Year of Blessings: Update Post

Write Spot
I had the privilege of directing the Write Spot, the campus writing center, at Southwestern Adventist University for the 2018-19 school year.

Okay, after ten months of silence, it’s time for a blog post. Last you heard from me, I was starting a new job as an English professor at Southwestern Adventist University. Well, that position is ending, and a new chapter is starting. I’ve begun my PhD at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA); as of this coming fall, I’ll be working on a doctorate fulltime and teaching part-time for UTA.

Guys, one year ago as a stay-at-home mom, I had no idea I’d be back in grad school right now; no idea I would have fallen in love with teaching college composition, and have decided that this is what I was made to do. Life simply continues to be a whirlwind of changes. The 2018-19 teaching year was a blessing, on so many fronts. It was also a year of heartache, fear, and anxiety.

The Heartache of Losing a Loved One, the Blessing of Extra Time

My husband lost his job in March of 2018, as you may recall. We were then in Missouri, detached from any family (his family being in Texas, mine in Minnesota). After considering many options, without a job lined up, we decided to move back to Texas. We didn’t know then that Buc’s dad would pass away just seven months after our return. We didn’t know that I’d get a one-year position at Southwestern Adventist University and Buc and I would essentially switch roles for this year, but in hindsight, oh, what a blessing! We will ever cherish the extra time we got to spend with our Dad and “Poppa” Gendke. I am thankful that it was Buc at home, and not me, to be able to spend extra time with his father, and later, to bring extra comfort to his mother. Buc loved the job he lost, but he loved his father so much more. If this had been the only blessing of our job loss and move, it would have been worth it.

But there’s more.

The Blessing of Going Back to Work

If you read this blog, you may remember that I was a floundering mama in Missouri. Wow, was I a mess. Staying home with kids simply seemed to bring out the worst in me. I’d love to say I love being home all the time with my kids, but the truth is, no, I don’t. There’s a complex explanation here that involves my roots: my upbringing, my fears, and my sinful nature. Maybe I’ll unfold that in writing later. But the simple explanation is that providing childcare for littles does not call forth my strengths. On the contrary, it ramps up my anxiety like almost nothing else I’ve experienced. So, while I love my boys dearly and I’m so glad I have them…

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I’m so relieved I got to go back to work this past year! And not just to any job. Guys, this past year, I think I literally worked my dream job. I’m so amazed at how great a fit this position was for me. Suddenly, after years of feeling like a colossal failure, daily feeling bad about myself and my performance with my littles, I felt comfortable and confident again.

The Blessing of Finding my Calling

In the college classroom, specifically in teaching my writing classes, I found a passion that is second only to writing. In my comp classes, I provided learning experiences for a young audience, but now young adults (not young children). And this seems to be my sweet spot as a teacher. (Maybe this will be my sweet spot as a parent, too.) I knew how to talk to young adults, how to connect with them—in short, how to help them. It was nice to finish a day of work and feel I had really helped people; I had really provided skills they needed.

When teaching, I like to write on the white board. Here’s a taste of my Essay and Opinion Writing class, fall 2018. Did you realize that many college kids just take pictures of the board, now, in lieu of writing down their own notes? This was news to me this year!

You may or may not recall that I taught high school English for three years before having my children and writing my books. Well, this feeling of satisfaction did not accompany the high school job. Thus, I really didn’t expect to fall in love with teaching as I did this past year. What a blessing to have had this year to figure out my audience as a teacher.

At the end of the year, having to tell my beloved college students that I was not coming back was sad and felt a little confusing. I didn’t want to leave. I did reapply when my position was reopened. But I was not re-hired. No one was. The position, my position, has been cut at this time for budgetary reasons.

The Fear and Anxiety

The months leading up to this news were chaotic and stressful. Ever aware of the impending hiring decision, I was doing everything I could to keep my job. I updated my resume, wrote a heartfelt cover letter, re-interviewed with the English department, put my best foot forward in a departmental presentation—I even enrolled in a PhD program and one night class, not because I wanted to do a doctorate (I ended grad school last time with mixed feelings), but simply because I wanted to keep my job.

All year, I kept my head down, eyes off Facebook and this blog, and instead focused on teaching, and trying to keep my job. All my extra time went to my kids and husband. I’d say all other relationships—the ones outside my home—suffered. By January, because I felt so anxious, I decided to take part in a depression and anxiety recovery program at my church on Monday nights. Well, it was a good try at dealing with my situational anxiety, but unfortunately, the demands of the seminar—eight weeks, Monday nights for two hours, with hours of assigned reading each week and personal homework—created more anxiety. I simply didn’t have the space in my schedule for it.

