Household Chores

Doing laundry is simple. Throw it in a washer, a dryer, fold and put away. Not terribly taxing, no heavy lifting, no hands and knees scrubbing. And yet, it’s my least favorite household chore. I’d opt for cleaning a bathroom over doing a couple of loads of laundry, any day.

LaundryBecause despite the simplicity of it, it simply is never done.

Kind of like parenting.

My mom has frequently noted that worrying about her kids didn’t cease when we became adults, nor when we had children of our own. In fact, the presence of grandchildren only widened her circle of worry. As the family’s somewhat reluctant matriarch, she also has plenty of nieces and nephews in whose lives she remains protectively involved. There is even an assortment of unrelated children from lifelong and new-found friends, not to mention the childhood friends of my brothers and me that have filled her quasi parenting role over the years.

If you have kids in your life, that sort-of-parenting thing is nearly unavoidable. Even if you don’t want it, even if you’ve never been a parent.

It’s why my mom was among the very first to know when my brother’s friend was going to be a dad. Why my son’s buddies will hang with me even when Michael’s fast out the door. Why Alex’s friends are my Facebook friends. And why the lines can become so blurred when I work with college kids I didn’t know before and won’t see after.

Graduation marks a pretty clear ending to my relationship with my students. It’s probably why I have a harder time at the ceremony than they do. I know what they don’t; that it will be the very last time I ever see them. Sure, a few circle back for a visit or two, friend-request me on Facebook, enter my LinkedIn network. But in any meaningful way, most of them are gone forever. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and I accept it. In fact, I appreciate the clarity of the ending.

It’s harder for me when the lines are fuzzy.

I once told a student that I could help her get all As if that was what she wanted (it wasn’t hyperbole; this kid was capable), but if she wanted me to care more about her grades than her, she’d need to find another tutor. I was serious. I was either all-in or all-out.

Black and white.

She opted in. But after accepting that black and white bargain, she presented me with a whole lot of grey—kind of like poorly laundered whites—and it drove me crazy.

Try as I might, I know I can’t fold up my kids’ troubles into neatly sorted piles. One glance at my daughter’s bedroom or a typical dorm room offers proof-positive of the messiness of kids’ lives. Foreshadowing evidence may begin with babies at mealtime, or toddlers at play, but the state of disarray lasts a lifetime.

Whether you’re an actual parent or only a quasi-parent, kids make your life cluttered and messy and unfinished –but never incomplete.

Shattering Ceilings

    Among the many areas for which I feel somewhat ill-qualified in guiding my students is when I attempt to push them into a business world which I’ve successfully shunned for most of my life. It isn’t that I don’t understand where they’re going. I get corporate America. I understand resumes and interviews. I know the rules of the game.

    It’s just that from my vantage point, the game often is not worth playing.

   broken glass ceiling And young women can be at a particular disadvantage. Even when they’re heading into PR and communications (no shock that my students would be of that ilk), fields well full of the fairer sex, they seem to face some pretty daunting hurdles. The most formidable barriers of which may be the gatekeepers themselves: other women.

    Last semester, when one of my students found herself in a back-and-forth volley of snippy emails with a would-be internship employer, I offered what I considered a commonsense approach. Apologize for missing the meeting and move on. In her defense, the girl was trying to fit an above-and-beyond internship into a full-course curriculum and a 25 mile commute. Car problems and finals week pushed her just over the edge. The woman answering her email mea culpa couldn’t be bothered.

    Was I missing something here? I must have been.

    So I asked a friend who has steadily climbed the business world ladder for the last 20+ years. She got it immediately. She painted a few scenarios. One –the woman had brought the girl onboard and the student’s missed meeting was already reflecting badly upon the woman. Two –she was threatened by a younger, perhaps better polished version of herself. And three, she was just a bitch.

    At the last of her offered explanations, I balked.

    I could hear the shoulder shrug through the telephone line. Regardless of any offense I might take at the stereotypical notion of what defines a successful businesswoman, she seemed to be saying -it was what it was. She implied that Meryl Streep had captured more than good comedy in The Devil Wears Prada; Meryl’s Miranda Priestly was, in fact, pretty representative of women-and-younger-women workforce relationships.

    My apparently naïve vision of an upturned hand offering guidance was slapped away pretty quickly in the world my friend sketched.

    “Girls suck,” she said.

    God, I hate that word. (okay, I get the hypocrisy –let’s not go there)

    And also I don’t believe it.

    Because if I did, I’d have to revisit every lesson I’ve passed along to my kids. I’d have to rethink my personal history. And I’d have to ignore some pretty powerful women in my own life, starting with my mom, my grandmothers and my aunts but enveloping also my cousins, my sister-in-law, my friends and my own supervisor at work.

    It isn’t that I haven’t seen the women to whom my friend refers. I know they’re out there. It’s just that what gets forgotten in all that condemnation and cut-throat imagery are the other women in our lives.

    So because I believe we are bountiful, here’s to the girls who’ve lent a hand, a shoulder, an ear.  The girls who’ve held ponytails after too much partying, wiped tears away after breakups, calmed one trembling hand with another. The girls who’ve offered high fives and fist bumps, but also honest assessments of our outfits, our weight, our boyfriends.

