My last weekly response in the “Profession of English” class

July 19, 2008 at 12:12 am (grad school) ()

In response to a few articles about gender, equality, family, workplace, etc.

One Saturday in my apartment in Baumholder, Germany, I was on the phone with one of my soldiers.  She was a new young mother whose husband was deployed to Kuwait and whose infant slept for twelve hours a day and cried for the other twelve, though not consecutively or with any predictability.  She had called to ask me what to do, as she had just set her off-base apartment kitchen on fire when she fell asleep on the sofa leaving some bottles boiling in a pan of water on the stove.  English was her second language, and German was not even a distant third for her at this point, and she was in tears trying to figure out what to say to her elderly German landlady. My German wasn’t any good either, but I was the sergeant.  I was who you called.  (She felt pretty comfortable calling me, too, especially after I had gotten up at 2 am, left my daughter with my downstairs neighbor, and driven to the hospital two towns over to be there with her when she gave birth to her son.)

Meanwhile, my toddler was trying desperately to get my attention.  I was tethered to the kitchen by the phone cord, and my little blond angel wanted something, only I couldn’t figure out just what.  I proffered cheese, crackers, a sippy cup of juice, all met with an impatient toss of her little blond head.  I closed the refrigerator door with my foot, phone tucked between ear and shoulder, as I balanced the phone book, a German dictionary, and my company first sergeant’s home number atop a stack of puzzles and toys.

My toddler climbed onto the kitchen table and proceeded to pour out a big pile of grated Parmesan cheese, scooping it into her mouth gleefully.  I dragged the broom and dustpan out of the pantry.  My soldier cried, and in the background I could hear her baby crying too.  I started looking for the home number of an American civilian who worked in my section and spoke excellent German, thinking it might be time to bring in a translator.

Then my little blond angel stood up on the kitchen table, one foot ankle-deep in a pile of grated Parmesan cheese, removed her diaper, and peed all over the table, grinning angelically the entire time.

She finally had my full attention.  I told my soldier I’d have to call her back.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that story.  In fact, I’ve told it to military audiences twice, once as part of a speech at my Major Command’s NCO of the Year board (those scary old Command Sergeant Majors were not amused, and I did not win the competition), and once as an invited speaker at a Battalion NCO induction ceremony (the mid-level NCOs and the soldiers with children were quite amused).  I tell it because it’s funny. But a lot of that 24/7 parent/leadership/work stuff was not funny at all, and I don’t tell some of it too much.

For instance, after 9/11, I had gradually run through what Robin Feldman in “The 24/7 Professor” calls layers A, B, and C of the single-parent backup plan.  We were on rotating guard duty with live ammunition, dogs that sniffed out bombs, mirrors on long handles with which we searched under the carriages of cars.  Everybody took turns, and the turns were taking tolls on many of us who were accustomed to more sedentary administrative work with more regular hours.  One night, when I had to start a guard duty shift at 11 p.m. and had completely run out of childcare options, I brought my toddler with me.  I put her down on a cot in the staff duty office and left her in the care of the bored, sleepy, resentful 19 year old private on duty – a private I’d chastised for falling out of a run only last week, a private I suddenly found myself wishing I had been a little nicer to.  After a lap around the fenced-in perimeter of the complex where our office buildings and the post’s clinic were, I stepped in to check on my daughter. She sat up in the cot, rubbed her sleepy eyes with her pudgy little fists, and said, “Mommy?  Are you going to shoot me with your gun?”  Not so funny.  And I’ve never forgotten it.  I declined to reenlist that year and started my paperwork to get the hell out of dodge and back to the States as a civilian.

This should indicate with just how much relief and eagerness I look forward to the sorts of work/parenting demands that worry Anita Corbett’s female graduate students thinking about balancing family and tenure-track careers.  My to-do list is nearly crippling, and you all know I whine and freak out about it as a coping mechanism.  But every single day I come home, cook dinner, tuck my daughter in, and listen with bemusement as she complains that I’m always on the computer and always working.  She doesn’t seem to remember much of our life in Germany, including the 12 hour workdays during which she was in childcare, and I’m very glad she doesn’t remember my loaded M-16, Kevlar vest, and full ammunition pouches.  True, I work after she’s gone to bed and before she gets up in the morning, and in between stirring things on the stove, and all weekend, and during breakfast, and we miss a lot of park time and playdates.  She’ll doubtless be in therapy in a few years telling her doctor about how distant I was when she was a pre-teen, about how I put school before her.  But the therapist’s bill will be a small price to pay for a job (whatever that job might be) in which I will not get blown up and in which I can work from home sometimes.  (Ok, a lot.  Ok, all the time.)  I tuck her in at night, not a babysitter.  And I’m in a position to know how fantastic and rare a thing that is for a working parent, never mind a single working parent.

Taking a page from A’s and R’s books, I will take this final opportunity to say that despite my whining and freaking out, I’m happy to be here, in my first year as a PhD student at [New School], getting paid to read and write and think.  This year is the first time in 19 years I haven’t had a clock to punch in the mornings, and sometimes I just can’t believe we’re not on food stamps, eating ketchup sandwiches the last few days of the month.  R’s right – the toddler won’t remember. There’s beauty in being able to have your baby in one hand and your Blackberry in the other.  So have your babies, start your families, make your hard decisions, and be prepared for nothing to go as planned.  Be prepared to work like a dog and maybe compromise your chances on the market. But believe this: the workplace, whatever workplace it is, doesn’t change until somebody grits teeth and takes risks and breaks ranks.  Somebody has to the first person to bring their toddler to a department meeting, or to insist that a Saturday morning meeting be rescheduled, or to drag a sleeping bag and video game up to the office for a sick child to use during office hours.  Somebody has to be the first person to broach issues of gender roles in the workplace, the first person in the office to come out as gay, the first person to confront the status quo.  You can get demolished doing that, in any workplace, but somebody has to do it or nothing will ever change.  That’s both risky and honorable.

I’m with L – I’m skeptical as hell about the market, and I’m not a shiny happy ball of fluffy sunshine oozing meek gratitude for the benevolence of the universe in putting me here. I busted my behind to get here – we all did.  And I’ll bust it on the market – we all will.  But I’m really hearing K when she says, “I simply could not respect myself if I abandoned what I wanted to do most just because it got a little hard, or because the job prospects were dismal, or because David Horowitz calls persons in our profession ‘dishonorable.’” David Horowitz would likely think my pulling guard duty, getting myself and my soldiers blown up in Afghanistan, Kuwait, or Iraq, and becoming a hero (and, of course, an absent or even dead mommy) is much more honorable work than what I’m doing now and what I aspire to do.  But I have made a difference in working-class, nontraditional students’ lives – I know, because they’ve told me so.  I know because they’ve told me I was the first college teacher they had that didn’t speak to them across some tweedy, academic divide (of course, I was often simply their first college teacher, so that might not be saying much). I would probably never be happy teaching at a place like [New School]; I’m happier teaching students who are a little less polite, who come from slightly more checkered backgrounds.  That’s part of what shapes my goals and my path.  But there are different types of honor, and different paths in life, and no one single right answer or Magic 8-Ball for tracing one’s own.  I’m worth more to the world as a teacher than a soldier, and I’m worth more to my daughter alive than dead, and I am going to hang in there for a chance to be a (constructive) thorn in David Horowitz’s side.

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