Life in Softer Focus

On a recent train ride, I read a section of a work by Anne Lamott, the American novelist and non-fiction writer, which happened to have been reprinted in Amtrak’s Arrive magazine. In the magazine, Lamott described grand-parenting using an honest metaphor that got me to see beyond the less-than-amusing observation made by many blissful grandparents, “Well, you can give the kids back!”

I was so mesmerized by a metaphor she used to describe grand-parenting that I took a picture of the article so the experience of reading those words would get filed into my visual memory (and likely last longer). She wrote, “With your own child, you’re fixated on the foreground, trying to keep them safe and alive. But with a grandchild, you get to be in softer focus, so you can see beyond the anxious foreground.”

Isn’t this what life does, generally? The more we experience, the better we can contextualize our current experiences and temper them with the other multiple realities in which we’ve lived. What’s interesting is that as we age, many of us rely (or will soon rely) on glasses to put things back in focus. So, as we age, things are in softer focus literally, but we also see life, in a metaphorical sense, in softer focus. We get to see beyond the anxious foreground.

What a gift this is. Well, except that this is something that we can’t really give.

I’m learning both the preciousness of this gift and the frustration of not being able to give it as I supervise student teachers this semester. My own teaching experience allows me a bit of softer focus in the classroom, yet I still remember how joyous/frustrating/exhausting those early teaching moments were. The recognition of what experience alone can and will give my student teachers helps me to know which “problems” to troubleshoot with them. They are so fixated on the foreground (as they should and likely only can be), that it’s my job to situate their concerns and anxieties a bit. Then we take on the things that they can learn now and master first, even with little experience.

While I didn’t expect a metaphor about grand-parenting to help define my role as a supervisor of student teachers, I welcome it as a way to help me understand and articulate one of the most complex relationships in which I find myself. Thanks, Anne Lamott!

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One story of a Mama, Ph.D.

I was interviewing for faculty positions throughout last year after deciding I wanted to work full time. One posting in the late spring caught my eye but I gave it less attention than some others as the due date for my second child rapidly approached. The search committee chair called to schedule a phone interview for–you guessed it–the date I was due to have the baby.

That the entire process was happening so close to birthing a child meant I couldn’t mask my personal life in ways that have become normal protocol in the interview process. The search chair (a woman who warmly welcomed my news) and I scheduled two tentative dates and times for my phone interview. She gave me her cell phone to call if I needed to cancel the first time and use our back-up time.

Despite telling me it would take a few weeks until they invited candidates for an on-campus interview, they called one week later and invited me to come to campus the following week. The search chair and I worked out a schedule that would allow me breaks to pump. I did a ten-hour on-campus interview eleven days after having a baby. At that point, I would have been happy if the committee would have handed me a superhero cape and said, “well done” without offering anything more.

As it turns out, they also offered me the job. I accepted it. And they accepted us — me, my spouse, and our two girls — at exhibition openings, in my office, riding the elevator for no reason other than because the two year old likes to push buttons, and on and on. Perhaps having to “out” myself as both a mom and person who also is very committed to this thing called art education worked to my benefit. Yes, I sometimes struggle balancing work and family life. Yet, I’m starting to think that because I couldn’t artificially separate the two from the very beginning, I have a more honest relationship between me and my colleagues that benefits all of us.

I am both a professor and mom simultaneously and at all times. When I am in my (male) department chair’s office, our conversation sometimes drifts from course revisions to comparing notes on sick toddlers. Colleagues frequently ask me how the girls are doing and seem genuinely delighted by the chance encounter with my two year old in one of the art galleries. I get texts from sick student teachers as I feed my kids breakfast, and I call home in between classes to see how things are going there. I rearrange bedtime routines to make late night appointments and have pictures of my kids in my office right next to the schedule of semester deadlines. The interweaving of my responsibilities is what makes it work, and I have the keeper of time to thank for forcing me to present myself as an embodied mother the entire way through a search process.
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This post is inspired by Mama, Ph.D., a text that helped me make more confident decisions about acknowledging the relationships between my personal and professional life.