Conflict of Interest

“Don’t waste your time on something you don’t care about,” Michael Dellert warns as I pour through my old posts on Diana Wynne JonesMy presentation for N– University’s Literary Conference is in just a few days. The theme for 2017 is Lessons Learned–perfect, right? Half of what I do on this site is share lessons I learned from novels. If someone could present on the costume design changes in Pride and Prejudice films at a LITERARY conferencethen surely, I was fine with my collection of past lessons.

But I want to be better than fine, dammit. I want to prove I’m not just another schlub trying to get an hour or two of professional development. I want my colleagues to see that I give a damn about myself as a reader, and as a writer.

I receive notice of the conference schedule: my nonfiction reading is midday. My DWJ presentation is just after Blondie’s school gets out.

Four hours apart. I’m solo with the kids. Bo can’t get out of work. I can’t hire a babysitter for that long when the presentations themselves are barely twenty minutes each. My appeal for a schedule change is denied. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it with the kids, and trust them to not burn the house down.

~*~

I’ve written before about the rare gift that is time for writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever said how bloody hard it’s been to maintain a job while being a full-time parent, let alone a job like college adjunct. Maternity leave, vacation? Those words mean nothing for those paid only $1,700-3,000 for a semester’s worth of class. If you take a break, you are out of the loop for upcoming courses, and Lord knows when you can get another one. I graded student outlines hours after giving birth to my daughter. I hauled myself from the hospital room to a computer lab during the boys’ first day in the world to lead a discussion on critical reading. A term only lasts a few months, and you don’t know if you’re teaching the next term until it starts. As far as stable employment, it’s about as unstable as it gets.

The ability to teach from home made it tolerable, in its way. I could do schoolwork when kids slept. Audio classes only happen once a week, so I scheduled those for when Bo was home, or when the kids were in bed for the night.

But as the kids got older, they needed more of me. And more. And more. And the postpartum depression snicker-snacked through, and creative writing gave my soul strength…at the cost of more time.

Which, until that point, had been for school work. You know, the thing that earns the grocery money around here.

~*~

“Can we go to the library after school?”

“No, Mommy’s got a special presentation for her school today.”

“Let’s go to the park!”

“No, Mommy has to talk to other teachers today.”

“But I don’t wanna go home!”

None of them want to go home. It’s a beautiful day, Blondie just finished her first day of 2nd grade, but Mommy can’t care. She’s got to drive through construction while dodging the books flying in from the back seat because we’re not going to the park, we’re going to fight, we never want to go home….

“Here, watch Dragons,” I give Blondie a kiss on the head as I hop over a pile of wrecked cars to open the DVD player. “When my presentation’s done, I want to hear all about 2nd grade.” Because I do want to know, but that presentation just eats the forefront of all thoughts. Don’t forget to mention this, and note that book, and make this reference to that event, this thing about her father, that quote about Tolkien.

“Snack?” Biff throws himself at the rocking chair where his posse of Blanket, Grandpere, and Mel the Koala await. “Let’s have a snack. Fruit Loops!”

“Can I go outside?” Bash asks as he runs out the screen door.

“Bash get in here NOW! Fruit Loops and Dragons, come on, dude!” I say as I hoist him up and under one arm while thrusting the door open and I’ve got FUCK ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES.

Cereal dumped in bowls. Dragons on. “I’ll be in my room. Just…please, sit nicely, and stay inside. We’ll go outside and talk about school stuff when I’m done,” I say as I back-run down the hall, trip into the Mother’s Day flower Blondie had taped to my door. I use tape from one of the fishy Father’s Day pictures to fix it (“We’re hooked on you, Daddy!”) and then frantically press computer buttons. My mic is a go, I’ve got my notes set, T-minus two minutes…

“Mommy I WANT to go outside!” Bash stamps in the doorway.

“Jean, everything okay?”

“Fine!” I say into the mic as I hiss at Bash. “When. Mommy’s. DONE.”

