Tuesday, June 22, 2004
In the beginning...
The Wife, bless her, had already experienced sticker shock before I met her. She lived at home for several years after college, saving money for a condo. The appreciation on that condo made it possible for us to buy our house four years ago. Had she taken the route I had, we’d be renting.
I emerged from grad school in 1997, with a real doctorate in a real field from a real university, but with no real job. I cobbled together the rent by teaching SAT prep courses to 14-year-old Korean kids in a storefront operation an hour away. My hatchback’s air conditioning had gone the way of vinyl records, so I arrived home from those days a sweaty mess. I made just enough to get by if I didn’t buy much, and nothing broke, and I didn’t think about my student loan deferments running out.
That obviously offered no future, nor was it where I wanted to be, so I plied my trade as an adjunct at two local colleges – the respected state university where I had just graduated, and a local for-profit technical college. The technical college was in a growth spurt (the internet bubble was in its early stages) and it needed Ph.D.’s to keep the state licensing agents happy, so I was hired to full-time faculty within a few months.
I worked there as full-time faculty for slightly over three years. It wasn’t a sweatshop, in the strict sense of the term; the air conditioning was actually pretty good, since the computers had to be kept cool. Still, a teaching load of 45 credits per year (15 per term, 12 months per year) with students who had gone there specifically to avoid the liberal arts, did a number on my efforts at writing. I was just too beat at the end of the day to think about any kind of serious scholarship, and too impatient to get what I considered a real job at a real college to spend very long on any one thing. For the first time, I developed a kind of scholarly ADD. Getting lost in research was a luxury available to people who don’t have 45-hour loads.
It wasn’t all bad. The growth spurt there, and the catastrophic lack of hiring in the rest of academia, meant that I had a pretty good cohort of young faculty colleagues. We all shared a sense of grievance that we were reduced to working there, but at least we validated each other as talented. I used to refer to it as The Island of Misfit Toys.
More importantly, the paycheck (such as it was) allowed me to move into the adult world for the first time. At age 28, I was finally paying my own freight. I was stunned at how much the tariff was – despite earning triple what I had made in grad school, I still had to keep a running tab in my head at Stop’n’Shop. My furniture was still ratty and secondhand, the hatchback wasn’t getting any younger, and singlehood was starting to get a little old.
The Wife and I got married in 1999. The wedding and honeymoon were lovely, and I gave myself permission not to obsess over their respective costs. I moved into her condo, which was, to me, unimaginably luxurious. It had central air! A pool! A dedicated parking space!
The hatchback threw its mortal coil (actually, a rod) within my first month there, so I traded up to, wonder of wonders, a new car. Always forward-thinking, it’s a four-door sedan, ready for the eventual kid.
We started house-hunting, which is probably when the trouble started. We picked a target price out of the clear blue sky, and started shopping with it in mind. Then we bumped it up, and bumped it up again. I think we both saw a house as a badge – once we lived in a real house, we would be real adults. We would have clawed our way back to the class into which each of us was born.
Also, a one-bedroom condo isn’t the best place to have a baby. We didn’t know much, but we knew that.
As I crunched numbers and we saw more places, I started to wonder how we’d ever do it.
We finally found a newish house in an older neighborhood, well-located relative to our jobs. We bought it, stretching our resources farther than I knew at the time.
Without daycare costs, we could sort of do it. I was concerned, but not overly so, because my employer had an onsite day care center that was subsidized and, from what some other parents told me, not bad.
As the internet boom peaked, my employer decided to evict the daycare center to make room for more computer classrooms. The daycare shuttered the same month my son was born.
We had to look to private daycares in our area. We discovered that most of them were unsatisfactory (if not simply awful), and yet, every last stinkin’ one of them charges the same rate. We picked the least offensive one, and started paying $250 a week for daycare. That was more than I had made as recently as four years earlier.
Shortly before The Boy was born, but after we had bought the house, an administrative position opened up at my employer. I had seen that we would be fiscally strapped when The Boy arrived, and I had finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to write my way out of there while teaching 45 credits. I decided that since I couldn’t teach my way out (since teaching doesn’t count in your favor after the first year), and I couldn’t write my way out, maybe I could administrate my way out. Get that Dean title, and go on the market for deanships.
I spent a year and a half as Associate Dean there, followed by a little over a year as Dean. I arrived at work each day at 8:45, and left, on good days, at 6:00 (except for the one night a week I taught, or anytime my boss felt chatty). The work was grueling, long, frustrating, maddening, sometimes-immoral, and generally hellish.
The college was one location of a national chain, with a central command-and-control center (Home Office) in another state. Home Office liked to change policies on a dime, and demand immediate compliance. Home Office’s dictates frequently conflicted with the regulations in our state, so the deans’ jobs involved constructing increasingly baroque compromises to satisfy two mutually-indifferent masters.
To make matters worse, the boom started turning south just as I got into administration. I got to manage decline, which is much less fun than managing growth.
I’d get home around 6:45, by which point The Boy was impossible and The Wife at her wits’ end. I was wiped, and in desperate need of quiet; The Wife was wiped, and in desperate need of rescue; The Boy was an infant.
Things started looking up when my manage-my-way-out strategy finally worked. I escaped the technical college for a deanship at a community college 45 minutes away. The pay was better, I got home much earlier, and we were both able to calm down somewhat, since I was able to relieve her earlier (and in a better frame of mind) than before. That, and The Boy’s maturation, lowered the daily stress level palpably.
Now, we're taking the next step. With The Girl due in another month or so, The Wife is staying home. (We're reserving the call on whether she goes back until her FMLA deadline hits.) The Boy is reducing his daycare to two days per week -- the reduction will partially lower our costs, but will still give The Wife some breathing room. When The Girl arrives, she'll need it desperately.
Ironies abound. As the son of a divorced Mom, a card-carrying veteran of feminist theory seminars (ovulars?), I'm the sole breadwinner with a wife and two kids. When did this happen? How did this happen?
The cultural winds blow strong. If this were Sweden, we wouldn't have to make some of these choices -- daycare would be highly subsidized, parental leave would be paid, etc. Here in America, even cultural-studies vets like me are pushed into Ward and June territory, pretty much by default.
I'm hoping that staying home will relieve some of The Wife's sense of guilt. If it does, we'll all benefit. We may have to subsist on mac and cheese for a while, but hey, I used to be a grad student. Grad school didn't prepare me for being a suburban dad, but I make a mean mac and cheese.