One Mama’s Dispensable Myths and Indispensable Machines
Before graduate school, my favorite machine was the washing machine. My family’s regular trips from California to the family ranch in Oaxaca, Mexico, no doubt helped me appreciate this common appliance, so generally (and sadly) underappreciated in the United States. The novelty of lugging laundry to the nearest (but by no means nearby) rio [river] to stone-wash clothes had usually worn off by the end of our long summer visits. Back home in the United States, I never complained when it was my turn to do laundry. The effort of walking down one flight of stairs to the apartment complex’s laundry room and moving the clothes from hamper to washing machine to dryer then back to hamper seemed minimal in comparison.
This lovely appliance, however, lost its honored place in my heart when, as a single mother to preschooler Paul and elementary-schooler Jacqueline, I became a doctoral student in Stanford University’s English Department. Then the computer became my favorite machine. I went to Stanford with two goals: be an extraordinary scholar, and be an equally extraordinary mother. I wanted to reject the myth that one goal would suffer for the sake of the other, and instead create my own story, one in which my goals were compatible and equally achievable. After all, had I heeded the prevailing story about high-risk U. S. citizens, I would never have arrived at Stanford in the first place, because I was a low-income, first-generation Chicana, raised by a single mother who had attained only a third-grade education.
Fortunately, the late 1990s were the time, Stanford the place, and the Internet-friendly computer the machine that enabled my quest. In the late 1990s, Stanford was one of the few universities in the United States with Early English Books Online (EEBO) and with free, in-room digital access in all its campus housing. EEBO is a fantastic, massive online archive, a digitized version of the English Short-Title Catalog and related microfiches. While the microfiches were great resources that provided access to rare texts, they were time intensive and difficult to view on the bulky, cantankerous viewing machines, which were usually housed in the library’s dark basement. I am not overstating the case that I absolutely could not have reached my goals without EEBO. Like lab research in the sciences and onsite visits in engineering, archival research comprises the firm foundation of the high-level Renaissance literary studies that Stanford’s English Department expected, much to its credit and to its students’ exhaustion. EEBO’s speed and its ability to display multiple books for comparison still awe me. For my dissertation, “Milton, Education, and the Scientific Revolution,” I needed access to hundreds of seventeenth-century texts, by Milton, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and other British writers who contributed to the founding of modern science and, by extension, modern educational institutions. My research involved finding and explaining the similarities and differences of content, and even book design, between original literary and scientific works. While I took great advantage of the stellar material archive collections at Stanford, the library’s regular hours of Monday to Friday, 9:00 a. m. to 5:00 p. m., did not overlap well with my study time. A description of a typical day best demonstrates why:
• 6:30-8:00 a. m.: Drink coffee, make breakfast for the kids while they prepare their lunches, get everyone fed and dressed, and get kids to school and preschool.
• 8:00 a. m.-noon: Attend or teach classes, exercise for 1 hour 3 days/week, volunteer at the preschool or in Jacqueline’s classroom 1 hour/week, work part-time job 10 hours/week, research, and attempt to write a fabulous dissertation.
• Noon-3:00 p. m.: Pick up Paul from half-day preschool and enjoy time with him, often joined by my mother; run errands and do chores as “fun time.”
• 3:00-8:00 p. m.: Drink coffee, pick up Jacqueline from school and enjoy time with her and Paul until kids’ bedtime.
• 8:00 p. m.-1:00 a. m.: Drink coffee, research on line, and write.
You might think that my much-used coffeemaker vied for my affections with my beloved computer. Not really. I had managed to make it through the University of California, Berkeley, for my BA and MA while working twenty hours a week and even having some fun, all without coffee. But when I became a thirty-year-old single parent at the start of my second year of graduate school, coffee became my drug of choice to keep me alert and add two or three hours of wakefulness to my day.
My tight schedule demanded the rejection of another myth, that of writer’s block. My working-class roots are evident in my response to colleagues’ puzzled question, “How in the world do you get your work done and find time for your family?!” I’d answer, “A bus driver doesn’t get ‘driver’s block,’ a janitor doesn’t get ‘cleaner’s block,’ and I don’t get ‘writer’s block.’ When it’s time for me to work, I work.” A neat and unexpected result of getting rid of that unconstructive and all-too-pervasive myth was getting rid of my equally unconstructive personal myth of having a terrible memory. Before graduate school, I hadn’t been good at remembering people’s names or memorizing phone numbers. But that changed quickly. I managed to keep in mind the entire organizational structure of my (eventually 250-page) dissertation so that, in the process of copying quotes from books or taking lecture notes, I could include the page numbers or titles of the subsections where the resource or idea would best fit. Nowadays, my students are still impressed by how quickly I memorize their names at the beginning of the semester. Motherly love and professional devotion are powerful forces.