The Blessing of Losing my Job, and Gaining Graduate School

By the time my boss informed me I would not be rehired, the last day of my spring break, the news actually came as a relief. Although teaching was going well, overall, I was being stretched in too many directions: fulltime job, PhD work, mother of small children, and a once-a-week anxiety seminar that I didn’t have time for. So, after spring break, I had Monday nights back, and closure about my job. I still had to get through the rest of the semester, though, which included teaching a full load, and my Thursday night class, for which I had to write a twenty-five page paper.

Here’s a last look down the SWAU English department hallway (and into my office) before I move my stuff out. It’s quiet now, for summer break, and I may take advantage of that peace and quiet a few more times before I transition my office to UTA.

Actually, the sting of losing my job was greatly lessened by my concurrent involvement with the doctoral program. With that twenty-five page paper looming, and questions of, What will be my areas of research for the next three to five years? I had plenty of new material to occupy and distract my mind from the job loss. In addition, toward the end of the spring semester, I was awarded a doctoral assistantship, which will pay for my tuition, and also pay me to teach one or two writing classes at UTA.

UT-Arlington_DirectoryLogo.gifI couldn’t have predicted it, but I actually feel happy to be back in graduate school. I’m so much more ready to focus on graduate studies and a career now than I was in 2012 when I finished my master’s degree. At that time, I decided to step away from grad school and a career and have kids and write. That decision led to the beginning of this blog, in fact. Back then I was still trying to heal from childhood trauma. I needed to do some hardcore expressive writing, and focus on family.

The Blessing of Buc (My Hubby)

As I type that line, I imagine some readers asking, What about your family now? Don’t your kids need you at home?

This picture was taken on the morning of January 21st of this year, Sam’s fifth birthday. It was dress-up day at school, and he chose to go as Catboy from PJ Masks. This photo makes me happy.

Do my kids need me? Yes, they do. But do they need me to be the parent who is predominantly at home? Or is it possible that, in my particular family, Dad is the one better suited for this job? I’d like to write more about these particular dynamics in another post, but suffice it to say, this past year of Buc staying home with the kids (mostly Seth, since Sam entered preschool) has proven to be another huge blessing, as well. Buc did great! We are finding that, for our family, Dad is the better parent to stay home.

This Summer…

It still pains me that staying home with my kids seems to bring out the worst in me. On summer break currently, I am again suffering some anxiety. I keep remembering back to something I said to a friend on the brink of turning thirty, when I first became a mom: “I want my thirties to be more relaxed.” When I said that, I’m not sure I knew what I meant by “relaxed.” I think somewhere in my imagination, I wanted “relaxed” to equate to staying home with my babies and happily living life on the porch, a glass of lemonade (okay, coffee, lots of coffee) in hand. Well. It didn’t take long to discover that, for me, being at home was not relaxing.

As I write, I am about to turn thirty-five. I have a husband, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old. I have a house and a yard to take care of. I also have an appointment to teach and study for my doctorate fulltime in the fall. Before you judge me as crazy (for taking on so much at once), or a bad mom, please know that going back to work has saved me. It has saved my mental health. And maybe it was the first step in preventing psychological damage in my kids.

This summer, I’m going to try to be a happy, hands-on, blessing of a mom. For me, that takes a lot of prayer, planning, and energy (it stretches me much more than being in the classroom). So, I’m trying to leave margin, trying not to fill up my plate with much. That means blogging won’t be a high priority, although I hope to blog sporadically. My other goal is to reconnect with some family and friends, and actually try to rest a bit before the busy-ness starts up again fulltime in the fall. I hope to continue reflecting on this year of blessings that has just concluded, and prepare mentally for the busy year ahead.

Look at my handsome little dudes! Even though I write about mothering struggles, I am still a proud mom, and I know the best days are yet to come. This photo was taken May 20th, right before Kindergarten graduation at Sam’s school. As a preschooler, Sam (right, 5 years old) still participated in the program; Seth (3 years) even got to cut the ribbons for the pre-K and K classes before they walked down the aisle.

Thanks for taking time to catch up with me. I hope and pray you have a blessed summer, and can find some time to reflect on the blessings in your life and/or rest, plan, and pray about whatever difficulties you may be facing.

Growing Pains of a Career Woman Turned Mother

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Here is one of the ways I’m trying to regain productivity in my life. So far, it’s not working.

