Joan Didion in front of car, 1972, Julian Wasser.

Self-Respect

“I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire with no crucifix in hand,” Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” 1961.

Recently, I had a low week (which turned into weeks), in which every bad decision, failing, and the general wrong turns weighed upon me. I was left unhappy, brittle, and shaken. In truth, these days/weeks come less frequently than they once did. After a year away from academia, I’m no longer constantly plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. They exist as a low hum rather than a blaring radio. I still doubt myself, but I’m mostly content. I’m not quite fearless, but I am less afraid.

I recognized this bad mood as it settled upon me. I even knew why it occurred. Yet that profound feeling of not liking one’s self lingered. It was a discomforting moment where I evaluated my life and my person. The only thing to find was shortcomings, doubt, and unease. I became angry at myself for giving into the existential funk. I know intellectually that my life contains much good and happiness, but it is hard to find my way to it once the funk sets in. My mood runs dark, and my confidence dissipates. Unruly affect trumps intellect every time.

Instead of mentally reciting all of my failings, I picked up Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” I’ve read and reread it many times. Notes scrawl in the margins. Passages underlined in blue and black dominate the page. Didion’s prose is unflinching and brutal. Her stark honesty appeals to me. Her words pierce polite niceties as she forces to think about what happens when we face ourselves. “Innocence ends,” she writes, “when one is stripped of the delusion of liking one’s self” (142). What happens to us when we confront who we are not who we imagine ourselves to be? What are we left with when we inspect ourselves without the benefit of rosy visions but stark assessment? This moment when delusion dissipates is when she “lost the conviction that the lights would always turn green for me” (143).

Self-deception proves difficult. Didion explains:

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others–who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without (143).

To lack self-respect, then, is to be subject to “an interminable documentary” of one’s failures (144). Failures emerge as our constant companions, and we stake our worth on fickle reputations and mercurial approval of others. This is no way to live.  Didion relies upon a phrase that dominated my childhood: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”  While adults wield the phrase as explanation for punishment, Didion notes that the only way to sleep in that bed is to have self-respect, which is our reconciliation with ourselves.  Accepting responsibility for one’s own life is the first step to self-respect (145).

Didion convinces me that self-respect is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is habit that we can develop through practice. We can train ourselves to recognize our intrinsic worth. It becomes discipline. Self worth gives us the ability “to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). We abandon those debilitating notions of self that rely solely on the opinions of others. The goal is “to give us back to ourselves” (148).

I find myself working at the habit of self-respect, trying to ignore the notions of who I am that others cling to and trying to find who exactly is inhabiting the bed I made. This process isn’t easy as much of my self-worth has been defined externally by the lines on my CV, the list of accomplishments I could point to, and the desire for people to be proud of me.

When the CV no longer mattered and the accomplishments have no currency outside of academia, I found myself lacking. I craved the external validation that I was used to. I was disquieted by the person I’d become.

In “Bathroom Sink,” Miranda Lambert captures how I feel (like she so often does):

It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see
In my reflection and I can’t get out of the way
I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be
But regret has a way of starin’ me right in the face
So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink

Here’s the thing: I’m tired of dodging the bathroom mirror. I’m tired of rejection and regret. I’m tired of judging myself by the standards of other people. I’m tired of my happiness being tied to what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’m done with the profound sense of failure that creeps up on me in my quiet moments.

I’m building my habit of self-respect, so doubts annoy me, not paralyze me. The lights might not turn green, but that doesn’t mean that they are always red either. I’m learning to sleep well in the bed I’ve made because it is mine alone.

 

Power of Words

On Writing and Selling Out

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.

Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?

Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.

Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable.  I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.

Who do we sell out?

typewriter-hemingway

When It Hurts To Write

Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve researched, written, and taught about depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, apocalypticism, religious intolerance, horror, and zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers; too many hours to count making myself familiar with the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.

Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers ask how I managed to write about people that unsettle us. I shrugged the question off with a smile and a flip comment about my sense of humor and inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes, I would say with conviction: “I write about these people and these topics because someone has to.” This was a burden I claimed to demonstrate the importance of my work. The research was unpleasant, but it was also intellectually stimulating.  I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I could bracket my own discomfort for my research projects.

