Lowering Standards & Taking Space

I am a performer, a people pleaser and an achiever.

These elements have been central to my identity my whole life and I don’t know myself without these characteristics.

But sometimes performing, pleasing and achieving gets exhausting.  Sometimes, they weigh you down.  Sometimes, you just want to be, to breathe, to trust yourself that if something doesn’t get done today, it will get done tomorrow.

I’m working on this, and part of working on it is the very hard task of lowering (often unrealistic) standards (to be multiple places at once, to have all my papers graded in 24 hours with extensive feedback, to turn around letters of recommendation in an hour, to be all things to all people), making space on my calendar and in my day for myself, and taking that space and time to breathe rather than filling it immediately with the never ending list of things that has to get done.

It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I don’t have much else to say about that, but I just thought you’d want to know.

The Joy of a Daily Writing Practice or The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

Lately, there’s been a lot of intersection between the mothering part of my identity and the academic part of my identity, which I suppose is normal, given that both are central to my core identity, and given that I’m constantly seeking “balance” in ways that allow me to be productive, proactive, and proud of honoring the core of who I really am.

If you follow this blog, last week, I wrote about the negotiation of my academic travels while away from my breastfeeding child.  If you follow my “mom blog,” yesterday, I wrote about having a morning where everything seemed out of balance, hurried, and just plain frustrating.

But, today, I’m going to write about something that I realized I don’t write about very often: the joy and privilege of a daily writing practice.  I know this isn’t a joy or a privilege for everyone, and if you’ve read this blog over its 3.5 year existence, you’ll know it really doesn’t occur for me as a privilege or joy all the time, but since today, it does, I want to give that some space.

When I was in elementary school, I used to spend hours writing.  I loved writing young adult fiction modeled after the books I would read from Scholastic book club orders or the library. As I grew older, I began writing angsty teenage poetry.  And, after my mother passed away in high school, I kept a journal regularly, writing each day for the year after the died, as a lifeline for myself in very troubling times. I was a strong creative writer; I needed personal writing to express thoughts that I was too reluctant to share with the world; and I was adept at academic writing.  In so many ways, I loved writing.

As I progressed in my academic and scholarly pathways, my writing became increasingly something to be judged. My love for writing began to wain as it became performative rather than personal.  Even now, as I blog, I consider the public nature of my writing, and how, although I value an audience for my thoughts and think it important to publicly and privately engage in the roles that are central to who I am, I craft the way I write carefully.  I think about how it will be judged and by extension, I will be judged, and it worries me because no one likes to be judged. Unfortunately, that’s often how I approach the writing I do, as a space of vulnerability and fearing critique and judgment.

It’s only recently that I’ve had a professional breakthrough in terms of writing, thanks to a recent seminar I completed through the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.  The program focuses on thriving in the academy and through my awesome interactions in a faculty small group, as well as the 12 tenets of the program, including daily academic writing, I’ve moved beyond a notion that writing is a Herculean task to a sense of irritation when writing isn’t the first thing on my daily professional calendar.  It’s been quite transformational in relation to power and productivity in my academic work.  But, it hasn’t engendered feelings of love for my writing.

Today, however, I felt the spark of my love for writing rekindled as I drove my son to school.  Unlike yesterday’s ill-fated car ride, today, we talked about our favorite types of fungi (yes, mushrooms) and other favorite foods, about how much he had taken to heart the advice I had given him yesterday, and about what a good day it would be for the both of us.  That reminded me of my blog from yesterday.  And that reminded me of why I love writing.

Writing has the power to remind us of transformation, from day to day, week to week, year to year.  It has the power to capture moments in vivid detail and authentic pain and then allow us to reflect upon those moments in ways that allow us to move forward, to move through, and to move beyond.  Writing reminds us that, yes, sometimes things get bad, and we have mornings where we can’t, but that other times, things get better, and we have mornings where the sun is shining beautifully (but it’s not unbearably hot) and we get to write after a wonderful walk across campus listening to an insightful audiobook.  Writing, and public writing especially, reminds us that we are not alone in our sorrow or our joy, our defeats or our accomplishments.  Writing connects people.  And daily writing connects people daily.

