Confession: my son was conceived in the middle of an on-line graduate class. A class I was teaching, no less, in mid-discussion. Or rather, discussions, as the internet enables me to teach two classes simultaneously. At that fateful moment when egg met sperm, I was actually in three places at once – virtually speaking, anyway.
Confused? I sure was, the year I moved from a live classroom to a virtual one. My internet workshops are the on-line equivalent of the same, two-hour courses offered in a seminar room on campus, except mine stretch over thirty-three hours. We use a bulletin board format – no web cam, no live-chat, meaning I can show up to work in my pyjamas. It’s distance education in the truest sense: students in disparate time zones with complex family/work schedules can drop in and out any time over the two days, posting comments on the class forum. As the instructor, I’m expected to be ever-present, guiding and monitoring both classes, heated, dynamic conversations that run in tandem. I take breaks to eat and sleep, of course – and, on this particular occasion, make a baby.
And no, we weren’t going at it under the desk, or even in the next room. Modern lesbian couple that we are, our act of conception involved ducking out of work mid-afternoon and driving to the fertility clinic where, thanks to the wonders of reproductive technology, previously-frozen donor sperm was inserted through my cervix by intrauterine insemination as Amanda stood by and held my hand. I lay on the examining table, feet up in stirrups, thinking how strange it was my students were carrying on without me at that very moment, without an inkling of what I was up to.
This was would not be the last time. Flash-forward thirteen months: I am out in the pissing rain, pushing the infant stroller up and down the leafy greenway near my house, willing my three-month old to fall asleep. The stroller is the last resort – usually it does the trick – but today my son just stares up at me from under the plastic rain cover, cooing away, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, completely oblivious to my mounting frustration. I wish I could just follow his lead, like any other neighbourhood mom on mat. leave – okay, you don’t want to sleep? Let’s go home and play. But I cannot even enjoy the walk, or the dose of fresh air, as I’m all too aware that I’m supposed to be present in both my on-line classes right now, wrapping things up for the week. But my baby has steadfastly refused to nap all day so I’ve barely made an appearance in either classroom – in fact, I haven’t had a chance to weigh-in in one class at all since last night.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go. My colleague had told me how she’d breastfed her daughter at the keyboard the first year she’d taught in our program. “It’s totally doable,” she reassured me, back when I was still pregnant and trying to determine whether returning to work, without childcare, when my son was only two months old, was as insane as it sounded. In fact, a good number of students have become new moms while enrolled in our program, and have completed their degrees without missing a beat – maybe a class or two around the birth, but that’s it. That’s the beauty of the virtual classroom. “The worst part was cleaning the upholstery on my office chair to get rid of the stench of sour breast milk,” one student posted in a forum for new parents in the program. “Who knew there was so much spillage?”
Even the head of my department, who still teaches live on campus, shared fond recollections of writing a novel while his infant daughter slumbered in her car seat on his desk. He would pause mid-paragraph and gaze over at her lovingly, his sweet little muse.
“Those early days were pure bliss,” he told me. “I had precious one-on-one time with my baby daughter, something many dads don’t get to enjoy, and I was incredibly productive. It’s when they start moving around that it gets harder.”
So it wouldn’t be like going back to work at all, I tried to tell myself. My baby, too, will sleep peacefully on my desk, while I get to enjoy the rare luxury of stimulating, adult conversation two days a week. Win-win, right? I get to go back to work while staying at home with my baby.
The woman from the E.I. office was more dubious. She wanted to know why I wasn’t planning on taking my full mat. leave benefit, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to regret my decision.
“Is your employer pressuring you to go back to work early?” she asked. “Because that’s against the law.” There was an uncomfortable silence over the phone as she awaited my reply. But how could I even begin to explain? That my same-sex partner was currently on education leave without pay, that Amanda had been accepted, against all odds, into a competitive grad school program a matter of weeks before we knew we were pregnant? We hadn’t expected to conceive so quickly; we’d been warned not to put our life plans on hold. At the very least, we’d expected that Amanda would be allowed to defer her acceptance for a year.
No can do, said the university. The same university where I have my adjunct teaching contract with no benefits – no mat. leave, and no tuition benefit for my spouse. The E.I. we’d receive on my meagre part-time salary was laughable – no way we could live on that for a year without going into serious debt. Okay, we were heading into the red anyway, but with me back at work and Amanda receiving parental leave while she was at school, there’d at least be a wee bit more money trickling in.
