This will be cross-posted at my baby blog. If you’re not reading there, and want to, please drop me an e-mail, or let me know in the comments. And friends, this is a classic Sarah, absurdly long post. I hope it is worth it to read all the way through… this is what happens when you don’t find much time for blogging… and you’re, by nature, absurdly wordy.
For the past several weeks the fact that we will be adding a baby to our lives in, oh, just a few months has started to sink in. I say started because I am well aware that that until I have that baby in my arms, on my breast I don’t have the first clue what that “reality” will be. But my distracting thoughts have shifted as I’ve entered this third trimester from all sorts of preoccupation with my new course of study and with finding appropriate caregivers, etc. to “How on earth is a baby going to fit into this new life?”
I’d navigate the maze of the Divinity School I always had one eye peeled for possible pumping locations. I never found one and was considering whether it would be uncouth to ask to use a professor’s office when my midwife shared that the Nursing School two buildings away from the Divinity School has a pumping room. Sigh of relief, there will be a private place to pump.
I’d press my colleagues with young children for information about their child care arrangements and hear horror stories of waiting lists and spending chunks of savings to hire nannies and my breathing would get shallow and I’d think “You should have listened to your French classmate who told you to start working on childcare the week you arrived.” Back then I thought and said “I need a midwife first, and Kevin needs a job.” In response my colleague said “You also need quality childcare and you can never start looking too soon.” I did some investigating several weeks ago and it seemed like there were a wide range of options and then I paused again because not knowing Kev’s work schedule, location, or income, I just didn’t know what would work best. Well, now I know Kev’s work schedule, location, and income. And it was clear it was time to start the search in earnest. I downloaded the application to my University’s child care center, subsidized (still not cheap), and near BOTH of our places of daily employment. I understand they have a waiting list a mile long though so it almost seemed silly to fill out the form.
It seemed silly because the other reality that was dawning was that if I have this baby RIGHT on time, I’d be starting classes again when the baby is JUST over four weeks old. If I’m early, (like normally early) I’m planning for that, planning to finish all my papers by Thanksgiving, a few weeks before the due date, then I’d be going back at about six weeks and that seems semi-sane, though not easy. But if I’m late, so much more the norm for first time moms, the baby could be only two or three weeks old when the semester begins. As far as I can tell one cannot secure childcare for a baby that young and I could not fathom being physically or emotionally able to engage full time Ph.D. studies so soon after the birth of my first child. I was talking to the friend formerly known as workout buddy (does she need a new name now? W.B. do I have permission to call you by your real name here now- or should I use your chosen blog name?) the other evening and observed how hard I thought it was going to be to go back to school in January and she said “Yes, especially because you’ve waited SO long for this baby. You are NOT going to want to let that precious one go.”
When I’d worry over this transition and balancing these two gifts, frequently friends and colleagues would say “Sarah, can’t you just take the second semester off?” I was always quite clear that that was not an option. When I presented the pregnancy to the head of my department and the head of my fellowship program they didn’t suggest this was a possibility. And I couldn’t fathom that my generous fellowship support, still the larger portion of our household income, would continue were I to just take a semester off. Further, and this is real, I couldn’t imagine stopping what I have only just begun. I’m just getting back into the swing of things and such a major break was unfathomable to me. So I’d dismiss that possibility and continue fretting. It occurred to me this weekend, however, that if the rest of the world gets at least six weeks, I should too, that seemed fair and sane. I drafted an e-mail on Monday, after finishing my preparations for my Bonhoeffer class that afternoon, to the head of my area and the head of my fellowship program, and pitched a floating start date for the second semester, to be determined by date baby enters the world. I will start the semester six weeks postpartum. Possibly right on time, possibly a bit late, possibly almost a month late. I suggested that I would read for classes even before beginning, and post in on-line discussions, and that Kev could even drop off a great digital recorder he has and I could listen to lectures and discussions on my own time. This proposal took some pressure off. It left the childcare question unresolved, but opened up a bit more transitional time and adjustment.
