Thursday, February 12, 2009

So about school...

A funny thing happened on the way to my PhD.

I fell in love.

I didn't mean to - the people who have known me the longest couldn't have predicted it. I had always said I didn't really want children, then later, didn't care whether I had them or not. When I met my husband, I said I thought I could see having kids with him, since he was pretty cool and all. But then we were married for nearly ten years and I got caught up in career and graduate work and I just didn't really think I had the time or energy to devote to another human being.

But then I met Maggie.

And wouldn't you know it, I fell hard. Even though her first weeks were a mess of screaming and tears and feeding frustrations and complete feelings of inadequacy on my part, I was hooked. No one had ever needed me like this little person did. No matter how unprepared or ignorant or overwhelmed I was, she still needed me above all others.

That kind of trust - that throws itself onto you with complete abandon and just believes that you'll live up to what it needs - rarely if ever happens between adults. But it is required between a mother and her child. It is, in fact, the way that it's supposed to be done, the way things are meant to be - the whole reason, I suppose, that mommies are given all these extra hormones and other physical helps to induce feelings of euphoria, strength, and even love.

I don't know if it was the hormones or the lack of sleep or prescience, but I had a thought a couple weeks after she was born: do I really want to go through with moving us far from home, away from our friends and support systems, to do more school at a place I don't know with people I've never met? I even blogged about it back then. And some of you wrote back to say yes, don't give up, if you don't at least try school you'll always regret it; and at least one person wrote to say listen to the doubt and give in to the oh-so-un-pc desire to halt your academic career.

I took in all the advice, and I prayed, and I talked with my husband the most, and we agreed that I would probably feel differently in a few months, when the whole motherhood thing wasn't so fresh, and besides, we'd already made all the arrangements and given our landlord notice and, well, the train had pretty much left the station, so off we went.

The summer was a beautiful time, and a difficult and crazy time, us getting to know our child and redefining ourselves as a three-person family. Our poor cats became sorely neglected. We painted the living room of the first real house we've lived in. We had to take on housemates, which turned out to be a disaster (but that's another story). Maggie's paternal grandparents met her, and all her Northern California family met her, and a couple dear friends from LA visited. And we found a church.

At some point near the beginning of school, J and I were walking and I admitted that I was terrified of starting the program; I didn't think I was smart enough or committed enough and I didn't want to leave my daughter so soon. He could reassure me about the first, encouraged me about the second, and reminded me, in reference to the third, that he was taking care of her, and really, it was good for her to have that time with her daddy. And so, once again, I relented.

But the first week of class came, and I found myself fighting back tears through the whole miserable three hours I was sitting there. I couldn't concentrate on our discussion, I could only think about my baby. And when I got home, all I wanted to do was play with her and feed her and cuddle her, I didn't care about reading. The things I was studying suddenly seemed hopelessly irrelevant. My brain had switched over to a different sort of intelligence - something more primal and creative and instinctive and, well, right-brained - and it was hard to make the switch back to taking in facts and making arguments and memorizing history and thinking critically.

I was not able to see the big picture anymore - I was living in the moment, because that's how babies live. I was looking as far as the next diaper change, the next feeding, and that was it. That was all we needed. It was incredibly freeing.

So I would take as much time as I dared with her every week, and then endure the grueling hours of reading (when she had to be taken away for I was too distracted with her around) and going to class. It was just the wrong timing. I shouldn't have gone back so soon; I shouldn't have tried to do it all with only a three-month-old. Had I not tried to jump in the deep end, I might have found myself more willing to continue. But I was drowning. I literally felt like I couldn't breathe.

After my nice long nearly two-month break between semesters, I was refreshed and ready to try one (easy) class to get through the spring. I figured if I took something really interesting, and got through the first year of motherhood still in the degree program, I could at least see if I actually wanted to pursue it the rest of the way. And nobody could say I hadn't given it a good long shot.

But then my advisor, ever the wise woman, said to me, ever so simply, "You are consumed by being a mother. And you have to honor that. Someday, maybe, you'll be ready to be mother and..., but for now, you are just mother. So be that. And when you sense that you want to be mother plus something else, then listen to that voice too. Honor both of those callings, because that is who you are."

Ah yes. She was right. I couldn't deny it.

So I am not taking classes this semester. I wasn't ready to completely drop out, because that's just so final, and I keep having inklings that I might feel differently. So I'm holding on just a little longer - don't have anywhere else to be anyway! - just in case. One thing I've learned is that I can never predict where my life will take me.

