Reluctant role model

Reluctant role model -- my classmates wanted to hear 'It's easy to combine kids and graduate school'

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In graduate school, I was the only student with kids, though a few others were married. This made me a fascinating specimen.

“You have a kid?” my classmates would query.

“Kids. Yeah.”

Kids? How many?”

“Oh, only two.”

“Two! That’s a lot!”

“Sometimes it seems like a lot,” I’d agree.

“So you’re going to grad school and you have two kids!” they’d exclaim.

“Yeah, and I commute almost an hour,” I’d say, craving pity.

“And you’re doing so well!” they’d say.

“Well …” Before I could continue, they’d shout, “That’s so great!” and change the subject. I gradually understood that no one wanted to pity me. They wanted to admire me. Specifically, they wanted to admire the tremendous ease with which I combined grad school and children.

What tremendous ease? I was at my wit’s end. But that no one wanted to hear. Easy, they wanted to hear. “It’s easy! You can do it all, and it’s easy, watch me.” That’s what I was supposed to say. Possible, I might have said, it’s possible. Rough, though. But no one would listen to that.

“She has two kids!” they’d cry, pointing me out as an inspirational text. “Two!” You could see the highly colored thoughts whirling in their heads: Jackpot! If she can do it, I can do it. If she can combine grad school and kids, I’ll be able to combine work and kids. It’ll be OK. (Here I have to issue a qualification. Only my female classmates reacted this way. Male classmates generally contented themselves with asking the kids’ ages, perhaps going so far as to comment, “That’s cool.”) Female classmates occasionally risked a question. My husband and I shared housework, right? Right. Sometimes I’d point out that because we were both irrationally busy, the shared housework we actually performed was minimal.

Compared to my classmates, we dwelt in squalor. They lived in studios or shared apartments, with their sparse possessions elegantly arranged on improvised shelves or artistically stored in baskets. The centerpieces of their living spaces tended to be desks, idiosyncratically and reverently arranged to suit their work habits.



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We lived in (rented) houses or flats. Our abundant but worthless possessions were everywhere, often strewn on the floor or jammed into closets. The centerpiece of our home was generally a series of quivering junk piles the children swore were art projects. My desk was heaped with things my husband had dumped when he despaired of finding another place for them. Key tools of my trade — pens, paper, insulting notes from editors — were missing, probably imbedded in an art project somewhere. When I’d mention this, my classmates would dismiss it out of hand. Sure, they’d agree, sometimes you gotta let housework slide a little. Skip polishing the brass. Let the brilliants on the chandelier get dusty. Put the napkins away without ironing. Only if they chanced to visit my house could they grasp the true dimensions of the chaos. Busy as we were, I seldom entertained, and so they rarely came over to behold the grimy, pockmarked underbelly of having it all.

Their blithe reassurances made me think of a book on pregnancy and childbirth I was given before my daughter was born. A chapter for husbands advised them to be tolerant and overlook the dust bunnies under the coffee table. Ha! Our house had dust bunnies without number, dust armadillos, dust bison. Grease bunnies. Mildew bunnies. It was hard to locate the coffee table, let alone get at the dust hyenas cackling underneath. (This is a thing of the past. Today our dwelling is a space that might be featured in Sunset or HG — a showplace of wry elegance and simplicity. We keep it immaculate, accenting the decor with rotating selections from our art collection. But let’s have dinner at your place.)

If my classmates didn’t want to believe that housework was a problem, there was no way I could convince them that things like spending time alone with one’s spouse, reading books or seeing friends could be problems. Willing or not, I was forced to be an inspiration.

Now that I’ve graduated, I spend more time among people who also have children, people who arrive at work panting, people who rush out of meetings to take calls from day-care providers, people who keep wondering if they have mono — there must be some reason why they’re so tired all the time. They want different role models. “It’s easy!” is the last thing they want to hear.

They like to hear about the charge of the dust bison, because they have dust fauna too. They want to know they’re not the only ones. In fact, they’d like to hear that my husband and I are worse slobs than they are. If I’m at my wit’s end, they want to know. Gory details are appreciated. The more I can’t cope, the more competent they feel. I am an inspiration once again.

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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