Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Day in the Life of the Grownup Grad Student Soccer Mom

A suburban greenmom throws in one last “day in the life” post…
I never got a “day in the life” post up during the month of October when we were focusing on that here at the Booth, which itself is telling in terms of what kinds of days have been in my life lately.  But I wanted to do one anyway, since my days appear to be a sort of marked contrast to other Boothers…
I am currently a full time graduate student, pursuing my doctorate in music in the hopes of finding a university professor type position somewhere down the line.  This is my second of two years of course work; next year will be about exams and orals and the dissertation. My university is 35 miles away from my home, and the degree program is structured so that I have to be there five days a week, every week.  It’s been a huge adjustment for our family of four, who was accustomed to having Mom working ten minutes from home on a flexible schedule—a big change! Now I can’t do the general schlepping of kids to activities, I can’t stop at the grocery store on a whim when we are out of something—I’m out of the house 10-15 hours a day, five days a week. It’s kind of insane.
We get up at about 6am, and the four of us manage over the next hour to get cleaned up and dressed, eat breakfast, gather school stuff, and get out the door.  I make lunches for the kids, depressingly unvaried and all-too-often relying on one of those little plastic pre-packaged cups of yogurt (but I’m trying to move past that), but otherwise waste-free. My husband drives me to the train station and the kids to the pre-school child care center, and then takes himself to work. In the evening he will reverse the whole deal.
I get on one of the fairly fast-moving express commuter trains into the city, where I get off one train, walk three blocks to the next station, and get onto another. Usually I am able to spend this time studying or preparing for the day, which is a far cry from sitting in traffic, and driving would cost me—I calculated it—about $16-18 per day in gas and tolls, before even factoring in parking.  (If I had a Prius or something it would be way less, but I have what I have.) The monthly Metra pass is way cheaper. It takes about 2 hours door to door when you count transit to the actual train station, as opposed to maybe an hour twenty driving in average rush hour traffic, but it’s time I can use, and I’ve gotten fairly attached to it. (Today, I’m using it to write this blog post!)
Where I fall off the wagon is when I stop at Dunkin or something on the days I didn’t get coffee in the morning at home and/or know I won’t have time to go to the nice little fair trade coffee shop with my re-usable cup at any later point in the morning. But usually I do okay and can avoid the disposables. I walk from the Evanston train station to the music building; my first class is another half mile from the music building, so I then hike over there. During a typical day in school I walk about 2-3 miles without even trying, and if there are extra trips to the library it may be more. I will lose about 4 lbs. this quarter without even trying, and will gain a good bit of stamina and strength; I have never been one to “go to the gym” to work out or get exercise, so when I can structure the exercise into my daily life, it makes a huge difference in my overall well-being. (I’m convinced this is why New Yorkers tend to be thinner than their suburban-can’t-walk-anywhere-for-practical-purposes counterparts, especially here in the Midwest.)
I spend two hours in advanced band conducting, where 18 students take turns conducting the rest of the group (a motley crew with something like 3 tubas, one oboe, a few clarinets one of whom plays the trumpet part, a violin, and a couple of pianists attempting to play percussion) while we are videotaped and the teacher keeps a running commentary of what we’re doing wrong so we can go back and watch it later, and cringe at how idiotic we look. (This is a huge exercise in humility!)  Then I trek back to the music building; the choral department is lucky in that we have a little fridge and microwave in our communal office, so I usually bring a container of soup or stew or something leftover from a previous dinner. Since I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I used to for stuff like, oh, cooking, when I do it I try to make it count, and I make a lot. Today I have a nice mushroom and barley soup with a little fresh dill from our CSA box this week; tomorrow it’ll be chili. I invested in a bunch of water-tight-seal containers from; yes, they are plastic, but I’m afraid to bring glass jars to school with all my trainschlepping and bopping around with a soft-sided backpack. These couple of hours are my time to eat and study, and I try to use them as well as I can.