I’m writing tonight about something I didn’t want to write about: my trouble adapting to motherhood, or my trouble adapting to a life that is family- rather than career-oriented. I’ve decided to post about it because, let’s face it, I can’t focus on anything else these days. What’s more, I’ve decided to type this post directly in WordPress (not on a word document that I will edit, and edit, and edit) because there is no way it will otherwise get posted.

Maybe I could post more often if I weren’t so worried about producing stellar writing…if I hadn’t been “tainted” by the successes of a career or a master’s degree or published writing. My blogging buddy, Kate, recently posted about how sometimes a bit of “fame,” such as being freshly pressed (which success I’ve also had), can hamper a writer’s voice. I wonder how much this has happened to me.

Ever since I became intent on publishing my memoir (which is maddeningly dormant right now), compounded with a growing blog following (especially after I was freshly pressed), my writing process has slowed down. I want my posts to be witty, clever, well thought out, and worth reading. When I began blogging, I told myself I didn’t just want to move my diary online. I tried not to spill my unfettered guts on the blog without first framing them in some (hopefully) amusing or enlightening way, or at least trying to make a larger application for my readers.

Blogging is tough these days because all I can seem to write about are those very mundane things comprising new motherhood: feeding troubles, sleeping woes, baby blues. And by the time I get a free moment to write, I don’t have energy to be clever about them. Do I feel these topics are too pedestrian to write about? Do I feel they are beneath me? Um, a little. Before this stage of my life, I prided myself on having more to talk about than just my family. Than just kids. I smirked (inwardly) at women who had nothing to boast of but children. Prided myself on my multiple degrees and teaching career.

But you know what? Not having kids, not having those “pedestrian” goings-on in my life, made it hard to talk to people. And graduate school made it even harder to swim in casual conversation with non graduate students. I found myself biting my tongue when I wanted to use big words–I didn’t want to  sound too nerdy. I fear I’ve often failed.

Now, my tendency to over-intellectualize has crossed over into motherhood. Whenever I discuss baby Sam with my sisters-in-law, one of my three mothers, or my girlfriends, I find myself saying things like, “Well, I read that babies should start to smile in the second month,” or, “According to my parenting books…” or “In my reading I discovered that….” When I hear myself saying such things, I am appalled. Motherhood is not an academic subject to be learned through books. And yet, that’s how I’ve approached it.

Yes, I confess: despite successes in a career, in graduate school, in writing, I find myself hopelessly fumbling with motherhood. I wish someone would give me a manual to study with clearcut answers. But there is no such manual to be found. As I’ve been telling everyone who asks how it’s going, “This is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”

To those ladies I judged as simpletons for having nothing to boast of but children, I apologize. I was wrong to judge you. Of course, it’s not the physical “having” of children that makes you awesome; it’s the adept raising of them. So far, I’m not adept. As for my strengths, those seem pretty weak right now, too.

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How’s this for unfettered? Me and Sam and no makeup. Yikes! But it’s a common sight at my house lately.

Just now, in fact, I’m fighting the urge to apologize for this incoherent and badly organized post…but it occurs to me: maybe an incoherent and badly organized post is another way, in addition to motherhood, that I can relate to my audience. Everyone goes through periods of uncomfortable growth and change–and this is one of mine.

Maybe I could post more often if I let go of some of my impossible standards.  Maybe I would find that readers even appreciate my unfettered guts, er, I mean, thoughts (how’s that sentence for nerdy?). Maybe I WILL start to make regular posts again (albeit bad and incoherent ones), and let you share this uncomfortable journey with me. Maybe we can all learn something new in the process. At the very least, we can laugh together…once I figure out how not to take myself so seriously.

Birthday Blessings

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Photo Credit: Flowers by Just4You

Today is my 29th birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than sitting here at my favorite breakfast place writing, reflecting, and thanking God for the blessings of the past year. Here’s a recap of how my personal and professional lives have converged (and diverged) over the past twelve months—showing me how God takes a very personal interest in the mundane details of my life.

Last Summer

I was fretting over what I saw as conflicting desires, including the desire to write, teach, and (though I didn’t much tell anyone), have a baby. God started to drop things into place when Paul Coneff of Straight 2 the Heart ministries asked me to help him write his first book, The Hidden Half of the Gospel. During July of last year, I was also starting to write my master’s thesis (eventually 100 pages), which was a perfect warm-up for the book-length project I was taking on. Now busy with writing, I tabled my internal baby discussion for the time being.

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Last Fall

I was still working fervently on my two writing projects, but there came pausing points in both works, during which time I was left with nothing to do but finally start writing what was in my heart. Four notebooks and one month later, I had the rough draft of my memoir and the beginnings of this blog down on paper—both would wait for January for further development.

