The Case of the Disappearing Woman
We’d just moved a thousand miles from where I was at home personally and professionally — from where the mountains and forests and shores were for me, like Anne Shirley and her Lake of Shining Waters in Anne of Green Gables, “scope for the imagination.” I’d left an enviable lineup of classes I’d been scheduled to teach, a tight circle of friends, and flocks of extended family within easy driving distance.
When it became clear we’d be shoehorning our lives into suburban rental housing for a number of months, I surrendered a racehorse I’d adopted, Zhaozlong, who in his career made more money than I ever did — and had far better legs. Now it was just our little foursome, plus the remaining four-legged crowd, in a grim 1970s house distinguished by dark paneling, a mountain range of moving boxes identically labeled STUFF, and a floor carpeted in stained, off-white nylon plush and the illegible research notes I sifted through daily on the dining room floor.
Together, Todd and I had planned what this new season of life ought to look like for us: I would stop teaching for a while and instead hole up and finish my dissertation. He would make an impression as a hard worker at a new job. And we both assumed it would be no problem for me to continue with my professional life. As his big sister had done, Justin could sleep in the swing or sweetly stack blocks by Mommy’s computer.
Our son, however, had apparently misread his explicit instructions.
My husband’s new job, meanwhile, brought us in contact with a steady stream of remarkable speakers, people who’d written the books I wanted to write, who headed the international development agencies I wanted to run, who’d won the Nobel Peace Prize and rocked audiences by the thousands on issues about which I didn’t even have time to read.
Others were changing the course of history, and me, I was changing diapers and sheets and sometimes, for kicks, a computer printer cartridge.
“Life has its seasons,” older women consoled me. “You need to be patient.”
Of course they were right. Who would trade anything for those soul-still, perfect moments of rocking your baby? Who would want to rush that?
But I knew too — and this scared me — that this was a crazed, not even rational attachment I had to these children, and that it wasn’t going away. I would never again become less concerned with investing time in my family just because someday my children would be in school. These relationships had me bound at the heart, and I sensed the rest of my professional life would be, by my choice, at their mercy.
That might have been okay had my passion for my writing life and all those change-the-world instincts backed off and made room for the newly enlarged, so-happy-I-can’t-see-straight loves of my personal life. But instead I began to feel pulled like taffy, kneaded and stretched and sliced into pieces.
And invisible. Some days I was sure I’d disappeared, nothing remaining of me but a blue nursing blouse with baby spit-up on the shoulder. I knew for certain my brain had already rotted right there in my head — my head that had disappeared.
“Why?” I demanded of my husband as he came home from work and I sat on the floor surrounded by mounds of stackable Little Tikes toys, as well as the two tykes themselves. My dissertation research notes, untouched that whole day, were ditched three rooms and a lifetime away. “Why do we bother to teach women to read?”
Even as I grew into myself more fully as a mother and fell daily more in love with my kids, I felt I’d abandoned a crucial part of what God made me to be. In the midst of Cheerios dust and diaper wipes, I wondered if I would ever see that professional woman again.
Learning from Dead Dissertation Research
Then, during Justin’s first couple of years, two things happened to backflip my perspective and plunk me down hard. And a book that had been conceived with my son — though I didn’t know it then — began to take shape.
First came the tragedies — not always my own but still personal and all around me. My husband’s work for a large private university in central Texas positioned him as the first to receive news of a crisis: the SUV rollover, the sudden collapse of a nineteen-year-old jogger, the frat-party stunt, the innocent flip off a porch that ended in paralysis, the Yield sign that failed to catch a young driver’s eye, the heart failure of an expectant mother…
“It must be so hard to live in your house,” people said.
Hard, yes. We cried a lot there. Prayed a lot, too. I heard the phone ring at wee hours, and my heart seized up. Through the everlasting “what now?” I waited for the name, not knowing if this time it would be a personal friend, a part of the family, a faculty member we’d just seen at dinner, or a student who’d just been in our home.
Hard, yes. But in our house you didn’t forget that life is a gift, and you unwrap it each day with care. You didn’t forget that education and work, particularly work that one wants to do, are privileges to be viewed with a caught-breath kind of awe.
You didn’t forget that if you get to make choices about a career path, if you get to make real decisions about where you’ll live, if you get to think through how to channel your skills, if you get to tuck fully fed kids into bed, then you’re one of the very fortunate and very few in our world.
The second thing that helped pull me out of my hole was, ironically, one of the things that had landed me there in the first place: my research.
