Fighting for eighty dollars (and some systems change)

A few months ago, I was invited to give a talk at an elite private university in my region. It’s an extraordinary honor to present my ideas in this venue. The program that invited me is highly regarded in my discipline, and I’ve been invited to speak alongside several other esteemed scholars in my field. Plus, it’s the kind of place that Yale considers a “peer institution” – meaning that it counts, a lot, in my promotion and tenure case. For all these reasons, when I received the invitation, I put my head down on my kitchen counter and cried – tears of relief that all the networking I’ve been doing is paying off, and tears of joy at the chance to learn and contribute in this context. I accepted the invitation enthusiastically within moments of receiving it.

The invitation promised a small honorarium, one night’s hotel stay, and a modest stipend to cover travel expenses. When the staff person coordinating these arrangements contacted me to ask if I would need the hotel (since this institution is less than two hours away by car), I replied that I did not. I then explained my situation: that I’m a single parent and need to hire a babysitter in order to make the trip, which is also why I’m returning home the same night and don’t need the hotel. I told her I anticipated paying about eighty dollars to my son’s regular caregiver, and asked if the money allocated toward my hotel could be applied toward my honorarium/travel costs, in order to help offset my babysitting expense. I reasoned that the overall amount was approximately the same, and that a free hotel night didn’t mean much if it meant that I had to find and pay for an overnight babysitter – always very costly.

The staff person responded that, in order to be fair to everyone, it would not be possible to cover my childcare costs. She provided contact information for institutional childcare near her university (I would still have to pay for it). She then reminded me of the allowance for travel costs, and suggested perhaps I could use some of that money to pay the babysitter.

I admit: I was annoyed. I didn’t understand her reference to “fairness” to other participants; I couldn’t see how anyone else would be affected by simply moving the money already allocated to my travel into a different category. And the suggestion that I use my travel allowance to pay the babysitter simply meant that I’d then be paying my travel expenses out of pocket. Either way, I’d be taking the hit. In effect, I’d be paid less than the other participants – also not fair.

After mulling it over for some time and talking with a few friends, I decided not to set aside my annoyance, as I am wont to do. Earlier that week, I’d read Audre Lorde’s classic essay, “The Uses of Anger,” in which Lorde identities anger as a clarifying source of insight that, when translated assertively to connect with someone across difference and hierarchy, can be used to put pressure on unjust systems. Inspired by Lorde and the ways my students had discussed her ideas in class, I wrote back to the staff person, explained the logic behind my proposal as I saw it, and asked for clarification of the obstacle. I also asked whether it would make sense to bring in her boss. I used what I hope was an assertive, not angry or confrontational tone. The staff person responded with a much lengthier email in which she reiterated her position and explained the policies of the host university:

“We must maintain fairness to all participants, by allowing everyone the opportunity to the same reimbursable travel costs. That is to say, if we allowed this in your case, there could inevitably be other participants that may also have childcare costs associated with their stay and then the question would arise for them as well. As you might imagine, it could become a bit of a hairy situation particularly if someone needs both a hotel and child care services.”

By “hairy situation,” of course, she meant a more expensive one. Gods forbid other speakers might also have children! And even worse, that someone might need both childcare and a hotel! I suppose those costs would be beyond what this very elite, very wealthy university wanted to cover.

She then went on to cite the university’s travel possibility, which specifically bans reimbursement of childcare costs and defines legitimate travel expenses for business purposes: hotel and transportation, yes; childcare, no. Think about what that means: at some point, some person or some committee got together and decided that childcare doesn’t count as a legitimate business expense, and/or was costing the institution too much. Which means the issue of childcare came up before. Which means: people needed institutional support in this area, and they didn’t get it. Their (our) need hasn’t gone away; if anything, it has amplified. The institution just shirked any responsibility for meeting it.

So, I’ll be paying for my childcare expenses out of pocket – again. I expected as much, though it is a serious economic burden. Eighty dollars is nothing to the institution that invited me – pocket change, really – but it’s almost a week’s worth of groceries for me. And, of course, this isn’t a one-time deal. Every month, I spend hundreds of dollars on babysitters so that I can attend dinners with job candidates, moderate discussions on new books, show support at student events. I’m glad to engage in most of these activities; I genuinely enjoy them, and they’re also crucial to my networking. But there are real financial costs, and these are business expenses. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

To be clear, I don’t blame the staff person who engaged me in this conversation. She was responsive and professional at every stage, and in the later round of emails, she identified herself as a single mother too, apologizing that she couldn’t meet my need. Nor do I think the host institution’s policy is especially egregious. Yale has similar travel policies and restrictions, and I face them every single time I need to travel with P. The problem is not one staff person or one institution, then, but rather the anti-feminist, un-family-friendly policies that our institutions have quite deliberately adopted to shift the burden onto individual academic workers, who are overwhelmingly female. It is a rare workplace indeed, whether inside or outside of academia, that sees childcare as a legitimate business expense – even though it plainly is.

