Meeting my Mentor

on 02 February 2010

The Boy and I hopped our way to New Mexico.  From Jacksonville to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Phoenix and from Phoenix to Albuquerque.

We were really lucky on all three flights, there was an extra seat next to us so I didn't have to suffer death by Toddler Wallow.  Who am I kidding, he did just great.  He got freaked out a bit when things got loud but for the most part he was just awesome.

But his awesomeness doesn't cancel out my fear of flying.

I mention this fear because by the time we got to Phoenix I was exhausted and a tangle of nerves.  I kept telling myself that I was almost done.  That the Boy was depending on me, I needed to at least pretend to be calm for him so that he wouldn't be afraid.  (I'd rather not pass down my own fears and anxieties.  I feel confident that he'll develop his own.)

They boarded us early because the Boy is under 5, so we schlepped onto the plane and stowed the backpack and settled in.

I was sitting in the middle seat and the Boy was standing/playing on the floor next to the window.  And so I took the moment to breathe deeply and people watch as the rest of the passengers boarded.

I wasn't paying too close of attention, trying to distract the Boy and myself from the inevitable flight when I looked up and recognized a fellow passenger.

It is a strange thing to recognize people out of context.

10 years ago last month I started at the University of Washington.  I was an in-state transfer student.  And that first semester I declared as a Comparative Literature major (with French as my primary foreign language).  Spring quarter I had my first Comparative Literature class.  It was Love and Marriage in European Fiction.  We started with extracts from the Bible, Aristotle and Milton and then moved on to read Jane Eyre, The Lover (by Marguerite Duras) and Woman Warrior (by Maxine Hong Kingston). 

My professor was a lovely woman, a Princeton graduate from the 70s.  She was a Francophile with a long publication record for feminist readings.  In the course of the next three years she became my mentor, counselor and friend at the University.  She wrote my recommendation letter to graduate school.  And when I had my first paper published, my first email was to her.

I had lost touch with her through the years, it wasn't deliberate neglect, I knew that she was busy and I had grown busy with husband and child.  (And I will admit that I was hesitant to admit that after a long and expensive education, I was choosing the traditional path of wife and mother.  I knew that she was a feminist, I expected her disapproval.)

You can't imagine how surprised I was to see her walking on to that flight to Albuquerque.

As I watched her walk on, searching for her seat, stopping at my row, smiling down into my face, I forgot my fear entirely.  I was all Super Fan.  For in spite of any differences we might have, I genuinely admire this woman.

I smiled hugely and said, "You're Dr. Dornbush, aren't you?"

She smiled and said, "Yes.  Are you one of my students?"

I chuckled and said, "Once upon a time, yes, I was."

I reintroduced myself, offering her my maiden name and the years that I was her student.  She smiled hugely and insisted that she remembered me!

(I shall admit, I was a bit flummoxed, Dr. Dornbush remembered ME!  It was awesome.)

We chatted through the whole flight.  Talking about the classes she had taught, she told me how much she enjoyed having me in class and how she wished she could have had more students like me (I was a work-a-holic and an overachiever), how hard it was being a comparatist now-a-days because in all comparative literature departments the film students were taking over.  We talked about her lay-off (she had never gotten tenure, instead she had signed 1-5 year contracts to teach and it left her time to pursue her own interests).  We talked about Chris and the Boy and my choice to stay home with him.

And as the plane landed and we disembarked, she turned to me and said, "The best part is that you have the choice.  If you want to stay home, that's great.  If women want to work, that's great too.  It's great that now we have a choice."

I talk a lot about my choice to stay home.  I feel guilty, for having this extensive education, for the academic gifts that I've been given, staying home feels like selfishness, it feels like I've quit, like I'm disappointing the sisterhood of women who have worked so hard to be taken seriously.  And so I have kept that door open in my mind.  The PhD.  The academic career that I had planned for so long.  I have been hesitant to shut the door and walk away.  After all, what happens if something happens to Chris?  What happens if I HAVE to go back, if I HAVE to work?  I need that door open as my insurance policy against grief.

But as I talked with Dr. Dornbush, and as I thought things through that week in New Mexico, I felt that door quietly closing.  She set me free from that insurance policy.  Her and Whimsy and Samwise, they helped me to realize that nothing is a waste.  They helped me to see that I have made my choice.  And that's what Dr. Dornbush and so many other women were fighting for.  I'm always going to worry.  It's a part of who I am, as a woman and as a mother.  I'm going to lay awake at night and stew about what I would do IF something bad were to happen.  But it's time to close the door and walk away.

It's time to have a little faith.


Jeff VanD. said...

What a great realization to have. I too agree that you have some amazing academic gifts, but the time will come when you can use those. For now, you are doing something much more important than anything you could ever do in academia.

Whimsy said...

I love this - but I'd also like to soften this a bit for you: it's not that you're totally closing a door; you're just committing to the life you lead right now, embracing it for the joy that it can bring. You're not closing a door. You're just walking away from it, you're not clinging to that doorframe with a deathgrip, worrying that by wandering about the room you'll never be able to go back to that door (you can, if you want, but maybe not right now).

But dude, I LOVE that you were able to visit with your mentor. I think it was an incredible gift to reflect on who you were, who you are now, and who you're becoming.

Eleanor Q. said...

And you claimed you have nothing to say right now!!!

Anyway, I agree with Ms. Whimsy, that its more of a commitment to your life now. Just because you aren't actively pursuing another degree/alternate career path doens't mean that you won't ever.

And I agree with Dr. Dornbush. Its great that we have the choice.

Erin P said...

I also agree with Whimsy and would add that life is a path, a flow, and has many stages. It's good that you have decided to stay home for the forseeable future and to be comfortable with that--but, as I have learned, kids grow up, and then that phase of your life--let's call it raising little children--will end and you will have to consider all sorts of options. My mother, with her dual chemistry-microbiology degrees and 4.0 gpa, became a stay-at-home mom for about 16 years because it was expected of her, but after her 4th child was in school all day, she obtained another degree and started a new phase of her life. When my dad wanted to retire, she took flying lessons and became his literal co-pilot on their little airplane. All different phases. My life has been a lot like that too. I'm really glad we do have such large part because of people like your mentor.

I'm glad you're becoming comfortable with the choice which will determine this phase of your life, but don't forget to think of the next phase, too.