I plowed through my undergraduate degree in three years, my Master's in two, and I finished my PhD by the time I was 26. This didn't feel odd or particularly ambitious. I just did the next thing that made sense, sometimes kicking and screaming along the way for various reasons, but keeping on anyway.
While I was in school, I wondered on and off if I was doing the right thing. School was expensive; Mississippi was lonely; I felt like I should already be having babies, like my friends. Sometimes all that got me through were quotes from Gordon B. Hinckley (president of the Mormon Church at the time) saying that women should get all of the education they could get. I was doing that. I was getting all the education I could. I had these quotes taped all over my house.
I didn't know how it would work exactly to have a family and a career, but I had this vision of myself, sitting in my office on an academic campus, rocking a sleeping baby in a car seat while I discussed poetry with a student. I was in love with that idea.
And when I finished school, Sam and I married (sort of a surprise to both of us) and moved out to Massachusetts, where I had landed a teaching job. I was all set for the baby and the office and the rocking and the sleeping, except that it turned out the job was terrible, and my health was lousy, and honestly, having kids didn't really enter my mind. Not for years.
I quit that job, and started development editing for a textbook company, and it was the perfect job at the perfect time. I could not have asked for a better experience there. And all along, when I'd wonder how I would keep the job and start a family, I looked at women I worked with who were making that work, and I knew I could, too. The job was flexible with mothers, respectful of families, full of powerful women who were using their education while raising their children.
Two Christmases ago, Sam and I traveled home to see our families, and I started to wonder if I'd ever feel inclined to have children. I knew intellectually that I wanted a family, but the urge to begin was not present, as I expected it to be. I worried about this until Valentine's Day when, on our way home from a weekend getaway to the South Shore, we were suddenly ready. Or I was. That's how it felt, anyway. We were talking, and driving past bare trees and snow drifts on one side and another, and we decided it was time to start thinking about it. And this is what it came down to: we liked each other, and we thought it would be neat to make another human like us that we could talk to. That simple.
Suddenly, babies were all I could think about. I would see a baby, and instantly lose my ability to concentrate. I was ready. So we tried, and I got pregnant that summer, and I lost the baby at thirteen weeks. (It's feeling good to get all of this out here. To boil down big events to a sentence. Stay with me?) And we waited, and I waited to feel sure again, to be 100% ready, but I eventually decided longing was better than certainty, and I was full of longing.
You know the next part: I got pregnant again, and it was a rough pregnancy, and I was on bed rest for four months. While we waited for Miss Henrietta Plum to make her debut, Sam and I talked about how we would make it all work financially. When I started looking into daycare in our area, I realized it would be $1,500 to $2,000 a month, and though I had a good job, I wasn't exactly rolling in the dough, and that kind of hit to my salary wouldn't leave me with too terribly much. I went over and over this in my head while I was pregnant and stuck in bed, doing the math again and again, subtracting $2,000 from my monthly salary and feeling panicked all over again.
We started to discuss other ideas. We'd talked a bit before about moving up to Lowell, where Sam teaches, so his commute wouldn't be so outrageous. (He was commuting 45 minutes to an hour and half (depending on traffic) each way.) We looked at property listings up here, and crunched the numbers, and the numbers looked better. We could pretty much survive on his salary with the drop in living expenses.
Though we weren't at all sure this was the best idea out there, I proposed we proceed, and see what happened. There were so many wild cards. We'd have to sell our place, and it had taken over a year for the last person to sell it. We'd have to get it ready to sell while Sam was still working and I was at the end of a high-risk pregnancy. We'd have to find a place in Lowell. The baby would have to come and be healthy enough for us to leave the good medical care in Boston. We'd have to move when she was very small. It seemed far-fetched that all of this would happen, so we agreed to just take the first steps: we'd call the realtor, we'd get the house looking nice according to his suggestions, we'd go from there. My friend came and helped us pack things up to get the house looking good, and we put it on the market.
It sold in a week and a half. It sold before they even put up a for sale sign. When we got the call that offered pretty much what we'd asked for, I felt like we'd sold it on accident.
Suddenly we needed to find a place. We'd looked a bit, but had held off until we knew our place would sell. Picture me, incredibly pregnant, newly released from bed rest, riding around in the back of the realtor's car, sucking down water in the outrageous heat, looking out the window at our new life racing past, going up and down stairs in very old houses, trying to make sure we had a decent kitchen and two bathrooms and a place for the cat litter and good laundry in a neighborhood that didn't make us fear for our lives.
