Friday, March 19, 2010

On Self-Confidence: Trying to Become Comfortable with Being My Messy Self

I went to a panel that basically has gotten me thinking about my unease as an academic/professor. I'm not at all going to (or even try to) do the paper I heard justice, but basically what I want to think about here is what I get out of not being myself as a professor at my job and whether I can do anything about it.

So first off, I like my job. But for the last couple years, I've felt messy, like I have no idea what I'm doing. I've talked with some people (including Peppy Advisor, God bless her) and feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing seems pretty much par for the course during the craziness of having a baby under 2. Really, and I know this sounds strange to anyone who doesn't have kids, but I haven't caught up with the fact that I'm a mom. I don't feel like a mom. . .no -- maybe that's not quite right. I don't feel like my image of what a mom feels like. Like so many things, being a mom just isn't what I expected. (What is, right? But even though I know nothing is like its hype in theory, in practice it's all still surprising.) On the other hand, I'm totally a mom. I worry about my darling boy. I think he's the cutest thing in the world. I tell Absurdist Lover to look at the cute thing AT's doing at least five times a day, though he's seen it. I worry for AT. I worry he'll have all my bad habits, my negative self-talk, that because he's a boy he'll get totally bored with school and do all the things that led most of my male friends to take drugs, get in trouble, and drop out. I swear the reason I got through it all was because I wanted to go to college so badly and because I was used to being a reasonably good-ish girl and was scared of straying too much into danger and harm's way. (My mother really helped instill a big fear of men and the world in me. Which may have saved me in some ways but of course I worry about now that I have a son.) Anyway, not to go off on that tangent, but the daily work of being a parent, being a mom means I've never really caught up to the fact that I am a mom and done the reflective work around it that might make me feel like I know what I'm doing as a parent or a person. I just am not sure I've really integrated my identity as a mom into who I am, which is strange and interesting as I discover that, as the Bill Pullman character says in The Accidental Tourist, "I'm just not the person I thought I was" or maybe as the William Hurt character says in the same movie, Absurdist Lover (though Hurt was talking about the Geena Davis character) "has given me another chance to decide who I am." These quotes really resonate with me, obviously. To make a long story short (too late), my identity has been in flux these past couple years.

And I think fundamentally I feel really embarrassed about that. Like I don't want people to see how messy I am. Now, I've always been kind of messy. But before I was more messy cynical. Now I am a more. . .sentimental. I'm a bit embarrassed about loving crochet (though I always loved cross stitch before too), enjoying making dinner and baking bread. As if I'm some weird throw-back, undoing the progress of the women's movement or something. I'm embarrassed, a bit, and defensive about how granola I am, how I've started praying pretty regularly (though I still love astrology, even as I truly know how ridiculous it is), how I've come to believe that affirmations may seriously help someone with such toxic self-talk. I say that "I'm such a nerd" way too often. I'm a much better friend to my friends, who I find myself telling that they are fabulous because I really believe it and I think they are just hard on themselves, than I am to myself. I need to be a better friend to myself. I know this. Dammit!

Of course, starting a job in the middle of all this doesn't help. It's another identity transformation -- from grad student to professor. (Yes, there was that first job at Adventure U, but then I was an adjunct after that -- and we all know how that contingent status just does a wonderful job of making a person feel like contingent person.) I'm also the only person in my department who has young kids and looks like an exhausted mom. I feel totally like I do everything half-assed. Which, from what everyone who's done this before tells me, is normal. But I'm also isolated and have few people to laugh about it with. I've got to work on that.

So being in an identity flux and feeling like I do parenting and academic work completely half-assed (also my scholarship is changing a bit, but that doesn't feel quite as foundational) makes me feel insecure in who I am, feel insecure in my job, and feel not even remotely self-confident. But I don't want to feel that way anymore. One of the most wonderful people I know in the world is just so upfront about her messiness that it doesn't even come off as lack of confidence or anxiety or anything. Instead of trying to hide anything, she's confident enough to admit her frailties, her messiness. I think I might have once been like that -- or at least come off that way. But that's the way I want to be. I don't want to hide. I don't want to pretend I'm not an exhausted momademic. I am. And it's exhausting. And I'm not trying to get out of any work or anything. Not at all. This is just the period of my life where I don't sleep much and am pretty sure I'm not doing my absolutely best work. But I am doing the best work I can right now.