My demanding academic and family schedule had its fair share of drawbacks, though. Research and writing were made all the more difficult because I was isolated from members of my department. My fellow graduate students were a terrific bunch, who took advantage of one of the primary resources of great educational institutions: each other. But I couldn’t join their regular, informal chat sessions at the coffee shop just outside of the main library, as they discussed their intriguing and important interests, traded resources, and refined their thinking through high-level discussions. They would often wave and shout a friendly “Hey, Angelica!” as I biked past on my way to work or to pick up Paul, but of course I couldn’t stop and join them.
I must pause to voice my amazement, though, at the generosity of my fellow graduate students. There was Kate, who copied and brought me study notes for the qualifying exams shortly after I gave birth to Paul; Annette, who babysat chicken-poxed Jacqueline and Paul so I could take a break and enjoy Fourth of July fireworks; Brian, who encouraged me all the way through the tiring job-seeking season; and so many others. I remember, at the time, feeling that my goals of being a great researcher and great mother made me only a mediocre colleague. Now, years later, many have told me that they think of me and my good cheer when they are oppressed by the demands of earning tenure or by trying to balance work and family. They have also reminded me how conscientious I was, about bringing in a quote or e-mailing them a resource that might have been mentioned in class.
Interactions like these have led me to believe that it is important for all student-parents, but especially minorities, to realize that the disaffection they might feel with the larger graduate school population is based sometimes on personal choices that prevent cooperation and socializing, rather than on generalized unkindness or latent prejudice.
I also have to pause to acknowledge my gratitude for that time-saving, if basic, machine—the bike—for helping me stay healthy, something parents and students often overlook. Combined, graduate school and parenting create intense levels of stress, but I learned from my kids that what I call “exercise” they call “fun.” Riding bikes, swimming, swinging, and such— especially when done in the company of the under-twelve crowd—created a happiness and peace that energized my other activities. And so I biked whenever and wherever I could, often with Paul strapped into the baby seat and Jacqueline pedaling alongside. Ever the scholar, as I churned the pedals, I mentally chanted a (surprisingly rhythmic) quote from one of Milton’s contemporaries, the British philosopher John Locke: “A sound body for a sound mind.”
There was, of course, some overlap between work life and family life. My mommy brain did not turn off when I turned on my scholar brain, or vice versa. I remember once sitting in a history class and feeling the building sway. A native Californian, I knew it was the feeling of either a small or distant earthquake. Without hesitation, I stood up, said “Excuse me,” and rushed downstairs to call the kids’ schools to make sure that all was well. As I walked back to class, happily reassured but slightly embarrassed for having rushed out of the room, I realized I could turn the incident into a discussion point. We had just finished looking at seventeenth-century London parish registers to track deaths within families and determine any mortality patterns. While I had come up with the appropriate empirical analysis, as had the others—history majors all—I was unique in having found the assignment emotionally grueling. Trained as a literature major to locate the human in written texts, and perhaps because I was so immersed in family life, I had read the registers’ recordings of maternal deaths shortly following infant deaths as important verbal testaments to human suffering and endurance. When I shared my personal response to the tremor, I think it made my fellow students a little more willing to take seriously my comprehensive approach to historical studies.
On the flip side, my work duties provided unexpected delights in my family life. I loved picking up Paul on the days I planned to collect books from the Stanford Auxiliary Library (SAL). Holding his small hand as we shouted our good-byes to his buddies and exited the preschool, I would say, “Guess what?” He’d quickly release my hand, cup both hands over his mouth, and ask, “SAL?” I would nod, and he would then grab my hand and drag me to SAL, which lay on our short walk between the preschool and our on-campus housing. Once in the library, I would take out my list of books to be resurrected from the dead. The shelves were the space-saving, low-use kinds: closely packed with only one walkway open at a time and with control panels to access the right shelves. I’ve got to admit, those movable shelves came in a close second to my favorite machines. While getting the books took much, much longer, my son loved the whole thing, from the gleeful announcement of our excursion to getting a cold drink during check-out time from the water cooler near the exit (certainly not near the valuable books!). He quickly learned his letters and numbers so that he could key-pad the letter- and number-filled call numbers that set the shelves in motion. I don’t know if I can attribute Paul’s voracious reading habits to those trips, but they at least helped create his many good memories of books. At first, the librarians were justifiably concerned about having a toddler in the stacks. But they soon saw that my parenting style—focused on creating respectful, social beings through routine activities—ensured the safety of the books. I was proud that my time in the library with Paul reflected well on us, and I hoped it contributed to counteracting the negative images of U. S. Latinos in the media.
