff didn't exactly settle the baby longings. But it did help me package them differently. Your mileage may vary, naturally...

ArticulateDad said...

I'm late to the table, here. All well said, and well reflected. You know the path I've taken. You know the difficulties of the decisions. What I can say is, though I love to teach, and though I believe students deserve committed teachers (and more of them), I honestly believe that our society needs a massive slap in the face about education.

In my dreams, every teacher in the country would go on strike tomorrow, and not come to the negotiating table until the first concession was made to double the number of teachers (from kindergarten through grad school) without any reduction in current salaries and benefits.

I too have felt the loss of leaving the pursuit for a tenure-track job. I've made the radical choice of packing up my family of five, and moving across country to a less expensive town, where we could buy a house (with a mortgage 1/3 of our former rent), where we could afford to take a chance on making some dreams come true.

I know you think of these things as well, so I give you a bit of reconaissance: This is home! I only regret that it took me four years of aspiring to a tenure-track gig before I found a path truly my own. And the great irony is: I expect to succeed... and I wouldn't in least bit be surprised if after all my effort a tenured post found it's way to my door someday.