Plus I have the recent PPD diagnosis, and I know it is not wise to make giant life-altering decisions under the pressure of depression. So I am resting, getting well, indulging myself completely in motherhood, and then I will see: I may be invigorated and in love with life, or I may find myself bored to tears. I cannot say now, I plan to wait and see. It's rather exciting, actually.

As for the PhD, I know that at one time I was a person who wanted to do it. I know I am still a person who could do it. I had every intention of doing it, and my motives were pure in coming here. I could not have predicted the way I wound up feeling about it. But I have to listen.

It is interesting: as I spent time with the other geeks of my field, I saw just how, for once in my life, un-geeky I was. I really didn't care that much about the trivia of our study, and the major figures sort of blurred together, and the history and factoids seemed rather obtuse. I found myself longing for - of all things - the practicality of the MDiv, the on-the-ground action of pastoral work. I kept bringing every discussion back to the here-and-now, to the churches that are the mainstream (instead of those that are the ideal or are at least pursuing that), to the worship lives of everyday persons, not scholars, not priests. And I know that real life is the true passion of every liturgist, but I found myself more impatient than most to get back to it. And I think that is largely because of my baby, of the urgency that life has taken on now that there is this person who is experiencing everything for the first time, and how I see the time passing so quickly, and realize that we have only so much impact on this world. What am I doing with my life?

Many things I would love to do: parish ministry, consultation with churches (diocesan food guru?), creating liturgies, writing, campus ministry - none of these require a PhD. It could help, but it's not all that necessary. And GTU is a great school, and the PhD there is a lot of work. So I have to consider whether I'm up for that - for seven years or so of waiting to put my theory into action. After my experience last week at the food pantry, I'm not sure I can. It's just way too much fun to actually be out doing ministry!

So we will see. I might consider another field, since the liturgy box feels a bit tight at the moment. Maybe spirituality or interdisciplinary studies. Or I might find that I just want to raise my kid, and some more kidlets, for a while. Or I might fall into some sort of ministry, and find myself back on the ordination track by the grace of God. There are so many ways life could go. What a crazy journey it's been already; and there are surely more twists and turns ahead.

This is what I've been waiting to talk about, and bursting to say, for months now. I couldn't, for fear of who might read it, let my hand show. But now it's pretty much all out there, so I can reveal why I've been a bit tight-lipped and anxious for so long. I do feel like I can breathe a bit, and that this reprieve will be an excellent time of soul-searching and path-discerning.

And I hope that my story can help other women to honor the voice inside, whatever it might be telling them, no matter how unpopular it may be, how un-feminist, or how far off the road they thought they were traveling. So life throws a curve ball. So what? That's so often how we find the next great thing, or the part of ourselves that needs to open up and see the light, or the blessing God is preparing us to receive and to give.

Louis Weil said this to me: "We can only know when a new turn must be taken by walking along another path first. In my life, these unexpected turns have been very fruitful..."

I'm excited to see what will happen next. And I'm glad you're along for the ride.


JTB said...

I'm so glad to read this post. Peace just sort of radiates out of the computer screen between the lines of it.

I also found the dailiness of Clare's infancy strangely liberating...but it's clear to me that we had very different experiences when it came time to jump back into the academic work. I needed it, again, at that point, and it's clear that you don't. I'm glad that you have the honesty and courage to listen to yourself, and be who you are and need to be right now. I count Feminarian among my personal collection of heroes!

Gail P Smith said...

Actually, I was just dropping by to leave a note about a blog I happened on that reminded me of you and saw this post. I'm so glad you found the thing that feels right and are doing it. You sound very certain and I'm very happy for you! and Maggie! and John, too!
Love you.
the blog is...

Nathan Nobis said...

Congratulations on your big decision. I think it's a good and wise one.

ErinKaitlyn said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, I to think it was a good and wise decison. I am not a mother, I do hope to be one day but I know the bond between a mother and daughter is strong. My mother was killed a few years back when I was 17 and I would give anything to have her back,because frankly I still do need her in my life. I wish she was here so I could ask her for advice or just to give me a hug when I have had a bad day because there is nothing like a mothers love.

Chels Blankinship said...

I do not believe it is un-feminist to take time to care for your child. You stated that you were unhappy in your situation at school, so you changed it to make yourself happier. You made a choice and to me this is what feminism is about, making choices and not having situations forced upon you due to societal expectations.

You made a hard decision, I hope it works out for you and your family in the best of ways