There are times when all my roles in life — mother, graduate student, writer, and professional — threaten to draw and quarter me. I’m pulled in different directions and the pain of not doing my best at anything rips me apart. Then there are other times that epiphanies happen, and could only happen, because I see the world from so many angles.
It started with the note home from school. The anticipated but dreaded permission form for my daughter’s puberty class. The coming-of-age embarrassment of all children when they start to stink, have to think about a bra, or experience “nocturnal emissions”. Nocturnal emissions? When did wet dreams get such a fancy name? I reread the note to make sure it meant a boy waking up in sticky sheets. Yep. The note clearly said “nocturnal emissions.” Apparently it’s not just new math these kids are learning, but new puberty too.
That same week, I had to submit my graduate school capstone project proposal. I’m leveraging a work project on alternative fuel corridors to examine how the climate impacts of the World Cup and Olympics could be mitigated by utilizing alternative fuel. It’s a great proposal that hits the sweet spot of a school project for me: something that extends a work project and gets me credit from both school and clients. As I was researching my proposal I found some fascinating journal articles that discussed the importance of delivery timing during mega-events. The goal is to ensure that souvenir and food deliveries don’t impact spectators getting to events, and one of the strategies is to make deliveries at night.
Without warning, my writer brain engaged. I had the perfect proposal topic. If I shifted my focus to the Women’s World Cup happening in France this summer and refocused on the temporal aspects of the study I could title my capstone: Calculating Nocturnal Emissions resulting from the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Someday I will be a morning person. I will jump out of bed before the sun even rises, lace up my running shoes, greet the day with the chirpy birds, and let the pink glow of the sun warm my soul as it lights the sky. Upon arriving home, I will feed the chickens and barn cat — respectively thanking them for my eggs and for killing the rats. Then I will feed the house cats and take a moment to appreciate the happiness they bring to my life. Exercise, gratitude, and chores complete, I will shower, shave, and be ready to greet my waking family with well-groomed joy knowing my day has begun with no sleeping-in or running-late guilt.
Someday my body will be a temple. I will feed it nothing but wholesome food. All the fruits and veggies it can take. Eggs from my beloved chickens. Cheese from cows lovingly hand milked in pastures where they eat nothing but all organic free range vegetation. I will cook my own meals, and when I can’t, I will only eat at restaurants that also consider my body a temple worthy of local low-carbon-emission produce. Occasionally I will allow myself a treat of a single square of bitter dark chocolate, so I can savor both the sweet of the dessert and the bitterness off mistreating my temple. The only beverage I will ever drink is pure clean water from glass containers. I will exercise everyday, but vary my routine from running to yoga to Pilates to ensure my cardiovascular health, flexibility, and strength.
Someday I will be on time to everything. After my blissful morning and my temple-worthy breakfast I will drop my child off at school exactly seven minutes early. Time for her to play a bit, and visit with her friends. Then when the bell rings I will walk my perfectly dressed self — in a size six, a slim nonjudgmental size — to my car and drive to work, arriving exactly at 8:30. People will depend on me, knowing if they schedule an 8:30 meeting I will be there nonplussed and ready to face whatever challenge they need faced. After working an 8 hour day — not including the 0.5 hours spent enjoying the wholesome lunch I packed, then walking around the park to clear my mind — I will be waiting for my daughter at 3:00, just as the bell rings, to walk her home from school. Hand in hand, we’ll talk about her day and my day as we much on fresh vegetables from our garden. She will have friends, I will be successful at work, she will be successful at school, and we will be so proud of each other. Then I’ll drive her, and all her friends, in my electric vehicle — powered by solar panels installed on our home’s roof — to whatever practice she has that day: carpooling to ensure our position in the social hierarchy while minimizing our carbon footprint.
Someday I will make good use of all the time available to me. While my daughter practices I’ll be using that time to write my novel, do grad school homework, catch up with beloved friends and family, or knit scarves for the poor. However, I will willingly pause to talk with other sports parents where I will be modest about my child and supportive of their children and their worries about traffic. I won’t squander time dinking on my phone, talking to parents who make me want to stab my eyes out, or half-listen to eye-stabby parents while dinking on my phone. I will be present and understanding.
Someday my evenings will run like clockwork. After practice, I’ll enjoy a wholesome meal with my family. We will all eat exactly the same thing, correctly proportioned to our body mass index. Dishes will be cleared, washed, and the kitchen will be cleaned in harmony, then everyone will sit down to homework. (Well, everyone but my husband who will enjoy a well deserved hour of rest watching some sporting event, but he will not be too loud or too emotionally attached to the event.) Homework done, my daughter will bathe, and I will read aloud to her for 20 minutes. Then she will make her lunch, brush her teeth, brush her hair, put on pajamas, and deposit her dirty clothes into her hamper. She will go to sleep by herself in her own room in her own bed after reading to herself for exactly 10 minutes.
Someday my late nights will be all my own time. Having accomplished everything I needed to do while in the office, I will spend 45 minutes catching up with my husband. 2.5 times per week we will have age-appropriate sex. Sated or not, I will then spend a few hours editing my novel, writing a blog post, or drafting a new short story. Sometimes, I will work a bit on a knitted gift for a friend, or hand-write a few thank you notes. Occasionally I will document my day’s accomplishments in a perfect Instagram shot or Tweet. Before bed, I will do a quick clean up of the house – filling the dishwasher, folding laundry, picking up clutter, sweeping, and wiping down counters and other surfaces – before reading for 30 minutes and then drifting off for an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep.
I am a grown up. My life is measured in vague shades of grey. At work, the exceptional ratings are saved for the top 5-10% and I’m lucky to see one every 5 years. (And due to recent changes, I’m certain to not see an exceptional anytime soon.)