Which is why, today I’m sharing my joy, to remind myself that the sun will come up tomorrow somewhere and someday after days when my judgment and my perspectives are clouded.


The problem with productivity

I do a lot of things in my life.  In fact, some (read, many) would say (read, have said), “You do too much,” and they’re probably right.

The most important things that I do, however, generally relate to one of the two most important identities that I claim: being a mother and being a professional academic.  Both of these are extremely central to who I am, and at times, my attempts to fulfill my own expectations in both lead to a lot of struggle when they intersect in powerful and/or problematic ways.

I can give you many examples of this, but I’m going to focus on one for this post because it is freshest in my mind: the connection between pumping (breast milk) and publication (of peer reviewed manuscripts).  I recognize that, perhaps, this is not the most conventional of connections, but bear with me here, as I tell you a story.

Last Friday, I left for the major professional research conference in my field.  It was in Washington DC, meaning that I’d need to take a 5-6 hour flight to get there from my home in California.  This alone caused great anxiety as it would be the furthest away from my 11-month old baby that I had been to date.  While I cut my trip down to as minimal a time as I could (48 hours approximately on the ground), the week before the trip, I was suffering from extreme anxiety at being away so far for so long even though I knew full well that my partner is extremely competent at taking care of our children.  It wasn’t him, or even them. It was me.  I was missing out on two birthday parties that my son would attend and my daughter’s 11-month “birthday pictures” (You know, the ubiquitous sticker pictures for each month of a child’s life until they turn 1.  At the time of this writing, I still have yet to take these pictures.  I am now 2 days late.  The horror), and although I have extremely non-judgmental friends who are all not only understanding of the fact that what I do causes me to take such trips, but also help out my husband with drop-off and watching my son so he can focus on the baby, I felt terribly guilty.

In addition to all this background guilt, my plan to wean my daughter “a little early” did not come to fruition and I was going to have to pump breastmilk the entire trip, at least 3-4 times a day.  This realization just straight up depressed me while simultaneously sending me on a frantic search of the internet to see whether LAX had a nursing room. It does, if you’re wondering, two, in fact–in terminals 3 and 5, with one opening soon in terminal 7, where I was. The key to that last part is “opening soon” in terminal 7 which translates to “not yet open so either walk across 2 terminals and figure out how to do that without going in and out of security 3 times or pump in the bathroom.”  A lack of certainty that I could even get through security with the wrong airline’s boarding pass or to these other terminals without getting lost relegated me to using the hand pump in the bathroom.

Not seeing the similarities yet?  Well, let me draw my first connections here.  When preparing a piece for publication, you first (if you’re me) stress about it: Are you ready to write it? Do you have enough data? The right kind of data? Is it even important enough to write about? Then, once you accept that you’re going to write it, you try to find a place for it.  And sometimes the first place you try doesn’t work out and you’ve got to revise your plan.  Starting to see where I’m going? Let’s continue with our story.

I landed safely in Washington DC, but hadn’t pumped since LAX (6+ hours earlier).  I needed the fastest way to my hotel because I landed at 6:30, but had dinner plans with colleagues at 7:30, and it was 40 minutes from the airport to the hotel. And, I NEEDED TO PUMP. This sense of urgency was not helped by traffic or the fact that I was persuaded to take the shuttle instead of a cab (luckily, I was 2nd in the drop off order), but I ended up getting to my hotel at 7:30, checking in, getting to my room as quickly as possible, and breaking out the electric pump to relieve my overwhelming need to lactate, before rushing off (late, and frantic) to dinner.  Sounds simply glamorous, doesn’t it?

