Grace in Life

The last two months have taken me away from the world of preemies. We’ve been building a house. I started back to work for the first time in two years. M graduated from therapy. It’s like we’ve hit cruise control as we fly down the highway away from the Preemie Years.

Both kids are having incredible growth spurts. At M’s two-year check-up, she was already in the 30th percentile; as a three-month-old, she still weighed 5 lbs, so her growth over the last six months has been phenomenal to witness. J apparently doesn’t want to be outdone, or shorter, than his sister, and finally he’s not the smallest 4-year-old we know. He’s gone from 2T clothes to 4T clothes in less than six months.

My preemies are big kids now. They run and jump and play. They scream and fight. They have crying fits and tantrums. They laugh and squeal with joy. They climb and slide and dig in the dirt. They eat and talk–and eat and talk at the same time. We’re so busy that some of these moments pass me by, but, honestly, at least fifteen times a day, I pause just for a second to reflect on these people my babies have become. I never lose sight of who they were, the limitations they faced, and the dark places that trapped us.

I have no doubt that I am a better mother and a better person than I was before it all, but sometimes I still feel tangled in memories that I cannot seem to quite escape. For the first time in more than fifty months of mothering, I scheduled no therapy this month. I talked to no therapist. There were no discussions about development and ability and goals for the future. Some parents never get there; some kids always need extra help. And that fact crosses my mind nearly every time I watch the kids play. From the outside, I look like every other mom at the park, but I’m not thinking of what I’ll cook for dinner or what time we’ll leave. I’m always here and there, in the now and past, comparing the tiny baby images in my head to the children I see running around me.

Just when I think maybe it’s time for me to bow out of this community, something pulls me back. Today, I got a beautiful e-mail from a reader telling me her story, which sounds much like mine and probably yours too. She said things only mothers of preemies say; her words take me right back to that place. And now I’m not so sure I’ve said all I want to say about having tiny babies.

One thing that I’ve been thinking lately about these last four years is that one of my favorite statements about parenting small children was never more true than with preemies: “The days are so long, but the years are so short.” It is difficult, challenging, and exhausting work, parenting children who have special needs. Then, you blink, and that tiny baby who fit in the hollow of your chest is so heavy you can barely carry him. But, with our babies, there’s also another line too: “The babies are so tiny, but their spirits are so big.” And the more time that passes, the more I believe that there’s just something special about tiny babies who are a steady reminder of grace in life.

Why Women Leave

Me, when I used to be a teacher

Last year, I read Lean In. I am a mother with a Ph.D., so a discussion about women in the workplace touches on sensitive issues for me. I keenly feel the decimation of my career–or, on an optimistic day, the delay of reaching my professional goals–so I don’t really need anyone to remind me that I took my nine years of higher education with me when I left the workforce. And I agree that it is a terrible shame.

But, I always feel that the discussion about women leaving the workplace occurs in a vacuum. It doesn’t take into account real life. Yes, in theory, I would have a tenure-track job, and I would be awesome at it. In my time at home, I’d also be a wonderful mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. And then I’d do some community service for good measure. In theory, my kids would go to an affordable, safe, enriching full-time preschool, and I would have no guilt about leaving them there. And in theory, I would make at least half as much as my husband, and his job would come with the flexibility to pitch in on all the extras having kids requires.

That is not reality.

In her book, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that life’s demands are complicated. But, I always feel that the conversation is one-dimensional. It lacks the curveballs that life throws us, and we all, men and women, have them. Nothing goes just as planned, and for many of us, we find ourselves on journeys that carry us away from traditional employment. I always want to know when the discussion about women deserting the workplace includes women who are battling cancer. Or caretakers of elderly parents. Or military wives whose husbands move every year, limiting their ability to find employment. Or mothers of sick kids. Where do we fit? Because women leave the workforce for all sorts of reasons, and it is simplistic to discuss us as one monolithic mass of disappointment.

My first love before I met my husband and before I had my babies was reading. I devoured books as a child. I grew into a grammar nerd, and by far the best hourly job I ever held was as a grammar editor when I was just 18 years old. I always admired teachers and how honorable the intention of teaching is. A great teacher really can change a person’s life. Both my parents were teachers, at different points in their professional lives, and I think in my heart of hearts I always believed I would combine my three loves–learning, writing, and teaching–into a career. And I did, for a short time. I was going to be a professor, before I had preemies.

I never made a conscious decision to leave, and I have never made peace with the fact that I am gone. Never. So, to the woman at the academic conference who said ugly words of judgment and to the people in the grocery store who see me as a sweet, young, little mama–I am more than either of those characterizations.

Women like me may yet return to the workforce, but in the meantime, do you know what we’re doing? We’re giving back to the world around us. We’re getting well and taking care of our parents and holding down the fort and watching over babies in the hospital. These jobs are not easy, and the pay does not come in the form of dollars. But, is everything in this world about money? Sometimes, the hardest jobs are the ones with no paycheck and no vacation days.

I was handed a set of circumstances, and I would not exchange them for someone else’s. No matter how discouraged I may get, I am never sorry for the choices I’ve made. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose those two tiny babies: the ones who didn’t ask to be born and who suffered greatly in their first days and weeks.

