One thing I worried about before getting tenure was that I had gotten so used to not ever being quite fully present with my children, or quite fully relaxed, that the quality of always being slightly absent, slightly on edge, was simply now a fixed part of my personality. I said to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved that it would be different after tenure (whether I got it or not), but in my heart of hearts I wasn’t really sure.
It is different. It reminds me of the feeling in Chicago, on the first really warm day of spring, when you realize, in the act of relaxing your shoulders, that you’ve been clenching them for the past six months.
It’s such a lottery-winning stroke of good fortune to land a tenure-track job in the first place, that, yes, it does seem ungracious to gripe about it. Sorry, junior colleagues. And, of course, being an English professor (in LA, no less!) is lying-on-the-beach-with-a-fruity-cocktail compared to … well, almost anything else. I know I’m extraordinarily lucky.
But the sheer dumb luck of winning a tenure-track job doesn’t change the fact that being on the tenure-track can be punishing; at least, I found it punishing. Partly it was that, for me, as for many women, my tenure-track years coincided with my child-bearing years. And then there were the stakes. In an “up or out” system, it’s very difficult to ever feel at a point where you’re confident that you’ve done enough, because the price is so high if it turns out that you’re wrong.
What kind of behavior did this anxiety produce? Well, as some of this blog’s readers will recall, it resulted in such amusing spectacles as the sight of me studiously reading academic articles, pen in hand, while sitting by the university swimming pool in which my family and friends were frolicking; or proofreading my book manuscript while at the elder’s baseball practice. More invisibly but more insidiously, it would lead to me simply tuning out while talking to or spending time with my children (or, yes, my husband), because I just couldn’t turn off this other part of my mind that kept up a constant monologue that went something like “re-write-beginning-of-chapter-three-send-out-that-article-this-week-and-this-time-I-mean-it-oh-shit-that-book-review-is-two-months-late-send-that-other-article-out-somewhere-else-but-am-running-out-of-journals-and-why-will-no-one-accept-it-I’ve-been-writing-it-for-eleven-years-surely-it-must-be-good-by-now-or-maybe-its-moment-has-passed-no-that-cannot-be-true-because-I-NEED-one-more-article-must-get-up-at-5-tomorrow-to-write-lecture-” and so on and on in an endless loop that I could not turn off.
I don’t feel like that anymore. I mean, I feel sad about many other things, but I don’t feel that very particular species of anxiety any more. Last night I lay in bed and I wasn’t thinking “must-get-up-at-5-to-” I just listened to the sound of the younger breathing next to me and the elder turning over in his sleep in the top bunk above me, and felt the heaviness of my own body lying still in the bed and felt (at least for a minute or two!) content. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that my desk is clear: I have many things I need to read and write, including a letter of recommendation that needs to be in tomorrow, a book review that is probably overdue by now, and my second book. But those tasks, big and small, don’t colonize the rest of my mind, the rest of my life, in the way that they used to.
The only thing I was thinking “must-do” this morning was “must remember to take sausages out of freezer for dinner.” It’s pretty good when that’s the thing at the top of your to-do list. They are sweet Italian pork sausages. NOT spicy, NOT chicken sausages are one of the few things that the elder, the younger, and I can agree comprise a delicious dinner.
This morning I went out and saw that the pig who lives on our block was out for a stroll. He’s a lovely looking animal. He’s not one of those miniature breeds, he’s a large, substantial pig, white, with black spots. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the sight of seeing him trot down our street with his owner, leaving a trail of wonderstruck adults, children, and dogs in his wake.