making it up as we go along

The semester began with a bang, as it always does. I assumed I’d get started a little more gradually, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ve still got another week before students are sitting in front of me, but in the meantime, there is so much to do. It’s hard to feel anything but overwhelmed. Even as I type this sentence, I am thinking about how I really should be working on a syllabus instead. But I know the value that comes from sitting a minute to write, so I’m ignoring the screaming to-do list for just a little while today.

The kids are more or less settled into the groove of their school year, so now it’s my turn to move past that rocky transition. Working + mothering is crazy-making, and I know that. And yet still here we are always, wondering how it will all get done and if I can juggle all of the things all of the time.

I caught an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson this week during my commute, and her words have been tumbling in my head ever since. She spoke a bit about her book, Composing a Life, and a bit about her background growing up as the daughter of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.  So much of what she said had me nodding in agreement and feeling a little light bulb inside, but I know better than to pick up a new book in August when I am knee-deep in reading for classes. (I did find a little summary and commentary over here on Brain Pickings that you can check out if you find a quiet moment.)

We always hear about moms “juggling” working life and home life, but Bateson insists that word evokes a “terribly anxiety-producing metaphor” to her ears, and the more I think about it, she’s right. It’s how so many of us feel though – and how society tells us it works – like we are just barely holding all these balls in the air and if we look away for a minute or don’t move fast enough, we drop something and it all comes crashing down. Bateson suggests that she decided to use composing a life rather than juggling a life because she “was looking for a metaphor that would allow [women] to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of woman’s role was creative. That it was an art form.” What a difference that one perspective makes – to compose rather than juggle.

I’m composing all the time, and most of it is improvisational. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, that I’ve never lived this exact life before. This phase for my kids, this season, these demands. I respond to each challenge as I feel I should with the energy and resources I have in that moment, and I learn new skills along the way. But I think I do the same thing that a lot of other women do and feel like maybe things are less valuable if they aren’t working in a predictable straight line. In my married life, I assumed I’d be on the way to a PhD by now, but that is a remote and distant thought in my current world.  But other paths and opportunities have opened up that are far beyond anything a classroom or dissertation could give me, so sometimes I wonder if derailed plans are really all that bad, or if they have a way of showing us what we need to see in order to create our most fulfilling lives. Maybe interruption and unexpected detours are the very best thing that could happen.

In this age of women-can-do-anything pressures, Bateson claims, “It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. … How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners.” 

Let that sink in for a minute if you are juggling composing like I am. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. I move from project to project, it seems. My typical approach lately is to sit down on a Sunday and assess what my short list of priorities are and try my best to tackle them. It changes week-by-week, and I flutter from one thing to the next, but as she reminds me, at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? I feel like I am desperately improvising all the time, but as I look back at the past few years of my life, I still see something taking shape. Maybe even some significant achievements.

Aging is such a gift. As my kids are growing a little more independent, and I finally have the time to think about what I want for my own self professionally and not just personally, I think I need to continually remind myself that perhaps circles and winding paths are better than straight lines and that composing is always better than juggling. Who knows what the final piece of music will sound like, but what I’m picking up along the way promises it will be some version of beautiful.

It reminds me of that Parker Palmer quote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” None of us even know, do we? Or if you think you do know, maybe you should shut off the external noise and listen a little harder to the ways you can bend and flow.  Otherwise you wake up living someone else’s version of success which is not success at all but misery instead.

It is early Sunday morning, but the sun is already bright outside my window. My list is a mile long today – laundry to finish and soccer gear to buy and meal prep to do and a syllabus to write. But I’m vowing to let that subtle internal miracle happen when you change your perspective. Changing my lens from juggling to composing, moving forward to create something beautiful among the chaos.


Top Ten Tuesday: Tips for Breastfeeding While Working


You guys, I have FOUR days of work left!  FOUR.  I am so excited and ready to turn the page to having only one job (mom) rather than two.  I’ve written before about my breastfeeding struggles and how grateful I am that I succeeded despite the obstacles.  This is sort of another prideful post because I have survived almost 5 months of working full-time as a teacher and breastfeeding  as well. I’ve learned A LOT in the past 5 months, so for Amanda’s Top Ten Tuesday this week, I decided to share some of it with you. 

From your comments, it seems that most of my readers are stay at home moms, so I’m not sure how necessary this post really is, but I feel the need to write it all down while it is still fresh on my mind, and I hope it will be useful to someone out there.  So here they are, my Top Ten Tips for Breastfeeding and Working Full-Time.