When I felt the often overwhelming pressure to take out loans to put my son in all-day day care or hire a babysitter for both kids during afterschool hours, I urged myself to hold fast to my goals. It wasn’t easy but I am glad that I did. Doing so helped my scholarship. . . in Milton studies, of all things! For one, I graduated quicker than the national average in my field—after all, I had mouths to feed. Equally importantly, I escaped the danger of making my already remote area of study irrelevant or esoteric.
In Mexican families, the mama is intimately linked with the grandmother, the abuelita. The mama serves as a bridge between generations. The process of individuals acting as bridges—a myth that deserves preserving—is beautifully represented in Virgil’s Latin epic The Aeneid, with the hero, Aeneas, carrying his father, Anchises, on his back as he escapes the burning city of his family’s past, Troy, to found Rome and establish the future of his people. For me, routine family walks were much less fraught but no less heroic. My mother often joined Paul and me on our walks to pick up Jacqueline from school, and she would usually ask me, “<;Pues, que hicistes hoy? Que estudias?” (“So, what did you do today? What are you studying?”) It would have been cultural anathema for me to have answered flippantly or distractedly, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand,” and I would have been as embarrassed with her as I would have been with my dissertation advisor if I couldn’t have answered her cogently or excited her about what I was doing. Those sun-bathed, three-generational walks filtered into my nighttime research and writing in concrete ways. I often added the specific wording I had used in my conversations with my mother into my dissertation. If not for that family-time chatting, I don’t think I would have lighted on those “felicitous phrasings,” as they’re called in the field, as quickly.
My daughter, Jacqueline, was particularly helpful in assisting my grasp of the scientific and mathematical concepts I was exploring in my research. Those early scientists were a lot like the best school kids today, studying new ideas before knowing their eventual outcomes. When Jacqueline was learning chemistry, I asked her what her favorite chemical was so that I could answer her puzzled look by telling her that mine is carbon, the chemical of life. Or I would give her a strong hug and say that I was “testing out Boyle’s Law” that the product of pressure and volume is a constant. One of the main points of my dissertation is to show that the discovery of scientific facts during Milton’s lifetime was the result of individuals caring, and that those findings grew because other people continued to care. So, I loved helping her care about chemistry by explaining that Mr. Boyle was a very rich man who didn’t have to work as hard as he did to discover knowledge that is still useful today, and that his friend Mr. Milton cared too, even though he was a poet, not a scientist.
I am not simply being cute or nice when I tell my kids that “we earned a PhD” and that “we got the job.” They knew from an early age that their job was to go to bed at 8:00 p. m. and only come downstairs if they felt sick or needed comforting from an especially bad dream. I was often surprised when I heard other student-parents complain that their kids resisted bedtime or whined about errands or chores. In turn, I think they looked upon my parental expectations—so culturally prescribed—as a bit much. I have to admit that I wondered too. Until Jacqueline took to writing kind notes—“Good job, Mom!” or “Just 8 more days until you turn in your dissertation”—and paper-airplaning those love notes down the staircase to me. She had discovered a resilient way of using written language while letting me do “our work.” The first time she did this, I cried and thought, “My God, I am doing something right,” especially because her message sounded a lot like the positive notes I would sneak into the lunch bag she packed for herself. Both kids are so good at reading and writing now that they read the draft of this essay and made recommendations that I incorporated—really.