My students wondered about my mental health because of my areas of research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. My affect didn’t match my scholarly interests. I explained to my students that we don’t just study that which comforts us. Instead, we need to look at what unsettles us and why. Much of my pedagogy rests on confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly to show that history and religious studies is as much as about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else.  We can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away doesn’t solve any problems.

I work on depressing topics; it is my niche, I guess.

It is terribly unsurprising, then, that I now write about sexism in academia for Chronicle Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make the academy a kinder place for women.  I started this new project wondering how much data I would find about gender bias. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women. I ended up with a huge stack of articles, studies, and opinion pieces. Originally, I feared my column would run dry after six months. Now, I fear that it might never end: pay gaps, citation gaps, mommy bias, leaky pipeline, sexual harassment, rape, hazing and bullying, rescinded offers, contingent labor, enlightened sexism, implicit bias, and uneven mentoring and recommendation letters. The list could go on and on.

I didn’t realize the extent of the problem and its enormity. The portrait of women in academia appears bleak. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and sad. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to cry.

What I quickly learned is that researching and writing about sexism in higher ed hurts me.

Do Babies Matter?  proved to be my tipping point. It sort of broke me because I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared in its pages. I became just another data point about how marriage and children impact the careers of women academics. Chapter after chapter, I became convinced that I was doomed from the start of graduate school without ever realizing it. I read and cried. I was sad, frustrated, and angry. This book was too much, so I had to put it down.

My visceral response startled me. I write about depressing topics all the time without too much mental anguish. My reaction to sexism should have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy, right? No topic ruffles me, or so I thought.

Yet, sexism in higher ed hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study, and it hurts. This research is like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Mostly, it forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I get to relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column for Sexism Ed.  It makes me weary. I feel hopeless.

But, I can’t stop writing either. Column by column, I document sexism, misogyny, and gender bias in the academy because someone has to. I can’t stop writing. I just wish it hurt a little less.

2010-03-27 16.50.56

Academic Motherhood

I wrote this piece over three years ago when  my daughter was two years old. It was my attempt to work through my conflicting relationship between my academic work and parenting. I wanted to document how I always felt torn between my desire to be a “good” mother and a “good” academic. I felt I was failing at both. The expectations of both were too much. More importantly, I was too chicken to be marked by motherhood while still on the job market, so I let this post languish. I wish I’d been braver. I’ve added some reflections about how I feel now,

February 11, 2011

On my way out of the house earlier this week, the toddler asked me a poignant question, “Mommy, you go to work?”  I answered in the affirmative, and the toddler pushed the issue with the ever-present “Why?”

Why, indeed?

Now, I might normally shrug off this question as the inquisitive mind of the a young child, the insistent need to know why, but the question triggered my now familiar “mommy guilt.” Instead of “why are you working”, I heard something like “why are you abandoning me?” The question hit me at a vulnerable moment, in which I am doubting my ability to mother and to produce quality academic work (and wrangle 100 plus students this semester). How can I balance? Or juggle both? I left my toddler in the care of her other parent and stewed over my choices during the drive to the university. Perhaps, I should have kept my now romantic and nostaglic schedule from the fall semester, in which I taught only two courses and went into the university three days a week. Wasn’t that better?, I ask myself. Was the toddler better? More well-adjusted? Does my new spring schedule damage our tenuous child-parent relationship? One day am I going to be the festering source of all of the toddler’s, now adult’s, problems? The question that haunted me in the cold jaunt from my office to my car is: What if I am doing it wrong?

By the time the cold seeped through my jacket, fury replaced worry. Why do I do this to myself, I mutter. As I jab my hands in my pockets, I uncover a remnant of the toddler, a hair bow displaced and absently jammed in my winter coat. Fury melts into warm memories, and ambivalence is all that remains. I love my child, and I love my work, and I struggle to make it work.

This struggle of self-doubt and love, maternity and career, mother and child is an ongoing, frustrating public debate. And I usually duck for cover in the verbal volley between stay-at-home moms and working moms because until recently I felt like I was both part-time. The critiques of each type of mommy generally create maternity writ large, general and unhelpful. Yet Tina Fey’s recent piece in the New Yorker (February 14, 2011) clarifies this struggle with humor and wit. As Fey notes, “The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield” (64). Moreover, she argues that the worst question to ask a working mother is “How do you juggle it all?”, which equates to “You’re screwing it all up, aren’t you?” (64).  While Fey talks about the way others ask “juggling” questions as accusatory, she also alludes to the questions I ask about myself constantly. Am I screwing this up? Why, indeed?