  1. Invest in a good pump.  It has to be a double electric. I’m a fan of the Medela Pump in Style personally, but whatever it is, be sure it’s effective.Yes they are expensive, but so is formula.
  2. Before you head to work, get lots of milk stocked in the freezer. For most of us, the pump pulls less than the baby does, especially over time.   There is also the occasional growth spurt or hungry day that the baby will experience while you are away at work.  Stocking up lessens the possibility that you’ll have to use formula for supplementation.  I had about 50 ounces stocked up, and it was gone after about 3 months of working.
  3. Set a goal.  Stick to it. For me, I said I didn’t care how much I hated pumping or even how little I got (if my milk supply dwindled) but that I refused to stop before Jude was 6 months old.  For you it might not be 6 months, it could be longer or shorter.  The point is that if you set a concrete goal, you won’t stop.  Plus is feels so gratifying to meet that goal.
  4. Insist on a space and time.  A lot of people told me that there was no way I could continue breastfeeding after I went back to work.  Teaching is a job with NO privacy at all and no free time or chosen schedules.  I was determined to prove them wrong and I ended up (with the help of a nursing friend) securing a room for this purpose.  In a building full of 2,500 people that was actually built for 1,900, this was hard to come by, but we sort of insisted.  As far as scheduling goes, I am late for a class everyday so that I can pump.  For me, it is Yearbook/Journalism with 23 responsible girls, so it’s no big deal.  Without this luxury, I would have had to insist on a little help from colleagues or a change in schedule, I guess.  Depending on your state, there could be a law insisting that employers offer you a place to pump.  It’s also in the new healthcare bill!  Three cheers for that!
  5. Yes you should be insistent, but make the best of what you’re given.  Have humor. I was given a room, and I am grateful for that.  It is, however, a dusty supply closet in a location where I have to walk through another teacher’s class to get there.  I was also walked in on my a male coworker who got a nice clear view of my boobs; it was hands-down the most awkward moment of my life.  The copy room line can still be a little awkward when I stand next to him, but we moved on; you just have to have humor and be happy with the time and space you get.  Make the most of it.  As a side note to this one, you don’t have to rinse out your pump parts after every pumping.  An LC told me to carry a hand towel to wipe them down and then just wash them every night when I get home.  My pumping  room is nowhere near a kitchen or a sink, so I rely on a packed towel and a cooler with an ice block, and we have no problems at all.
  6. Get used to people thinking you’re crazy. Breastfeeding is not a popular choice, nor is it an easy one when you work full-time.  I work closely with 5 other women who all have children under 14 months.  I am the only one who is still breastfeeding.  One is kind and supportive and fabulous while the rest think I’m nuts and tell me so with their eyes.  And occasionally with their voices.  At this point, I’m used to it and somewhat entertained by it.  I know this is the right choice for my family right now, so I just move right along and avoid dwelling on the judgment.
  7. Don’t obsess about the number of ounces.  I was really bad about this in the beginning, but I’m getting better.  Some days you will have lower output than others.  It’s just the way it is.  Every Lactation Consultant and every resource I read told me that the baby is more efficient than the pump, and it’s definitely true for me.  In late March, I ran out of freezer stock and started having to use the occasional bottle of – gasp! – formula.   I freaked out at first until I realized that A) when we were together on the weekends or over spring break, it is not problem and he is satisfied without supplementation and B) if 2-3 small formula bottles a week keep me breastfeeding for a year, it’s worth it for sure.  Some days I make enough.  Some days I don’t.  Just do the best you can and don’t obsess. I’ve also found that I can pump a couple of hours after he goes to bed and get 2-3 ounces a night.  That helps.
  8. When you and baby are together, throw out the bottles. Nursing your baby as often as possible helps boost and maintain your supply.  Plus who would want to get out that pump when you are tied to it all week?  Jude and I never use bottles when we’re together.  They are for workdays and sitters only.
  9. It’s all in how you look at it. It might seem like locking yourself in a closet for 10-12 minutes three times a day is a ridiculous and boring waste of time.  For me, I have learned to  welcome the few minutes of quiet and privacy away from my desk and rowdy students.  I even grade papers in there sometimes!  My students would be repulsed by that image, but hey, it gets the job done.  Well two jobs actually.
  10. Don’t skip out on pumping sessions.  This is probably the hardest part of it for most of us.  You have to be fairly militant and determined to NEVER skip a session.  For me, I feed Jude at about 6am before we leave.  At work, I pump at 8:15 just before my first class, around 11:30 between classes, and then again during my planning period at about 2:15.  In the past 5 months, there have been three times I have missed a session because of  morning meetings.  Three times won’t hurt, but if I made a habit of it, my milk supply would certainly be affected.  It seems like a chore at first, but it will soon become a routine part of your day. 

Above all, know that you can do it!  It’s not the most popular choice, and there are moments you’ll want to quit, but the rewards are numerous, and there are lots of women out there who continue to breastfeed while working.