Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Garden Delight

Every year it's the same in the Midwest - it gets to the end of July, and people start to ask, "Where has the summer gone?" A low sense of dread starts to creep in, that summer will give way to fall, and then the long days of winter will be here.

Since becoming a parent, the summers pass by even quicker. This year, I've been teaching a a summer class two nights a week, along with working at the house museum every other Saturday and doing their marketing from home.  Two or three days working a week may not seem like much, but everything is intensified with a 4-year-old and a baby! Plus, the summer classes are 8 weeks instead of 16, which means I have half the amount of time to grade papers. It feels like all I've done is grade papers: during nap time, when Bruce gets home from work, any free moment on the weekends. Tonight, however, is the last day of school! One more weekend of grading and then I have three weeks off before the Fall term.

We've still managed to have plenty of fun this summer. We've been to a ton of festivals around the suburbs and in the city. We've hung out with our friends. We went as a family to a Cubs game - Hannah's first one!

One of my biggest triumphs is our garden this year. Every morning, the girls and I go outside and inspect the growth in our yard. Since becoming a homeowner, I've developed a real love of gardening. My passion for flowers and herbs and greenery has truly blossomed. (Pun intended - I could keep that up all day, but I won't!)

In May, we started a kitchen garden. I say kitchen because some of the plants don't technically bear vegetables. I think "kitchen garden" sounds quaint and rustic, but to Bruce it's cloying. We built an ultra-basic raised bed, right off the patio and next to where the herbs grow.

We had no idea what we were doing. For instance, we bought way too many plants! We bought three tomato plants, two zucchini, two cucumber, two jalapeno, and four strawberry for a 4' x 8' plot. We ended up returning one each of the tomato, zucchini, and cucumber, after I realized how large they'd grow.

Even still, we soon saw our little bed turn into a jungle! Within a few weeks, the tomato plants were a couple feet high and needed support. The zucchini plant was taking over the Thai basil, and the cucumber vines were spreading out onto the lawn.

It's been a learning experience and a real treat to grow food for the first time. I've had herbs for a couple years, and I've enjoyed picking mint or oregano for dinner, or snipping chives for eggs at breakfast time. But to watch as a plant produces flowers, then fruit, and then root for it to grow bigger (I couldn't help that one), and then cut it off and eat it is like a little victory each time. What they say is true - nothing beats eating food you've grown yourself!




Tonight, we're having salad for dinner with our own cherry tomatoes - Emmie picked ten today! Then I'll go to class the last time this semester. After that, everything will be ripe for the picking.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

My job and I have a love-hate relationship. I know, I know, many people feel this way. But mine borders on unhealthy. As an adjunct college instructor, I get to choose (sort of) my own hours, which allows me to stay home with my kids. I do most of my work outside of the office, which has its benefits. (Especially on lovely days like today!) Plus, working with students makes me feel good. I love to witness students actually learning and progressing because of my instruction. Students have written to me long after the end of a course to tell me how I’ve affected their lives in a positive way. It’s a natural high.
Today's office
But then there are the lows. The pay stinks. Most schools have a cap on how many classes an adjunct can teach, so they don’t have to pay us benefits, resulting in most adjuncts cobbling together an income from multiple schools. I wouldn’t be able to support myself, let alone my children, even if I were able to procure enough courses to equal full-time status. Obviously, there are no benefits.

But it goes beyond what can be recorded on paper. I’ve recalled many personal battles with being an adjunct on this blog. The fact that a class can get canceled just days before the start date means I often lose out on potential income. That lead to us having to move in with our in-laws in the first place.

This past year, I had to teach an online course that began four days after my second daughter was born. Even before I had the baby, I was stressing about having to teach the course. I knew even then how it was affecting my emotional health. In the hospital, I was diagnosed as having borderline postpartum depression and again at my 6-week OB-GYN visit.

It wasn’t just that I was responsible for instruction, grading homework and papers, and answering student emails during that time. My boss also made it more difficult for me because he ordered a different book for the course than the one with which I had prepared everything. Three days in, I got an email from a student asking, “Why are all the pages numbers in the syllabus different? Why don’t I see the chapter you’re referring to?” All the work I had done prior, before the baby was born, had to be redone. The syllabus, the reading assignments, the corresponding essays and quizzes all needed to be revised. My boss, the Dean, had no idea I had had a baby. He has no contact with me besides assigning me courses. He bought me a bottle of wine as an apology. It was a week after I gave birth, and I was nursing. I think I had one bitter glass and then threw the rest out.

