Monday, February 7, 2011

I Coulda Been a Contender

My ambivalence about work has turned to sour. I just don't like doing it. It doesn't like me right back.

Here's a history lesson: once upon a time, I had a very promising career in academic science ahead of me. I landed a prestigious postdoc at a top-tier institution, where Nobel laureates teach medicine and my would-be advisor has Howard Hughes money. I would have worked like a dog had I taken the job, as such labs are known to be postdoc factories where they crank them out like widgets, but I would have had a nearly-limitless budget to do whatever floated my boat for research and probably would have had several Nature or Science publications and a grant or two and then an academic position somewhere. To miss on getting a tenure-track assistant professorship after that kind of experience, I would have needed to show up to the interview in an SS uniform and lipstick smeared crazily all over my face, wielding a carving knife. But, I passed. I took a postdoc position at my graduate institution working for a middle-of-the-road guy, doing middle-of-the-road research. I wanted to stay close to KB because I thought (correctly) that we would soon get married and have a family. I got a couple of papers out of the deal, but walked away from it as well to pursue a different career path as a medical writer. Why? I was super good at teaching, pretty good at bench research, and very good at writing papers and grants and presenting my research. But I saw the women around me struggling to balance academic work and family, and I didn't want to go that route. I didn't want the lifelong struggle. So I bailed. I don't think of it as "giving up" something to be with KB, and ultimately with Jackson, but I suppose that's what it was. I gave up something to get something. I don't regret it, but I do sometimes fantasize about what my life would be like if I had continued down that path. I might have my own lab by now. I would be a few years away from a tenure decision. I would have students (labslaves!) and postdocs (minions!) and would teach classes in my field of expertise. I would be The Shit, giving seminars and speaking at conferences on Very Important Topics and mesmerizing students the world over. I would have been great, I think. But I chose differently and try not to look back. It's not productive to do so, and I don't feel like I made any mistakes. Not yet, anyway. I don't think. Well...

So, you can take the girl out of the overachievement but you can't take the overachievement out of the girl. When I began a new career as a medical writer, I was quickly rewarded with promotions and responsibilities and promises of fast-tracking to the top. Let's make a long story short and say that some things transpired between the senior management of that company and me and I decided they could go fuck themselves, and got myself a new job. Also, I was about to start IVF cycling and I couldn't continue to do the mandatory travel for business meetings and marketing that they demanded. So I changed courses again. I found my present job, where I do the same work, sans management, and I get to work from home. There's an inherent amount of flexibility when working from home, but the volume of work is still high, sometimes staggering. The company has been undergoing massive changes on an almost non-stop basis for over a year now, and each new thing brings renewed stress and uncertainty. During the last few months of pregnancy, I was miserable from the physical discomforts of pregnancy and the 10-12-hour days that were becoming common due to the project load I carried. I complained, tactfully, to my boss, and was thoroughly ignored. (Of all the managers, he is the standout ignoranus, and I am just lucky enough to get to work for him -- yay for me.) I put in a full day of work on the day I went into labor and ended up in the hospital to have the baby -- not by choice, but because my boss was so not on-the-ball with helping me create a transition plan. I had to do it myself at the last minute and actually held "knowledge transfer" meetings while in active labor. So, you can imagine how excited I was to return to work for this same nincompoop. Not much has changed. Except everything.

My day revolves around Jackson, as it should. I don't rush him to daycare; I take it slow with him in the morning, let him wake when he's ready, take my time nursing him, and then drop him at school. This usually happens by 9AM. I then have to rush home and cram in some work, pump, wash pump parts, cram in some more work and work meetings, take a shower (I sacrifice this in the morning to spend more time with Jackson), pump, wash pump parts again, do laundry or some other household task (I try not to leave this for the evening to have still more time with Jackson), then go pick him up from school around 4PM. He falls asleep in the car, so I drive around the neighborhood for half an hour or so to let him nap, then we come home and nurse, play, and wait for KB to come home. I have to pump several more times in the evening, during which I try to cram in some deferred work not completed during the day, and then I go to bed and get a couple of hours sleep before the nighttime awakenings begin. I struggle with the pumping because I have to do it ~5 times daily to get enough milk to send to daycare with him, yet pumping is so much less efficient than nursing at emptying my breasts that I've suffered mastitis twice already since returning to work, and usually have to manually express after pumping to try to empty (so I don't continue getting mastitis). We're on our third head cold in 6 weeks (which we can probably thank daycare for) -- oh, and being sick reduces milk supply, too. And part of the reason I take Jackson to daycare a little later and pick him up a little earlier is to avoid having to send even more milk with him -- I just can't pump that much. I could supplement with formula, but I'm stubborn and I make enough milk for him to nurse, so I am determined to keep giving him breast milk until he doesn't need it anymore. Just the name formula sounds like fake food. I don't judge others for their decision (or lack of choice in some cases) to use it. But I don't want to. Maybe I'm just clinging to some semblance of control, but I can breastfeed, so I will breastfeed, goddammit.