Fey, of course, is talking about the particular pressures of Hollywood, and Hollywood isn’t my concern. My concern is the parallel to the academy and the place/status/opinion of maternity. As Fey agonizes other whether to have a second child and when, I agonize too. My book is coming out this Fall (yay!), other projects are piling up, and I wonder what will happen to my academic career if I have another child. How will I juggle? There, of course, are women in American History, American Religious History and American Studies, who have not only a child but children. This is not an impossible feat, but I wonder (“selfishly”, “awfully” and “narcissistically”) about me.

How will I juggle? Aren’t I just screwing it up? The questions repeat again and again. The constant refrain of the working mother/academic/historian of gender and religion/spouse/sister/daughter/instructor that I am. My tacit resolution has been to assume that my child will survive with my working, and that my agonizing is just that, a fanciful agony over my poor performance of a maternal role. Yet, I struggle with maternity.

In her excellent article (that is part of an equally excellent book), “Sacred Maternities and Postbiomedical Bodies: Religion and Nature in Contemporary Home Birth”, Pamela Klassen argues that not only is maternity under-explored and under-theorized but also there is a wariness about broaching such a topic. Maternity is its own minefield.

May 9, 2014

I found this post while writing a column about mothers in academia. I found this post with Mother’s Day only two days away. I found this post while the baby rolled over and played with his favorite frog toy, which was once his sister’s. I found this post at a moment where I once again find myself wrangling motherhood and career (or lack thereof).

Things, of course, have changed.

I no longer work at an university. I’m not sure that I’m still an academic. Instead, I’m staying at home with the baby while his big sister goes to pre-Kindergarten. I write in my “free” moments: nap time, early mornings, or those elusive pockets of time in the day when the children don’t need me.   I now feel guilty about abandoning my writing.

But, I no longer have the ability to toggle back and forth between my identities as mother and scholar. Motherhood consumes most of my time. What the baby needs is pressing and urgent. He can’t wait for me to finish a sentence, and he cares not for my deadlines. His sister needs to me to be present for her. To read to her. To cuddle her.  To listen to her. To make her realize that I love her more and more everyday even though her brother takes away much of my time. Writing, then, gets pushed aside in those moments of need and love. My loyalties feel torn between kids and career. Still.

My worries are now different. I want to write. I need to write, but I can’t necessarily find the time.

I’m typing right now with the baby asleep in my lap. His steady breathing becomes the soundtrack to my post. I stop occasionally to smooth his hair or pat his back. To tell him I love him more and more every day. To whisper that I’m his mother, but I’m also more. To assure him that writing takes away time not affection. To cuddle him while I still can. To let us know that I can be both a mother and writer. To hope that one day my guilt will dissipate as I’m realize that I don’t have to be a good mother, but just good enough.

 

Parent and Baby's Hands and Feet

The Parenting Paradox

I’ve published my first non-academic book review over at BookTrib.  I reviewed Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Ecco: 2014), which I adored. I recommend to all parents, and anyone who wants to understand why parents act in the erratic ways that we do. (Hint: It has something to do with living with mini-humans whose brains function differently from our own.)

Here’s a sample:

Like all other parents, I realized (philosophically) that a child changes everything. Other adults told me this as a warning, but I didn’t know exactly what they meant until my daughter arrived. A child makes you into a different person than your childless self in the most abrupt and exhilarating fashion. Children change us in intimate and profound ways that can’t be easily predicted.

Most books about parenting, however, might warn you that life changes, but they don’t worry about you at all. These books, instead, care about your offspring and your impact, good or otherwise, on them. There’s much more concern about how we harm our poor progeny than what they do to us. In our home, it is a running gag to evaluate which of our actions might lead to therapy or a tell-all memoir. Our parenting styles include heavy doses of paranoia and anxiety as we desperately attempt to uncover whether we are doing a good job. My huband and I analyze our kids for clues about what works and what doesn’t. Our kids ignore our attempts to decipher well-being, which is the best for everyone involved. The pressure to be engaged, perfect parents is fairly high; the cultural expectations for motherhood are ridiculous. Anxiety, guilt, and doubt are constant companions for modern parents. Yes, parents affect their children, but children also affect us. What do children do to us, really? What is their influence on the lives of adults?

Read more.

 

Figuring it out one post at a time.