“Mommy’s Leaving”: On Taking A Solo Retreat

With the start of 2019, I reflect on one of the best decisions I made last year: I left home. Stepping across the threshold into a rental on Cape Cod in late January 2018 for my first solo writing retreat, arms heavy with books and groceries, I wept…for ten minutes.

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I know why. It took me nearly six months from when my husband first suggested that I take time away to work on my book. Inspired by one of my close friends who had done the same in order to finish her book, I followed her lead. It was a cathartic release from the pressures of home. From the guilt I felt for leaving my kids and for leaving my husband alone with all the responsibilities that came with that. I thought it was selfish to go somewhere by myself. You see, I’ve been a mother for almost twelve years. I had my first child while I was writing my dissertation. That means it has been a while since I have written for an extended amount of time without having to go back home to be with my family or to be home in time to wake up to tend to my children (except for that one time I did any overnighter in my office due to a looming essay deadline). Sure, I travel for conferences and lectures. Those are not really for me. I took my second writing retreat in July; I was reminded all over again what quiet solitude brings me as a scholar and mother.

Here are my thoughts for those of you who are nervous or skeptical about saying, “Mommy’s leaving,” in order to take time for yourself away from home. What should you keep in mind if you take one of these solo retreats?

Relax: A dear friend, who knows me well, told me to make sure that I relax for the week. It hadn’t even occurred to me! I’m serious. She told me that I needed to plan to write for a certain amount of time, and then do nothing for a big part of the day. Doing nothing is hard. When you’re a working mother, there’s always too much on your plate. However, I found myself taking a long, hot bath while reading a New Yorker at one moment or sitting quietly with jazz playing while I ate my salad in another moment. When I wake my very sleepy kids up in the morning, I sometimes encourage them by saying, “It’s a beautiful day to be alive!” I said that out loud to myself one day. It is always a true statement.

Stay connected: My daughter and I had begun using Insight Timer to meditate. She can be a night owl. With guided meditation, she was out like a light when she listened intently to the voice hypnotizing her with warm tones suggesting: “Take a deep breath in…”, “Your eyelids are getting heavy” or, my favorite, “Go to sleep.” For the week, our routine consisted of my daughter and I chatting for 10 min. Next, we listened to guided meditation for 15 to 30 minutes. Then, I listen to her sleep for another 5. Finally, I would fight the sleep the voice has guided me into, get up, and go back to writing with a little more clarity for the evening.

Eat well: I stopped at Whole Foods before hopping on I-95 and bought salads, fruit, expensive nuts, olives, crackers, and goat cheese. With no children to worry about, I could buy only what wanted to consume. No waffles. No pasta (please, no pasta!).  I had wine awaiting me from my host, too. Good thing. Most of the restaurants in Wellfleet were closed for the season. Phew!

Sleep: I slept in the first morning until noon! Ok, I was up until 4 a.m. writing an essay that was due at midnight. I woke up first at my normal get-yourself-dressed-so-that-you-can-get-the-kids’-lunch-clothes-and-breakfast-ready-to-get-to-school-on-time o’clock. I struggled to get back to sleep. I replayed the same guided meditation from the night before that got my daughter to sleep. Worked like a charm! Worked again when I woke back up an hour later. Did I mention I’ve been a mother for nearly twelve years?

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Get exercise: I walked to the Wellfleet pier. I passed exactly three people on the way there (that’s including a baby in the stroller). I stopped and purchased earrings from the only store opened off-season. Thank goodness there was the market where I could pick up the last batch of warm ribs in the prepared section (I was getting sick of salads by day three).

Be present: I watched a small spider spinning a web. I took a minute to really stare at the stars from the skylight over my loft bed. I took pleasure seeing the cardinals and wrens eating suet from the feeder placed on the other side of the glass doors on the back deck. No need to rush off. I just observed. What guilt-less pleasure to just…be.

Be a mom (optional): My daughter called me two hours before our regularly scheduled time. I could tell she was having a rough evening. She was cranky. She wanted yet another snack. She didn’t want to finish her homework. I was in the middle of prepping my syllabi for classes the following week, and I felt dragged back into the life I was trying to escape so that I could focus. I realized that my husband could probably use the break himself. I spoke with her for a bit, then she handed me to her little brother. He decided that he’d read What is the Great Wall of China? to me (FYI: The Who Was book series is phenomenal). I actually learned a lot. I was even disappointed when his father said it was time for him to get off the phone. He bookmarked the page where we left off. My daughter called back about 35 minutes later to meditate. I went back to prepping my courses.

This is optional, of course, because I have had to learn that my kids can survive at home without me. If you need to completely unplug for you own sanity, do it! I only spoke to my kids before bed.

Write: No student emails. No nagging chores. No meal prep for the kids. I needed hours of thinking and free-form writing. I worked on the book. I worked on my syllabi. I had the time and space to do so. In solitude, I seized the opportunity to think and write without interruption. 

Find inspiration: I hang a Toni Morrison quote from her brilliant essay published in The Nation, “No place for Self-pity, No Room for Fear” (March 23, 2015). I place copies on the wall where I need it most: my home office, my campus office, and my bedside (so that I go to sleep knowing what my purpose is for the following morning).

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak. We write. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Of course, I greatly value my children, and I would do anything for them. However, I have had to learn that my writing matters, too. I write for them, my students, for the discipline of Art History. Also, I write for me. (That last point. Let that one sink in, Nikki).

So did anything go wrong?

The only snafu was that in my eagerness to write I brought way to many books! I carried too many (that I didn’t really need) into the house. The next morning, I could barely bend down because my back was in such excruciating pain. I later picked up a heating pad that was less than a mile down the road. Ahhhh, relief.

Any regrets?