When you look at my weekday as a whole, I probably only spend about 3 hours during the day doing actual work for my employer (although another hour or two gets done at night and wee hours of the morning, while I pump). I have no time to work out, to try and tame this lumpy mass back into a healthy human form. KB and I hardly spend any time together, with all the Jackson-centric activity and my attempts to squeeze in work around the clock while I'm hooked up to the pump like a mama cow. I feel completely ineffective and as though no one is getting my undivided attention. I feel like I am failing at everything. All I want is to succeed as a wife and mother and make a little dough on the side. It's not asking too much. Is it? See, I don't even know how to answer my own rhetorical questions anymore. Cuh-razey.

I don't regret giving up an academic career in the slightest, but I am starting to resent this job for making all my life decisions seem moot by robbing me of the ability to fully enjoy anything I have, since I am constantly being pulled in some direction with no way to keep my balance. I wish like hell I had the option of going part-time, because that's what I need. I need a little time to do something intellectual, to use my neurons, but I also need time with my son. Time that I am currently stealing from my employer. I can't quit and not work at all, because if my financial contribution dries up and I can't afford any kind of help, ever, then I will surely lose my mind. I love my kid, but I know my limits, and I know that I need some time to myself once in a while. I also grew up dirt-ass poor, so I tend to over-worry about money and need the security of a comfortable income; KB and I have never sat down and budgeted as a one-income family, or with me going part-time as a freelancer, so I don't know how that would impact us economically. The plan was always for me to return to work full-time. So, I feel stuck. I feel like I have no choices. I feel like I am just spinning plates, waiting for one to escape my reach and come crashing down. It leaves me exhausted. Stressed. Maybe a little depressed. Leaving my job to freelance on a part-time basis is something that would (will?) take a lot of careful planning, and a long time to execute. I can't make it happen overnight; it might take months. I've talked to KB about it but don't get a very good read on whether he thinks it's a good idea or not. I think his version of the solution to all of this is for me to flip the happy switch and start loving my working mother status, and simply not feel bad about my fractured days and sub-par performance. Lordy, I wish I could do that, that it was so simple. While I can accept not being a World Famous Scientist (heh), I am struggling with being a shitty employee and part-time mom and nearly absent wife. None of these titles suits me. But right now, any of them could describe me.

I feel like this really should be simple, that I should be able to just say with conviction, I want to quit and find part-time work and only send Jackson to daycare part-time. There, I said it. But I feel like if I depart from the original plan, somehow I am letting everybody down. My inability to be superwoman is a giant FAIL. A black mark on my life's resume. A big fat demerit on my official record.

So, as with so many things in my life over the past few years, I take a wait-and-see approach. I hope the solution will reveal itself in good time. Before the nice men in the white jackets come to take me away. They're coming to take me away, live on the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time...


Lauren said...

Wow, that sounds EXHAUSTING.

If there's one thing I have learned from listening to many moms, it's that there is no Superwoman. I don't think it's actually possible to feel fully successful at being a wife, mother, and full-time employee. You're always going to feel like you're failing at something, because you can't give anything the amount of attention it deserves. Heck, I'm a SAHM now and I sometimes feel guilty about not being a perfect mom, wife, and homemaker. Do you know how often I don't even make dinner?? (as my husband is making dinner in the background because I'm still not recovered from the stomach flu...)

It sounds like something has to give. And it sounds like the pumping is really draining you. I'm a huge BFing advocate, and firmly believe in exclusive BFing for 6 months. BUT, it sounds like the only things that can really give are the pumping or the working. You obviously can't give up on your son or your husband!

How would you feel about supplementing with formula while he's at daycare after he's 6 months old? Once he's on solids anyway he's no longer exclusively breastfed, so the digestion issues seem to be moot at that point. It would give you freedom from all the pumping, and you can still BF whenever he's home. It sounds like it would save a LOT of your time. (By the way, I really admire how dedicated you are to providing Jackson with breastmilk. A lot of people wouldn't have dealt with this at all!)

Such a complicated situation... I hope you can find a way to create some balance for yourself. Good luck!:)

Esperanza said...

Oh Jen, I feel you on a thousand levels. I just wrote a post today about spending all week just trying to get to the weekends and how my life feels like a series of endless weeks stacked up like that forever. As a teacher I have my wonderful summers and breaks but no flexibility and it's hard. I hope we both can find a way to make working motherhood feel right for us. Good luck!

jenicini said...

