I’m a dropout. No, not the stigmatized high school dropout. Not even the incomplete undergrad. I’m an ex-MFA candidate with little intention of completing that degree. Though this could easily be a piece criticizing the value or practicality of higher education in the arts, it’s actually about parenting.
I withdrew from grad school when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. Was it a complete surprise? No, not really, since my husband and I had quit using birth control and decided to “not not try” to have a baby. From the moment I saw that little word “pregnant” on the pee stick, I knew I would finish my first semester of school, which ended when I was about 20 weeks along. I thought I’d then withdraw, take a brief hiatus for bonding with the baby, then jump back in school a few months later. I kind of figured once a newborn becomes a baby, you could just plunk that baby down with some toys and go about your adult business.
I quickly learned that however calm and content babies are when you’re cooing over them, they are equally as boisterous and demanding the second you divert your attention elsewhere. My sugary daydreams of writing short fiction for school with a sleeping baby nestled against me were, as it turns out, just daydreams. Forget going back to school anytime soon–I was still trying to figure out the basics like carrying groceries up to my second-floor apartment, how and when to take a shower, how and when to take a shit. Maybe my girl was just an unusually demanding newborn. Maybe I had stupidly high standards for motherhood. Whatever it was, it was weeks before I even attempted to write something again, and that first draft wasn’t even that great.
But being tied down with a baby just made me realize how precious my free time really was. When in my pre-parent days I would spend 15 minutes of downtime playing Spider Solitaire on my computer, I would now use that 15 minutes to research potential writing markets. When I would have spent an hour “warming up” my writing muscles by staring out the window sipping coffee, I would now wake up at five in the morning and spew sentences into a Word doc like I was staring death in the face. What has surprised me the most is that with having only one percent of the free time I used to have, I’m about 200 percent more productive.
Having a baby didn’t just make me more productive, it made me care about stuff more. Not to perpetuate the cliche, but I’m simply not as selfish now as I was in my pre-motherhood days, and it’s making me aware of how selfish some of my child-free friends are. Now before the child-free readers out there get all huffy, I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about people I know. And I’m definitely not saying all things non-baby related are selfish, like eating fourthmeal and going clubbing and taking spontaneous road trips. These things are totally fine. I’m saying it’s selfish when a friend makes a plan with you and doesn’t even bother to say she’s backing out until you contact her. Or the friend who has no consideration for your schedule or your life. Or the friend who bitches about greedy Republicans and the moral decay of the world but never lifts a finger for his or her own community. This is selfishness, people.
Maybe it’s the thankless act of caring for a colicky sack of flesh every day, or maybe it’s the fact that I want my daughter to live in a better world, but having a baby made me more conscious of the community and of the importance of the relationships I have. Although I have yet to seriously partake in volunteer work (I’m working on it), since becoming a mother I’ve been much more compassionate to those around me. My husband and I are getting better at communicating, fighting fair and helping each other out. Of the few friendships I do maintain, I make a serious effort to maintain them well. I visit my grandparents weekly and see my other extended family at least once a month, something I would’ve “never had time for” before having a baby.
So what does this have to do with grad school? I imagine, if I’d stayed on that track and not had a baby, much would be different. Sure, I’d have some bolstered sense of my worth as a writer. I’d also have $40,000 in student loan debt with some crazy notion that I needed “just one more” degree to really make it in the world. That would inevitably go on until I’d buried myself in hundreds of thousands of student loan debt. I would still be sleeping until noon, spending too much money on alcohol and claiming to be smart and worldly all the while being unable to name even one political leader from my state (Claire McCaskill and Jay Nixon, there’s two) or knowing how to check the oil level in my car. Basically, I was one of those bubble-headed millennial with lots of ideas, little money and constantly changing ambitions.
If I ever want to teach at a collegiate level, yes, I’ll need to go back and get that MFA. But when I look back and see everything I’ve acquired since having a baby, I am confident that an MFA would not have even come close. And, honestly, I’ve probably done more for my career by getting out there and just writing instead of sitting in a stuffy room with a bunch of hipsters talking about writing. I can’t say that having a baby is a one-way street to maturity for everyone, but for me, that’s a pretty accurate description.