I looked around one day on campus and asked myself if this student life was what I wanted for five to eight more years. I didn’t see how that life would allow me to be the parent I knew I’d want to be—if we decided to have kids.

One day in October, while writing a paper for my last graduate class, I broke down at my computer and finally faced the truth: I was tired of this solitary student life; I wanted something more. I called my husband in tears and he came home early that day to take me on a walk-and-talk through the local state park. As I unknowingly acquired poison ivy, it was a relief to hear myself finally saying words I had been repressing for a long time: I want to have kids (this was a fun scene to write for my memoir).

In December I completed my master’s program and sent out two graduate applications—one MFA, and one PhD—just in case we didn’t conceive, and just in case God still wanted me in graduate school.

girl on bench

Last Winter

I did not get into either of the grad programs I applied to, which told me that was not God’s plan for me right now. I went off birth control in January, began this blog, and started officially calling myself a writer.

I spent the early months of the year feeling lonely and a bit depressed—now I was alone in our big house all day long, getting to write, yes, but without the promise of much people time during my days. I started really missing my family in Minnesota, whom I hadn’t seen since the previous June. I also realized I had been taking my husband for granted for most of our eight years of marriage—putting him on the back burner as I worked on emotional issues, self-improvement, and career development. I decided to be more family oriented.

Around the same time, God also brought many friends into my life to help alleviate my loneliness. This told me that God could meet my need for people contact with or without a baby.

Amanda and me

Last Spring

In May, when I wasn’t expecting it, I found out I was five weeks pregnant. Yay! We had a fun time surprising our family with the announcement, as most hadn’t been reading this blog and didn’t know we were trying. I rededicated my efforts to finishing my memoir “before thirty,” and now I also vowed to try to finish before baby.

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Currently

I have just returned from two weeks in Minnesota—probably my last trip to see my family before baby comes in January (I am four months along today). While in Minnesota I attended my ten-year class reunion and felt additional closure about God’s plans for my life. Though visiting Minnesota always makes me wistful, I clearly saw God’s wisdom in moving me away almost nine years ago. Visits back home used to be hard—brought painful memories—but more and more they bring happiness. Now, my husband and I are talking about getting a summer house in MN in a few years—which prospect fills my heart with joy.

My memoir is going well, and I have made contact with a favorite author of mine, Trish Ryan, who has agreed to consult on my book in late August to help me prepare it for publication (my hubby is giving me a “loan” because I told him it would be a good investment!). This fall I will be searching for an agent and/or publisher as I prepare for this baby’s arrival—and hopefully this winter I will have both a healthy baby and a manuscript headed for publication. The healthy baby is more important, of course—the book would just be a bonus. Regardless of how long it takes to get the memoir published, The Hidden Half of the Gospel will be published long before my next birthday—showing me that God heard my “before thirty” prayer six months ago.

It is 10:10 as I finish writing this, and my dentist’s office just texted, “Happy Birthday, I hope you have many reasons to smile today!” I am happy to say, “Yes, I do!” Today, I am smiling about my immediate future that will consist largely of family time, writing time, and more Minnesota time—and that doesn’t even compare to my eternal future!

Thank you, Lord, for taking such a personal interest in the mundane details of my life. Today I praise you for how you care about my heart’s desires and how you’ve led, not just for the past year, but for the past twenty-nine years.

Is My Writer Seeping Through?

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Since deciding to be a “real” writer, I’ve kept a low profile. Not wanting people to know I’ve embarked on a low-paying (sometimes no-paying) job, I’ve hidden my true profession behind a façade of graduate student and teacher.

I haven’t been a teacher since May 2011, but until last December, I really was a graduate student, putting the finishing touches on my one-hundred-page master’s thesis. Mostly I was done by October, but I still let my classmates offer condolences for “how hard” the writing must be.

It wasn’t hard, really, because my advisor let me write the way I wanted to write: creatively and personally (with a little academic jargon sprinkled in). I guess this “practical” approach worked because the topic was practical: best practices for teaching writing.

When a few of my fellow students heard about my personal [slash] creative [slash] academic project, they seemed intrigued.

“I’d never have thought of that,” some said.

As they scrambled to turn up sources on the databases, scouring search engines and library shelves, giving themselves ulcers looking for an original angle, I just sat back and wrote. I started from the inside—I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t much care about citing the scholarly conversation that had come before me, or that would come after.

I know this sounds sort of pompous, and it wouldn’t work in some of the disciplines where original voice is not prized. But thankfully, English departments operate on this truth: If a voice is engaging enough it doesn’t really matter what it’s saying—people will read it for the good writing.

