Last night as I was winding down for sleep by reading in bed I found myself musing about what I might be doing in the future exactly one year to the night.
My daughter Isobel was in the front room nested on the couch and listening to music (folk, then rap, then indie) while she finished homework and Happy was outside in the dark backyard performing ferocity (I have no idea whatsoever what he was barking at). The only thing I can say with any sense of certitude (of course baring any major unforeseeable events) about next year at this time is that Isobel will be far away at college, probably listing to folk, rap, and who knows what else, while she does homework with new friends or maybe alone in her dorm room. Or possibly because she’s living in a different time zone she’ll already be asleep. Or maybe she’ll be working at her work study job. Or — yes, I can imagine it! — she will have blown off homework or work study in order to go into the big city to see a band perform.
Whatever she’ll be up to, she’ll be up to it in a very different location. She will be my far-away daughter.
But what will I be doing a year from now?
Happy was sick two weeks ago. Last week, Isobel was sick (very sick, and she had final exams to take!). I worked from home as much as I could so I could take care of them.
The days of staying home to nurse a sick kid will soon be coming to an end. And as Happy now quite dramatically surpasses me in chrono-age and has begun to acquire “old dog” ailments, I suspect that I will be taking care of him increasingly until the sad day when I no longer have the honor of doing so.
I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past two weeks about the difference between how I feel now when I am engaged in the fine act of balancing work and family compared to how I felt ten or fifteen years ago.
When Isobel was barely out of babyhood I was a soon-to-be divorced single mom and newly hired part-time university instructor. I felt jangly, disoriented, and in a state of shock pretty much all of the time. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing nor how it was that I found myself doing what I was doing.
As little humans on a new planet often are, Izzy was sick quite a bit with this or that bug and I’d find myself trying to figure out how I’d take care of her and do my job. I rarely could afford to buy extra childcare for her and neither her father (who lived in a different city and was also an academic) nor I – nor my mom, who was also working full-time — could easily drop our work responsibilities in order to stay home with sick Izzy.
Sometimes I brought Izzy to work with me, making a nest for her on my office floor and wheeling in a TV monitor and VCR so she could watch age-appropriate videos while I tended to what seemed to be very crucial stuff. Sometimes I cancelled meetings (or absented myself from meetings) in order to stay home with her, but I agonized the entire time I was home wondering if I was missing something important, if I would be forgotten, or if I’d lose my already insecure position when I didn’t show up to work for a few days. Sometimes her father and I would do a crazy mid-day exchange – I’d take care of her for the first part of the day, then he’d drive to Portland to be with her while I went to campus to teach, or vice versa. Of course, after taking care of sick Izzy, we’d often become sick ourselves, and then we’d have a whole new challenge to face.
In the past few years, and it has grown more acute recently, I have discovered that I actually enjoy deeply the experience of being home with Isobel and Happy, balancing taking care of them with tending to my work. I am grateful for the recent blessing of getting to take care of my creatures when they were sick as it also offered me the opportunity to reflect on ways that I have changed over the past decade.
I’m still sussing what’s shifted, but I think one explanation is that my efforts that started in 2006 to de-compartmentalize and re-prioritize my life have borne fruit. I can do what I need and want to do as a worker any where, pretty much, but the only way I can take care of my child and my dog (and my mom and my partner and any of my other people) is if I’m actually with them, taking care of them. Also, perhaps as a result of traveling through my life course a fair piece longer, and minding my mind a fair bit more, I no longer worry (as much) that if I’m not in my workplace all the time that I’ll be forgotten and get replaced and my life will fall to pieces.
I realize now that — hypothetically speaking, of course — even if I lose my job, even if I am replaced and forgotten, my life won’t fall to pieces, because my life’s coherence and value no longer depend quite so much on such things as it did in the past.
What does my life’s coherence depend on now, you ask? Well, that’s the topic of at least one future essay, so stay tuned.
I have to admit that during the first decade or more of being on my own with Isobel and trying to make our lives work I felt crazed and anxious pretty much all of the time. I felt like I was trying to pull off some miracle or mysterious feat without any proper instruction or required wisdom. But somehow Isobel and I (with the support of her father, and her grandma, and everyone else who has loved us) did pull it off and make our lives work.
Next month, on Valentine’s Day, Isobel will be celebrating her 18th birthday.
And next year at this time she’ll be my far-away daughter having fantastic adventures.
She’s more than well. And so am I.
As Happy-the-dog and I were walking in the park early this morning I had a dream that I was delivering a spoken-word version of the Gero-Punk Manifesto while accompanying myself on electric bass.