Thankfully, the course was 8 only weeks long. Only after, during winter break, did the fog in my head begin to clear.

The next semester my online course got canceled due to low enrollment, which meant a good chunk of money with which we intended to pay off medical expenses didn’t come through. I taught a class at another school on Wednesday nights, so I was still contributing a little extra.

Then I was all set to teach an online course this summer. I am required, months in advance, to prepare these online courses with a third party who handles the web technicalities. I do this without yet receiving my contract. Without receiving a dime. I do it in the hopes the class will “go”– meaning enough students will enroll– and I’ll end up getting paid during the term. So in late April, I got an email from the third party administrator: “Your course is all set to go!” I had been working on it here and there since January, meeting every deadline.

The next day, the administrator wrote me back. “Please disregard my prior email. I have received notice the course is canceled.”

I had no idea.

I forwarded the email to my boss, asking, “Is this true?”

He called me almost immediately, apologizing yet again. He didn’t cancel the course, nor did the Dean of Online Studies. The course was sufficiently enrolled, that wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was an error made by the Registrar, one that couldn’t be rescinded now the students had been told their class was canceled. My boss claimed he wanted to get me some kind of “recognition” for the work I did, but he didn’t sound too confident.

I cried after we got off the phone. Here I was again, letting my family down. Thankfully, we are no longer in a situation where this would’ve meant not being able to pay our bills, due to Bruce’s new job. But it does mean not being able to put money away for emergencies. It means scrimping between paychecks. It means Bruce might have to go without air conditioning in his car this summer – and he works an hour and a half away. It means we won’t be able to save for a big trip we wish to take with Bruce’s family next year. I am scheduled to teach a course at another school, but still, every dollar counts.

A week later, the Dean of Online Students called me. She also apologized, and attempted to assure me nothing like this would happen again. Ha! I’ve been doing this for long enough to know better. As far as compensation, she said the issued had been raised with the higher ups, but “don’t count on it.”

She actually said that. She might as well have said, “You and your time and the work you’ve been required to do for this university are worthless.”

How did I respond? I thanked her for her time and let her know I appreciated working for the university. When I hung up, I was sick to my stomach. Why did I say that? I said it because I can’t afford to defend myself. I can’t afford to yell, “That’s not good enough! I deserve to get paid!” Because I can’t burn any bridges; I need to keep working.

I did mention to her how as an adjunct I am taking a risk by doing the work in advance without guarantee of pay. That I am isolated from the full-time faculty and staff, and often have no idea what’s happening on campus. I did emphasize the time and effort I put into the course. I tried to be clear, but professional. I believed in doing so, my chances for getting “recognized” might be better. Regardless, I still felt dirty.

Bruce, for the record, would’ve rather I had stuck up for myself. He’s fine with me quitting adjunct instructing all together to avoid these times when I feel like I’ve been kicked in the mud.

Weeks went by. The date of what would’ve been my first paycheck for the term came and went. I emailed my boss, who wrote back that the issue had been escalated to the president of the university, and he would let me know as soon as he heard something. This could be seen as good or bad. If my case had gone all the way to the top, it meant people were in my corner. It also meant if the president deemed me worthless and denied me any compensation, I could no longer keep working for that school in good conscience. I'd have to leave.

My heart raced when I finally saw an email from my boss in my inbox. The email stated a special contract was being written for me for a payment of 24% of the original amount. He expressed again his regrets and hoped this would “help make things right.”

I ran upstairs to tell Bruce. We both stared at each other, then smiled weakly. This meant that the university acknowledged I was owed compensation for the preparatory work I was required to do. It was a little extra money that means a lot to our family.

Overall, though, being an adjunct is like being in an unhappy marriage. Sure, instructors at some universities are banding together and forming unions for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. But while I am getting paid for the university’s mistake this time, there are plenty of other times when adjuncts are working for free. Every time I write a letter of recommendation for a former student, I am doing it out of generosity. Preparing for a class in advance and then finding out it’s canceled due to low enrollment is a waste of time and a financial blow. I am certain that I will get professionally screwed over again somehow. What adjuncts are investing, we are not getting in return.