“No. NOW!”

“Bash, I am not doing this now. Go watch Dragons.”

He fights as I close the door. He bangs the door. Kicks the door. Screams into the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Jean Lee as the next presenter of–“

Screaming triples. Blondie’s voice pierces: “Mommy, you have to open up! Open up NOW!”

Oh for fuck’s sake–

“Jean, is something wrong?”

“I am so sorry, just one moment while I deal with…” I have no word for what I’m dealing with. I’m too angry, nervous, frustrated–all the things I feel when the boys erupt and try to destroy something a family member’s done for them, or when they lash out at a complete stranger for coming too close. I rip open the door, where all three of them stand with tears streaming down their faces.

“Biff threw a toy at me. And Dragons is done.”

“And I am in my meeting right now, and you’re just going to have to handle it.”

“No I don’t, YOU have to!” Blondie says with all the authority a seven-year-old musters.

And I’m…I’m done. “No. You have to work it out with Biff. Bash, move.” And I close the door in their faces. Lock it.

The banging is downright thunderous. Comments have sprung up in the presentation: Uh oh, someone’s in trouble. Oh those poor little guys! Sounds like someone misses Mommy. Etc.

“Again, I apologize for that delay.” I can barely hear myself above their roar. I carry my books in one hand and the computer with the other into the bathroom, where I close the door.

This professional, literary conference. This chance to showcase research and criticism to colleagues. Me, presenting next to the toilet.

~*~

Twenty minutes later, I open the door. Screaming and fighting: over. Biff plays with cars in the boys’ room. Blondie’s door is shut, but I hear her talking to her “pet puppies.” Bash sits alone, sniffling, rubbing his eyes, legs and floor littered with shreds of construction paper.

“Bash, what did you…” My voice crumples. Tears.

The door is bare.

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38 thoughts on “Conflict of Interest

  1. Gosh, sounds familiar. Even with only one child, I do marvel at how I did all the study, work and running workshops in those busy years, though I regret nothing. Children are incredibly resilient as long as they know they’re loved. My son turned out well. Keep heart, keep going … ☼

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re amazing, Jean. It’s so bloody hard – balancing everything. And I love your fearless approach to family life – it is always a battle to shuffle the competing requirements of each child AND yourself. And having the courage to acknowledge that there are no tidy, easy answers. Because if there were, you wouldn’t have been sitting in the bathroom to give your presentation… HUGE respect.

    Liked by 1 person

      • If it helps, Jean, I am in Mongolia and tonight met an American lass who is teaching English to 1–6th graders. She says the older kids are great but the kids in the three younger classes are at one another’s throats constantly. She said today was a good day—only one kid cried and nobody got punched. Trust me, you are not alone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh man. I once read something and I couldn’t even tell you where, about a woman who called herself an “angry mommy.” I do remember the context thought: she had submitted her “mom story” as part of a contest and won it. She penned a short but beautiful account of how she tried every day to juggle everything, to care about everything, to love EVERYTHING and some days she just had too much. Her point was that she embraced being an “angry mommy” not to blame or judge herself, but to accept the reality of a life where our loves are split and sometimes our kids get an angry face when we’d rather give them our patient ones. I take comfort in that. I also take comfort in the times when I can cuddle up with my little one, give him my full attention and tell him the truth. I can’t always give 100% of my attention all the time, and neither can anyone else in his life. Sometimes, it will be up to him to figure it out and learning self-reliance is part of the journey too. Just like your little ones calming down in the end. Though it sound like a little further conversation might have been needed with Bash. But, these too are opportunities. I think you handled this gorgeous mess with grace. I can also feel the breakneck pace of your day through your writing. I can see why they wanted you to speak. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the wonderful response! I try to remember we all have tempers that are going to flare, and it’s better to work through the anger than repress it. It’s also something I know doesn’t control Bash nearly as badly as it did in the last year, when we just never knew how he’d be around other children. Part of this is a waiting game, but part of this is teaching each other patience and love no matter what face is worn. Thank you again!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh Jean-
    First of all, I love this piece.
    And I had wanted to write a long comment-
    but I have one sprawled across my lap, one on my bed whimpering, and apparently it’s time for breakfast. And Bob the builder one says! and Arts and Crafts! another says. And I’m not even holding a paying job.
    Hang in there. You love those littles so much, and that doesn’t guarantee an easy time, but it’ll get you through these days. Some days survival is a win…
    (I AM really sorry the conference was so awful, though. Uf- don’t you love it when ‘those days’ happen in public? :p Those are the times I just pray that the people seeing it have kids too, so they understand!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The dilemmas that children like to see you in – they sniff out those key important moments and your frustration there was tangible! And hey, the way to deal with it? I’m impressed. I take my hat off to you. Its hard juggling work and family life, especially when they are very young. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shit. Fuck. How fucking shittfying awful.
    What follows is ******nothing***** as remotely bad as the “conflict of interest” you vividly described, but I’m sharing my stuff to let you know about a conflict that happened this very morning!

