Thursday, November 18, 2010

The darkest hour

This morning was pretty rough. Well, last night was pretty rough. Actually, it was yesterday... yes, yesterday was rough.

It all started during a group meeting, when I sat down next to a male colleague. We are both at the exact same stage in our careers, and we are both contemplating the next step. And as I sat next to him, listened to his contributions in the meeting, turning over the conversation about parenthood that we had recently had... I became overwhelmingly jealous and angry. This anger has carried through to today.

See, this male colleague has a brand new baby boy at home -- just three months younger than Jack. This male colleague represents something: he has a wife, who is currently at home, taking care of their little boy. This male colleague is the perfect example of why men with children get tenure earlier and earn more than men without children, and why the reverse is true of women. This male colleague is capable of compartmentalizing his life, because when he is at work, he works, and when he is at home, he is at home. He doesn't drag around a breastpump. He probably doesn't spend hours reading parenting literature, he doesn't deal with thrush, and I'll wager that he spends far less time daydreaming about what his son looks like while nursing than I do. This male colleague has a mental and physical freedom that I will never possess. And so I feel anger boil up inside me.

I am angry because of the lie that is perpetuated on women: the lie that we can do it all, at 100%, that we can become efficient maternal working machines who sacrifice themselves for the only pure ambitions: reproduction and contribution to the bottom $. I am angry to be told, again and again, that I can be the one to do it, to forge a new path of productivity that will illuminate the ways for others. I am angry that I am at a fundamental, logistical disadvantage (breastfeeding through the night, putting him to sleep, pumping 2+ hours a day). I am angry that I am at an intellectual disadvantage (hello, hormones). I am angry that I know these differences will last years, and that these years are as ill-timed with my academic career path as they could possibly be. I am angry that there is nothing I can do to even the playing field. I am angry to have lost control.

I have the most supportive husband you could imagine -- a husband who does more than half the domestic work -- and here, you will hear me saying this: it's still not fair, and no amount of laundry and dishwashing by my partner can make up for the gender difference that was sitting next to me during the meeting yesterday. I am absorbed by Jack, 24 hours a day. My body and my mind have not been my own for more than a year... much longer, if you count infertility. This is how biology intended it to be.

I am angry because I understand, now, why all of my male advisers have instilled in me the confidence that career + baby can be done. I am angry because I understand, now, why no female colleague has uttered the same words. I know, now, why women are hardest on their own gender.

I am angry that I am helpless. I am angry that what I want is at odds with what I can have.

I'm just angry.

So this morning was difficult. And here, instead of working, I've taken another 20 minutes for myself, to write about something that is deeply troubling me but that is also completely out of my ability to fix. I am a broken record, skipping back and forth in my mind over the same, gnawing idea: I'm a woman, and it's different, I'm a woman, and it's different, I am a woman... and it's different. I've had conversation after conversation about this topic, and each one brings me to same dead-end: we were prepared to tackle the tallest mountain, but we were not prepared to hit the glass ceiling. My, how these thoughts consume me.

Isn't the definition of insanity doing something over and over again, and expecting a different result? If so, I may be walking the precipice of psychosis as I mull these same, depressing conclusions over and over in my mind. I know I need to learn a new skill. I need to learn how to let go.

This challenging morning, I put Jack in the car and drove him to daycare. I set up his cloth diapers and his glass bottles. I had a chat with the head teacher about his napping patterns. I kissed him on the head and said goodbye.

And then I realized how tremendously thankful I am for so much in my life. And the realization of gratitude for my life quelled my anger more quickly than any assurance about my maternal or working merits ever could. Really, it's not about changing what I think about myself. I can't fix that -- I'm going to feel deficient, like a half of a person, for a long time. It's about changing what I expect from the world. Realizing how much it has given me. Realizing that I am thankful for it all. Let me list a few things.

I am thankful:

- For the most lovely, easy baby I could imagine
- For a husband who supports everything I hope to do in my life (whether it is feasible or not), who brings such laughter, happiness, and playfulness to my days
- For a few certainties: family, friends, health, and love
- For the necessities, and the non-necessities, too: a house, transportation, and an occupation
- For a career and family worth worrying about
- For the freedom to worry

In the spirit of letting go that which is toxic, let me rephrase the gender inequality that is so perturbing me right now. The problem is not that women have fewer choices than men. The problem is actually that we have more choices. The merit of each possibility was never clear to me until I was actually faced with its potential loss. Picking the path that is right for each of us women -- the one that will bring calamity to a rising storm of internal conflict -- is something we can only do during the darkest hour.

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