I want to find a way to stop feeling defensive and silencing myself. Remember the clothes obsession I was having a while ago? I used to wear jeans to teach when I was in grad school -- not in the first weeks of the semester, but eventually. Occasionally I would get comments about it, but generally it was fine. I never wear jeans in the classroom at VPU. Just never. I do occasionally wear them to work, but I'm always super-aware of the fact that I'm wearing jeans and then I feel underdressed next to the professors (always older and tenured) wearing suits. (In fairness, there is a colleague who wears jeans and a sweater every day -- and I've been told he's done that since the start of his career here. But he's male. Is it different? Is it different because I say it is and am overcompensating for my insecurity? I don't want to see something that is not there.) I want to be taken seriously. But I also want to be myself. I don't know if this means I should start wearing jeans. Maybe not wearing jeans here is not out of fear but from a more savvy sense of what's appropriate in this very different context. I do have students call me Dr. English, not because I'm not a casual person, but because I'm not a grad student anymore. I deserve it.

I'm a hard worker. Not that I feel like a hard worker when my elective is so radically underprepared at this point, but I think I also have impossible perfectionist standards and then I procrastinate and fail in my own eyes. This is not good. I need to be better to myself. Not that I'm really having a problem with my teaching, but I think my teaching will be more enjoyable if I just try to be a good role model of a person who is authentic, realistic, and honest about who she is, and, most important, not ruled by fear. I want to work on this. I don't want to project all this insecurity out onto my colleagues as if they are making me feel this way. I honestly can't really tell. But I think I need to make more of an effort to talk to my colleagues. It's true that the first year is just grueling -- and having a baby at home means that I can't just get together with people for drinks or anything. But I need to meet and talk with my colleagues more. Perhaps I'll make a goal of meeting with a colleague once every couple months. (We're all so busy, this is probably a very reasonable goal though it sounds ridiculous -- surely I should be able to manage one a month, but. . .I know we're all sort of running scared most of the time.)

I'm going to have a better spring, I've decided. I'm great, absolutely stellar at tying myself into knots. Now I'm going to figure out how to be Houdini and get myself out of them. If anyone has any advice on how to become more self-accepting, less anxiety-ridden, and more mellow, I'm all ears.


Anonymous said...

Oh, sweetie. I understand! It's incredibly hard to juggle parenting and professing. And you're SO not alone.

I am only now feeling *somewhat* comfortable with the craziness, the messiness, the unpredictability of taking on both things at once! And my youngest just turned 4... ;)

It's really good that you're articulating what you want to do and how you want to express who you are. But please know that YOU ARE WONDERFUL JUST AS YOU ARE. Right now.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I think that anxiety and guilt come with the parenting package, and adding that to academic life, which also inspires anxiety and guilt to some degree... Well, it's a recipe for alcoholism. The only way to avoid that is to try your best and believe that it will all work out. I do think, even when you have a crazy kid like my 4-year-old, that parenting gets better and easier with time. I suspect teaching does too, just because you get more and more experienced. I know this past fall when I taught Shakespeare for the third time, it felt easy and pleasant for the first time. I'm sure it would continue to be that way in the future too.

But one thing that helps me the most is having mom friends. You really need to have mom friends if you want to survive. And they should be working moms, so you're not sitting there feeling guilty about not staying at home. I know that my friends make me feel better all the time, just being there. Good luck.

rented life said...

I'm not a parent but I get you on the messiness part. Funnily enough the semester I said "forget it, I'm messy, this is how it is," and was too burnt out to care, was the same semester I had the best evals and teaching moments ever. Like Ink said, know how wonderful you are now and let go of worrying about being messy! Just be! (easier said than done, I know)

P said...

I can totally identify with this post. All of it. So sorry that you're experience rough transitions. My boy is almost four and I'm only on the t-t. Not a day goes by where i don't feel totally overwhelmed, exhausted, and spent. It's so hard. But from what I hear, it (parenting and working full time) gets easier. You will get through it!