All Dressed Up, But Where to Go?

“Why are you dressed up all fancy?” Noah asked me as we headed out the door to wait for his bus. Apparently, a denim skirt and a white turtleneck qualify as fancy at our house. Okay, maybe it was the tights. Tights have practically become a Thanksgiving and Christmas-only wardrobe item since I stopped teaching.

“I’m going to your school today,” I told him. I’d volunteered to tutor parents with limited English at Noah’s school and today was my first day. Communication from the school had been spotty so I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any training first or if I was supposed to jump right in. I’d packed some lined paper, two sharpened pencils and two sections of The Washington Post in case there were no materials to use. I thought I’d ask Alba* which article she was interested in reading and either have her read aloud or I’d read to her while she followed along, depending on her level of proficiency. Then I’d ask her to write a little about the article if she could.

After I dropped June off at school I walked down the path along the creek to Noah’s school. I signed in at the office, put a Volunteer sticker on my shirt and asked for directions to the Family Room.

It was a small room with chairs, a sofa and a table laden with food—grapes, bread, some covered dishes. There were a half dozen Latina women and several kids all talking in Spanish. One woman was feeding a baby grapes but no one else was eating.

“Is Alba here?” I asked in English. All the women shook their heads. I sat down in the only empty chair. Conversation resumed. I could follow it a little. One woman was afraid the baby would choke on the grapes but the women feeding her said she’d be fine. A few people wondered where Alba was anyway. Mostly, though, I was lost.

After a while I noticed one woman was helping another fill out a form. They were trying to figure out whether the unrelated persons who lived with her were part of her household or not. This must be Ms. B, the volunteer co-ordinator, I thought. When they’d finished with the form, I introduced myself in halting Spanish and said I was waiting for Alba.

Ms. B didn’t seem surprised that she wasn’t there. She suggested we switch over to English, said she’d assign me another parent and took my contact information again. She asked if a teenage boy would be okay. I said sure. I used to teach college freshman and I actually miss teenagers. She mentioned he was close to illiterate in Spanish and English. I said that was fine. It would be completely out of my experience, as the ESL students I’ve taught have for the most part been well educated in their native languages and advanced enough in English to have graduated out of ESL classes. But, in for a dime, in for a dollar, I thought. I have a lot of reasons for volunteering. I miss teaching terribly, but I’m not sure if it’s the pure act of teaching I miss or just the luxury of discussing my favorite books and my favorite ideas about them with well-prepared, enthusiastic undergraduates. I’d like to know. It might help me decide what to do with my life.

Ms. B thought for a while and reconsidered. She wasn’t sure how motivated the boy was and she wanted to assign me someone who would actually show up. She said she’d get in touch with me. I took advantage of having a face-to-face meeting to ask a few questions. Would I be working on reading and writing, or just conversation? A mix. Was there a quiet place we could work? Yes. Would the school provide any materials? No. She suggested I look for something on the Internet. That wasn’t the answer I was hoping for, but I was glad to know anyway. I decided when she assigned me someone I’d try to find out what the person’s level of literacy was ahead of time. The newspaper could be too hard. Finally, she asked if I spoke Spanish. Apparently she’d forgotten we started the conversation in Spanish. “Un poco,” I said, and left it at that. She invited me to stay and eat–it was a meeting of the Padres Latinos club I’d walked in on—but I thanked her and declined.

I left the school a little let down. I’d been nervous and keyed up about doing something so new for me and it was disappointing not to get started.

I’m at a profound loss about what comes next for me once June’s in kindergarten. I know I’m not cut out to be a full-time stay-at-home mom for the long term. I miss the mental stimulation of work. Plus, I don’t make friends easily and I find staying home lonely and isolating. Sara and I recently discussed the possibility of ramping up my work for her in a few years. Sometimes it seems like the perfect thing. I’m good at the work, she pays me generously and because she’s my sister she’s very understanding of my home situation and my need for flexibility. On the other hand, sometimes I think I’d really like colleagues again, and a reason to leave the house that didn’t involve taking June to the library, Kindermusik or school.

While I was waiting outside June’s school waiting to pick her up, the Dragonfly’s mom struck up a conversation with me. She wanted to talk, of all things, about the pros and cons of working versus staying home. She works part-time and is thinking of quitting to stay home full-time. I said I might be a little atypical since I didn’t decide to quit my job to stay home with the kids. I lost my job and, after an unsuccessful two-year long job search, decided to quit looking for a few years and just stay home. Okay, I left out the part about my job search. It’s not that unusual for academics to look for work that long and fail to find any, but most people don’t know that and I’m painfully aware of how it sounds if you don’t.

What it kept coming down to, for the Dragonfly’s mom, was “Is it easier?” Again, I waffled. I do think the logistics of our family life are easier with me at home, especially now that we have two kids, but it’s hard in other ways. “You get frazzled,” she said, indicating she understood being with small kids almost 24/7 could be tiring.

I nodded. “And I miss office life, having colleagues, people to talk to…” I said.

“Adults,” she said. I nodded.

I didn’t give her any advice. How could I? I know what it’s like for a family to balance a full-time job, a part-time job and an infant. (Beth worked part-time from the time Noah was four months until he was thirteen months, while I taught full-time.) I know what it’s like to juggle two full-time careers and a toddler, and then later a preschooler. I know what it’s like to be pregnant and home with a preschooler. I know what it’s like to be home with two kids. But I don’t know what it’s like to be her. I don’t know her children’s temperaments, her husband’s role in the family, her hopes, her needs or her dreams.

Our lives can be so opaque. I was talking to my mom recently about how it’s ironic that Beth’s the one working now since I liked my job more than she did or does, and how Beth would like more time with the kids and how I’d some time away from them and a chance to do more outside my role as mother and how we’re both a bit dissatisfied with the way things stand.

My mom said she thought I liked staying home. I do like some things about it, I said, and I do. But I was surprised she didn’t seem to know how restless and sad I feel sometimes. I thought it showed. Then again maybe it doesn’t. I’ve worked at that. Part of the reason I started writing this blog in the first place was to help myself see the good things in my life at home, the little moments of domestic life that show how it is between the four of us. My New Year’s resolution for several years running has been to avoid self-pity, to focus on what I have and not on what I lost when I lost the academic career I trained for and loved.

I did get some things in return. I can’t say what without sounding sappy but if you’ve been reading, I hope you know.

This afternoon, June and I picked lettuce for salads. She loves picking things in the garden and sometimes brings me lettuce leaves when we’re outside and tells me they’re for dinner. I tried to help her rip the leaves off gently and not uproot the plants, but every now and then she’d hand me a lettuce plant, roots and all. I didn’t scold her. The garden will be finished soon anyway.

As I washed the lettuce, June asked me. “Are we in our house?” I said we were. “Are we fine?” Again, I said we were.

Do I like this life? Is it easier? Am I fine?

Often. Maybe. Yes.

*Not her real name.