This experience highlighted for me the structures of hostility to caregiving and reproductive labor that undergird the work of conferencing and giving or planning invited talks – a major part of the academic’s labor. This type of labor imposes unique and particular strains. This event, like so many others in which we engage, will occur outside of my home region and outside of my regular work hours – and thus, beyond the scope of my normal childcare arrangements. In other instances like this, I have successfully negotiated for coverage of my childcare costs, not through direct reimbursement, but by asking for a higher honorarium specifically to cover those expenses; I am always transparent about how the money will be used. So I know it is possible – when the person doing the inviting is willing, when the funding allows for it, and where there are not explicit bans on doing so.

Since this all went down, I’ve been thinking about what a more just experience of conferencing and invited talks would look like. A starting point would be to do away with aspirations to “fairness” – which in my recent experience meant “sameness” – and to instead grapple with people’s differentiated particularities in an intentional way. Consider all the other forms of difference that we regularly accommodate within these events, without a second thought. If we are planning an event and we invite one speaker who lives an hour away and another who lives across the country, we spend different (unequal) amounts on their travel. We accept this as a matter of course, even though it generates uneven costs for the institution. We need to now broaden the terrain of difference that we expect to accommodate. We don’t all have the same needs, and our labors don’t all cost the same, whether to us as individuals or to the institutions that are hosting us.

A feminist approach to conferencing, invited talks, and other such events would routinely and deliberately ask what a person needs to make their participation feasible, comfortable, and meaningful. A disabled person may need a nonstop flight; a lactating mother may need refrigeration to store her pumped breast milk; a transgender person may need an all-gender bathroom near the room where they are scheduled to speak. We cannot leave it up to people to raise these needs on their own, because many times they won’t, assuming it’s their responsibility alone or that they lack sufficient status to make the request. We don’t know – because we usually don’t ask – what work an invited speaker or job candidate had to do behind the scenes to get to the talk, what risks they’re taking, what favors they’ve had to call in. People are often going to great lengths. A feminist approach would make their differences and particular needs transparent, then reckon with them carefully and graciously — not pretend they don’t exist by writing them away as non-reimbursable (and therefore illegitimate) business expenses.

What I learned about feminism and the progressive movement by staying home during the Woman’s March

Yesterday, millions of women and their allies marched in the streets throughout the United States and around the world, protesting Trump and his new regime. It was widely recognized as the largest march in U.S. history – larger than the March on Washington or any of the other iconic protest marches of our time.

I, meanwhile, was sitting on the couch with my sick child’s feverish head in my lap, scrolling through Facebook. Earlier that week, I’d made plans with two sets of friends to march with our kids in Hartford, which were then downgraded when both sets of friends had sick kids. Then, I thought we’d stay closer to home and go to the New Haven Green; our friends, whose kids had recovered, ended up doing that. But P woke up Saturday morning with a 102-degree fever, sweaty and exhausted. I spent my entire day on the couch with my child as he slept or fitfully watched videos. We never even got dressed, let alone left the house.

Looking at photos of my dearest friends marching in the streets and holding banners, posters, and the hands of their sweet children brought tears to my eyes. Tears of joy, hope, and inspiration, to be sure, but also sadness that this extraordinary moment was passing and I was not part of it.

Still, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been unable to participate in political actions because of my child’s needs and my status as a single parent. As I’ve written before, my son’s bedtime, his physicality, and most recently his toileting issues have all prevented me from being politically active to the degree that I’d like, and to which I’d become accustomed before becoming a parent. This shift has caused me no small amount of anxiety, guilt, and sadness. But, because I have been grappling with these issues for so long, I was able to come to peace with my/our lack of participation in the Woman’s March relatively quickly.

Indeed, over time, my position as a single mom with numerous constraints on my time, energy, money, and creative resources has given me a sharp window into the nature of social movements, and my relationship to them. Below are some of the things I’ve been ruminating on, which came into sharp relief for me as I sat on the couch with my sick child during the Woman’s March. I’m not the first to think of these things, by any means – feminist theorists and activists have said all of them, in their own way, many times before – but being a single mother has made me understand them at an intensely visceral level.