Yesterday afternoon after a day, at home, in which I spent HOURS reading the material for my Thursday class (and wishing my pace were just a bit quicker, my energy just a bit higher, so I could clean this house in bits between chapters- it is a mess at the moment, and we have guests coming Thursday night, but no it took the better part of the day to read, read, read, read, read and then to identify a passage on which to write my paper and prepare my presentation from Thursday leaving only additional time to eat, refill the water glass, and pee, oh and I think a brief unplanned nap happened- yesterday was one of those days where my brain was having four different conversations with itself while I tried to read! Makes for a LONG day. And six chapters is nothing to sneeze at either…), I opened up my e-mail to send a note to my Thursday professor about my thoughts for a passage to engage in close reading for my Thursday paper and presentation. What I found, before writing that e-mail, was an e-mail response from the head of my department to my query from the day before. This is what it said (slightly edited):
I have discussed your request with [the head of your fellowship program] and [the professor who is also an administrator with two or more titles I can never remember]. Our sentiment is that your proposal is not especially feasible; starting the semester several weeks late and trying to catch up would put you in a very difficult position academically, even under optimal circumstances. We also feel that it is unnecessary, and that simply taking the spring semester off would be far preferable. It would be no problem to sign you up for doctoral research hours to maintain your status as a full-time student. Your standing as a member of the Theological Studies area of the [Graduate Department of Religion] would be completely unaffected. I have also been told, and [the head of your fellowship program] can confirm this, that your financial aid arrangements would not be jeopardized. In fact, one of the advantages of the generous provisions of your [totally, freakin’ amazing SIX YEAR] fellowship is that you have the flexibility to take a semester off in order to spend time with your new child and recover from the birth. After the spring and summer you would presumably be in an excellent position to return to full-time study and give it the attention it demands. I hope you will consider our proposal carefully, and let me know what you think.
[first name of head of my area]
Now, one might think that such an e-mail would have sent me hooting and hollering and dancing around my messy house, but… no. I freaked out. It scared the daylights out of me. As suggested above, I couldn’t imagine a nearly nine month break from this new work I’ve just begun. I was afraid that starting next fall would be JUST like starting this fall, and I really didn’t want to go through that again. And further, I felt real grief at the disconnection from my new and fabulous community that would likely result. Thinking of going from six days a week of intense academic study, punctuated by interactions with fascinating people for whom I’m coming to care very deeply, to being home, largely alone, with a non-talking baby (who I am sure I will love to pieces and be completely enamored with), well… this scared and saddened me. And then, of course, I started to feel like the biggest jerk in the world for NOT being overwhelmed with joy by this generous possibility, what did this mean about my readiness for a BABY?! Fortunately I was able to get in touch with a wise friend who helped me to realize that this is just the first of many moments in my life when I am called to weigh in the balance my needs with the needs of my child and that, any decision I make, there are sacrifices, and it is o.k. to feel the pain, fear, and sadness around the sacrifices, it doesn’t mean I won’t be a good mom, I won’t love my baby, etc. I had a good cry on the phone with him and hung up not totally at peace, but with some good tools to work with.
I threw together the e-mail to my professor with my query about my paper passage, called Kevin who was wrapping up his second day of work (which is going very well, by the way) and about to eat the dinner he’d brought with him, waiting for me to join him on campus for our second childbirth class. I told him I wanted to do SOMETHING to bring order to the house- I picked the discrete task of unloading the dishwasher, not ultimately gratifying, but it’s a start- but that I hoped to get to campus early so I could talk to him about the e-mail I received and my reaction to it. I quickly briefed him on it. And he took the news in stride. Of course, by the time I unloaded the dishwasher, remembered that I, in fact needed to eat something, and looked at the clock, I’d be lucky if I made it to campus in time for the class. So much for the heart to heart with Kev before class.
Class was fine. The most memorable moment for both of us was seeing a placenta be delivered and seeing it in a tray just after it was delivered. The whole (LARGE) class seemed pretty horrified by that. It was, um, not so attractive. Kev had a particularly interesting reaction. If you know him, that’s his story to tell, ask him. Other classmates seemed horrified by any close up of the actual moment of crowning, etc., but that really didn’t phase me. For whatever reason, I don’t have huge fears about the birth- yet, if I will ever.
I was just starting to talk with Kev on the drive home about my reaction to the e-mail when a wonderful blogger friend called and so he vicariously heard some of the story as i caught up with this friend with whom I have not spoken in TOO long. When we got home I worked on straightening up my office a bit, which will be our guest room as well, and we talked. He asked me about possibilities for using that time in an academically constructive way so I don’t feel like I’m losing ground- the reading I could do, etc. The thought came up as we were talking that I could do some German self-study because a goal had been to get both my languages out of the way this year. He wondered if I couldn’t take just a German class, but again, the starting late thing, as my professors said, probably not feasible. But I might be able to hire a German tutor… maybe.
