“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.

Notes from Addis: Departure

Elizabeth Habte Wold, "Africa Rising"
Elizabeth Habte Wold, “Africa Rising”

My journey to Ethiopia has come to an end. I look forward to coming back because Africa is rising for me. Not the sentimental Africa that has filled my historical imagination of suspended roots of Yoruba, Fon or Mende, but rather a real Africa, an experienced Africa that surely extends beyond a myopic idea of Africa.  I’ve known this as I’ve been studying the arts of Africa for nearly twenty years and teaching on the complexities and dynamism of the continent for the last four. My concentration has always been on Western and Central Africa and the diaspora, primarily in the areas most involved and affected by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Opening lecture in a series on the Arts of Africa at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, January 9, 2013. Photo by David Teng Olsen.
Opening lecture in a series on the Arts of Africa at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, January 9, 2013. Photo by David Teng Olsen.

As an art historian who specializes in Art of the African Diaspora, this was an important trip for me. I had so many opportunities to investigate in my lectures, in one-on-one conversations with artists, and in seeing artwork a crucial question: what is AFRICAN art? The complexities of this inquiry extend beyond just claiming that it is work produced on the continent. Truth be told, I’m not sure what my expectations were of art of Ethiopia before I arrived in the country. I hadn’t studied the arts of the horn of Africa extensively. The desire and ability to engage the arts community in Addis Ababa has been a privilege. See: Notes on Addis: Art in the Making and Notes on Addis: Netsa Arts Village.

Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, Addis Ababa University

Elizabeth Habte Wold

Behailu Behazbih

After eating a family Christmas dinner, dancing to traditional music with new friends, smelling the mountain air of Yetebon, and greeting artists from all backgrounds, my view of “Africa”—of Ethiopia—has changed. So, I depart Ethiopia grateful for the opportunity to be its guest as a scholar, as a colleague, as a friend.

Highlights:

I’m thrilled to be returning to my husband and children. For those of you that have followed this journey, you know I was extremely nervous (See “The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Have it All?)”). The time away from my family has provided me, yes, a much-needed break from the daily stresses. But, boy, did I miss my husband and children. I return refreshed by the warmth of the Ethiopian sun and the coolness of the temperate nights (snow awaits me in Wellesley). While I’ve shown the prettiest pictures possible, I also witnessed abject poverty and the struggles of developing country that is indeed rapidly developing. I return more determined to treasure the health of my children, the comfort of my home, and the security of both my and my husband’s jobs.

Thank you to our friends and neighbors who continuously keep the Greene Team afloat and my children happier than they would be on their own. The “village” back home came through like champions! Different families pulled through with various play dates, emergency pickups from school, and even a sleepover! I knew we couldn’t get through this period without them.

Of course, as parents, my husband and I have both been able to see that we are capable of more than what we thought we could handle individually and more appreciative of what we can do together. We know, too, that we’d rather not manage this life of ours apart. Thank you, Simeon. You are my hero!

I will write more on Ethiopia in the months to come. I promise a post on the FOOD. In the meantime, when I return home, I’ll have some catching up to do with my family and friends. Classes at Wellesley College begin soon. So, once again, if you don’t hear from me through this venue, its because I’ll be on the grind.

Thank you for allowing me to share my rants, victories, frustrations, and smiles along the way! I took comfort knowing that I was not ever alone here. Until the next adventure…

Good Night and Good Luck, Addis!
Goodbye, Addis!

The Grind: Your 10 Reasons to Finish That DANG Dissertation!

Many of my friends know about my “10 Dissertation Cognitions.” In 2006, I typed up 10 reasons to finish my dissertation on a single sheet of resumé paper. Last week, a more recent GFF (aka Grad Friend Forever) told me that she actually made her own and posted it in her office as she’s racing to the finish line next spring. I thought that I’d finally share this tip publicly.

I kept the list posted  in front of  my desk. I’d glance at it every now and then for inspiration, especially during those times of “writer’s block.” I wrote each cognition in a different font in order to at least make it visually interesting (it was on my wall for three years). I’d put an expected completion date underneath the title. I’d change the date every few months when I fell behind (i.e October 15, 2007, summer 2008…). Unfortunately, every goal took longer than expected, but having the schedule kept me pressing forward.  I like to share this with folks because I think one should always keep in mind why one bothers with continuing, especially when it gets tough (i.e. baby, family health crisis, relationship trouble, etc.). I’ve had my share of struggles (See “I was a poor black kid…”), and I was not going to give up so far in the game (See “From poor black kid…to Art Historian?!). Ultimately, when you decide you want to finish, you’ll finish. You’ll know when you arrive at that place. You’ll do everything in your power to get it done: extra babysitting for your little ones, writing through the weekends, staying up late and/or getting up early. In the meantime, write a schedule. Then, ultimately, just write!

If all that fails, a different GFF, Associate Prof. Adrian Duran, just reminded me of our advisor’s wisdom about finishing the dissertation:

“It’s a hoop. Jump through it and you can start the rest of your life.”

~Ann Eden Gibson, Ph.D 

(Ok, so it also really helps to have a brilliant, supportive advisor)

Nikki A. Greene

Dissertation Topic:

The Rhythm of Glue, Grease and Grime:

Indexicality in the Works of Romare Bearden,

David Hammons, and Renée Stout

*****

 The Rhythm of Writing My Dissertation: Why It’s Important that I Write…and Finish!

  1. When completed, my dissertation will be very good.
  2. Reading and writing about my topic is fun.
  3. This time is precious, and I will use it well.
  4. I wrote a good Masters Thesis, and so I know I can write a dissertation.
  5. I’m preparing a wonderful, diversified career for myself.
  6. The more work I do on the dissertation now, the more fun I will have with our baby.
  7. I will be Dr. Nikki A. Greene, and I will therefore have my own identity that will help me become a better, more fulfilled mother.
  8. I will enjoy a tremendous sense of completion and accomplishment.
  9. Completing my dissertation will please Simeon (my husband), and it will be a source of pride for both of us.
  10. LEGACY: I am setting an example for my children and my entire family.

If you come up with your own set of cognitions, I’d love to hear about them. Even one or two could inspire others. Please share!

Part of my LEGACY checking out a final draft of my dissertation, March 2009

Click here, for more about being on The Grind.

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