While I was at the hospital, waiting to find out if I was in labor (I was!), Sam and I decided on a house. We could have kept looking forever, but this one made sense. While I recovered from my c-section in the hospital and learned how to feed Miss Henrietta Plum, Sam went back and forth to Lowell, beginning the buying. On the day of her first doctor's appointment, Sam was at the home inspection. And we had a moving date: On November 20, when she was six weeks old, we'd close on both houses. Sam's mom came out to meet Henrietta and pack up everything she could. (She saved our lives, basically.)
I wasn't sure, at first, whether I would try to go back to work. I mean, I kind of knew I wouldn't, but I wasn't sure. I didn't want to be sure. Sam had paternity leave for the spring semester, so if I really wanted to, I could leave her with him and commute into the city, but the commute by train into Boston would be an hour and half to two hours each way, and I couldn't see how I could possibly handle that and nurse and also keep my sanity. I thought about just going in a few days a week, but I realized that a few days would reverberate out into the other days--gearing up the day before, recovering the day after--and I knew we'd all be unhappy.
When Henrietta was a month old, I went into work to introduce her to her work friends, and talk to my boss. I was nervous, so nervous that she wouldn't understand, but as soon as I said we were moving to Lowell, she said, in perfect sympathy, "Oh, Deja, you can't commute that far with a brand-new nursing baby." And I exhaled, grateful she understood, and validated in my own sense that it was too much to ask of myself. She said there would be freelance work, so I could keep working from home as projects came in that I was interested in taking on. I couldn't have asked for a better outcome to that conversation. And yet, as I nursed my baby in my old office, I was overwhelmed by the irony, and sorry to be leaving.
So here we are in Lowell. I did quit, though I kept trying to figure out how to make it work up until the very end. I haven't started freelance work, but I will.
And the truth is, as I've said, I am so happy here. Which is the surprise of my life, to be frank. I spent my life worrying about my future as a stay-at-home mom, if that's what I would indeed grow up to be. I worried I'd be lonely and sad, that I'd never get out of bed, that I'd find all of my tasks and worries meaningless. But I think the thing I didn't account for is how much I'd like my baby. Loving her infuses everything with meaning. This morning we lay together on the floor of her nursery and read books, and she kicked her legs and made happy noises and the thought that she would grow up to love books--really really love them, as I do, and as Sam does--made me so happy I thought I would burst.
I even like the housework, most times. When we lived closer to the city, we lived like bachelors. I'd buy groceries and they'd go bad in my fridge because there were so many places to eat and eating out was cheap, and we were tired and busy and everyone around us ate out, too. A lot of times Sam wouldn't eat at all during the day because he's not inclined to feed himself, and it was too much for me to figure out how to feed both of us in advance. I didn't have time to clean my house or take care of what needed to be taken care of, and I beat myself up about this constantly.
These days, we wake up and make smoothies and toast. At lunchtime I go to my fridge and find something for us to eat and throw it together. At dinnertime, Sam watches the baby while I make dinner, and I hold her while we eat. And afterwards we clean everything up. I use the groceries I buy. And we go to bed with a house that's relatively clean. I'm still in a place where this level of normalcy and responsibility feels like a miracle. This is work, make no mistake. And it's intense work. I've said before that it's the hardest job I've ever had. It may not always be so, but I am shocked by the deep deep joy I feel when I look out on a clean kitchen. It's a small satisfaction, but it's grand.
Not everything is perfect. I'm learning. Sam's learning. And the baby means something changes as soon as we think we've gotten the hang of things. But even though I'm not bringing my baby to my university office, this life, for now, is exactly right for me. I'm grateful I got my PhD; I'm grateful for the time I spent working, since this will mean that I'll be able to work from home, and I think I'll like that even better than going in.
I'm learning, also, how short this time may be. Yesterday I sat down with two women from church whose children are in school now, and one was working during the day, and the other was thinking about it, and I could see that they were rather restless without their kids home all of the time, and I realized how quickly that day may come. For now, this is a good life. As sad as I was to leave my job (and that sadness and regret was very real, in spite of how right this is), and as disorienting my new identity is at times, I'm not sorry about how it's worked out.
I feel lucky, is how I feel. Soon my baby will wake up from her nap, and I'll walk across the room to pick her up. I'll ask her how she slept, how she's doing. I'll change her diaper. I'll feel like the luckiest woman in the room.