Despite their cooperation, I was always pressed for time. To avoid the temptation of plopping them in front of that most ubiquitous and mesmerizing machine—the TV—we relied on a couple of other machines to fill the waking hours. We’d take the elevator up the tall Hoover Tower and look at the beautiful vistas, or we’d get on the free campus shuttle and go to the world-class campus museum. We each had our favorite works: Paul’s was the very large, outdoor statue Soft Q; Jacqueline’s the vibrant painting Mexican Girl; and mine the exquisite statue Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science. My inquisitive, energetic companions helped me learn ways to articulate the aesthetic-scientific concord of our favorites, which not haphazardly aligned with my dissertation, later published as The Age of Milton and the Scientific Revolution. We once looked up the materials and material engineering used for Soft Qto maintain its pink color in the California sun. We talked about the historical and cultural forces that might account for the disconnect between the name-plaque on the frame of Jacqueline’s favorite painting, Charles Nahl’s colorful portrait of a Mexican girl, and its corresponding wall plaque, which renamed it Spanish Girl. How integrated were my studies and those visits? The cover illustration of my first book is of the statue Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science. When the press approved the cover, I thought of it as one of the unexpected and positive outcomes of field trips that Milton describes so beautifully in his short prose piece Of Education: “In those vernal seasons of the year when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out and see her riches and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth.”
My parenting experiences also strengthened the teaching aspects of my career, especially in terms of providing the combination of verbal, visual, tactile, and experiential learning so strongly promoted in pedagogical theory. Although I doubt any of my students would describe my teaching style as maternal, I always try to think of my students as someone else’s kids. With that in mind, I attempt to provide them with as many engaging experiences as possible, including field trips. I’ve taken students to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see Merry Wives of Windsor, so they could see that Shakespeare was actually funny. We’ve gone to the local theater, once to see Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses to delight in the “very cool!” updating of Ovid’s Latin Metamorphoses. More recently, I’ve provided students with interdisciplinary experiences by taking them to the Indianapolis Opera’s dress rehearsal of Carmen and to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and
Western Art to show how perceptions of Hispanics are conveyed through various arts. The sheer joy I have experienced in parenting ensures that I continue to fill out the extra paperwork and do the extra legwork to provide such opportunities to “someone else’s kids.”
I hope my story can encourage mothers pursuing graduate degrees to avoid putting life on hold, and inspire those in minority groups to find ways of merging their root cultures and contextual cultures. For example, while my mother would have been patient with me if I had used her as a babysitter from my Anglo-American contextual culture rather than appreciated her as an abuelita from my Latino root culture, I managed to be a mama so that she in turn could be an abuelita. I am glad I did, since she died unexpectedly and quickly of pancreatic cancer the year after I graduated. Had I waited until I was less busy—and does that ever really happen?—my mother could not have passed on our precious family and cultural practices to Jacqueline and Paul. As it is, rather than looking on in awkward silence as I leave food at her grave, as is common in Mexican culture, my children lovingly participate in creating our own Mexican American family custom, selecting which of their grandmother’s favorite multinational foods to leave: tamales, Chinese beef and broccoli, pizza. This is all to say that we have to act in our families in the “now, very now” (that’s from Shakespeare’s Othello—I tell you, those great authors are everywhere!).
And work doesn’t necessarily have to suffer when combining it with motherhood. All the organizational skills and personal investment in my research that I honed in graduate school helped me obtain a tenure-track job at a Research I institution the first time out on the job market and, six years later, to exceed the national standards for tenure and promotion to associate professor in my field. Instead of one well-placed monograph or a sufficient number of well-placed articles and chapters, I had one well – placed monograph and an edited book and numerous articles and chapters. Again, though, “I” didn’t do it alone: my family and my community (now at Purdue University) helped me in countless ways.
So, what is my favorite machine now? Well, it’s hard to choose. I still value my computer. And with cold Indiana winters, I have learned to appreciate furnaces. I’ve also begun to like those airborne machines—airplanes— that take me, accompanied now by my husband, Sean, to speaking engagements, research trips, and vacations all over the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Then there’s Jacqueline’s iPod. Adding auditory learning to my magic hat of teaching tools, she helps me design the music CDs I play for the five to ten minutes before each of my classes. I have used Elton John’s “Sorry
Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (1969) from my mental storehouse and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” (2004) from hers, for example, to get students thinking about free will in Paradise Lost. I value all the machines in my life because I have found ways to make them bridges rather than barriers between my root culture and my contextual culture. Whether I’m in front of a computer, in an airplane, in a music-filled classroom, or even in a star-filled desert that my trusty car has taken my family and me to, my machines take me to all the right places to be because I so tenaciously cling to the beautiful and wise directive—you knew I had to end with a quote from Milton, didn’t you?—“Wherever placed, . . . joy thou” (Paradise Lost).