As a parent, it turns out there is no “mom of the year” award. Even if there was, I wouldn’t win it. While I’d score high marks on basic measures like my daughter being alive and her not getting called into the principal’s office, I would get zero points on unexpected top-mom qualities like “make myself a priority”. I need to lose 10 pounds and am too frequently unshowered in public. (True story: I picked up my daughter braless the other day. I mean I had a shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat on, but no way do free breasts get you mom-award points.)
Then there is my writing persona. My short story came back last week with a kind but brief rejection: “We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. ” I ignored the tiny voice in my head that said, they seem nice, so reply back and see if they know who it IS for. That would be helpful. Instead I did what I’m supposed to do: submit again to a new journal and not be disgruntled. I’m trying, but so far my publishing career score would be a 0%.
Then there’s graduate school. Given the vague I’m doing okay, or at least better than nothing scores in the rest of my life, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my first homework assignment grade gave me a thrill. I mean, it was just 1 out of 1 – I just had to turn the dumb thing in – but I got 100%. Now three assignments in my grade is 21/21, still 100%. My homework grade is perfect. I have an app on my phone for school, and I can pull up my class for anyone to see and show them that I am perfect at something. (No, I do not show anyone my perfect grade. Okay, except my husband, and kid, and a couple of friends at work. Well, and now all of you readers, but that’s it so far.)
A friend told me I should print my homework assignments out and put them on the fridge, just like I would do with my daughter’s good grades. I haven’t gone that far yet, but I am wearing my little virtual gold star around proudly. Only six assignments left. Gotta go finish my reading, so I don’t break my perfect streak. 100%, just in case you missed it.
I was almost 15 years old when Dead Poet’s Society came out. It was a movie that spoke to me. I was deep into my persona as a thespian: on my way to playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Simultaneously I was moments away from diving into AP Chemistry and Biology. There was nothing I couldn’t do. The world was pure possibility. I would make my life extraordinary just like Robin Williams character demanded of his students.
A month ago I turned 43. For the past few years I’ve found myself desiring change. Not little change, like a new shampoo, but big fundamental change: a new house, a writing career, or at the very least a new office at work. Being a responsible adult married to a super-duper-risk-adverse responsible adult meant the change has been slow coming, but incrementally it’s come. First, I decreased my work schedule to 32 hours a week, so I had a day to focus on my writing. That has been going well. I submit my first completed short story to a journal this past Thursday, and have another short story in the works. Meanwhile, the first draft of my novel is slowly becoming a second draft.
Tomorrow the next phase begins. I’m starting graduate school at a local university with a college that’s dedicated to working adults. My degree program is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). For the lay person that’s a degree in making maps using computer software. The college I’m going to has a master’s in creative writing, and while that’s intriguing, it doesn’t help me with my day job, and my day job is the one that allows me the ability to both pay for my degree through tuition reimbursement and write one day a week. (Also, don’t tell anyone this part, but I have a non-fiction work I want to write that’s very dependent on me honing my GIS skills.) So I’m starting with a practical degree to see if that quiets my need for change.
My mom went back to school later in life. Interestingly, as she and I were chatting I realized that she started her undergraduate degree program at 42. Isn’t that weird? That we’d start such a big change at the same time in our lives a generation apart?
No. It’s not weird. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the truth of the matter is, our American middle-class lives are built around 20ish year cycles. Your first 20 years you are educated. If you only graduate high school you are done in 18. If you do post-graduate work, it might take you 28 years. But in general, you complete the education phase of your life around 22-24 years old. Then you start the work phase.
I graduated college at 23. Now, 20 years later I’ve done the working thing and understand how to succeed in the workforce. I also know what would be required of me to become a high level manager or director. With that knowledge comes a complete lack of interest. For me, the rewards do not balance the required sacrifices of time and family. My next phase of life will not be a slog toward executive. On the other hand, while I like my current job, I can’t imagine doing what I do now until retirement without new opportunities to grow and change. I’m wondering what the next 20 years holds.
Of course, I’m not the only one to get antsy when my early 40s show up. The words mid-life crisis exist for a reason. My need for change makes me empathize with the stereotypical 40-year-old male of my parent’s generation. If I was the sole breadwinner with a house full of kids I might have purchased a sports car or had an affair with my secretary to force a change from the inevitability of 20 more years of sameness. My own desire for something different felt like a crisis a year ago. But then a wise woman (our family therapist) told me that now was the time to make a change. While my daughter wasn’t a teenager. While my husband’s depression was stable. Because, she said, you never know when life is going to throw you a curveball and you won’t have the opportunity to make your life better. I know now that she told me that while facing her own cancer diagnosis. She died earlier this week.
Her legacy to me was allowing myself to enter an experimentation phase of my life. Will I make it as a writer? Will I get a break and be a novelist for my next 20 years? Probably not, since few people make it as a writer, but I don’t want to close that door before I try to open it. Will I be a geospatial data expert and solve the world’s future transportation problems using maps and visualizations? That’s a direction I can see pivoting my current career. Maybe I’ll make amazing connections at my university and become an adjunct professor in addition to my current job. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago I was voted “most likely to become a professor” so maybe my classmates knew something I didn’t.
I’m so thankful I live in an enlightened time and work for an enlightened company so I can take the heartfelt advice of a trusted advisor. What will I be when I grow up? A writer? A professor? A map maker? All of the above? In some ways I feel like my decision will be a tribute to a woman who guided me through the hardest times of my life. I want to do right by her last words to me. I do not want the second half of my life to be a story of quiet desperation. I want to accomplish another iota of what I am capable. I want another opportunity to strive for extraordinary.