Friday, January 07, 2011

on being an educated LDS stay-at-home working mom

At the start of a new semester, I find myself thinking again about the role-juggling I do as a working and stay-at-home-mother.  This is especially poignant to me as two of my sisters are finishing graduate degrees (Mary Beth a JD in law and Ruth a master's in accounting) this spring, and I have been remembering the transition that I went through five years ago as I left school. 

I come from a line of women who have walked this same fence.  My maternal grandmother was a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News for years; my paternal grandmother taught English at BYU-Idaho until her retirement.  My own mother finished her graduate degree in English with a baby (me) on her lap; many of my professors at BYU recalled me as the paper-grabbing infant when I returned 17 years after my first stint in their classrooms.  My mother stopped teaching when I was still fairly young (but old enough to remember running between campus buildings in the rain), but has often had something going on the side.

Graduate school was hard for me emotionally.  I loved the intellectual challenge, but I felt isolated from the other women in my ward by virtue of the fact that I was lugging my baby up to campus every day and missing out on all the playgroups.  And I could no longer spend time debating and sharing ideas with my colleagues because I was rushing home from my office so that I could put Abigail down for a nap.  After my first year of graduate school, four weeks after Abigail was born, we moved to a small resort town so that Neil could complete a summer internship.

It was the most miserable time of my life, and I mean that literally.  I was alone in a small apartment (with no internet access or car) in an unfamiliar town, with a brand-new baby who cried all the time and never slept.  I couldn't figure out how to nurse her without distress for both of us.  I spent a lot of my time crying, eating chocolate chips straight from the bag, and reading endless Agatha Christie mysteries. 

Returning to school was wonderful, but difficult at the same time, as I worried constantly about leaving for good. While meeting with a renowed female professor that year, she looked straight at me and told me--very forcefully--that I was brilliant, and I was throwing myself away by deciding to be a mother rather than applying for a Ph.D. program.  She cited the awards I'd received earlier that year for teaching and for scholarship, one of which was given each year to the department's premier graduate student.  She painted a glowing picture of my future in academia.  I didn't know what to say, because secretly I worried about the same thing, despite all the prayers and spiritual confirmations I'd felt about my choice.  I left her office dejected and disheartened, pushing Abigail's stroller in front of me.

After Neil accepted a position as a doctoral student at a university across the country, I contacted the English department and asked diffidently about the possibility of teaching.  I forwarded a resume and was surprised to receive a return email assuring me that they would certainly like me to teach, and would I like to join their full-time faculty? 

Teaching helped to ease the transition, but even more, I worked harder than I've ever worked to make friends.  I remember being exhausted every night of our first summer, because I had worked all day to create friendships and attend as many activities as possible.  And the results were wonderful.  I connected with the women in my new hometown through different interests than the friends I'd had in graduate school; through their influence I developed talents and attributes and interests I'd always ignored.  I became a more interesting, compassionate, and well-rounded person.  I was happier with myself and the things I was doing.  I felt confidence in my talents and abilities.  I felt like I could let them speak for themselves, rather than worrying that someone would underestimate my intellectual capacities. 

To be honest with you, it has taken me years to be comfortable in my role as a stay-at-home mother.  Comfortable?  Actually, I don't think I am comfortable yet, because there is always something I need to work on.

But I am fulfilled.  There are days when I really miss the adulation of professors, peers, and students.  And to be honest with you, I still have one foot on the other side of the fence--I am still working. But I don't think of myself as a working mother anymore--work is now something that I do when everyone is asleep, rather than something that creates and reinforces my sense of identity.  What I enjoy--what I look forward to--is the time with my children, where I have the opportunity to shape their minds and personalities and perceptions.  Reading with them, cozied up on the couch, is the very best part of my day.  The glow I feel when Isaac runs up to give me a slobbery kiss, or the confiding way Juliet links her arm through mine, or the beaming smile on Abigail's eyes as she helps me prepare dinner--these give me more lasting satisfaction than any test score or conference publication or positive evaluation. 

I am so grateful for my education.  I like being able to add to our family finances, and I love the security of knowing that if something were to happen to Neil, I would be able to do something to provide for our material needs.  I have never regretted my choice to either pursue an advanced degree or to have a family.  I am grateful to belong to a church that encourages educational pursuits and validates the divine role of a woman as nurturer. 

I wrote this (unsolicited) essay for my sisters.  I hope that they can find the same joy and affirmation in their choices as I have found in mine.


Katrina said...

I really admire how you've made it all work, Rach. I don't doubt that you'll get that PhD down the road. You've been really blessed to have your children while you are young. We all know we need all the energy we can muster up as mothers of young children. As someone who's known you most of your life, I've really seen (via your blog) how you've grown up these past few years. You are doing well, my friend. Love you!

Elise said...

first, i love the new format of your blog. second, thanks for the essay--it was really great, and good to see a reminder of this. today i had a really good education class that really made me excited about teaching, but i'm grateful for the reminder of what i truly eventually want to be

Meghan said...

I think what you've chronicled is the movement from needing outside praise and positive reinforcement to the ability to find joy in the intrinsic value of mothering. Maybe glory of man vs. pleasing God? Or maybe becoming more godlike in finding joy in serving others without needing money/recognition/reward. You are becoming your own reward.

Kim Davis said...

I saw the link to your blog on facebook, and I must say, this is definitely something I need to hear right now. I'm looking forward to becoming a stay-at-home mom, but emotionally letting go/modifying both the academic and career goals I had once set for myself has been and is going to be an interesting challenge to face. Thanks for sharing such a personal story! It gives me hope.

Bryce's Ramblings said...

Enjoyed the post, Rachel. I have to say that once I got outside the world of literary academia, the pressure and importance I'd placed on it evaporated for me. I remember being so disappointed when I didn't get into a PhD program, and now I look back at that as being maybe one of the better things to happen to me in my life. Academia is a really insular world, where the things you do and say really matter--to a select group of people. Outside that select group, life goes on.

Anyway--glad to hear you're happy and that things are going well for you. I do read your blog regularly--just lurk for the most part.

Afton said...

Rachael this was great, thank you for such a well written description of the balance. I also love how your family always comments! Hi Deckers! Sister Decker, you always have such interesting things to say, no wonder your kids turned out so great with a mom like you to keep their wheels turning. Rachael, you are brilliant, and I'm sure you know that, but seriously, every time someone tells me about someone smart that's done amazing things before the usual time, I tell them about you. I say how I have this brilliant friend, "no really, she's truly a genius, this is not an exaggeration..." and go on about all that you're doing and a mother too. I've been so impressed with you and how you've chosen motherhood and seem to really love it and get into it. I love how positive you are about it when I've wondered how hard it would be to have to feel so split like you must. Thanks for sharing and being such a good example!

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