Most afternoons, for a choral conducting student, are pretty much wall to wall rehearsals: one group I sing in rehearses 2-3:30, and another group that I conduct goes 4-5:30. A couple days a week I then usually have to get onto another train into the city (this time it’s the ordinary Chicago Transit Authority “el” train) to go to my last rehearsal of the day, after which I drag my heavy butt and even heavier backpack home at 10:30 at night or so. The other days I reverse the ordinary commute and take the train back out to the suburbs, where my husband and kids pick me up at the train station once again. Some days it’ll be early enough that I can cook something and we can have dinner together; others my husband is on for cooking for the kids and I get picked up at 7:00 or so.
Nuts. Insane. But honestly, in a weird way—I love it. For one thing, just knowing that I made a choice to follow a dream, and am doing the muscle work to make it come true, gives me enormous satisfaction. And as much work as this all is, it’s mostly work I love. (Even being critiqued on video for some of the weirder flail-y conducting moves I occasionally fall into.) And I’m learning a lot—not all of it about music.
I’ve learned to put my “Mom-time-management” skills to work even more than ever. (You know how once you have kids, first you go insane and feel like you are getting nothing done, and then in the ensuing couple of years discover that you’ve learned how to do in 20 minutes what used to take two hours?) I’ve found that if I use every available during-the-day hour to work and prepare, every between-classes break, every minute of train-time, I can usually come home at night and just Be Mom—make dinner, help kids with homework, listen to stories of the day, and so forth—all the stuff I used to take so much for granted or even get bored by. Now I really don’t want to miss it.
It’s exciting, as a returning student, to see how much technology is at work in making education both easier and less paper-intensive and to learn from my much younger counterparts who have been steeped in it all their lives: many articles and books are available as online full texts, and most teachers simply post handouts and syllabi on the university course management website. Students are more likely to take notes directly onto their computers. In one of my conducting classes last year, a lot of people wouldn’t even play music from printed parts; they would just look up the music online, download it to their iPads, and play directly from there. (Yes, I know, it would take a lot of paper to compensate for the resources that go into making one iPad, but it’s a step!) Printing costs; scanning on any university machine is free to email to yourself as an attachment or save to a flash drive. Paper is becoming obsolete on campus.
I’ve learned how to get through the day with less stuff. Being committed to public transit is odd and unsettling—I basically have to spend the day with all of my daily belongings literally on my back, not even having a car to dump stuff in. This has had a really positive effect on my tendency to amass More Stuff: it only takes a week or so into the new quarter before I start re-evaluating how much of this stuff I really need today. And that pack gets lighter and lighter.
I’ve learned how incredibly important it is to have the support of a community in trying to do things in a smaller, lighter way. If I didn’t have a hugely supportive partner in all this, I could never do it. My husband is amazing, making this adjustment with great grace and willingness, both in terms of taking over most of the kid-schlepping and, even more, in sharing responsibility for plain old keeping track of stuff.  He comes from a very traditional-gender-roles kind of upbringing, and this cannot be easy for him, but he’s my hero. And it’s not just him, either—our friends, both in school and out, have been wonderful about helping each other in a pinch—watching the kids for twenty minutes if there’s a gap between one parent’s departure and another’s return, giving me lifts here and there if I’m caught without a train (on those late nights, one friend regularly drives me back home from the city), carpooling to this or that child activity, and things like that. Knowing we can all be there for each other and share the load is huge, and not always easy to come by in this world where often one might not know the neighbors’ names.
These are crazy-long days, and I’ll be incredibly relieved this June when it’s done and I won’t have to do this any more, because I’m pretty much exhausted all the time. But I like discovering that the brain is a muscle like any other, and that the “mommy-mush-brain” I thought I was stuck with forever after my kids were born doesn’t have to be a permanent state; the grey matter now seems to be firing better than it ever did before. And I love the fact that my kids get to watch this, to see that adults can follow dreams, go to school, make hard choices and follow through. I love sitting at the kitchen table in the evenings while my kids and I do homework together. Yes, I miss trips to the farmstand for tonight’s dinner, leisurely walks around the neighborhood, and being able to combine a day of applesauce cooking and canning with a day of work-at-home on my computer…
But this is still pretty cool.
Jenn the Greenmom

1 comment:

Eco Yogini said...

WOW!! congratulations on returning to do your doctorate in music- i think that is SO cool and I had no idea.

Also- so true re: technology. weird how andrew can buy textbooks for his kindle...


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