We take turns. I wasn’t out there marching yesterday. But, crucially, close friends of mine – people who have never marched before – were. Ten years ago, I was marching in the streets for immigrant rights, while those people were not. Back then, I didn’t know why they weren’t out in the streets with me; I simply thought they weren’t politicized. That might have been true. Or maybe they had other things going on that I didn’t know about. Either way, I felt better about not being out there yesterday, because they were there in my stead. Relatedly …

Our roles within a movement change many times during the life course. It’s often said that young people will change the world. I used to think that was because young people are more idealistic and optimistic. I still think that’s true, but now I recognize that many young people simply have more time on their hands, and fewer responsibilities, than middle-aged adults with kids, one or more jobs, and many bills to pay. For that reason, young people may be the ones most likely to march in public, to take risks, and to get arrested. My reality is different. And that’s okay. We take turns in ways that are structured by age, ability, and more. On that note …

We’re all doing the best we can. As I sat on the couch yesterday, I thought about all the other people in a similar position to me. How many people, I wondered, were not participating because they can’t stand for long periods of time, or at all? Because they couldn’t get to the protest location? Because they are new in town and didn’t know anybody to go with? Because they had to work? Because that day was their only chance to see a family member in prison? Because they struggle with depression and couldn’t get out of bed? Because they’re afraid of crowds? Because … who knows? Thinking about all those people who care deeply, but couldn’t or wouldn’t protest publicly, comforted me. Movements are always larger, much larger, than the number of people marching in the streets.

Movements need to make space for people to engage in a variety of ways, within the constraints of their lives. Some people can march. Others can make phone calls. Others can teach their kids about justice and injustice. One of my frustrations since moving to New Haven has been my inability to sustain any kind of regular commitment to a community-based organization. I’m willing take responsibility for virtually all of that. But it’s also true that, when I’ve explained my constraints to organizational leaders, and offered instead to head up a research project or write an op-ed – things I can do within the constraints of my everyday life – those offers haven’t been engaged. Instead, I keep getting invited to attend nighttime meetings. I understand that all community organizations are fighting fires with extremely limited resources. Still, they and the movements they are part of will be most effective if they can find ways to meet people where they are, without limiting involvement to one or two strategies. At the same time, I recognize that …

We can’t depend on movements or leaders to create those engagements for us. It’s not the role of movement leaders to define or create those opportunities for me. That’s my responsibility. Toward that end, and ruminating on all of this, I am now asking myself:

  • What can I reasonably do, within the conditions of my own life, to move feminism and progressivism forward?  Because it’s my everyday reality, I sometimes forget that my life’s work is to teach, write, and talk to people about social and economic justice. It can sometimes feel like this is not activism, or that it doesn’t count because it’s my job. When I get that feeling, I try to remind myself that everyone has unique skills and a unique role to play. I am skilled as a teacher and writer, and my position at Yale gives me powerful connections. Therefore, perhaps my greatest contribution is to pour myself into my daily work – to be the most committed and effective teacher, mentor, and scholar I can be. Importantly, this is what I get paid to do and this labor occurs primarily when P is at school or asleep. In other words, it is feasible, it counts, and it is enough, at least for now.
  • How can I learn to value this work as much as I value the more visible, spectacular actions (marches, protests, etc.) that get public attention in the media, including social media?   Like many people, my default definition of “activism” is marching in the streets or testifying at a city council meeting. This is the image that is sold to us in history textbooks and pop culture, and it is the image we all craft when we post photos to Facebook or Instagram of ourselves marching with placards in hand. At the same time, most of us know that actions like that don’t just happen – they are planned through hours of painstaking labor and organizing. And people don’t just show up to those things randomly. All kinds of other work, less visible and certainly less sexy, is happening behind the scenes. How often do we take photos of our completed lesson plans? Of the hard conversation we had with a family member? Of the book with the social justice message that we read our kids? That’s the kind of work I can participate in, and it is valuable. How do we (I) make that labor visible and valuable as activism?
  • How can I understand and use my distinct subjectivity as a single mother as an asset, not a constraint or – even worse – a burden?  I spend so much time thinking about all that I can’t do because of my limits as a single parent, but it will be more helpful to strategize on how I can turn my position into an asset. For example, could I deliberately decide not to march and instead watch a group of kids so that their parents can go? Could I offer myself as an emergency contact to parents in the chance that they get arrested and their kids need someplace to go? Could I start a reading group or play group with progressive parents and their kids? This is the kind of direction I’d like to keep thinking in – how to organize based on who I am and what I can do, not who I’m not and can’t ever be.
  • Who do I need by my side to help me do this work and hold me accountable?  I had a small but powerful experience last week. My oldest friend and I were texting about how scared the new Trump regime makes us feel, especially for our kids. Just then, an email came into my inbox with news about Congress’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and with instructions on how to call our senators to register our opinion. By text, I told my friend – a busy working mom like me – “I’ll call if you do. I need someone to remind me and hold me accountable” (I have pretty bad phone anxiety). The next night, we quickly texted to check in with each other; we had both called our senators, as we agreed to do. I told her I felt braver when I was calling, knowing that she was doing the same, and she agreed. We’ve only done that once, but it was a small thing, and we could easily do it again. It’s that kind of thing – feeling I’m not alone, feeling solidarity with someone who’s as busy and as worried as me – that keeps me motivated and connected.

