Saturday, September 3, 2011

Work: The empty hour

Just before the school year starts I make a flurry of preparations that feel as essential as taking one last deep gulp of air before diving underwater. The actual provisions made vary from year to year, but I usually realize in retrospect that they lean more toward the bizarre than the necessary.

A couple of Augusts ago I spent an afternoon making buttermilk biscuits from scratch, which I froze for the girls' breakfasts despite the fact that they had never before shown any interest in eating such a thing. Naturally, they refused to touch them. This year I loaded up on jumbo sized bottles of hair product. I also stocked up on ponytail holders for the girls, and, inexplicably, little plastic barrettes, which I have never used or wished to use in their hair before last week.

After the first week of school, it is clear to me that my preparations have once again been misguided. If this week is any indication, I will actually have ample time to buy shampoo. In fact, since Little E's pick-up time at her new daycare is an hour later than it was at her old one, I am left with 75 vacant minutes between work and pick-up. It feels like enough time to concoct my own shampoo from scratch or braid my head up in corn rows.

I should be happy, but I am conflicted about this. Maybe it's because I overheard a co-worker who is also teaching part-time this year explaining that since her children, younger than mine, didn't really need her at home her reduced schedule was really a selfish decision that benefited only her. Maybe it's because everyday last week when I came home, the men who are working on our kitchen smiled and said hello in such a way that the subtext was unmistakable: Why the hell aren't you at work, lady?

When I worked full-time I often felt overwhelmed and deficient in my duties both at work and at home, but I had the solace of martyrdom. I may not have been able to make it to the Hundredth Day of School party in Big E's kindergarten class, I may have had to sneak out of the faculty meeting if it ran too close to bus drop off time, but I knew for sure that I wasn't wasting more than a few minutes a day on myself. Last year I started working part-time and only occasionally felt overwhelmed or deficient, but still I picked up Little E 15 minutes after I got out of work. The pace of my days may have been more comfortable, but there was still little time not earmarked for work or family.

I know could spend my extra hour planning and grading at work, but that would make my salary reduction seem a waste. I suppose I could go to the gym or sit in a Starbucks with my laptop, but doing either of those things in the middle of the day would feel too indulgent. I could stay home and catch up on daytime TV, but surely the kitchen guys wouldn't appreciate that. For now, I'm making sure that we have a healthy store of toothpaste and toilet paper and hoping that with the second week of school will come a clearer purpose for my vacant hour.

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