I’m going stay with it, at least while the kids are little. But my heart’s not in it anymore.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Spring Blossoms

I love spring. It's my favorite season. I love the longer days, the grass suddenly green, changing out my heavy wool coat for my light rain jacket. I love birds chasing each other around the yard, flying loop-de-loops and landing in the still-bare bushes. I love Lent, which leads to Easter, and all the pastels and bunny decorations. This year is extra special because it is Hannah's first spring, and Emmie's first one as a big sister. 

Saturday was bright and brisk outside. We worked in the yard, cutting back last year's dead plants and clearing the crunchy leaves out of the garden beds. Emmie and Bruce threw a ball around for a while. I put a hat on Hannah and took her around, holding her little hands to touch a bud here and pointing out flowers there. Then during the girls' naptime I did some cleaning, washing curtains and fixing some things I'd been neglecting. Though Bruce wanted to relax, I was happy to get so much accomplished.
Yesterday, Bruce and I woke with Hannah around 6:30, and soon after Emmie came in, sleepy-eyed, asking if the Easter Bunny came. He did, and Emmie relished in finding all the hidden eggs around the house and counting all the candy inside. When she found her basket, she exclaimed, "Did he really get me all this?" She was so excited, which pleased Bruce and me greatly.

The girls both wore floral dresses with white tights and headbands. We made the rounds from Bruce's parents' house to mine, like we do every year. It was a long day, but luckily Hannah's an easy sleeper, and we were able to put her down for naps throughout. We ate good food and enjoyed the company. The grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins took turns holding the baby and playing with Emmie. We came home with an armful of gifts - new dresses, stuffed animals, and way too much candy.

I love spring the way I love mornings, because it feels fresh and full of possibility. It's a time for wondering and making plans. This spring, I feel hopeful about what's ahead for our little family tree.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Laundry Lesson

I had my proudest moment as a parent so far.

Lately I’ve been struggling with one of my typical struggles again – trying to “do it all.” When Emmie was born, I stopped teaching, giving up a semester for maternity leave. Then the next semester, my class got cancelled. Even though during that time I started writing this blog and we moved in with Bruce’s parents, my main concern during Emmie’s first nine months was being a first-time mother.

Eventually I went back to being a college adjunct English instructor at two schools. We moved into our current home, and in 2014 I started working part-time at the house museum. Emmie was 2 ½ and went a couple days a week to daycare. Then, last year when I was a few months pregnant, I started an adult creative writing group at the local library.

Of course I knew having a baby would add a whole new element to my life. But I didn’t want to let anything go that was for me. Now I have a new baby; a four-year-old to take to preschool and tumbling; my teaching jobs; the museum (which lets me work from home, but still requires my time and attention); and the writing group; not to mention housework, like the loads of laundry for my husband, myself, and two daughters for whom people love to buy clothes. The other day I went out into the yard and realized soon I’ll have to find time for yard work, too. If I only stayed at home and went to work, I might be able to get all of the above done. But on the weekends we like to do fun activities or visit with family and friends.

I feel like I can't keep up. And that means a lot of guilt, and a little resentment, too. Bruce is amazing at taking as much off my plate as possible when he’s not at work, but it's overwhelming for the both of us.

Yesterday, after breakfast and getting everyone dressed, I got both kids in the car, took Emmie to preschool, came home, nursed Hannah, and then started to fold a huge basket of Emmie’s laundry. I put away her socks, underwear, pajamas, and pants into drawers, but the shirts and dresses I left on her bed to be hung up later. Then Hannah and I were back in the car to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy and to retrieve Emmie. At home I fixed lunch, then the girls had nap/quiet time while I graded papers and did some work for the museum. I grabbed a quick, much-needed nap, then showered and got ready. Bruce came home with tacos because I didn’t have time to cook before my writing group meeting.

“Can you finish the laundry?” I asked as we ate. “There’s some in the washer and dryer, and some on the floor upstairs. Oh, and I left some on Emmie’s bed that needs to be hung up.”

Bruce nodded, but then Emmie spoke up. “I put it away, Mama.”