And that’s the truth in the real world, isn’t it?

People who don’t care a lick about golf will watch Tiger Woods because he excels in his sport. Same for most Olympians and Olympic sports. Who watches bobsledding or curling on a regular basis?

But millions watch the Olympics because it’s fun to watch pros do what they do best.

Funny, then, that I feel I’m still hiding in the wings, waiting for permission to “come out” to do what I do best.

Well, not so funny, I guess. I have no doubt that the hiding is due to the overwhelming personal content of my writing. (It’s not really about the money.)

In order for me to write about the things I write about (mental illness, family dysfunction, deepest fears) and be respected, I feel I have to be either a mental health professional or a pastor, or some other authority who can talk on these things at a close, yet safe, distance. That, or I have to make the writing itself attractive. Because the topics just aren’t.

Still, I am convinced that these topics are worth discussion. Worth a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and many book series. I am convinced that all this painful self-reflection is what more people ought to be doing, but aren’t. But if it’s so worthwhile, why aren’t more people doing it?

Because: Like graduate students fumbling for research topics, we are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of what self-examination might reveal. So we look for other voices to latch onto. Let someone else be the guinea pig—or the “straw man,” to use an academic term. Then, if our life thesis fails, we can partially blame the voices on whom we’ve built our own.

Well, I’ll stand behind my own work. To the thesis examiner who said my work got uncomfortably personal at times, I would remind her that everyone else who read it said it was the most memorable thesis they’d ever seen. She was more comfortable in the theoretical realm, and that’s where she encouraged me to return. Toward the end of the defense, we had a more informal discussion about how we felt about publishing—how we felt about others reading our work—and this professor said she felt terrified thinking others would read her academic writing (not to mention any personal stuff).

Just like she couldn’t understand me being so personal in writing, I couldn’t understand her being so guarded (about dry academic prose). Perhaps she is worried that others will smell a rat—that of inauthenticity. And I guess if I were not being true to myself, I might worry about the same thing.

But after denying myself public expression for so long, I think having to live in hiding is far worse than living exposed. After spending time in a theoretically constipated English department, I think living vulnerable is better than living jealous of writers whose real-world topics you only dare poke with a critical stick.

Perhaps my guarded professor would even agree. At the end of the day, she passed my thesis unconditionally. Call my writing what she will, that day she called me a master.

 

 

The Question Every Young Couple Must Answer

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“When are you having kids?” my high school students always used to ask. Why they were so interested in this detail of my life I never understood—much like I didn’t understand when family members or anyone else asked. The question used to come frequently when we were first married, and then, as year after year slid by with no child, but only new feats such as a bachelor’s degree, teaching job, and master’s degree, the question all but went away, and with it, my child consciousness.

But when I got to my first semester of grad school in 2010, I had an epiphany. Sitting in class at that time as both student and teacher, I was to finally understand why students and so many others wonder that question.           

It happened one night in literary theory class, when my professor, trying to explain the infant stages of Freudian development admitted, “Well, the research says this [insert windy explanation of anal and oral stages]; but I don’t have kids, so I don’t really know firsthand.” That’s all. One comment. Then he continued his lecture on Freud. But I was stopped.

Before that night, he’d been Mr. Know-It-All.

Now, he was just a man out of touch with reality…who, perhaps, had never changed a diaper.

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(Photo from giftsfordadtobe.com)

What did my professor have? He had his books and his scholarly journals and his research (and with those, late night library visits while bedecked in baseball caps [to blend with students, he’d told us]), but what, beyond that? He didn’t have a wife. Or kids. Or religion. (Lots of grad students and professors end up losing their religion, I was also to find out.) The closest relationships he had seemed to be with us, his students. And he was great with us, very gentle and caring, and genuinely concerned for our welfare.

But in general…in general, I had to ask myself that night: Is this really the life? And more importantly, is this the life I want for myself? Do I want to be like this professor someday, standing before a class of adults (or high school kids, for that matter), in my forties or above, with no life experience to share with them, besides what I had read in books?

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This was a profound moment for me. I journaled at length about it the very next day. And I talked to my husband. Was I missing something here? Was I about to embark on the wrong path, this path to the PhD? What did it mean that I was having all of these questions?

Mind you, I was hardly ready to toss the birth control, quit teaching, and/or withdraw from my graduate classes. Just then I wouldn’t admit that I wanted kids. Because I wasn’t actually sure I wanted them.

But one thing I now understood: If I had kids, I would become a more interesting professor…and a more interesting person. I would become more credible. More human. And that alone was something worth considering.