 

So these are some of the things I’m thinking on as I sit home, again, with my still-not-quite-recovered child. All comments, suggestions, and critiques fully welcomed.

An Uncertain Victory

Today, a judge awarded me sole legal and physical custody of P, as well as sole discretion in determining P’s visitation with his father. The decision to go before the court was a long time coming. I’ve raised P completely on my own for the last 3 years and 9 months according to a de facto, mostly unspoken but mutual agreement with P’s father. The agreement went something like this: he’d try to get his shit together, and I’d raise P by myself. I wouldn’t ask him to contribute child support, and I’d arrange for them to see each other whenever we went home to California.

And that’s how it’s been for the past 3 years and 9 months, except that this past May, I decided to ask P’s father to begin contributing financially to P’s care. I was feeling overwhelmed by P’s ever-growing needs (dang, the kid eats a lot!), and I was, quite frankly, exhausted by our everyday juggle. P’s father responded that he couldn’t contribute anything, that he was essentially homeless and also consuming a great deal of alcohol. These are the same factors that caused us to split up nearly four years ago; nothing had changed. After that phone call, I asked him to start contacting me only by email or text. He became angry, and over the next few weeks, as he raged at me over email, other details emerged about mental illness and domestic violence within his family, including the home where P has stayed when he visits.

That was it. I started to ask myself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid of what could happen to P and/or me if I set a firmer boundary? And what would it take to get unafraid?” One answer seemed obvious: having the ability to call the police to remove P from a dangerous situation if necessary. Under our existing arrangement, I didn’t have that ability because P’s father had equal rights; he could, if he wanted to, disappear with P at any time or put him in dangerous, neglectful situations and I’d have no recourse. Pursuing sole custody was the only way.

The road to today’s hearing was mostly uneventful, if only because P’s father refused to respond or even acknowledge what was happening; I didn’t even expect him to show up (and he didn’t). But in the last few days, I began to imagine a long, drawn-out ordeal in which the judge would interrogate me about every detail of my parenting. I practiced answers to dozens of questions the judge might ask me, preparing to defend every decision I’ve made about P and our life over the past 4 years. Ultimately, none of that would come to pass, but, having never been through anything like this before, I didn’t know that.

Making the decision to invoke the state as a form of protection also rattled me, especially at a time when police killings of black people saturate the news and my consciousness. Today in the courtroom, the dynamics of racial, class, and gender inequality were clearly at work – less in terms of bias in the judge’s decision-making, which seemed quite consistent and fair, and more in terms of who was there in the first place and how they were represented. Virtually all of the plaintiffs who went before me were young women of color, and none of them had attorneys. Nearly every white person that appeared middle-class, including me, was represented by legal counsel. When it was my turn, the judge read my file and asked only two questions: did P have any contact with his father (“yes your honor, they skype and talk on the phone occasionally”), and did I think my motion was fair, equitable, and in the best interests of the child (“yes your honor, I do”). And then it was done. She granted my motion. The whole thing was done in 2 minutes flat.

I wish I could say the judgment feels like a victory, and in some ways, it does. Tears came to my eyes when the judge made her decision; I felt something lift inside of me. I had intended to take the afternoon off, but instead I headed straight to my office, filled with an unrelenting urge to write, create, and simply work. I hadn’t realized how much this issue had been weighing me down, occupying my emotional bandwidth and getting in the way of my creativity. And tonight, after I picked up P from kindergarten, I took him to the Olive Garden for dinner. We celebrated, though P has no idea why.

The thing is, though, that it’s not done. What I have in place now is important, but it will remain up to me to enforce the court order. That’s difficult for many reasons. One is that P’s father is a quasi-anarchist who doesn’t much believe in the authority of courts or the rule of law, at least when applied to him. Another is that setting healthy and appropriate boundaries with him and others has long been a struggle for me; I’m getting better, but there is a lot of room for growth. Still, the court order is a step, and an important one. Not an unqualified victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Shit

P is going to kill me one day for writing this post.

