Monday, September 26, 2011

AP Math

Up until my junior year in high school, I never put that much effort into school.  I would get A's and B's, but I actually didn't care that much about my grades.  I wasn't really challenged, and I didn't care to be challenged either.  I was more into boys and lunch time and talking on the phone for hours each evening (thank God I grew up before Facebook).

I had always taken AP Math classes, and my junior year I signed up for AP Precalculus.  Within the first week or so, it became clear that this was not going to be so easy peasy.  I did the homework as required and studied for quizzes and exams in study hall, but it didn't cut it.  For the first time in my academic career, I was failing.  Failing!  I was humiliated.  I remember asking to go to the nurse during one class right before the teacher was about to pass back test results, because I was so ashamed.  After about a month, I went to see my guidance counselor and told her I wanted to transfer to the Honors class instead.  She approved it, and within a few days, my schedule was changed.

Then something weird happened. 

I started to feel bad about myself - like I let myself down.  During the first day in my new math class, I had to hold back tears the entire time.  My emotions were shocking to me.  Why did I care?  Shouldn't I be happy?  No more shame.  No more failing.  I was back in my comfort zone, where I could put forth minimal effort and sail by and life would go on.  But for some reason, I did feel shame.  More shame than I felt in getting a failing grade.

Back I went to the guidance counselor, with my tail between my legs.  I asked to be reinstated to my original schedule.  She said it was fine, but I would have to get permission from my original teacher from the AP class.  Mrs. Kobida reluctantly allowed me to return, but on the condition that I put forth a lot of effort - that I reach out for tutoring, that I participate in class, and that my grades improve.

I worked my ass off and got an A in the class for the year.  And from that point on, I was a different person academically.  I started caring, and put forth more effort all around.  I wanted to be challenged, and anything less than stellar results was unacceptable. This attitude carried me through the rest of my higher education.  When I would get the occasional B, I felt bad about myself.  Not because it was a bad grade, but because I could have done better.  And by many accounts, this attitude served me well - good law school, good job, good salary.  Done.

This attitude also made me particularly well suited for a job in biglaw.  The best biglaw associates are the ones who are their own worst critics - who are their own motivators.  In many ways, I looked at my job as another academic experience.  I wanted A's - I wanted the best reviews.  I wanted the biggest bonus - not because of the money per se (though the money was nice), but because it was an indication that I was excelling.  That I wasn't being complacent or lazy. That I was fulfilling my potential.

It was this very attitude that made me feel shame when I asked for a part time schedule at work after Braden was born.  I felt it was an admission that I wasn't rising to the challenge anymore.  Yes, I would still try and do my best at the work that I was given, but that was undermined by the fact that I was putting forth much less effort overall.  Kind of like dropping down to Honors Math.

And then, when I decided to quit .... wow, there was even more shame in that.  Now I wasn't just dropping down to Honors Math.  I was dropping math all together.  I had come full circle.  And thus was born my internal struggle in making my decision to stay at home.  A big tornado of relief, regret, excitement, anxiety, and shame.

In the past few months, my shame has begun to dissipate.  I have realized that my situation is very different than it was 15 years ago in high school.  Yes, I am dropping out of math.  But I have added a couple more very demanding classes, called Braden and Casey.  Some people are really good at excelling in multiple classes at once, and I truly tip my hat off to those people.  In a lot of ways, I wish I could do all three classes.  But for me, that was just too hard.  In order to excel in my new classes, something had to give.  So no more math. 

I'm beginning to realize that it's pretty judgmental of society at large to judge me for wanting to scale back my course load right now.  I'm beginning to realize that it isn't so outlandish to have an expectation of recognition for the work that I am doing, perhaps in the form of an appropriate increase in my future social security benefit.  I'm beginning to realize that the term "feminist stay at home mom" is not an oxymoron.  I'm beginning to realize that I can always sign up for another math class someday - maybe not the same math class as before, but a challenging one nonetheless. 

And I'm proud to say that I'm doing a damn good job at the classes I'm taking right now.  And as time goes by, I miss AP math less and less.


  1. I remember the shame, as I cried and cried and told my senior partner that I didn't know what was wrong with me, I had to quit, I just couldn't seem to get the new baby and the pre-schooler to two different day care centers, prep for depos and trials, and keep the house running. Sure I had a husband. But I couldn't manage it. So I quit. I was totally inadequate. Now I know it wasn't me - what I was being asked to do, with children, the job, the house and all the rest of it, that was impossible. And I thought it was all my fault. Sheesh.

  2. I read your blog every day and I love it. As a former big law associate who now has two kids, works part time and will likely soon be quitting altogether, I totally relate to everything you write. I can see how there is some shame initially, but then I think, much of that must be self imposed (or would be in my case). I also think about what my own mom says when I am making these decisions and that is, "nothing is forever. Things change, plans change, your kids are only small once." To me, that can make walking away less daunting. Or so I hope, we'll see....