During that awkward, radio silence on the phone, I had a horrible, sinking feeling that the E.I. woman’s words were going to come back to haunt me. And sure enough, that afternoon as I plod up and down the greenway with the stroller, my face streaked with rain and tears, I am already wishing I’d been able to make a different choice. I wish I was staying home for the year like all the other moms in my mom-baby group. So I could join them for coffee and regular walks at the park, sign up for stroller-fit, do infant story-time at the library, and complain about how I bored I was and how many long hours there are in the day to fill with baby. So I could be fully present and enjoy my son on my so-called days “off,” instead of worrying about the manuscripts I need to read and the lectures I need to write and the student comments I need to complete before I teach later in the week. Where my biggest dilemma of the day would be – do we get ready and go out to kindergym or do we stay in our pyjamas and hang out at home, rather than, how do I get him the fuck to sleep so I can post? I wish money didn’t matter.
Somehow I made it to the end of term. My MFA students were incredibly patient with me for the most part, although someone wrote on my teaching evaluation: “The instructor seemed a bit distracted and preoccupied this semester.” Gee, ya think?
I felt bad for letting my students down, but I didn’t take the comment to heart – I knew there would be other terms, other classes, other students. I would get childcare for the fall semester, get back on my game. But it breaks my heart to know that there won’t be a next time with my young son – that those precious, early months are gone forever, and I was only half there.
Back in my own MFA days, as I slogged through a playwriting thesis, I had an image of the Bard pinned above my computer: So I haven’t written much lately, the post card proclaimed. So what? Neither has Shakespeare. It helped me hang on to my sense of humour, and stopped me from beating up on myself those days or weeks when the writing wasn’t flowing, or when the demands of my various part-time jobs were keeping me away from the page.
This corny slogan pops back into mind as I find myself compelled to explain my seven-month hiatus from this blog. And no, the dog didn’t eat my homework, so I won’t bore you with mundane excuses. But I will say this: as I often tell my students, there’s a time for writing, and sometimes there’s a time just for living. We literary-types can get so preoccupied with the writing we’re doing, or stressing about the writing we’re not doing, that we forget sometimes to take a step away from the page and breathe in new experiences. How can there possibly be anything fresh to write about if you don’t get your head out of the computer once in a while and let yourself live a little bit?
This past school year, I have done just that. Full-day kindergarten is looming large this coming September – how did we get here so fast? – and after endless visits to that same fertility clinic, with drugs and escalating interventions and my feet back up in stirrups too many times to count, it has become painfully evident that there is going to be no second baby. No sibling for our sweet boy. No second chance to re-do my botched mat-leave, to spend quality time with both kids before my son starts school. It’s been a harsh wake-up call: this is it. Our son’s childhood is not a dress rehearsal, and I need to be as fully present as a parent as I possibly can. I knew if I didn’t somehow take back what we’d lost during that frazzled first year, I was going to regret it – and worse, resent it – forever.
And so, I have taken a hiatus from my classes, and am simply supervising a half-dozen thesis and special project students so that I can spend quality time with my son. Instead of showing up at my computer to teach, I’ve been going to park with my boy. Letting go of my inhibitions and singing loudly and joyously with him at our Music Together class. Watching his antics at Dress-Up Drama, delighted there’s yet another thespian in the family. I’ve been helping build elaborate train tracks and marble runs, and remembering how good it feels to squeeze Play-Doh through my fingers, or to cover my entire hands in finger-paint. Snuggling in close and reading Thomas the Tank Engine and Captain Underpants, and showing my son how you can make your own books by stapling a series of drawings together and penciling on your own story. And while these intimate, shared experiences can never completely replace what the two of us missed during those early months, I do feel that we’re making up for lost time. My son has never been happier and more settled. I’m happy too, although it’s bittersweet. Even as I throw myself in one-hundred percent with my boy, I’m also aware that I’m deeply grieving the second child we so wanted but will never have.
I hadn’t actually planned on taking a hiatus from my writing as well. I’d blithely assumed I’d fit it in somehow, juggling things as I’ve always done, this time during stolen moments at Starbucks three mornings a week while my son is in preschool down the street. I’d figured, two mornings for my thesis folks, and one morning to show up at the page – which worked for about the first month, until October when the entire family got flattened by a bad bout of bronchitis/sinusitis, forcing me to spend the rest of the academic year playing catch-up. That, and the fear that writing about the infertility would make it all too real. That putting it into words would somehow jinx our last-ditch attempts to get pregnant.
But now, as the university term comes to a close and I proudly watch my thesis students graduate, it’s time once again for me to write. Time to recount the many stories and experiences I’ve gathered during this year of just living. Just living and grieving and being with my son.