P has always had, shall we say, a strained relationship with the toilet. When I potty trained him about a year and a half ago, at the age of 3½, it was not because he had expressed any interest. It was because the teachers at his school let me know that he was the last child in his group to wear diapers, and that they were tired of changing him. But it was not a smooth transition. He accepted peeing well enough, but poop has always been more complicated. In the year since he has been potty trained, he has not gone poop on the toilet at school once. Not once. Sometimes I am asked if there is something about the toilet at school that he finds objectionable; I don’t know. He despises all public restrooms, but we are rarely in a position where he needs to use one for poop. Until now, this has been frustrating but manageable. In the past year, about once a week P would have an accident at school, but most days, he would do what he needed to do at home, in the evening.

But about a month ago, when we went to California for a conference that I needed to attend (which was otherwise awesome), everything got off-kilter. P stayed with his dad, uncle, aunt and cousins for 5 days. The excitement and the unfamiliar environment led him to become constipated. A month later, he still is. And so what has always been a tenuous situation has become much worse. Much, much worse. P now has something called encopresis. I’ll save you the details but basically, we’re talking horrible constipation that leads to accidents. A lot of them. Like up to 10 or 12 a day.

The pediatrician prescribed him laxatives and a high-fiber diet, which we’re now implementing, but it can take months to resolve. She also suggested that I “keep him home from school for a few days” to clean him out (that is, keep him close to the toilet). There is no worse thing to say to a single parent who works full-time and has no one around to help. Daycare is my only break and my most important support system. And staying home all day long, by myself, with no other adults around, to keep P close to a toilet, when I still have to pay $80 a day for childcare? I don’t think so. My sanity is too important, and too fragile. I kept him home one day, but refused to stay home any longer. Back to school he went, to the place where he refuses to poop. Two weeks after the doctor’s visit, nothing has improved, and there is no end in sight. I am still cleaning shit at least 6 or 8 times a day. And when I’m not wiping shit, I’m doing laundry. Endless amounts of laundry. Everything I own stinks.

Why am I writing about this here? Because it is so incredibly hard to do anything else, such as writing, when I am consumed with my son’s body functions. Because the students on campus are protesting and I can’t go support them because I have to keep my son by the toilet. Because there is nothing else that makes me feel as completely isolated and alone as wiping shit off my son’s ass a dozen times a day. Because it is impossible not to internalize it and think that somehow I am a failure because my son shits himself. That he is delayed on this because, as a single mom going through a divorce, I just couldn’t manage to train him at a younger age. Because I am worried sick about how we are going to deal with this when P goes to kindergarten in the fall. Because I hear in my head all the other nagging voices about what P supposedly has to learn to do by then – like hold a fork or pencil properly – and there is no one else around to teach him or to share the burden. Because I hate how my sweet, sensitive boy is obviously internalizing it all and feeling frustrated and ashamed, which never helped anyone’s constipation. Because I’m not the kind, patient, supportive parent I want to be when wiping shit for the 10th time in a day. Because I hate how it is straining our relationship to the point where all we talk about is shit (“P, do you need to go? Come on, let’s go”). Because this incident is one of the most frustrating parenting experiences I have ever had, and I have no idea what to do about it.

 

 

 

On leaving the office and speaking to humans, also known as networking

 

 

I have not written here in some time, and the main reason is striking to me: I believe I have fully assimilated the identity of single mother. Most days, I sincerely forget I’m a single mom. It isn’t that the struggles of the past few years have disappeared: the daily grind of managing parenting with academic life remains just that – a grind – and I still have to say “no” to more things than I would like. And there are still significant upsets and hiccups, to be sure. Like the financial aid process for the ridiculously expensive private school I’m currently applying to for P, which requires me to either lie about the existence of P’s father or engage in some weird contortions to explain why he doesn’t contribute financially to P’s care. But otherwise, being a single parent has become normal; we just go about our business, and I have found workable solutions to nearly all the major and minor dilemmas that pop up in my life. Most importantly, P and I enjoy an extraordinary home life that gets richer every day. I feel genuinely happy.

As a result, though, I find I have less to write here that is explicitly about the experience of being a single mom in the Ivy League. I’ve wondered, actually, if I should just shut the blog down, especially because it reveals vulnerable moments about my life and psyche that might best be pushed to the background, at least while I’m on the (highly public and visible) road to tenure. I’ve decided to keep it live and to keep writing, if only occasionally, because I am in fact learning a great deal about both motherhood and life on the tenure track at an elite institution, though they are not always in conflict in the same intense ways they were in P’s earliest years. And also because I trust that there will be future moments in which those two facets of my life will converge or collide in ways that will be worth writing about.

For now, I want to share an experience I had last year which, while not related to parenting per se, does illuminate some core lessons I’ve been learning about academic life.