Yes. I wish I had done this sooner. I needed to go away months, even years ago. I didn’t know how finding a quiet place with so few people to interact with would allow me to hear my own voice with no white noise of the daily demands. This was one of the best forms of self-care I have incorporated into my life as a working professional. I learned that to care for my voice, my body, and my spirit is critical for my own journey to find joy and fulfillment as a scholar and parent.

Sounds expensive!

Well, I am fortunate to have the resources to do this. If time or finances do not allow you days to get physically far away, spend quality alone time in easier, economical, and practical ways:

  • Take yourself out to lunch while the kids are in school (or camp during the summer). Have a smoothie or a glass of wine. Order a special dessert that you do not have to share.
  • Go for a long walk in your neighborhood.
  • Get cozy in your favorite coffee shop for a couple of hours. Better yet, find a new one with a different vibe. See if new surroundings can assist your creative process. 
  • Attend a matinee of a movie that does not have to cater to the kids’ or your partner’s tastes. 
  • Luxuriate in the bath after the kids are asleep or before they wake up! (The latter has provided me much needed peace and positive energy to start my day)
  • Take breathing breaks. Lots of apps for this. Set an alarm to remind you to do so.
  • Call your friends. I love when I can have an hour (or three) to just catch up with the folks who know me best. They let me just be me. I need that more than I recognize.

Cheers to a prosperous 2019!

May you find yourself alone and at peace.

May you find yourself alone.

May you find yourself.   

See The Grind for more of my thoughts on the work-life balance.

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The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can!

This is a long overdue follow-up to a previous commentary on “Going To Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have It All?).” I managed to spend three weeks in Ethiopia in January teaching African Art and taking in the sights, sounds, and smiles of Addis Ababa. Some of my readers followed my journey via this website and Facebook on my experiences I titled “Notes from Addis.” It was a successful trip, and I am sure that I will return. Being a Mama PhD abroad is only possible through the immeasurable support of my husband who holds down the fort for me during my absences.

My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012.
My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012. Photo by Judith Black.

What many of my readers did not know was that I was also on the job market. The academic job market is no joke. For those outside of higher education, the fact that the entire process from initial application to phone interview to campus interview to rejection/offer can take up to six months. So, in the midst of my world travel, I had the added pleasure/stress of pursuing tenure-track positions across the country. This process required even more days away from home almost as soon as I returned from Africa. In the midst of it all–teaching, parenting, interviewing–I did land a job. If you’ve already taken a look at my title, you know that I managed to land a place on the impressive (and therefore humbling) faculty in the Department of Art at Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Art, the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, specifically. Phew!

What I think many find particularly significant is that I did this with two small children. Due to my previous posts on this website, my little ones were no secret to my potential employers, including Wellesley College. One of my friends commented on how surprised she was that I didn’t just talk about my kids, but that I joyfully marched them around campus in full view of my colleagues (my kids kind of think the campus is an extended playground)! Actually, what she said was, “If it were me, I would have kicked them in the bushes.” Ok, that sounds cruel, but I understood her concern. Kids take up an immense amount of time, critical time to write, research, attend meetings, teach, write some more, especially when you’re trying to land tenure. What can I say? I’m a proud Mama PhD! I learned a long time ago when I decided to have my first child while I was writing my dissertation that academia was going to have to accept me with all of my grown-up responsibilities of raising a family during my childbearing years. On the flip side, I have had to rise to the challenge of accepting the demands of academia with my family in tow.

While many men do take on a lot of the responsibility for child-rearing, women tend to take on the bulk of the work of raising children, especially in academia due to our flexible schedules. Even when it comes to parental leave for the birth of a child, men tend to use the time to advance their research while most women use that time to, you know, take care of her newborn (See “On Parental Leave, Men Have It Easier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 7, 2005). For any woman struggling to advance a career in academia with a family, it is no secret that the balancing act takes the support of one’s immediate family, extended family, neighbors, friends, near and far to manage. As I juggle the summer schedule, self-imposed deadlines for articles and fall class prep are my motivation in the midst of camp and daycare drop-offs and pickups. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend work-days are the only way to accomplish my goals. Again, the supportive husband pictured above has made this compromise feasible.

My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.
My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.

I lean on my local “village” of neighbors (’cause it takes one to raise a child, right?) who are willing to take care of my kids in a pinch. Other times, I may just whine to my mom on the phone 200 miles away. The knowledge that I have peers and mentors who are also enduring (or who have already survived) similar situations comforts me in the midst of the struggle.

Two recent events this spring highlight a network of women who remind me that I am strong enough and human enough to do what I need/want to do as a Mama PhD. First, one my GFF’s (Grad Friend Forever), Tanya Pohrt, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, defended her dissertation at the University of Delaware. She was the final member of our cohort of five who completed the doctoral program in the Department of Art History. I, along with two other GFF’s, surprised her when she emerged from the room. We each have two kids each. We each have jobs in either academia or museums. We each know the challenges faced to accomplish this tremendous accomplishment. We thought it important to mark the occasion together as fellow Mama PhDs!

The second event was Wellesley College’s 2013 Commencement. My colleagues at Wellesley are extraordinary. Again, I am humbled to join the ranks of the faculty here. I was grateful to take a photo with my fellow female scholars of African descent. Certainly scholars of color face additional stressors due to race and institutional racism in order to not only complete the PhD, but also to thrive in academia. [I’ll save my comments on race perhaps for another post. In the meantime, see the recent publication, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.]

Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.
Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene at Wellesley College. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.

This picture will continue to remind me that there are women who struggle and achieve by my side (single, married, with and without children). I thank all of these women–friends, colleagues, neighbors–who make being a Mama PhD not only possible, but a thrill.

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

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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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