The first time I had my own apartment was in graduate school in Austin. I remember the feeling of organizing the space to my, and only my, liking. My very small kitchen with magnets holding “quotable quotes” that I did not want to forget, a kitchen table where I could drink as much coffee as I wanted, a refrigerator to fill with food that I wanted to eat. My desk in the window bay that looked out on no view whatsoever, a bedroom decorated with cheap prints of my choosing and piled with books I wanted to read. Exhilarating.
When we all came home last March to live and work, I set up shop in our bedroom. I already had a small desk there next to a window overlooking the backyard, where I might write thank you notes or manage my father’s affairs when he was alive. I could close the door and be undisturbed. That seemed the logical space to locate my work life. By July I had added a second desk, a ring light, some filing baskets, and a new office chair. When my husband began scheduling a 20-minute interval between my morning zoom calls to take a shower, I found myself thinking about the proverbial room of my own. Perhaps the guest room? But for months, I put it off. Too much trouble, what if someone wanted to come visit, did I really need it? It had been so long since I had “my own space” outside of my office on campus, just the idea felt self-indulgent.
When I was younger, I had a few other apartments of my own–one in Washington D.C. had the Rear Window effect sans the courtyard and the missing dog. There I bought the first furniture I ever chose for myself, an impractical white love seat and an IKEA dresser with its dreaded pictorial directions and the little wrench. There was a woman who also lived there and sat in the lobby for much of the day talking always about how she was from New Hampshire and the state we call home is “the most important thing.” Later, there was the relief of moving into my own apartment here in Chapel Hill as I separated from an ex, someone who wanted to control everything from the temperature in the house to whether or not we could buy a blender. I was so thankful just to be warm in the winter, to have the thermostat and the appliances under my own control.
So when a friend texted my husband saying he’d seen our bedroom on the local news (after I had given a Zoom interview from my desk there) and I realized the last thing I saw before bed and the first upon waking was work, I told my husband I thought I should make a change. Apparently, he had thought it was a good idea all along; he started orchestrating the move upstairs to the guest room that afternoon.
With hardly any effort, this room looks and feels like so many that have been mine throughout my life. The walls are an off-white with a slightly pinkish cast, a butterfly quilt made for me by my grandmother covers the bed, my mother’s Florentine night table is here, along with two shelves filled with books that range from my great grandmother’s “Book of Spells” that I discovered in an old trunk when I was in the 8th grade to poetry I came to know in a favorite college class. There are a few mementos of my father’s, offerings from my children, and a mug my husband brought me from a long-ago trip now filled with pencils. Once again, the pictures on the wall are of my choosing. There are fresh flowers in a vase and I’ve taken to burning a candle while I’m working to add calm in the midst of the daily storms.
I’ve not had “a room of my own” since my children were born, almost 20 years ago now. Every morning during this pandemic, I wake up thankful that my children are no longer small. The idea of managing their schooling, changing diapers, keeping them entertained, as well as clean and fed all day, every day while maintaining a demanding career would send me into despair. As much as I loved my children when they were little and as much as I found them delightfully round and funny, if given the chance, I would return to those days for only a sweet hour or two. Those years were so hard even with lots of great babysitters and a great partner. My husband has been a fully engaged parent since day one. I remember conference calls while pushing one son in a swing, being called to pre-school to take my other son home because he was a biter. (BTW, don’t worry too much if you are the mother of a biter. Your child is not a serial killer in the making.) I remember my husband and I trading off a feverish little person so that we could get the grant in, teach the class, or show our faces at some all-important meeting. I really cannot imagine what parents of young children, and particularly mothers, are enduring right now. In academia, the current state of affairs threatens progress for women for the next ten years. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/science/covid-universities-women.html
Like everything else, the pandemic has exposed the ways in which so many of us scramble to make our lives work. Everything goes perfectly, as long as everything goes perfectly. And now we are far, far away from perfection.
Men who contribute to parenting are seen as heroes, but not so for moms, even though they are most often the default for sorting out their children’s schooling, meals, the doctor, the dentist, the therapist, the elder care…I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. There is always more. And we are told in ways subtle and not so, that we are not to ask for too much more. Over the years, more than one person has said to me that when I spoke of the complications of working while having children or caring for elders that I was implicitly “devaluing other people’s stress.” These comments were made by people taking care of no one but themselves at the time. I’ve been “affirmed” by highly productive men whose wives stayed home with their children, explaining to me how they understood exactly what I was going through, though not for a minute adjusting their expectations for productivity. Over time, I made two choices in response: to always mention whatever was going on with my children so that people could not pretend that I and other women colleagues existed in a vacuum where motherhood was somehow conveniently managed out of sight. I also chose not to “complain.” I did not want to give anyone an excuse to write off reality because they had decided I was “too difficult.” I still don’t know whether or not these were the right choices.
There is a picture I keep on one of the now three desks in this room – not of my family – but of me as a senior in college. My dad kept it on his desk next to a little koala bear I had given him for father’s day that year. It is not something I would ever keep in a professional office, but I keep it here. In it, I see both who I was and who I am. The mix of objects in this room grounds me in the midst of complicated choices and difficult days, acknowledges the expectations I’ve had for myself and those put on me by others.
I am lucky to have a room of my own. I see it as such a gift, a necessity and a luxury all at the same time. I am thankful that I have it and I wish it for other women, perhaps especially for those who are juggling so much right now. For years, I have been making space for other people. But this room has been here all along waiting for an occasion for me to claim it. The pandemic has given me permission to do that. Did I need that permission? Apparently so, but I wonder why.
While I figure it out, I’ll light my candle and do my work, smile at the memories that surround me, wish for more time to return to those poetry books, and mark my new space as a win during this pandemic, a gift I’ve given myself out of necessity, but one I should’ve claimed a long time ago.