Last fall, I went through my third-year review process at Yale. This is an internal review conducted by the department only and involves a complete and careful assessment of my research, publication, and teaching to date, with a focus on what I need to do and how I need to position myself in the years going forward. It is generally seen as a prime opportunity for mentorship on the road to promotion to associate professor, which typically happens in the sixth year. As promised, my review meeting was one of the most powerful mentorship experiences I have ever had. My mentors offered all kinds of useful suggestions for how to strengthen my current book manuscript and how to position it, and myself, in relation to the various fields of which I am part.

The most powerful takeaway of that experience relates to my personal four-letter word: networking (of course it’s not actually 4 letters, but work with me, people). If you know me well, you know that I loathe the concept and the practice of networking. It stirs up images of overly dark and cavernous banquet rooms at conference hotels, filled with nervous graduate students and junior faculty practicing the dreaded “elevator version” of their dissertation to senior professors, who may be mildly interested in their work but who are actually much more interested in catching up with their peers who they only get to see once a year at this very conference. I have avoided these situations as much as possible because they so often feel false, contrived, and pretentious. Instead, I have preferred to make connections in ways that feel more authentic, and certainly more satisfying: through shared work on projects I am passionate about, through personal introductions, and with my own peers (the ones I rush to catch up with at conferences).

It’s also true that, for many years, I assumed I could simply let my research and writing do my networking for me – that if I just did good work, and did it consistently, the networks would form. Unlike some academics – the more social variety, I imagine, the ones who actually like those conference banquet rooms – I have no problem sitting in my office and writing, alone, for many hours a day. I actually like it. A lot. It honors the introvert in me. And it is the main reason why I have been reasonably productive.

However, I sometimes wonder if people are even reading my work, whether other scholars know of my existence, whether my research is truly making the impact that it could. Sure, some of that questioning is the professional insecurity that runs rampant at this stage of one’s career, but my ambivalence about networking has not helped. Over the years, I have observed that it is the same group of 10 or 15 scholars – mostly men, but not exclusively – who seem to show up everywhere: giving invited plenary talks, editing important volumes, serving as presidents of associations, traveling around the country giving lectures left and right. It’s really a small group, and one that can feel exclusive. When you’re not in that inner circle, it is bewildering how, exactly, those people got there – what they are doing differently, or better. And on the tenure track at Yale or any elite institution, being part of that inner circle is a prerequisite. It’s right there in the letter to external reviewers, who will be asked whether I am a “leader in the field.”

And … it came up in my third-year review, as my committee members politely, but with some consternation, asked why I’ve been here for almost three years but haven’t yet met the very people at Yale who are leaders in my field – deeply influential and powerful figures, the ones who will vote on my case in the next couple of years, the ones who can direct me to outstanding resources and connect me with all the right people. You know, the conductors of that inner circle symphony. It was difficult to hear this feedback – it taps into all my anxieties about being introverted, even shy – but of course they are right. It really is not enough to be prolific if it means I am sitting (happily) alone in my office most days. Writing and publication, even a lot of it, is only half of the game. I have to do the social piece too.

Thus, my major work over the next few years (and beyond) will involve finding ways to effectively “network” (I prefer “socialize professionally”). I have literally made a Word document titled “Building My Network” which has a long list of people who I need in my network. The list is organized into two columns: those that Yale would consider competent external reviewers for my tenure and promotion cases, and those who are doing amazing and relevant work but who might not be at “peer institutions” or “leaders in the field” (again, Yale’s language). I still try to connect with people from both columns, but I have to be mindful that most of my network has to be rooted in other elite institutions. It’s nasty, but necessary. And then I’m figuring out ways to meet these people. Crucially, I am developing strategies that feel mostly comfortable, even if they require me to push myself: organizing panels at conferences, inviting speakers to campus, asking my mentors to introduce me to their peers or invite me to dinner with speakers they have invited to campus. I’ve done some of these things before, but not in a long time, and never with this much planning and focus. But no cavernous banquet rooms. That’s a line I just can’t cross.

Ultimately, it’s important to me that this work feels authentic – that I don’t feel like I’m using people or being used, or that I’m putting myself in situations unlikely to yield anything good just for the sake of the abstract cause of networking. Fortunately, there are scholars who are leading this work by developing strategic ways to think about mentoring, especially for women faculty and faculty of color. I found this awesome podcast and graphic by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, that really helped me (Scroll down to watch the presentation and download the mentoring map). I hope it will also help any of you who are academic introverts or who struggle with networking, for whatever reason. As for me, I’ll keep on keepin’ on with my own struggle to leave the office every now and then.