During all those many midnights at my computer as I tried to tap life into dead dissertation research, I was struck with the gumption, the vision, the raw political power that one unlikely figure possessed. I began to feel like I knew her — and her life made my life look calm.
A small-statured woman who wrote stories to help pay family bills, she was the mother of six and living in a small town in mid-nineteenth-century Maine. Her husband, Calvin, a dedicated but financially struggling professor, saw genius in his wife’s writing, despite the fact that her books had so far sold only as sentimental romances.
“My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate.… Make all your calculations accordingly,” he told her. So mid-nineteenth-century Calvin learned more of housecleaning and child-rearing and made himself into an early Working Families kind of guy.
One day when Calvin was out of town on business, the youngest of the children became gravely ill. The infant died in his mother’s arms. She wrote to her husband that she couldn’t bear up under the pain; only one thing sustained her: she was praying that somehow, some way, God might bring some kind of good out of the grief that had swallowed her whole.
She wept for her own loss, for the child that disease had wrenched from her. Then she agonized in a way she never had before — for slave mothers whose children were being wrenched from them on the auction block. So she wept for those mothers, too, and vowed to do what she could to fight so brutal a system.
Though she’d long considered writing to be her sacred profession, her “paper pulpit,” Harriet Beecher Stowe struggled to balance that drive with those unending domestic duties. Finding time in her life to write was always, she said, “rowing against wind and tide.” But out of her own still-bleeding grief and her newly heightened sensitivity to slave mothers’ tears, she sat down at her kitchen table each day and, surrounded by the thunder of little feet, penned the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
By far the bestselling book of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the turning point in the beginning of the end of slavery. Whatever the controversies surrounding it today — its disturbing racial stereotypes, for example — the novel achieved more than all the other antislavery propaganda combined and forever altered the course of American history.
As an economically powerless woman in the 1850s, a too-busy mother of six, Harriet had every reason to stand by, like most citizens of her country, and watch the political wheels turn, and muse, What could one person — especially one woman, a mother — do after all?
But precisely because she was a woman and a mother, she couldn’t stand by. And she didn’t. She rowed against wind and tide. Her husband, who believed in her talent, rowed right beside her, rooting her on. And her sister, Catharine Beecher, arrived to help take care of the house and the children. And Harriet, writing on, driven by what she called a divine purpose, accepted the help of the hard-working family around her.
And the world became a far better place.
Working to Help Families Work
This set me to wondering: What could I do, crazed as I was with diapers and dissertation, to make some sort of difference? And who were the women and men out there like me — or like I wanted to be — who were “rowing against wind and tide” inside and outside their homes, who were following both personal and professional callings, who were changing the world not in spite of their children, but because of them?
So along with two little ones and the early prayers for the third, a new book began to take shape. Long midnights of words slowly appeared on the screen, and then came the idea that half the royalties of the book could go to women and families just beginning their own businesses in impoverished countries: micro- development loans. The words flowed then, in torrents. What if, in the midst of my own working family, I could write about the privilege of personal and professional calling?
Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, I didn’t see before me one specific social institution I hoped to attack and bring down — except, perhaps, poverty, such a many-headed monster that it seems naive to give it only one name. But like Harriet, I had a professional life that pounded its fists to live even in the midst of the smothering demands of my personal life. And also like her, my personal life, especially my children, had made me feel in a new and more urgent way the anguish of parents who had little choice in how they could feed or care for their children. Suddenly, something as simple as giving my baby Tylenol to bring down a raging fever and holding him as his body cooled would bring me to tears for the mothers whose babies burned on in their arms.
And like Harriet, too, I’d found an extraordinary life partner who believed in the idea of God-given gifts and that a family’s calculations, complex as they might be, ought to work not only toward the health of the marriage and the best interest of children, but also toward those gifts getting used.
And I lived the book as I wrote it.
Blue Basket and Beltway
I was endlessly curious about how the speakers who passed through the university in our town managed their lives: Why do you feel drawn to this work? What in your personal life influenced that? How have you approached the demands of your family and work? Besides the obvious tensions and pulls on your time, are there ways in which your personal and professional lives actually enrich each another?
Since a stranger’s pummeling another human being with personal questions is considered odd, and maybe a little psychotic, I decided to make interviews a part of my book: socially sanctioned nosiness.
So I begged, borrowed, and wheedled my way into interview after interview, some by phone or e-mail and some in person. At one point I was trying to secure a conversation with a Prominent Member of the United States President’s cabinet. I’d chatted my way up the ranks from the maid of the hairdresser of the assistant’s assistant, as I recall. I had one final clearance interview with the Prominent Assistant just under the Prominent Person. My husband remapped his day to cover our daughter’s pickup from school, but I assured him I didn’t need him to cover anything more. No, I had it all under control.