This is also what happens with writing sometimes.  You’re going along, doing research, collecting data, maybe even doing some analysis, when you realize, you need a publication, and you need one quickly and really actually what you need is time and rest but you have to balance that against the pressure to publish or perish so you sneak in whatever writing time you can quickly in order to get something done and relieve the overwhelming sense of stress that you have when someone asks you about your work or more specifically, what you’re working on. But, I digress.

The conference was great.  I got to reconnect with great friends and colleagues from around the country and present on my work.  A large part of my conference energy, however, was spent on thinking about how and when I would pump, particularly on Sunday when I had to check out of my hotel room, had a mid-morning and lunch meeting and then had to preserve my milk in a refrigerated setting until I was ready to leave for home.  Luckily, the hotel was able to store my milk in the refrigerator (although, seriously, the manager’s comment of “What is that?!” when I presented my gallon sized bag full of mini 4-oz bags of milk and his look of outright confusion was borderline offensive), and I retrieved it without a problem before getting ready to board the plane and doing the reverse trip similarly to my departure, with the added bonus of extra time with a friendly TSA agent who had to check each individual bag of milk through the security screening. Totally not awkward. Totally.  (BTW, Dulles does have a nursing room in the United terminal, but you have to call them to open it.  I did not get to the airport with enough time to wait so this time, I opted for the family bathroom, which was, at least, an upgrade from the economy sized women’s stall at LAX)

In the publication world, when you’re in the middle of writing a piece, you’re often thinking about your piece and wondering when you’ll find time to write it.  Unless you’re vigilant with writing, the time will slip away and you’ll feel like you’ve got to get all your writing out at once or you’ll never get it done.  You’ll have people look at your work and go “What is this?!” and you’ll be more than borderline offended as you try to explain thinking that you thought was perfectly obvious.  Then you’ll have people examine and critique your work while you watch in awkward discomfort, trying all along to pretend this type of scrutiny doesn’t bother you because, well, you understand that it’s all part of the process.  And if you’re productive, with producing breastmilk or articles, everyone focuses on how lucky you are to be able to nurse your child or publish your work.  Yes, it’s absolutely a privilege, but it’s also work, labors of love, perhaps, but labors nonetheless.

The problem with productivity is that it’s a rat race–one that I’ve come to realize I will never win. You can replace pumping with a myriad of other mom duties and publication with a host of other professional duties, but what I’ve come to realize is that the professional mom life is all about the hustle on so many levels.   You are literally hustling from one commitment to another like a dying rat who sees a piece of cheese in the corner of a room and must quickly and precariously cross the room without being seen by his rat brethren who might then get wind of what he’s after and beat him to the prize, or the cat ready to pounce upon him in an instant and extinguish his already precarious existence (Sorry for that particularly unsavory image, did I mention that I still have jet lag?). But, you are also hustling in the sense that you feel like a constant fraud, particularly when people tell you that you make it all look so effortless and you seem like you’ve got everything together.  You smile graciously (partly to avoid a conversation that would take time that you don’t have), but hide the constant lurking sense of insecurity that you don’t have enough time for x or are missing y or are too late for z.  The struggle is real, but you convince yourself too (or at least I do) that your struggles are so much lesser than others and that the privilege of having two important roles in contributing to society–that of mothering and that of your professional calling–is not something one should ever complain about lest someone call you ungrateful.

Well, feel free to call me ungrateful, or a bad mother, or a struggling academic, if you like, but hopefully, you’ll just call me Betina, or mom, or Dr. Hsieh, or better yet, human, because really that’s what I am–a human being with human struggles.

I’m trying to reclaim my life with authenticity–sharing with my community the accomplishments, but also the frustrations and struggles of my journey, and trying to learn that even though I’ll probably never be satisfied with anything (let’s just be honest here), things are exactly what they are, and I’m going to try to make the most of them. Unless I can’t.  And then I’ll take a nap and try again later.