“What?” Bruce and I turned to look at her.

“I already put my clothes away.” She smiled.

“You mean, the clothes on your bed? You hung them up?”

 “Yup!”

“No way.”

“I did!”

“I don’t believe it. You put away your clothes, without me asking you to, and without saying anything until now?”

“Yes! Do you want to see?” She took my hand and led me upstairs to show off her good work.
I hugged her tightly. I told her how pleased I was that she put away her clothes all by herself like a big girl, how doing so was helpful and very much appreciated.

Emmie already helps around the house in many ways, like feeding the cat and grabbing more diapers from upstairs when her sister needs to be changed. But this was the first time she took real initiative to do something on her own. She just beamed from pride. And I nearly cried to see her so proud, and for how proud I was of her.

Something as simple as Emmie putting away her laundry reminded me that time keeps charging forward, and what seems unmanageable now will get easier. There was a time when having one baby seemed hectic, but the baby grew up. Just as Emmie is figuring out what she’s capable of, so will I.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Balancing Act

I took both girls to visit my elderly friend at a restaurant the other day. It was her first time meeting Hannah, and my first time taking the two girls out to eat on my own. The baby slept through lunch, and Emmie kept herself busy coloring on the kids menu, so I was able to catch up and have an actual conversation with my friend. I was feeling pretty successful.

Right as the waitress was setting down our ice creams, the baby opened her eyes, looking around at the strange environment.

My friend leaned in closer to the baby. "Hello, there," she cooed.

Immediately Hannah's face crumpled, turned red, and she started to cry.

"Oh, it's okay," I said to both my friend and my baby. "She's probably just confused. It's okay. Hannah, say hi, honey." I pulled Hannah out of her car seat and bounced her on one knee while I tried to spoon my ice cream into my mouth with the other hand.

The baby was still fussy, so I took her to the restroom, changed her diaper, and nursed her a little while standing up in the handicap stall. I wanted to calm her down, but didn't want to feed her a full meal near a toilet. She wasn't satisfied, and it made her even more upset.

When we came back, Emmie and my friend had finished their ice cream. Mine had half-turned to liquid in its tulip dish. "Emmie, it's time to go," I insisted over the baby's cries. I started buckling the baby into her car seat as she squirmed.

"I'm tired," Emmie said, throwing herself face down on the booth. Our pile of coats slid to the floor.

"Emmie, it's time to go," I repeated, fake smile plastered on my face, which Emmie knows means, "You're going to be in big trouble later if you don't listen to me."

I had the handle of the car seat in the crook of my arm, and I was doing awkward squat-like moves in an attempt to rock the baby. Draped over my opposite shoulder was my overloaded purse and packed diaper bag. I tried to reach down for the coats and the gift bag my friend had brought, while trying to catch Emmie's hand, but stuff started falling out of my purse. Sweat droplets slid down my forehead. "Come on, Emmie. Get your coat on."

"I can't; I need help." Emmie can totally get her coat on herself, except for when she is being lazy.

"Waaah! Waaah!"

"Emmie, please pick up the coats and get yours on." My voice came out high-pitched and tense, my fake-smile shaky.

My friend, who is becoming increasingly fragile as the years pass, bent down and grabbed the things from the floor. She handed me my coat, and started bundling Emmie into hers.

"Waaah, waaah!"

"Thank you, sorry," I mumbled. I didn't bother trying to get my coat on. I grabbed the container of Emmie's leftovers and steered Emmie towards the front of the restaurant. From shoulder to hand, there wasn't a free inch of either of my arms. I wasn't a person, I was a pack mule.

"Waaah!"

One of my bags banged against a table on our way out. An elderly couple was seated there, and they smiled at me. "Enjoy it," the lady said.

"Ha, ha, totally," I laughed, in on the joke. Emmie tugged at my hand while up front my friend paid the check.

The lady's smile faded. She turned to gaze at my wailing baby and my stubborn preschooler. "I mean it."

And right then, I saw my life through her eyes. I saw that these frantic moments will pass. Some day my babies won't be babies anymore. Some day I could be sitting in a cafe in the early afternoon with nothing to interrupt or rush me. Some day, I will be wishing I could have these days back again.

"I will," I said, and allowed my daughter to pull me away.

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