I put our son, by now a toddler, down for a long winter’s nap. I watched him close his sweet, baby blue eyes, heard his breathing become steady and even.
I crept downstairs to the phone. Just in time: Washington called.
Nervously pacing the floor as I spoke, I was midstream in describing the serious, substantive nature of the book. The Prominent Assistant seemed almost convinced but not quite. I lowered my voice to sound still more serious, still more convincing.
It was at this point that my safely napping son appeared at the door, beaming. He kangarooed circles around me. Then he snatched something from the kitchen counter and placed it on his head.
“Look at me, Mommy!” he squealed.
I ignored him, of course.
I covered my outside ear to hear the important words of the Prominent Assistant.
“Look at me, Mommy!” Justin shouted, bouncing up almost to my chest.
I smiled sweetly at him, yanked his favorite puzzles from the shelf onto the floor, then ducked away, cupping the phone as I spoke to Washington of possible publishers.
I held my finger over my lips and scowled my worst scowl and tried, at the assistant’s request, to read a few sample interview questions.
My son only bounced higher, which gave his lungs still more air.
“Mommy, look! I have a blue basket on my head!”
And he did. A blue woven basket that hung low on his face, his blond ringlets corkscrewing down at the sides, with a handle that looped under his chin: a football helmet in wicker.
He peered up at me from beneath the wicker and curls. “THERE’S A BLUE BASKET ON MY HEAD, MOMMY!” he bellowed. In case I hadn’t noticed.
My interview chances were shot, I knew. How unprofessional could anyone be?
There was a long pause on the Washington end of the phone.
“My son,” I said at last, meekly, “as you can hear, is wearing a blue basket on his head today.” I didn’t try to explain.
Another long pause.
“Well,” said the Prominent Assistant of the Prominent Person, “that makes more sense than most of what goes on here inside the Beltway.”
I chuckled politely and waited for her to permanently dismiss me. And my son. And his headgear.
“Hmm,” she said. “Maybe I could borrow the basket sometime.”
And she granted the interview — which I scheduled for a time when my husband would be in charge of all offspring.
Big People Learning to Share
And so I discovered, to my own jaw-dropping surprise, that one of the Big People in our house had not been sharing or playing well with others — and that would be me. Somehow, with the arrival of our second child and the ensuing chaos of a thousand-mile move and the shifting of professional roles, I’d slid into a kind of John Wayne approach to family and work. I swaggered through my days, at least mentally, prepared to handle all comers efficiently, quickly, and by myself. Then I wanted to gun down anyone who impeded my progress — and it was always, always impeded. In fact, that, I believe, is a toddler’s entire job description.
With effort, I learned to say yes to my husband when he offered to work from home on a day when a child was home sick from school. I learned to let him make trips to the pediatrician’s, where I’d somehow thought only I had the chromosomal makeup to hold out my hand for amoxicillin prescriptions. I learned he could even successfully purchase kids’ shoes — though with their clothing, I still retain sole despotic power.
On the days when there seemed no way for two parents to make it all fit, I learned to say yes to the friend who insisted on picking up my kids to play, so I could work longer — and I knew she trusted me to do the same for her weeks later.
I learned that hiring a baby-sitter didn’t have to be a concession to weakness. My kids enjoyed the sitters — in moderation — and picked up better batting skills and piano-playing hand positions from them.
And here’s what else I’m learning as a working woman and a mom and a wife: If you operate with the assumption you’re in complete control of your work and your time, understand it’s a delusion, and get over it. Practice saying the words “our” and “we” frequently. Remind yourself often that life and kids and work are all gifts, not to be taken for granted for even so much as a slice of a day. …
I’m learning that weariness is sometimes just another sign that you’re loved, that you love, and that you get to do what you love. There aren’t many of us in this world so incredibly lucky.
I’m learning that you’ve got to change the world whenever you can, change the diaper whenever it’s full, and change the printer cartridge whenever it isn’t.
So buy yourself a blue basket to wear on your head — it helps keep perspective.
Or, here, borrow mine.
From Working Families. Copyright 2007 by Joy Jordan-Lake. Used by permission of Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved.
Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 138. Calvin Stowe is quoted in an 1840 letter to his wife.
Harriet Beecher Stowe to Sarah Buckingham Beecher, December 17, , folder 94, Beecher-Stowe Collection, Arthur E. and Eliza Schlesinger library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, as quoted in Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 138.