This morning marked a major success when I made it downstairs with both of my children by myself. This is going to be an interesting year.
My husband loves the Japanese idea of kuyashii, made famous by the Niki Nakayama episode of Chef’s Table. Kuyashii, Nakayama explains in the episode, is the desire to prove other people wrong. I’ve had a lot of people in the past tell me I wasn’t capable of doing things because of something about me as a person – I was left out of a lot of experiences as a kid because I was a girl, I had teachers in secondary school who told me I was too lazy or not smart enough to do well, and I’ve had (former) friends tell me I was too boring to be fun. But for the better part of the last year it’s been people in my life telling me I couldn’t do something because it just isn’t possible. And for once, my response can be “maybe not for you, but it is for me.”
Starting now and extending through November of 2019, I’m embarking on what I admit is going to be a very difficult year. I’m throwing major life changes together with career-defining, time-consuming work. I’ve spent a lot of time planning for this, but I don’t expect things to stick to the plan I’ve made, and you can’t plan for your own emotional responses or mental fortitude. This difficult year, which I’m calling my Unmoored Year, began two weeks ago when I finally gave birth to twin boys at 38 weeks (for reference, more than 50% of twins are born by the end of week 36 of pregnancy). Things were already starting to go off the rails because no one, including my doctors, thought I would make it to 38 weeks. When I did, I also developed a serious complication called postpartum preeclampsia, characterized in my case by extremely high blood pressure and a very low heart rate, which kept me throwing up and then mostly unconscious for about 10 hours after my C-section. After that I had to be on a very harsh medication for a further 14 hours to prevent seizures, which left me disoriented and unable to focus my eyes. So I began motherhood recovering not only from major surgery, but also from this other condition. I didn’t expect to jog out of the hospital with a baby in each arm, but I did expect to be able to get out of bed, which I couldn’t do for a few days – it’s only now, two weeks later, that I’m starting to feel physically capable again, after continuing stomach troubles, lots of muscle pains, and a bad cold that cropped up to top everything else off. Even then, I still have to contend with diastasis recti – the separation of my abdominal muscles – which makes it difficult and occasionally painful to stand or sit straight. And yet, despite all of this, twin motherhood is not impossible. There’s a learning curve, as with new parenthood generally, and I’ve been leaning very heavily on my mom and my husband, but all the same, I can take care of both babies by myself and somehow the world doesn’t end like people kept telling me it would. (To clarify the first line of this post: I currently live on the top floor of a 4-story house and my husband is the one who typically carries both babies in their car seats all the way down to the first floor, but today I managed it by myself. I did it in stages, because I can’t lift both babies in car seats at the same time, but I still did it.)
Phase 2 of the Unmoored Year begins on Sunday, when my husband moves to our new place in California ahead of me. Yes, we are moving across the country immediately after having kids. Why? Because he got a new job. Some people (including him) would argue that we should have waited a year to have the kids, but personally I felt waiting would have been more complicated for me, since I would have been pregnant during my research year or had to delay a further year. From this point on, the PhD just keeps ramping up until I’m a few years into a job (here’s hoping) – this past year was the only time I could reduce my workload and create space to be pregnant (which it turned out I really needed). In any case, the kids are here now and we are moving. While neither J (my husband) nor I particularly likes the fact that we’ll be apart for almost 4 weeks, since I can’t travel with the kids until they’re at least 6 weeks old, there are some benefits to this arrangement. The biggest perk, and the main reason we’re doing things this way, is because it gives J time to set up the new apartment without us having to juggle the kids and without my having to worry that something will get left to me when I don’t have the capacity to do it. Every time we’ve moved in the past I did most of the setting up and not only was it way too much work but it usually meant that J didn’t take ownership of the space and spent the next 6 months constantly asking me where things were. We’ve planned this space together, but we’ve also lived together for so long now that we’re very much on the same page about how this space should be and I don’t need to be involved in seeing that plan through. The smaller perk to this arrangement is as a trial run for my research trips, when I will be alone and traveling with the kids. I’m already trying to take care of them by myself as much as possible, but there’s a big difference between spending half a day with them in my living room and having them to myself all day and all night while I’m also trying to work. I’ll have help – it’s not like I can bring babies into the archive, or, apparently, an airplane on my own – but the help will be temporary and I’ll mostly be trading off, not getting a second pair of hands. I need to know that I can be the only one getting up in the middle of the night and still also be able to function the next day. The flights are another trial entirely – every child under 2 on an airplane needs an accompanying adult, and unless you want to hold that child on your lap the entire flight, the adults can’t sit next to each other because the children represent safety hazards for exiting the plane in an emergency. So when I travel, I’ll have a family member traveling with me each time, but I have to know how this whole system is going to work. At least once I get to California I have a month of actual maternity leave before I begin Phase 3.
Phase 3 is a 6 week round of domestic research. This was the first bit of planning that went slightly awry, because when J was applying to jobs, it seemed like his options were mostly centered around LA, and so I applied for fellowships that would have me doing research at libraries in LA. But then he very abruptly got a different (and ultimately much better) job in the Bay Area. I could have turned down my LA research, but at this point I had realized that the manuscripts there were actually pretty important and I should do it anyway, commuting each week for a 2-3 day trip. Initially I was going to take the kids with me, but eventually I realized that would be a waste of time (I would need to drive instead of fly, adding at least a full day to every trip), money (the cost of gas was more than the cost of a plane ticket plus rental car), and mental energy (I would still have to find childcare and if I stayed with family I might go crazy).
Phase 4 is where things get really nuts, because it’s when I leave California for research back on the East Coast and abroad. I’ve built in a break between each chunk of research, and I’ll have family around for substantial portions of each trip, but this is still going to be hard. Mainly because research is hard – you sit in a room, mentally juggling documents that are alternately fascinating and extremely boring. Your mind is racing and stalling at the same time, and you’re sitting still but you feel like you’re sprinting. Somehow, when I do research, my nose is always cold. I can’t decide how to take notes – if they’re too thorough it slows me down and I can’t keep up with my mental process, but if I don’t write enough things down I end up losing something or forgetting why I went looking for a book or document in the first place. And at the end of a day of research, I’ll go back to my unfamiliar, temporary living accommodations, where I won’t be able to relax much until my kids are fed and asleep, to try to find an overlapping minute when my husband is awake and can talk. And I’ll be doing that for two months at a time.
Phase 5 is the one that makes me really anxious, though, because it’s experimental and I’ll be by myself. Just about a year from now, once I’ve finished all my archival research, I’ll be returning to Sicily alone for one last research trip. I’ve already explained a bit of what I’ll be doing, and I’ll write about it (and the whole project) more in the future. Suffice to say I’m trying to do something a bit new and getting the materials and access to do it is going to be tricky. And while I’m doing it, I’m going to be away from my kids and husband for 2 months. Again, it’s the combination of personal and professional issues that really make this whole thing hard.
I started this blog mainly to mark this Unmoored Year. I need an outlet to reflect and keep me sane, and maybe to keep me accountable. But I also want a record of how things go down, just in case it all works out.