"I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: you go through big chunks of time where you're just thinking, "this is impossible, oh this is impossible." And then you just keep going and keep going and you sort of do the impossible."
Yesterday was International Women's Day, a day that has been recognized for over a hundred years to celebrate acts of courage and determination of ordinary women doing their part to better our workplaces, our schools, our communities, and our globe. And while my mark on the world is quite minuscule in comparison to women all over this globe completing acts of courage and bravery that go unheard of every day, I've been doing a little of my own celebrating this week, and thinking awfully hard about what it exactly it means to be a woman in this world of ours. Last week was a big week for me. December 1st, I turned in five two-ring binders filled to the brim with artifacts and evidence for tenure at UNI. For the past six years, I have been observed and evaluated by my peers, poured myself into committee and service across campus, and presented at conferences, wrote articles, and saved every important email, meeting agenda, and artifact that demonstrates my worth as a faculty member at this university. It's been a long road, one filled with many changes, fears, and politics, but one that I've been committed to journey on for many reasons.
Last Monday, I checked my campus mailbox and found a letter from our Provost, informing me that my tenure had been approved. As I read the letter over and over (and over) again, seeing the words, "a validation of excellence in your profession," and "sincere congratulations and appreciation for your work that has merited this advancement in your career," I felt like I was soaring. I spent the rest of the day working on a three-hour presentation I was to give in my night class the following Thursday, on a topic I knew little about but was encouraged by my professor. It was focused on the research methodology of critical discourse analysis, an area of expertise of his, which further intimidated me for fear I wouldn't do it justice. After assigning us our areas, he followed up in an email and said that although it would be the most difficult area of research, he had faith that I was fully equipped to take it on. This confidence pushed me once again and I spent weeks reading, preparing, and perfecting. It couldn't have gone better, and as he sat in the back of the classroom, closing his eyes, nodding his head, and even giving me a few thumbs up, I once again felt like I was flying.
After class that night, I drove home around 9:30 feeling like I was on top of the world. It was easily one of the most worthwhile weeks of my professional life, and I felt strong and confident as a woman. And then, about halfway home, I felt it creep in and hit me like a ton of bricks. My kids were in bed, I hadn't seen them all day, and I felt that familiar, all-too-frequent deep deep mom guilt settle into my bones. I missed them, felt awful for not seeing them, and suddenly felt my worth as a woman, and especially as a mom, plummet.
The rest of the night, I thought about critical discourse analysis and used this new body of knowledge to make sense of the way I was feeling (signs of a good doc. student). Critical discourse analysis is the study of "text" in our world. These texts can be anything - the media, conversations with people, Instagram posts and Facebook feeds, i.e., anything that we encounter, read, and use to make sense of the world around us. Critical discourse analysis, then, is the study of how these texts have truth effects, and are used to communicate and ultimately create issues of power and control. Most of these truths are consumed inherently, but are wildly impactful on the way we view and ultimately judge others and ourselves. When these texts become frequent and fluent, they create meta-narratives of our world, ideologies that rank, separate, construct, and sadly, destruct.
Being a "working mother" is a meta-narrative, largely constructed throughout history with many so-called truths surrounding it. When I fell into this identity five years ago, I bought into the whole socially constructed meta-narrative that told me I couldn't do both roles well. I read blogs of women who made the choice to quit their jobs and stay home because they wanted to focus on being a mom, read updates from mom's groups that met every Wednesday morning to form a community and find common ground, and I felt like an outsider and ultimately like I was doing it wrong. All I ever wanted to be was a mom, and now, I was somehow less of a mom because I worked outside the home. This meta-narrative, perpetuated even more so today with social media, is a wildly constructed ideology that speaks truth to women every single day, and causes us to think and live in a false reality. And it's damaging if we don't learn to see it for what it is. For years, I suppressed my work life because I thought it sent the impression that I wasn't a good mom. In this dual identity role, I realize now that I saw them as conflicting with one another, instead of co-existing to create one imperfect, but complete woman, and mother.
While I can't do much to change the meta-narrative that's shaping society, it is my job to write the narrative of our family. And that starts with me. Instead of focusing on what I'm not, it's about focusing on what I am. I want my kids, especially my daughter, to grow up knowing that without a doubt, I was their mom, but that I was also a woman, and a strong, independent, and smart one at that. I want them to remember pictures of me playing with them, and baking cookies, and reading them books, rubbing their tummies, and singing them songs before bed, but also images of me staying up late writing papers, talking through big presentations, and celebrating tenure. I want them to see the value in always learning, see me rising to occasions, see me fail and try again, and be inspired when I soar. No matter what they choose to do with their lives, I want them to do their very best, and value their own worth by how they feel instead of how society tells them to feel. This is true for all people, especially women, whether they work or stay home, have babies or don't have babies, run companies or work for them. We can't escape the big narratives that want to control and define us, but we can write our own of how we respond to it.
As with all things motherhood, I learn and unlearn as I go. And while there's no handbook for how to do it all right, I am learning to embrace my roles and be proud of what each role does for the other. They don't conflict, but co-exist, and everyday I pray I can put it all together with ambition and grace and a deep mothering love that empowers my babies to do the same.