Posted by on September 22, 2009

I decided to quit my Ideal Job yesterday. The decision was spontaneous, provoked by a mounting agitation. It was not unlike a scenario in which a normally softspoken, deferential person is provoked to the point of screaming, uncharacteristically, in a noisy room in order to shock everyone into silence. Once the silence is established, however, the quiet person feels a little shocked at having screamed, and wonders what happened.

What happened is that I, unexpectedly to myself, entered my boss’s office and told her that I probably could not do it anymore. The twelve hours a week–three afternoons– which to the ear sounds like really very little, have been too much coming and going from home–enough to make me feel constantly frenzied. Leaving expressed milk for Elsa three afternoons a week has been a nagging problem daily, requiring equipment–clean equipment which is constantly being used and needing subsequent hot soapy baths. Intuitively it would seem that breastfeeding mothers should be exempt from entanglement with feeding apparatuses. In the checks and balance system of the universe, it would seem that being apparatus-free is one of the inherent rewards of breastfeeding, and that being saddled with both at the same time is a rather unjust yoke of sorts.

I know that many working women breastfeed successfully, and I now appreciate the sweat and tears it requires to not simply give in to formula, which would end the madness of pumping. But I who was truly determined was only able to do it just shy of four months. In the end (actually, it’s not quite over yet because I still have the requisite two weeks), it was not a choice between breastfeeding and formula, but between breastfeeding and the job itself. Formula never really entered the equation for me. I am just wired that way. And I feel pretty determined to give Elsa the same thing I gave Esme– it seems only right.

Anyway, this is not really a tale of breastfeeding, which can be an alienating, unpopular topic. That was just one layer. The other thick cellophane suffocating (and, oh, unpopular) layer was that Jeff is in his exam year. For those who do not know what “exam year” means (which would have included me until only recently), it is the year in an American PhD program in which the PhD candidate spends about six months studying detailed, nuanced “answers” to “questions.” But the questions are more like research paper topics and the answers are more like research papers. And there are ten of them, and the student must know these ten “answers” by heart and in great detail. The student must take six two-hour written exams over the course of three days and then an oral exam before a committee the following week. These exams are in March and are either passed or failed. Everyone around here– both students and spouses of students– say it’s the most stressful year of the PhD. Here we go.

Jeff was more than generous in the beginning to offer to stay home with Elsa, to save my job, and actually, I was surprised that he had even offered. It seemed that all the pieces were falling into place. Esme had finally gotten into the Notre Dame pre-school this fall, and Elsa could stay with her dad. The distance between the office where I worked and the pre-school is about a block and a half– so convenient. My boss was totally flexible, never breathing down my neck about my arrival or departure time, and asking no questions if I needed to switch my schedule around. It was all a veritable advertisement for a mom-friendly workplace.

But after Jeff turned in his exam questions and began preparing in earnest, it became more and more clear that it was too much time away from reading— that wonderful euphemism academics use for what they do. His stress level, if charted with a red marker, would certainly show itself spiking up into jagged mountain peaks. I don’t think our small apartment has room for all those red lines ricocheting off the walls, ceiling, and stainless steel sink, where he stands clattering the dishes clean after dinner on a typical evening, emanating bodily tension.

It’s the “this and so much more” details of madness that cannot all be conveyed–like getting Esme buckled into her car seat (after the struggle with her tangled hair, potty, shoes, and getting her past the bike rack without a few rings of the bell on her tricycle), then realizing that I’d forgotten to bring the little breastmilk storage bags and freezer packs, then running back up to our third floor apartment to gather them together. Rewind further to the preceding night to a restless infant putting on a growth spurt, waking just a few more times than usual. All of this brought me to the metaphoric screaming point.

But its literal manifestation was more like a pathetic squeak. I felt very small sitting in the office of my boss, whose walls are choked with satirical clippings and cartoons. She is probably the most likable, charming, approachable, funny, no-nonsense boss I will ever have, and yet I had to chuck it all over the lifeboat of forced sacrafice.

She did not seem the least bit surprised, which should not have surprised me, since it is always true that others can see you better than you see yourself. She said that I’d seemed “very tired, and frazzled, especially lately.” I had the impression that she had seen the writing on the wall long before I did. It was all very unflattering and awkward. It was a huge relief, even though being described as frazzled is to me most hateful and insulting, even when people don’t mean it that way.

I am not sure how things will be this winter. I spent my usual Tuesday today at home with both girls and was reminded of how eternal and toilsome a day at home can feel with a small child. Now there are two. Esme will stay in pre-school three afternoons a week, thankfully, so perhaps I’ll find those afternoons to be very luxurious with only Elsa, and Esme will do well to have the outlet for play and recreation during those long winter months. But I feel as if I’ve already burrowed back into the small kingdom of domestic struggle, forsaking the structured, sanitized, well-lit place of distraction and relief, otherwise known as a part-time job.

Nevertheless, this evening has been very balmy one after a rain, and fog settled in, and the sky was pink and purple. I went out with my camera and took some pictures, wanting to be creative in a way that I have not been for a long time. Now I’m writing here on my blog. I think something switched over inside me once I realized I could once again go back into a world more of my own making– the world of home. I will get to keep Elsa closer to me and she will be happier for it and will think that this arrangement is much more to her liking (she never seemed totally happy with her daddy afternoons– I think the preference for dads is a later development). I’ll write more and take more photos of less literal things. I’ll have tea with friends more often, and hunt for used things at thrift stores instead of new things at online stores. I’ll reduce the potential number of occasions in which others can rightfully describe me as frazzled. It really will not be that bad.

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  1. Alishia
    September 22, 2009

    As someone who is just coming out of a weather-induced indoor detention with three small ones under four I can only encourage you with the fact that you will survive. I enjoy the world of my own making as well–as crazy and frazzled as it seems to outsiders. It requires much planning and soul searching.

  2. Julia
    September 23, 2009

    Thanks, Alishia. Enjoy your desert winter. I'm sure you've earned it, just as we earn our summers here.

  3. Jenny
    September 27, 2009

    Awesome, Julia. A really wonderful post. Thank you for this, one, too. I am so pleased that you are blogging again! Reading this somehow makes me feel…a little less frazzled.