And as for the isolation fear, he suggested ways that I could stay connected, and ways he could help facilitate that. The possibility of staying involved in one or more of my monthly colloquies came up and seemed potentially feasible. He also suggested that I could get involved in a new mom’s group. And I considered the fact that on the way into our birth class we chatted with a couple who, I think, only lives a few blocks away. The first week I thought “those people could be friends” and maybe they started to become so last night. She is also a grad student at my University, a masters student with Ph.D. aspirations, but for now… the baby. I thought… maybe… she and I can become better acquainted and this could help with the isolation factor.
We also talked about all the domestic responsibilities I would assume. For the first time in six years of marriage I would become the primary cook, dishwasher, laundry doer, etc. (and oh… the laundry we’ll have…) This wasn’t exactly appealing, but in another way it was. I realized as we were talking last night that part of what was scary or overwhelming was that this is a possibility I have NEVER seriously entertained. I have known since, oh, middle school (right around the time I watched a video in health class on prenatal testing and decided I’d have none of that) that I would not be a stay-at-home mom, that I’d be a better mom as a working mom. And once the reality of being a grad student and a mom kicked in I didn’t imagine that it was even an option so as we’ve built our life here I haven’t daydreamed about the day when… of all the imagining I’ve done, this has never been on the table. That’s also, probably, why it was overwhelming and scary.
I went to bed not at all settled about the matter, but feeling a bit more space in the possibilities. I also went to bed conscious of how much academic work I need to get done today, Wednesday, and not really having the first clue how that would happen. I tried to pray as I drifted off, for guidance and strength in all of it.
I woke up a bit over an hour earlier than I intended to with thoughts about how to approach the paper I needed to write, it almost seemed to be writing itself in my head, and with this blog post taking shape. I also found myself starting to think positively about the luxury of the time with my baby that was being offered to me. As I find so little time for blogging these days, it seemed wise to just get up and get this written.
Before I started the post, I checked my e-mail and had a response from the head of my fellowship program that said this (again, slightly edited):
[The head of your area] is exactly right in saying that your [totally freakin’ amazing] fellowship would not be jeopardized by a decision to set aside coursework for a semester and use dissertation research hours to remain a full-time student. If you are a full-time student in the [graduate department of religion], making good progress (as defined by your area) towards your degree, then you remain eligible for [your] fellowship with full stipend. So: you don’t need to do a full raft of courses in the spring to retain your fellowship.
This leaves you free to find the right balance of other goods for you and your family. I’m glad to talk with you at more length about those choices, if you like. I’m also glad to put you in touch with another [graduate department of religion] student who gave birth at right about the same time you will – near the end of her first semester of coursework. You could talk with her about the choices she made and what she learned. Just let me know if you’d like an introduction.
My hunch, though, is the same as [the head of your area]: that it might be best on both academic and familial ends to focus the spring semester and the summer on family matters, and then return in the fall with a primary focus on academics. If you wanted to split the difference, you could also consider a reduced load, getting a language requirement out of the way (if you need to), or a directed reading or two. You really have a wide range of options.
Please don’t hesitate to be in touch for additional conversation.
My best for now,
[first name of the head of the fellowship program]
This e-mail brought a smile to my face, and a bit of puzzlement. Why not offer to introduce me to this student sooner? And why is that where other colleagues of mine in this fellowship program are being pushed to move quickly through despite their generous funding and available time, I am being granted SO MUCH grace? But, not a fear response this morning, just a gratitude response, a major gratitude response.
So, friends, it looks like I don’t have to worry about finding childcare just yet- I’ll put in the applications, yes, but I’ll have time to visit places and explore. And I don’t have to spend most of my nursing time pumping on the third floor of the nursing school. And I don’t have to check out of my studies completely, but as I’m having now the opportunity to immerse myself in academia with only a bit of time to devoted to preparations to become a mother, next semester I’ll have the opportunity to immerse myself in motherhood with some time devoted to continuing academic formation. And just as I’ve said many times that having six years in the parish, and now six years in the academy felt providential to me, in terms of formation, so too is this.
Many details yet to be figured out, but… your prayers? They’re working. Thank you.