Tensions I’ve seen between vocation and family.
There is a girl near my feet as I write this. She is a young girl with thin hair in a short wispy cut that makes her petite face elfin. I’m writing in Colorado where we’ve moved for my husband’s job. Not far there are mountains to see, if I can strain my head at the right angle from the window. Outside I can hear the whine of a motorcycle in my suburb backgrounding the tinny cheers of my older daughter’s Kindle game. My other daughter in a room a door away naps through it.
This is my new life. A few months ago I was considering accepting a chair in an English department someday. No commitment made on my superiors’ part, just me as the likely successor in a year or two. But my husband was eager for a new challenge and my heart questioned returning to full-time work. So here I am. No teaching gigs, no current plans to look for any.
A well-popularized Atlantic article made the Internet rounds two years ago[i]. A professor at Princeton left her high-powered government job to return to academic responsibilities, pleased that she would be more available to her son who was troubled in school. One of her conclusions was that if women are to have it all, they’ll need jobs that are flexible. And yet in her faculty role, she teaches, writes books, and takes dozens of speaking opportunities.
My institution wasn’t half as demanding, but I wondered as I read it when her flexibility gave her time for talks about life with her husband, when she tapped “reading for fun” into her smartphone with the other priorities of the day. I have friends who live that academic life: leave work at 3:30 to pick up their kids at school, take them to soccer, home to make a quick meal, help with homework, and then afterwards grade papers until 10:30. Rest, real rest, doesn’t come until summer. It’s not a bad life, but I question if it’s for me and my family.
In a course I taught, I had students read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Even at 8 a.m. the energy was palpable, their sighs of resonance as they opened the little book for our discussion. How could we not heed his entreaties to “Go into yourself” and “to love the questions themselves” (his emphasis)[ii]? And yet how far do we heed them, to the extent that we leave our spouse and child to find the solitude to write as he did? Not that all the contemporary scholars and writers whom I admire do this—they seem to have an immense energy I don’t have that produces prolific writing, including their shared chatter on Twitter.
Spent from another year of teaching, I took a personal retreat in the north woods of Minnesota one May. Before I left Minneapolis, I stopped by the house of the man I was dating. He handed me an envelope and lent me the music of exuberant nuns singing for my ninety-minute drive. Tucked into a cabin golden with pine wood, I slit open the card, greeted with words that implied “You’re the one.” I took a walk through the spring brush, frustrated at God when I returned and found myself unpeeling one layer of clothing at a time to pick off ticks. Where was my peace?
I would be frustrated again the next morning. The beauty of the newly greening trees better to gaze on than experience, I sat at table in front of a plate glass window reading Frederick Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. He describes his need for a place other than his home to do his writing: for over ten years he was able to drop off a daughter at school and share morning prayers with a nearby rector before he borrowed his small library for some hours.
And I got angry. How nice for you, I thought, that you had a wife at home tending to her garden and the house, likely beginning the prep for dinner? How nice for you that your writing vocation is so much of a straight line after your years of teaching, whereas for me if I marry this man I love, by virtue of my female body, my straight line will be interrupted by birth and nursing and my mind will be consumed with their needs.
And as I slashed these words into my journal with my black pen, I could hear God telling me that marriage was to accept this “lacey” structure of life, of seasons of strands arcing to an apex and then back down, of tiny interconnections between. A simple image–lace, and yet one appropriate for this moment when perhaps my inner pendulum had swung too far against the confining views of women in my upbringing and church–the blame for the sudden rage at a favorite author.
I married that boyfriend, and two years later this little girl who now is taping artwork on my office window was born. Life at home is not scented, happy-songed days like commercials featuring moms holding up toilet-bowl cleaners. I have no affirmation for completed research, no invigorating meetings where I draw together multiple views, no need for Claire Underwood pencil skirts and delicately textured tops that exude confidence. I’m eking through reading books, I’m not creating great works of art, and I’m as tempted as any other mother to escape into social media.
Yet, there’s a little girl who’s showing me that she can cut as well as a 4th grader and another who grabs my cheeks with her surprisingly long fingers and purses her lips when I don’t pay attention to her. There is time to make a cake for Daddy’s birthday and to not vent at the tang of bitten-off orange peels and the sticky juice that spatters the floor when the cool handles of the squeezer are grabbed by those slim tiny hands.
Here in Colorado, I identify myself as a writer and as a mother. But as a writer, I steal snippets of time, when my husband is off at the hardware store with the rambunctious younger child, when I give my girls their afternoon streaming show. I’m not like one of former students with children who built a platform by waking in the wee hours to blog. I know my weakness of temper, and lack of sleep exacerbates it. Even in this setting, “in neither realm am I at my best.”[iii] But the writer of those words, a scholar who’s a practicing academic and also a mother, calls this an opportunity for “wisdom gained and life deepened.” I hope so.
For now as I lie down, knowing my dreams will likely be about the halls of my old institution, even its warm wax smell of newly polished floors, I am thankful. My husband and I will have watched a British show and had ice cream with homemade chocolate sauce. We can plan dinner parties with rich conversation to match his Julia Child—inspired use of butter. In an episode of the late 1970s show, All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot visits a horse expert, unrecognized for his skills, who lives remotely with his gracious wife and must guard himself against too many pints. With a toss of my hat and an urge to a new friend to drink up, I too can offer that “I’m lazy and unambitious” but “very happily married.”
[ii] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1934/1964).
[iii] Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2007).
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.