The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (or Can Parents Have it All?)

Ferryboat

I’m leaving on January 1 for Ethiopia to teach at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design at Addis Ababa University. Exciting? Yes. Nervous? Oh, yes! Why, it’s a fabulous opportunity to meet students and faculty in a gorgeous country. I get to not only teach art history, but also, I suspect, learn so much about the art, culture, and cuisine of the region. I will be there alongside my Wellesley College colleagues, filmmaker and native Ethiopian, Salem Mekuria, and artist David Olsen. I tagged along with Salem to Cuba for nine days, and I managed to have one of the most significant art and cultural experiences of my life (see “Belonging in Cuba“). Dave has been there for two weeks already. He assures me that I will enjoy myself, the people, the art–everything. Bonus: I get two Christmases. Ethiopian Christmas (Ganna) is January 7.

Then, why am I so nervous? I have a family. I’m on the grind

We’ve all heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I know this more acutely than ever. When both of my children were born, I lived in South Jersey in a cozy suburb with dream-come-true neighbors with children our kids’ ages. I had a separate group of mom-friends whose friendships sustained me with non-stop playdates for our kids and grown-folk nights out when we all needed a break. Since moving to Wellesley College, just off-campus, we’ve established a new village. Faculty and staff members with children, with whom we go on walks, splash around in the kiddie pool, go trick-or-treating, and, most recently, decorate holiday cookies. That’s the village I’m depending on while I’m away.

Christmas cookie decorating with "the village" (December 2012)

Christmas cookie decorating with “the village” (December 2012)

But, let’s be honest. My husband is doing the heavy lifting. He’ll have get them ready and out the door in the morning. He’ll have to juggle picking them up at the end of the day, feeding and bathing before bed, and doing it all over again for not one, not two, but nearly three weeks! So, when I’ve announced to people that I am going to Ethiopia, most people then ask, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” Especially the moms. Some look at me with delight. Others, I can tell, look at me curiously, saying the same thing, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” I’m pretty sure those people, especially moms, are really thinking, “what kind of mother does that with two young children at home?” Or, perhaps what I may be taking for judgement of me is fascination/admiration for my husband. Honestly, neither of us truly knew what this wild ride of a career in academia would bring when we got married after my first year in grad school. I only finished up my degree in January 2010, and we’re both adjusting to my having a “real” career in a new destination (Wellesley College). In the last year alone, I’ve had to leave the kids behind to travel to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, the UK, New York, and Cuba (did I mention I was away for nine days?). That’s in the last year! Great opportunities for me, but a fine dance in communication and compromise for both of us. He’s held down the fort in a way that few fathers could manage for a day or two. I’m grateful. I’m lucky. (Well, really, I chose well).

I want to work. I want a family. I’m a better academic for the lessons learned from having children: patience, time-management, a life beyond the classroom and research. I’m a better parent for having a career: patience, time-management, a life beyond my children. I don’t want to relinquish the accomplishments I’ve made thus far in becoming “Professor Greene” nor do I want my children to feel like they are simply afterthoughts to Mommy’s lectures, articles, and world travel. Frankly, it would be much easier if we had family nearby to help us along the way. Though I’ve had an arsenal of very competent, fun, brilliant Wellesley College students to babysit, last-minute meetings, guest speakers on campus or article deadlines don’t always fit their schedules. There’s nothing like having a grandparent or auntie nearby to help out here and there (for free). Thus, my husband and I are figuring things out on our own for the most part. We negotiate schedules that include early morning and late-night work hours for me, and disruptive kid pick-up times for him. Believe me, it’s taken some creative circus-like juggling to make this trip to Ethiopia happen.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Women Can’t Have it All” from earlier this year and if you’re a working mom, read it today. She talks frankly about what so many working mothers worry about in the 21st century. More importantly, she warns young people (not just women need to concern themselves with this) about what it will mean to have both a career and a family. Being a working parent is tough. It’s exhausting. It’s beyond frustrating at times. There are occasions when you just have to say enough is enough. Slaughter’s son needed her home. She gave up her career in the State Department in order to return to a more manageable life in academia at Princeton (wow). I have friends who have given up jobs to stay home (including dads) or taken part-time positions in order to better balance family and career. I also have friends who have been able to pursue their careers with full gusto, taking high-powered positions or starting their own businesses that require long hours and commutes. Often, for the latter group, they can afford the extra daycare or have family around to help out. We don’t necessarily have those two privileges. But, I’m still in the early stages of my career. I want (and need) to take advantage of incredible opportunities like this one I’m embarking on.  I’ve been reassured by my mom-friends that everything will go well while I’m away. Intellectually, I know that. I have a competent, loving husband and father. Emotionally, the fact is this will be my longest time away from my kids (gasp). This will be the longest time I’ve been away from my husband  (clutching pearls). I’ve had a hard time sleeping for the last three weeks thinking about my time apart from them. The Newtown shootings made me feel even more desperate to stay close to my kids than ever. But, on January 1st, I leave for Ethiopia.

I had humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, but I later went on to boarding school in Connecticut, a year abroad in Barcelona at age 16, and onto a career in the arts (see “I was a poor black kid…”). I want my children to know that the sky really is the limit on what they can become professionally and what it will take to get there. I want them to truly see the world for themselves and not just understand it virtually through books, television, or the Internet. I’m attempting to lead by example. Three weeks in the big scheme of things is not that long (if you’re not my husband). I won’t be able to continue to make big trips for too much longer without them. I hope to have the wisdom to know when it’s no longer feasible. Actually, one of my goals is that as the children get older, we’ll be able to take extended trips together as a family. I agree with Slaughter, women cannot have it all. But, like Slaughter, at this stage in the game, I’ve gotta try!

I expressed to a high school friend, somehow who knows me well, in other words, about my anxieties about leaving the kids. I told her how I was doing this because I wanted to set an example for them about exploring the world, but that I was terrified. Her wonderful response? “Your kids are going to love you for this!” Another good girlfriend, a mom who is also on the grind, remarked, “You will love you for this.” I hope they’re both right.

Here’s how it went:

January 3: “Notes from Addis: Arrival”

January 4: “Notes from Addis: Art in the Making”

January 6: “Notes from Addis: Netsa Art Village”

January 18: “Notes from Addis: Departure”

January 16, 2014: “Notes from Addis: A Look Back”

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8 responses to “The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (or Can Parents Have it All?)

  1. You are an amazing mother. You know I am a career mom too and appreciate your honesty. My children understand and accept that I don’t make the classroom parties, chaperone field trips, bring bake goods for every celebration. They do know that they are loved and their mother is dedicated and devoted to not only them, but my students at the high school I lead. Love you Professor Greene!

  2. Pingback: Notes from Addis: Arrival | Nikki G Ph.D.·

  3. Thank you so much for your comments, Shawna! You’re so right. The obligations we have to multiple communities, especially in our cases, students, must be recognized and honored. Love and RESPECT what you do to help brightest among us, Shawna.

  4. Pingback: Notes from Addis: Departure | Nikki G Ph.D.·

  5. Pingback: The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can! | Nikki G Ph.D.·

  6. Pingback: Notes on Addis: A Look Back | Nikki G Ph.D.·

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