    I believe in all of us because I know that at the close of that horrible news telephone call, the one that usually follows is placed to another woman. And that the in-sickness-and-in-health vow may extend more befittingly to the woman who is bringing food and taxiing children, or sizing her friend for a wig before shuttling her to chemo. I know that at the end of a man’s betrayal, there is a woman pulling her friend from the wreckage of a broken marriage. And that at the depths of her self-esteem, it isn’t a man, but rather a woman telling her that she’s beautiful and worthy and loved. And when the kids are making her crazy, it’s another woman showing up at the doorstep with a bottle of wine and a contributing curse.

    Sure, it’s about venting and raging, but it’s also about crying and consoling. Sometimes its words, like “I’m sorry,” or “I get it,” and sometimes it’s complete silence, a hand on a knee, a hug. It’s reassurance and affirmation and pride. It’s simple understanding, or utter irreverence. It’s being there –good times and bad- in a way that supplants geographic location; it’s the kind of touch that transcends physical contact.

    Perhaps because I’ve been tested with bad times, I doubly believe in the good.  I’ve cried crippling tears of loss, but more often streaming tears of laughter. And sharing them both with me is always a woman.

    So if my young friend will trust it, I’ll continue to pass along my naiveté. Because for every woman shattering glass ceilings with disregard for raining debris and collateral damage, I’d like to believe there are at least as many pulling the littered shards from hair and clothes and leading with helping hands. My vision ignores the nasty emails and focuses instead on the one my student received which sincerely thanked her for joining the team, assured her that she’d always have a home in their workplace and signed it with Xs and Os. The email’s author is the type of woman I wish to be in her life –a woman who isn’t threatened or spiteful, but rather a guide up the ladder of a success that isn’t measured solely by titles and paychecks. And one who willingly passes along the feminist torch with a light that doesn’t burn, but rather bolsters and warms, instead.

A Boss Example

A few years ago it occurred to me that I was probably among very few employees whose first response to an email from her boss was a smile and a pleasant anticipation. I knew that regardless of the challenge that her email might also include, it would be embraced with warmth, respect and always a bit of humor.

endicottWhen Kathy indicated at the beginning of last semester that I might not expect to have her at the helm if I agreed to take on additional students –I didn’t. I love my job and the students. But I know that both sentiments are likely true only because of her steadfast and wise leadership. I never would have been allowed to forge such close relationships with my students without her trust.

Kathy cares passionately about all of the students under her charge, but also believes in the ability of her staff to make good decisions, on their own. The fact that I might not have always followed a college-scripted, by-the-book path wasn’t lost on her.  But she understood that I—and most all of us—always placed the best interest of our students as our top priority. Just like our boss did; we had an awesome example to follow.

She did our jobs—along with her own—for many years so she remained fully in the trenches even as she led the charge. She always understood exactly what we might be going through, because she was often going through it herself.

The you have no idea phrase is ill-suited to account for the myriad scenarios that too closely resemble fiction with regard to some of our students’ antics. But as fabricated as the tales may have sounded, Kathy believed –in what we were telling her, and way more importantly, in the students and all their potential.

She also believed in our abilities to weather whatever student storm came our way and never lost a chance to tell us. I can’t count (seriously, the number is too high) how many times her emails offered appreciation and accolades for the jobs we did.  She never took us for granted, ever.

As to the job(s) she was doing? Amazing doesn’t come close to describing her own job performance. Not only did she know each and every student by name; she also knew their personalities, their parents, their issues, their majors –often even the classes they were taking and what might be tripping up their chance at success.

If her first priority was helping them attain that sometimes illusive success, her second one was loyalty to her staff. She always had our backs. When I first started at the college, a parent contacted me directly with news about her daughter. Kathy made sure I knew that it shouldn’t happen again; parent contact was her department, not ours. It wasn’t because she was worried about what I might say or do, but rather that she knew just how crazy-involved millennial parents could be and wanted to always be a protective buffer against them. She’d handle the crazies if we handled the students.

But when handling the students sometimes got out of hand, we always knew we could turn to her. No matter what she was doing, when it came to her chickadees, everything else could be put on hold. When I switched to nights and began to touch base at the close of her day, I felt a ping of guilt for keeping her from an easy exit out the door. It didn’t stop me, but I knew I was delaying her day’s ending. She never seemed to mind. Whatever she was doing, she stopped. And gave me—and my students—her undivided attention.

To say her departure will leave a gaping hole, is crazy understatement. Her higher-ups are likely unaware how much worse off their cozy little college will be without her. Someone will step into her role –more likely more than someone—but no one will ever fill her shoes. Her staff will miss her beyond words. But the void that will be most profoundly felt, even if only in a reverberating resonance, will be with the students. To those lucky enough to have known her, she is irreplaceable. But even for those who will never know her, she will likely remain a phantom presence, one of hope for their futures and in an unwavering belief in them—all of them—to accomplish great things and become great people.