New Publics

Since beginning this job a little over two years ago, I have felt really constrained in the kinds of activism and community engagement that I’ve been able to get involved with in New Haven and Connecticut. An illustration: I teach a cultural geography class here, and last fall, as part of a lesson on cartography, I required my students to draw mental maps of their daily lives in and around campus. I drew my own mental map as well, and I remember being astounded at how narrow was (is) my daily path through the city. My map showed, literally, just two perpendicular lines connecting three locations: my house, P’s daycare, my office. My route showed a four-mile drive down Whitney Ave to daycare, a five-block walk from his daycare to my office; then, eight hours later, the reverse path with nary another stop on the way, except maybe for coffee. While completing this exercise with my students, I almost felt tears well up in my eyes. It was such a different way of engaging the city than I was used to. I felt depressed.

As I’ve written before, when I lived and worked in Kalamazoo, I was deeply engaged with urban life as an activist and an advocate. I attended weekly meetings of a local union of poor and homeless people at the central park downtown; I testified often at city council and county commission meetings; I worked with the county sheriff to design a study; and I helped organize rallies and other community events for immigrant rights, affordable housing, and more inclusionary policies for people returning home from prison, among other issues. When possible, I incorporated my students into that work as well. For example, just six months after I moved to Kalamazoo, I led 26 students in producing a documentary film about the struggles that people with a criminal record faced in securing housing, employment, and transportation upon returning to Kalamazoo. It was exhilarating (and often exhausting) work, and through it I felt a strong sense of ownership to and belonging in the city.

Of course, all that was before I had P, and certainly before I became a single mother.

Since then, and since moving to Yale, I’ve struggled with a palpable sense of not contributing to the life of my new department, my new campus, and my new city. So much so that I felt great relief at being asked to serve on the graduate admissions committee – ordinary work that we all do; it’s no great thing that I was able to do what is expected of all faculty. That, too, was mildly depressing. But other forms of engagement have proven elusive.

That is, until recently. One of my goals for this year, when I’m on leave from teaching, was to find new ways of engaging with the public that can work within my constraints as a single parent. Originally, I thought that would mean teaching in prison, and I did, in fact, submit a proposal to teach a course in a men’s prison near here, which was accepted. However, I withdrew when I learned my course would be scheduled for the winter. The prison where I would have been assigned is almost an hour away on country roads; given what I already face with snow days and daycare cancellations, I decided to give myself a break and put my own sanity first.

But other opportunities for public engagement have nonetheless come along. First, a few months ago I was hired as an expert witness for a lawsuit involving redevelopment of a property in LA’s San Fernando Valley, the place that I wrote my first book (and dissertation) about. For the past two months, I’ve been conducting archival research and preparing a report that will be used in the legal case. I can’t share details since I’ve been sworn to confidentiality (that’s kind of fun to write), but I will say this: it’s interesting work, the outcome of which is important to lots of people in the Valley, and it is PAID – generously.

Second, I was selected to participate in a yearlong fellowship through the Public Voices program, which trains people with underrepresented voices (mostly women, as well as people of color) to write, pitch, and place op-eds and other kinds of media. I attended the first convening of that group this past weekend, and today I wrote and pitched my first story, which is also about a property in the San Fernando Valley (I’m sensing a theme here). It hasn’t been accepted anywhere yet (in fact, the first place I sent it rejected it in under an hour – a new professional record for me!), and it may never get published, but I put myself out there and I tried something new. It feels good. And, like the expert witness role, it is a way of engaging publics that I can do within the constraints of my current life. As I told the other women and men gathered at the Public Voices meeting last weekend, there are a lot of things I can’t do in terms of activism. But this I can do.

Part of me feels conflicted about these new roles/ways of engaging publics. Both of these opportunities have come my way only because of my Yale affiliation. In the case of the expert witness role, they need someone with the right “credential.” And the Public Voices fellowship, for its part, is expensive – the kind of program that can only be paid for by a wealthy institution. Equally important, both of these roles are largely about engaging with institutions of power – courts, land-use commissions, and mainstream media – from within, rather than by working with activists from the outside, as I was accustomed to doing. And in the case of the lawsuit, my work, though important to ordinary people, ultimately serves a very wealthy property owner/developer. In these ways it is a different, and somewhat uncomfortable, means of engagement.

But here’s the thing: in my former position, I was involved with a lot of community work, but almost none of it was successful. As activists without a seat at the table most of the time, we didn’t actually change much of anything for poor people, immigrants, and people of color in the city. I’ll never forget working with the sheriff for months to design a study of homeless people’s experiences of the county jail, only to later find out he had hired an outside “objective” agency to conduct it; even then, his office never did anything with the results. The structures of power there, as everywhere, were extraordinarily resilient. But now, with my Yale affiliation and all its resources behind me, I may just be able to make an actual difference. It remains to be seen. I’ll keep you posted.