Lean in? What I want to know is: when I can lean in, will the workforce accept me? Will it accept all of us who left for our own very good reasons? Or will we be asked what we’ve been doing for the last four years because a resume can’t define where we’ve been and why we left?

We still have prejudices in this country about what constitutes work and what makes a good employee, and I think any discussion about leaning in should also include the issues of affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, part-time employment, and flexible hours. We could do more as a country to retain good employees. And we could keep more women in the workforce. But, first we’d have to address why women leave.

And that answer is complicated.

My Day Will Come

I was writing my dissertation and contemplating career opportunities when I had J. I had thought I would finish my dissertation before he was born. The plan was to enjoy a few months with him and then begin the job search.

His extremely early birth rewrote everything. Everything.

Instead, I finished my dissertation in his first months home, in tiny spurts while he was napping. I graduated when he was 10 months old. I was really proud to achieve my dream even during the middle of the nightmare of having a baby so early.

For a year, I was an adjunct instructor. I loved teaching. I loved the freedom of being a part-time employee. I could come and go, teach this semester and take the next one off. It was what I needed at the time.

For months now, I’ve been sitting at a crossroads, contemplating my next move. It’s not all about me any more, which makes the decisions that much more complex.

I am outside the norm of what someone with a PhD does. There isn’t much room for a woman like me, someone on an alternative career path. I believe it says something about academia, and maybe something about me too. Despite the outside perception of academia, the demands on faculty can be rigid, and I would not have made a very good professor, nor a very good mother, if I had been forced to do both these last few years. My primary job has been to get my children healthy, and whatever professional penalties I’ll pay, I did the right thing.

I had a graduate professor once warn my entire class away from ever taking a part-time job in academia. “Once you get off the traditional tenure-track road, you can never come back,” she said. How true that advice is remains to be seen. But, where does that leave the mother of special needs babies? Should I be punished for my decisions?

I do feel punished sometimes.

At an academic conference a few months ago, I was introduced to a colleague of a friend. She noticed that my introductions came with no professional title. “What do you do?” she wanted to know. It was rude and ugly, the way she said it. We should be careful about making assumptions about people, and any middle-aged woman should be seasoned enough in life to know it. I tried to be friendly. “I have two tiny babies. They were both born really early, and I’ve been getting them healthy,” I said. But, she couldn’t be put off. “Yes, but what do you do?”

What do I do? What do I do? I am the house cleaner, the shopper, the planner, the cook. I am the school-picker-upper, the nighttime nanny, the insurance caller, the diagnosis researcher, the intervention scheduler, the therapy supervisor, the butt wiper, the closet organizer, the coupon clipper, the child hugger, the boo-boo kisser, the lady who gets it all done. Most days my job begins at 6 am and ends at 10 pm, if I am lucky.

It was one of the ugliest moments of my professional life, when I fully realized how some in the academic world view me. I am a bon-bon popping, feet-propping lady of leisure.

Taking this road less traveled has opened my eyes. I see everything in a new light.

In my area of research, there are disagreements about industry insiders ruining the journalism profession and academics whose research has failed to save a dying industry. People cast stones, point fingers, and squabble about faculty hires, funding, and how to teach classes. Of course, it all matters to the people in the trenches, to the people whose livelihoods depend on the outcome of these power struggles. But, to people on the outside, we’re all a bunch of unappreciative eggheads, universally irritating to Middle America.

It used to be that I didn’t understand these battle lines. I wandered through grad school trying to decide which camp was mine. After I had J, I realized that I wanted the camp that didn’t want to argue, the Get-It-Done Camp. So much is broken in education that I want to spend my energy trying to fix it. I want to teach classes that not only prepare students for future careers but also open their minds to all the possibilities of the world. I want to make a difference in their lives. I want to write books that live on after me, and I want to read books, lots and lots of books.

Lofty dreams for someone who spends days cleaning poopy bottoms.

At the end of every day, even really terrible ones, I say to myself, “At least I don’t have a baby in the NICU,” and I mean it. I have perspective. The gift my NICU babies gave me is an opportunity to have my life rewritten, to find the independent-minded girl I lost along the way. Gone are the debates about what is the political move, what will look best to the rest of academia. I don’t have time to be anything but authentic. I care now about doing the right thing. Not thinking about doing it. I want to be a person my children admire. I refuse to have my successes measured by someone else’s stick. I have my own compass, and now I follow it.

That doesn’t mean the direction I’m traveling is always clear. It doesn’t mean that some of the insults don’t still hurt. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel frustrated that my professional life is lacking substance. It means that I now know my own strength and value, that I am no longer afraid of the unknown, and that I understand that life’s twists and turns have a purpose we often don’t see when in the throws of it.

I refuse to be discarded. I refuse to be told there is no place for me. The saying, “Life is the thing that happens while you’re busy making other plans.” That’s me. And I refuse to let circumstances negate my purpose and value. I refuse to accept that a few years of divergence from a straight-and-narrow career path will preclude me from 40 years of potential in my professional life. Close the front door, and I will find a side entrance.

I know my day will come.