    I had a podcast scheduled with someone I admire— and my husband WAS home.
    I thought it would go smoothly! I was wrong.

    The house was freezing cold (we don’t have central heating) and I had hoped I could record the episode in my room. Well, my husband and my younger daughter proceeded to have a screaming match about some stupid, stupid, meaningless thing a few minutes before I was due to record. I freaked. My cortisol levels skyrocketed. I was livid.

    Earlier that morning I had warned, I mean asked 😉 them repeatedly to please “keep it calm for Mommy because she was nervous about her podcast” but they didn’t do that.

    As a result, five minutes before the appointed recording time, I stormed out of the house into Craig’s ice cold shed that he uses as an office, cursing very loudly to myself. I was out of sorts and I didn’t do well on the podcast. Arrrrrggggghhhhhhhhhhh!

    Your situation was so much more heartwrenching, my sweet friend.
    You did everything you could to deal with an impossible, incredibly stressful scenario.
    I send you soothing hugs and of course lots of cups of good java!

    xoxooxoxoxoxooxoooooo
    Your devoted fan,
    Princess Percolatia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, and I send you soothing hugs and good java, too! Ugh, that’s awful, and just totally…oh it’s bad enough when, you know, the kids get into a wrestling match and you’re stuck trying to just pull them apart minutes before something important. That’s bad enough. But when it’s over something pointless…UGH, I say!
      You still a) got to the podcast on time and b)got through it all. Sometimes it’s not how well something’s done, but that it’s done at all. You didn’t get involved in the scuffle. You didn’t just NOT do the podcast, which would have been the easy thing. You forged on and DID it. And for that, I’m so very proud of you, Empress Percolatia! No one deserves the throne like you do. 🙂 xxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Sunday Post – 22nd October 2017 | Brainfluff

  8. Jean, you are amazing. I don’t know too many women who have three kids, work and write. Seriously. These kids will be amazed too when they grow up 🙂 You will be their hero. It is OK for them to endure some inconveniences when it is necessary, and they always find something to busy themselves with anyway. xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh gosh, Jean. How git-wrenching. I used to sit with a kid on my lap as I worked on the computer. This too shall pass. Also – The salary is ridiculous for the amount of work. Yet college tuition goes up every year and fewer people get full time tenured positions. It’s crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

      • We’re such a backwards society. We should be reverting things like beauty and art 🎨 and humanities yet all we admire is brute strength and left-brained analytics. I read an article that said if we actually put money towards studying what the effect of the arts and humanities, really of beauty on our lives we’d see just how important they are for the common good. But we don’t do the research so we don’t know. Just think how good you feel after spending a day out in nature. 🌲 You can’t get that feeling of calm from anywhere else except maybe listening to Bach! 🎶

        Liked by 1 person

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