Skeletons, or elephants

February 10,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

After I had taught my last class on Monday, and was in my office buttoning up my coat and gathering my bags, in the hopes I could slip out of there maybe fifteen minutes early and run a quick errand before picking L. up from school, my office phone rang. It was my Department Chair, my boss, asking me if I could meet with her for a few minutes to go over my annual evaluation. Fun. And while sitting through any assessment of your job performance is never actually fun, it is interesting and sometimes eye-opening, even if the stress of it all sets your heart racing and your palms sweating just a bit on the elevator ride to the third floor. But I was okay with it all for the most part. I'm confident in myself as a teacher, and I've been steadily working on the taking criticism side of things. We went over my review, and all the columns and categories that reduce the daily blood, sweat, and tears of all that I do to little numbers on a page, and at the end my chair asked me about my "plans" for the future. "Plans?" Then I realized she was asking about the D-word, the dissertation. The five chapter, now dust-covered manuscript that lies between me and the Ph.D. degree--something that I need to advance in my job. Because my chair was on leave when I was hired full-time, it occurs to me that I'm not sure she even knows about the sordid tale involving the D-word. At any rate, it's too politically charged, too painful, too controversial a story to go into in-depth with her when I have only twenty minutes before I need to pick up my son from school, so I let it lie, like some squished, one-dimensional form of the proverbial elephant-in-the-room, between us. When I think about the D-word I wince inside. For me, even thinking about the abandoned manuscript is akin to drawing claws across some healed-over wound; raking up that part of my life again is certainly not something I want to do. When I did finally sever the rope (chain? shackles?) binding me to the dreadful thing and I cut myself loose from the maternal/personal/professional/scholarly guilt I'd been wrestling with for years, I felt relieved beyond words. I'd had a choice to make: me, my kids, my creative writing, or finishing the D-thing, and something had to go. When I think about my job, I think about it in terms of my children. When someone asks me how long I've worked at my college I can answer "since 2002" without missing a beat. In my mind's eye I see myself heading off for my first day of teaching as an adjunct instructor, two-year old L. standing at the front window in his jammies and diaper, his face frozen in a look of confusion as he watches me head away from him, for the first time in his young life. When someone asks me how long I've been teaching full time at my college I can answer "since 2004" without hesitation. I see myself perched on the toilet seat in the faculty bathroom, pumping milk for my eight-month old daughter, missing her, body and soul, craving her soft smell, her silly fluffy hair, her laugh. When you're a mom you think about everything in relationship to your children. You can remember where you were on a given day because you remember some fact about your children--what they were wearing, or the amazing thing one said, or how you felt (split in two) when you had to leave them behind, even for a few hours. When my boss asked me about my plans I thought about the manuscript sitting in the plastic bin in the crawl space, where I'd put it years ago. I can still remember the moment: the thudding sound the papers made when I dropped them into the bin, and the satisfying plastic click of the Rubbermaid lid as it fastened over the top. I remember a moment of grief, too--no matter how I deny it it's there, buried under layers and layers of other conflicting emotions--relief, gratitude, frustration, love, disappointment, joy. Dutifully, necessarily, I put the grief away and walked out of the crawl space into a sunny summer morning and shut the door behind me. On the porch above I could hear the kids playing, and T. calling for me: "Mama!" Her voice at that moment was like some sign from the sky, like a shot of light, or music, straight to the heart. Do I have plans? I have lots of them. Each day I have new plans for all the new things I want to do in my classes. I have plans for all the things I want to write about--professionally and personally--and ideas for several projects bouncing around in my head, just waiting for the right moment. I have plans for books I want to read, and for trips I want to take with the kids, and plans for the things I want to do with Scott, years and years from now, when the kids are older and more independent. I have, perhaps, too many plans. But I don't have any plans for the D-word. Maybe some day I'll crack open the Rubbermaid bin, take the manuscript out and leaf through it again, although just the thought of doing that is painful and unappealing. For now I'm content to leave it there, knowing I can find it if I need to. I'd much rather think about my children's voices, ringing clear in the summer air and that one word, Mama, that simple word, that complicated one, that means so much.