Obviously my over-achiever friend, you are not going to be happy being a less-then fabulous employee nor will you be happy if you give your son the dreaded F-mula. You could quit pumping to focus on work during the day and still nurse at home...but even doing that will still piss you off. No easy solutions...but I hear ya. I think the men in the white coats are knocking at my door. :)

bunny said...

Not to talk out of my ass, because obviously I have no experience, but I hear tell this is the very hardest part. Things will stay hard, well, probably for a few years, but the part where you're breastfeeding and night feeding...the end will come sooner than it might seem. I have no doubt you can hang in there until the pressure eases up a little. I guess the question is whether you want to. I hope a solution magically comes along, so you can at least consider it.

And hey. it's not too late to return to academia, so that you too can be disillusioned by the whole thing.

Once Upon A Time said...

I could've written a very similar post. It's a tough balance and one I'm still struggling with 11 months later. Hang in there.

Mina said...

Sadly I have no assvice to give. But I know there is a difference between how you see yourself and how you actually are. You are not a fail, or a bad mother or an absent wife, you are tired and trying to do everything at top standards.
What I do is try not to be best at all times of the night and day, I rather go for 'best on an average', if during 24h I consider I lacked in the morning but made up for it in the evening, than that time is checked with a self pat on the back. You would need more than a 24h day to do everything you need to do in all areas, so perhaps cutting yourself a little slack would not be such a terrible idea.

Kelly said...

This sounds ridiculously hard. You sound like a rock star to me. Hang in there, babe.

hope4joy said...

I have no advice as I have not been in your shoes. I can tell you that this post describes all my fears of what is to come. I hear that these struggles are common. I know that being common doesn't make it easy. I hope you find a way to get through this. I am sure you will.

JB said...

You guys...thanks.

The problem isn't really (or just) the pumping. I am commited to it for at least a few more months, by which time he'll be eating solids and may not need ad much milk anyway. I want to make it to 1 year of breastfeeding. I'll keep doing my best.

The problem is the job. Longer hours and more workload are becoming the norm and I couldn't manage that any better right now if I wasn't pumping. To do what they expect would require sending Jackson to daycare from 7:30am to 6pm and doing nothing but staying chained to my desk the whole time. I'm not even sure that would be enough. Combine that expectation with 2-3 hours of shitty sleep per night, being sick every other week, pumping all day, and the general misery of missing Jackson and it's not set up to succeed. I just didn't know it would be this bad.

I'm trying to pull together a freelance plan and talk to people who do it, to present a fully-formed proposal to KB for me quitting and going part-time as a freelancer. We'll see how long this takes and whether it floats or sinks.

Trinity said...

I read your post the other day, and have been trying to get back to it when I had more than one free hand to respond! GURRRL, this sounds like an ingredient list for INSANITY. You have my utmost respeck, yo.

Seriously, though, that schedule is fucking nuts at best and unhealthy at worst. Or vice versa. You know what I mean. Insert cliche here: You have to take care of yourself so that you can take care of Jackson. And you're taking poor care of yourself! :( You can't sustain this intensity forever...well, and still be SANE, that is.

It sounds like the p/t freelance route is ideal for you right now. Sure, it's unfamiliar and unpredictable, and that is scary. But if it sucks, you won't be any worse off that you already are, you know? At least it will only suck part-time as opposed to full-time.(I say this having a very limited understanding of the obligations involved with freelance work, obviously, so grain of salt, maybe?) You're strong and you're intelligent, Jen...and I think you can totally make it float, friend.

You're not letting anyone down by deviating from the plan! Sometimes being superwoman means recognizing the limitations of certian circumstances and making the necessary adjustments. (And honestly? I don't know how anyone can successfully keep up with what you're managing right now. If Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton had a lovechild, I don't think she could even keep up.)

And, can I say that I just get so angry at the assertion that one can just flip a happy switch and everything's instantly copacetic? Last night over many tears about how much I DO NOT want to go back, even p/t, N flippantly snapped to me about my job, "Love it or leave it." I could have crane-kicked him in the junk. It's just NOT THAT SIMPLE. God, I wish it were.

finch said...

Wow. Your day is crazy. I don't think I'd be able to make it through a week at the pace you're going. My first thought was to encourage you to supplement with formula, since it would help with all the pumping/cleaning/mastitis but I feel the exact same way as you do about formula. I'd use it if it were necessary, but I really, really want to breast feed exclusively and I don't entirely trust the formula companies for some reason. (Wait, it's hard to forget the nutrient depleted formula scandal in Africa all those years ago. See? Can't trust em.)

I hope you can find out more about a PT or freelance options cause it sounds like that's what you're leaning towards. Also, I think it's very superwoman-ly of you to contemplate this unfamiliar territory and take a risk, hoping for better times.