Magnetic

In January of this year – not as a resolution, but as a gift to myself – I decided to begin getting regular haircuts and experimenting with new hairstyles and colors. It was an attempt to reclaim some part of my individual identity and sense of youth, both of which – as I’m guessing virtually any mother of young children feels – are constantly at risk. As for me, since arriving in this new city and beginning this new job two years ago, I often felt invisible. My life revolved entirely around dropping P off at daycare, walking to my office, working inside (and mostly alone) all day, and then setting the entire route in reverse, to begin again the following day. Things are slowing changing now – I hire a babysitter regularly, see friends more often, and am getting to know my city – but still, I have felt invisible much of the time. Thus, the commitment to my hair.

I asked another mother at P’s daycare, a woman who had very cute and chic short hair, where she had gotten her cut, and she referred me to a new stylist who I will call K. At our first meeting, I felt immediately comfortable with K, a mom about my age who has three young boys. K gave me the confidence to go very short for the first time in my life. Since then, we’ve tried a few new styles; my current cut, which I adore with a ferocity, is shaved on the sides and copper colored. I get compliments on it nearly everywhere I go; strangers stop me on the street. It has been everything I needed. I no longer feel invisible, and at the same time I feel that my hair communicates something essential about me – strength, wisdom, boundaries – all the stuff that shifted when I became a single parent, and started this new job, on my own, in this unknown city.

Today, I went for my usual cut and color and K’s studio was unusually quiet. The owner, a man, was not there, so it was just K and another young woman stylist. We began chatting, as we always do, about our kids and their schools and their friends, and somehow in the quietness of the afternoon she divulged that she, too, had been a single mom, that her eldest son’s father had also struggled with substance abuse, and that she also had had to move the two of them out when her son was just six months old. I shared some of my own story; the similarities were striking. She shared the twists and turns of her custody dispute, which wasn’t pretty, and how she eventually remarried and had two more children. While we were waiting for my color to process, she came to sit next to me at the washing stations, and we just sat there quietly together for a moment. It felt vulnerable, and also safe, the way it can only feel next to a woman who has been through the same things I have and who, like me, has come out stronger on the other side, though stripped bare of our naivete and some of our optimism.

In the past few weeks I have realized that, without quite meaning to, I have drawn a few of these women into my life. P’s babysitter is another. She is my age and has four children, two of them nearly grown. When she came to interview the first time, I felt instantly drawn to her. I wanted her to be in our house with us, sharing her kindness and wisdom. And for nearly a year now she has done just that. She has babysat for P, including overnight trips, and in doing so she has allowed me to feel temporarily free of my pressing responsibilities, knowing that he is safe with her. She cares for us both: she brings him gifts, helps him plant in the garden or make crafts, and right before my birthday she helped P to bake me a birthday cake. Well, a few weeks ago we were texting to confirm some dates and somehow, again, it came out that she had also been a single parent, raising her two oldest kids alone, before she remarried. I have not yet heard her full story, and she may never choose to share it with me. Still, it helped me to understand better why, at our first meeting, I felt that instant, inexplicable sense of safety, connection, and respect.

Both of these women are crucial parts of my support system – not exactly friends, but supports. Though the dynamic could potentially be weird because they provide me services and I pay them, somehow it doesn’t feel one-sided or manipulative. Sometimes when I arrive home from a night out, P’s babysitter tells me not to pay her, that it was a gift; and today K added an extra service and didn’t charge me. I don’t want to take advantage of their generosity, so I try to find ways to make it up to them. Of course I pay them fairly and generously, but most especially, I try to be a good listener and to treat their stories and especially their vulnerability with the respect they deserve.

There have been other women who have cared for and supported me in this way too. One lived around the block for just a few months, but even after moving away she still emails occasionally. One day last fall, she dropped off a big bag of her son’s outgrown clothes and some freshly baked bread and wine on my porch. It had been a particularly hard day for me – in fact, I was crying in my bed at the time she knocked on the door, and I didn’t even answer – but she didn’t know any of that at the time; nonetheless, she was there for me.

These women don’t always become big parts of my life, but I nonetheless feel deeply and intimately connected to them. I know that they have walked roads like mine, or are still walking them, and I know what it has done to them and for them. They must intuit the same about me. It is as if we understand something fundamental about each other, so we support each other in these small but crucial ways. This sense of magnetic connection is one of the most mysterious and divine spiritual presences in my life. Though I cannot explain it, at least not yet, I am deeply thankful for it.