Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mom Friends

My mom friend is moving away. 

I remember when I was nine, and I was the one who was moving away. I was hanging from the monkey bars with my friend Heather, who had yellow hair and lived one street over. I remember knowing it was the last time we’d play at my house, or ever. I had a vague sense of loss, but only in that dull way that children have of not fully realizing.

Losing my mom friend reminds me of that time, for some reason, but with a much sharper sense of loss.

When I was pregnant with Emmie, there were other people I knew who were also expecting, but no one really close. One of them was my friend’s sister. Her little girl and Emmie sometimes play together, and really like each other. But that mom lives 40 minutes away and is very busy working hard and raising her kids, as am I. We don’t see each other as often as I’d like.

My dear friend, the sister, is also a mom. Her daughter is in middle school. We love their whole family. I’ve been friends with the dad since middle school, which is crazy to think his daughter’s almost the age we were when we met! But again, we don’t see them as often as we’d like, with family obligations and everything else that fills up our schedules. I have other great mom friends who live elsewhere, with whom I text or visit occasionally.

One of my best friends is a mom of a sweet little 2-year-old boy, but she lives across the country. We text and talk every week, and I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s as close as I have to a sister.

My two closest friends live in Chicago and don’t have kids. They are the friends I can be my easy self with, who know me inside and out, who make me happy when I even just think about being with them. With the two kids, however, it’s harder to see them. And their day-to-day lives are so different from mine now.

I’ve only been friends with this mom friend for a handful of years. We didn’t go to the same high school, or college, or live in Chicago together like I did with my other friends. She worked with Bruce, and then bought a house in the same town as us. At first she and her husband didn’t have kids, and we’d hang out as two couples in the basement after Emmie was in bed. But then she got pregnant with twins, and I got pregnant with Hannah.

The thing is, she was here.

There’s something about knowing a friend is close by, one whom you could feasibly get to in a short car ride. I would send her a text saying, “Hey, it’s gorgeous outside! Want to take a walk?”

Taking a stroll
And she’d reply, “Yeah, meet you at the playground in a few!” Or, “I can’t, the twins are craaazy!” Even when our plans fell through, I would know she was near, going through the same kind of chaos as me.

When we did get together, our conversations were constantly interrupted by crying babies, or curious Emmie asking questions about everything she saw, or diaper changes or potty breaks. But in between we’d get to ask, “How are you?” And the other person would listen, really listen, and understand. We could see the tears in each other’s eyes, or the pride at a new baby achievement. We’d hug each other. We’d hold each other’s children. I thought our kids would grow up together.

I’ve tried to make friends with some of the moms of Emmie’s classmates. I’ve been on plenty of playdates where I’ve made small talk and smiled. I thought one mom would be a match; she had lived abroad like me, was a teacher, and used to work at the house museum where I now work. But when we had a playdate, she chatted away incessantly, always turning the conversation back to her. It was like I wasn’t even there. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, thought maybe it was a nervous tick, but after a couple times I realized that is just how she is. Plus, she kept doing that thing like whatever she does as a parent is the best way, the only way. That drives me nuts. It seems like motherhood often has this underlying sense of competition and judgement. That’s just not something I want to be a part of.

I’m going to miss my mom friend. There’s a plethora of reasons why they’re moving. They’ve been trying to raise kids with no help or family nearby, on one income in a state with notoriously high property taxes. Bruce and I have both our incomes, with family that offers a little assistance, and it still feels like an uphill battle. It makes sense for our friends to move to be nearer to family in another state with a lower cost of living. (Don’t get me started on how the appalling lack of parental support in this country can be attributed to many families’ struggles, including theirs.)

My friend moving leaves me feeling more alone out here. I’ve never been a real girl’s girl, not one to join a sorority in college or those mom’s groups they have nowadays. My group of friends has been assembled one at a time over dozens of years, organically. I feel apprehensive at the thought of putting myself out there – trying to find a new local friend at this stage of the game.

But I’d really like to find one.

If you’ve got a good friend nearby, give a call or send a text. Make plans to see each other soon – just because you can.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Vacation: Then and Now

Well, it’s official. Summer is over. I had my first day back to school last week, and Emmie has hers today. I swear, I was more anxious about it than she was. She was all cool while I fretted over her hair and rushed around and snapped a zillion photos.

But then I dropped her off, got the baby home and down for a nap… and now for an hour I’m free! It’s an incredible feeling. So many choices! I chose to write over cleaning or working, for obvious reasons. It’s just me, the kitchen table, my laptop, and a cup of coffee.

It’s nice to have time to myself again. But I’ll miss summer. It was our first summer as a family of four. We were even lucky enough to take a vacation. It’s funny, four years ago, we were living with my in-laws. That year, we took a trip with them to South Haven, Michigan. The 2012 Summer Olympics were on TV. We swam in the pool, went into town, and baby Emmie played in the sand on the beach for the first time.

Emmie looks out over the water

On the way to the beach
This year, we have our own house, but again went with Bruce’s family to South Haven. The 2016 Summer Olympics were on TV. We swam in the pool, went into town, and baby Hannah played in the sand on the beach for the first time, while her big sister made sand castles.

Mama and baby
Back then, living with the in-laws and taking a vacation with them was stressful idea. I was a new mother and still figuring out my role. It was hard to do that with my husband’s parents constantly around. My emotions ran so high. This time, I was able to truly relax and enjoy myself. Sure, it’s not easy taking a vacation with two little ones. In fact, it was exhausting. But whereas Emmie lived with her grandparents, and we all got plenty of quality time with them, Hannah only sees them on visits. She’s more reserved than Emmie was, more cautious about people holding her who are not her parents. This was a special opportunity for her grandparents to really be with her, and for her to get to know them.

Plus, we had help! Bruce and I got to go out one night with his sister and his godfather’s daughters and their husbands to trivia night at the local bar. We haven’t done something like that in years. (We won, too!) Or Emmie’s grandpa would play with her in the pool, so Bruce and I could take a nap while the baby slept. They say it takes a village, and Bruce and I have been so worn out lately trying to do it all ourselves. It was a nice break.

Looking back, this was my first summer at home with a little one and an infant, trying to balance cleaning the house, tending to the garden, getting food on the table, running errands, shuttling to lessons and play dates, along with teaching a fast-paced summer course, grading papers during nap time, facilitating a writing group, and working part-time for the museum. I didn’t always do a great job, and I was super stressed out. As the kids grow, however, being a parent gets easier in some ways. I’m just now starting to feel like myself again. As the weather gets colder, I’ll be pining for summer, but life is moving quicker than ever.

Got to go - it's already time to wake the baby and pick up Emmie.

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.

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