How Did I Get Here?

Letting the days go by….

If there’s one thing that I can point to that landed me where I am today, it’s the fact that I chose to put my parenting ahead of my career.

Should I be feeling guilty about this?

What does it say about our society that I have to even ask myself that question?

I had my first child when I was 30 and two years away from finishing my doctorate. I wrote my dissertation while he napped as an infant.  When I finished, I half-heartedly went on the job market, but knew, even as I made the rounds of MLA interviews, that I was not willing to subject myself to the rigors of the tenure clock while also caring for a small child.

I ended up at my undergraduate alma mater, Simon’s Rock, teaching as an adjunct.  I thought it would be temporary, a way of “keeping my hand in,” and that when I was ready I would be able to get back on to the tenure track.

If I had known then what I know now–that making the leap from adjunct to tenured faculty is incredibly difficult, even if you have everything going for you–would I have chosen differently?

I don’t think so.  I wanted to work part-time so I would have time to mother my sons the way I myself had been mothered–carefully, tenderly, in a relaxed and open-hearted way.  I did not want to subject them to long hours at day care.  I didn’t want to have to commute long distances, making family dinners impossible.  I didn’t want to have to move far from their grandparents, my parents, who sustained our growing family in so many ways.

Still.  I didn’t realize how much of a stigma would be attached to a professional like me making a decision like that. I didn’t realize how even at Simon’s Rock, moving from adjunct to regular fulltime (the school has no tenure track) would be difficult, to say the least–notwithstanding my impressive publication record, teaching prowess and evident commitment to the institution.

And so I took on a second job, working two-thirds time at Simon’s Rock and half-time at SUNY.  Finally I was making a real living.

But over the nine years that I did both jobs, while also parenting, publishing, making the rounds of professional conferences and organizing my own major annual conference and now month-long festival, my marriage deteriorated.  I thought that as I made more income and had more responsibilities outside the home, my partner would step up and do more parenting.

If anything, he did less.  The more successful I appeared, the more insecure and irritable he became.  This is apparently a common pattern among husbands who are less professionally successful than their wives.

And so I got more and more burnt out.  I remember coming home one day after a full day of teaching, with a car full of groceries, and just being in tears carrying the heavy bags into the house while the boys and their dad looked on, apparently unmoved. It was too much.

Eventually my body said NO MORE and I had a major back spasm, forcing me to do less, and the boys to do more.  Not long after, my husband checked out.

I would never have chosen to give up my second job, but one month into this situation, I have to say that it feels like a blessing.  What a luxury it is to have time to properly prepare my classes, instead of being constantly on the run, playing catch up!  What a pleasure to have more time to visit with family and friends!

Apparently I’m not alone in feeling this way.  As Juliet Schor reports in this month’s YES Magazine, “people who voluntarily start working less are generally pleased. In the New Dream survey, 23 percent said they were not only happier, but they didn’t miss the money. Sixty percent reported being happier, but missed the money to varying degrees. Only 10 percent regretted the change. And I’ve also found downshifters who began with a job loss or an involuntary reduction in pay or hours, but came to prefer having a wealth of time.”

It’s been nine years since I’ve had this kind of luxury of time.  I want to use it wisely–making new networks of friends, being a kinder, less snappish mom, putting time into pleasures that cost nothing, like writing, weeding my garden, walking my dog.  Or just sitting still in the slanting afternoon sunshine, dreaming up another world.

On Becoming a Statistic

I have never felt like such a statistic as I do now.

As of the past few months, I have lost a job, and the health insurance that went with it; gotten divorced and become a single mom; and so suddenly found myself the proud possessor of a mortgage I can no longer afford.

The full catastrophe.

I take some small measure of comfort from the knowledge that it is not just me.  Women have been hit harder in this recession than men, and single women, especially single moms, worst of all.

“In today’s economic and political climate, women are being dealt a triple blow,” says Anika Rahman, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. “Indeed, what was once termed a ‘mancession’ is now a ‘womancession.’ Women are losing jobs faster than men because of drastic cuts in areas like education and health care where they make up the majority of the workforce. As the majority of state and local public-sector workers, women are affected most by attacks on public-sector unions. And women suffer most from cuts to social services because they’re more likely to be poor and care for children and the elderly.”

As a matter of fact, the job I lost was in the public education sector. I taught for nine years at SUNY Albany as a Lecturer in Humanities (ie, a salaried professor on a three-year renewable contract), and I was a member of the union, United University Professionals (UUP).  Because it is very difficult for the university to fire individual union members who have been performing well in their jobs, the administration decided, in the interests of saving money, to terminate my entire program, an innovative first year “living & learning” community that had just been shown by external reviewers to have positively impacted students’ success rate at the university.

The administrators I talked with about the program termination made no bones about the fact that it made better financial sense for them to fire a salaried worker like me and hire a few adjunct professors instead.  Why would you pay someone a living wage and benefits when you can get away with paying someone else a pittance with no benefits?

Sadly this is the state of our higher education system these days.  At least 50% of college and university teachers are now adjunct; at many places, including Harvard and my alma mater, New York University, some 70% of the professors are employed on an adjunct basis.

And we’re not talking about graduate students; we’re talking about people with doctorates, who have worked very hard and spent a lot of time and money to attain the highest degree in their discipline, now reduced to working on a semester-to-semester contract, generally for about $4,000 a course (much less at community colleges), with no benefits.  And no end in sight.

So here I am, living in a house I love bought just before the housing bubble burst, when I was married to a man with a decent job, and working two jobs myself–a house that my current income will not cover.  I am lucky that I have the other job to fall back on; but because I worked two jobs all those years, I am still only part-time at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.  I have two teenage children to support, financially and emotionally, at a time when I myself feel like the one needing support.

There is no doubt that I am one of the lucky ones.  Coming even this close to the edge makes me empathize all the more with the millions of Americans, especially women, who are having to roll with the punches of unemployment and economic contraction.

The stresses on the family are huge.  How many men and women are turning up at the doctors’ office begging for anti-depressants to help them get through the day, or drinking too much, or simply zoning out in front of the TV set in order to escape a crushing reality?  Domestic violence is on the rise; so is suicide.

Listening to the political debate over jobs infuriates me because the whole discussion is so superficial.  We need more than a “stimulus” in our society.  We need more than “shovel-ready” jobs.  We need more than an extension of unemployment benefits, or even a restructuring of our tax system.

What we need is to put the soul back into our social relations.  We need to think deeply, as a society, about our priorities and goals.  Do we really want to become a society where the elite managers live in luxury and ease behind heavily guarded gates, while the masses toil miserably on the edge of ruin, and the prison populations grow ever larger, serving the function of Scrooge’s infamous “workhouses”?

We live in a country, and a world, that is rich in natural resources and talented people.  With proper stewardship, there could be enough for everyone to enjoy a decent existence on this planet, a life lived in dignity, with meaning and reward found in service to the common good.

Where is the social movement that will mobilize people like me to stand up and insist on a better future?  Who will throw the spark that ignites the fire for change?

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