  3. I have to say I have been thoroughly enjoying reading your blog...It's like that morning cup of tea that warms and lifts your spirits when your house is messy and your children are falling apart (I don't drink coffee anymore because it makes my anxiety worse, so green jasmine it is). I may have stumbled upon your blog while doing a random google search with the words "stay-at-home mom, PPD, high achiever (or something along those lines)." I am not a lawyer, but I share many of the same sentiments that I read in your daily blog. I finished my Master's towards the end of my pregnancy with my first daughter. Unlike you, I didn't attempt to go back to work (in part because I didn't have a job to go back to, and I had fallen in-love with my daughter and fallen out of love with the idea of not being with her during the day). My husband had a good job, having just finished dental school, so the financial necessity wasn't an argument for me. That was five years ago, and I am now a stay at home mother to two beautiful, dynamic daughters. I have struggled with depression since my second daughter was born and a great deal of that has related to feelings of low self-worth and shame. I have been torn between the idea of going back to school versus continuing to stay at home with my kids, completing our family and getting them all up and running so to speak. For someone who has already spent 8 years of her life in post-secondary education with BIG ideas for who she would become and what she would be, it has been a hard lesson to recognize that self worth does not come from external sources but rather from within. This is a lesson that can be applied to a career outside the home but also mothering - particularly in the latter case, when we are in danger of looking to our own kids to define who we are based on our pesonal investment in them. As our kids grow-up and individuate (as they do) they may not be who we envisioned them to be because they are their own people with their own ideas, plans, goals etc. In my case, I want to learn how to be a happy achiever, rather than a driven neurotic, regardless of what I am doing. I am currently learning to accept the reality that a utopian ideal of a situation does not exist. There is no perfect job, no such thing as a perfect mother, no way to have it all (and receive a positive reflection from others at the same time) without making some sacrifices/compromises. I believe it is only when one has kids that we are forced to truly grow up. It involves looking at ourselves in the mirror and accepting who we are - the good, and the not so good. In the end, we can't have it all, and certainly not all at once. We have to be patient and kind with ourselves. We must, forgive, love and let go....

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    Jana (in Canada)

  4. Loved this post and loved Jana's comments too.
    I recently told someone who had climbed the ranks about as far as you possibly can in the legal field that I was going to be a stay at home mom instead of continuing up the ladder. His words, when I mentioned that I perceived others to look at me as "stepping down" were something to the effect of "if others think you're not making the right decision, then to hell with them. All that matters is what you want and what you think is right." I suspect that the person who is looking down on me for "stepping down" more than anyone else is myself, but I'll work on strengthening the inner voice that thinks I'm doing the right thing to be able to tell that AP Math side of me to hell with it.

  5. Thank you all SO much for your comments. They are so inspiring! Jana, I love your term "happy achiever." I am striving for that also - as well as to define what "achiever" means to me. And K and 10:14, you're right - so much of the judgment comes from within. I'm working on that too. :)

  6. Oh, I SO relate to this one. I have a horrible time doing too much and doing it well - and that is they key word: doing it "well." It took me years to feel like I enjoyed being more at home with my kids for the very reasons that you described above - I felt I wasn't living up to my potential.

    But life changes, and goals change... and I have begun to realize that you can't let one thing define you. I have been "defined" by my job. I have been "defined" by my children, and in the process... occasionally I lost myself. And in hindsight I've discovered that every second, every minute of my life should be worth something.

    Last night my husband was awarded a very prestigious award - and as the Emcee announced his long list of accomplishments I mentally started listing off mine... and you know what - there are still PLENTY to list off as a mom. It's just all about what YOU see as accomplishments.

  7. We can be so hard on ourselves. Just last week I was berating myself for not losing more baby (plus) weight. And my good friend was like, "Have some tacos and give yourself a break already." It was good.

  8. I don't think that you should feel shame at all. Different strokes for different folks. I'm a mom of two that works outside the home. I work as a Public Defender. I take great pride in my work and being in court, litigating the CRAP out of stuff. And when I was in law school and then working and then married and then pregnant, I knew that I was not the type to stay at home and not work outside the home. But I also learned that this was who I was. It's not who everyone else is. I also learned that it's so important to support the woman who isn't like me in the decisions that they make - because you have to trust that the decision that they make is the one that's best for them at that moment and to go from there.

    You rock.

  9. I too left "big law" and stayed at home during my second pregnancy, and while I loved every minute of those nine months, a part of me did feel like I was failing. I'm back part time at a small firm now, but feeling conflicted once again. The pressures to bill are just too much sometimes.


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