Making a good example of myself
"I'm scared," I said to my six- and four-year-old daughters at the airport on my way to a 12-day summer residency in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. "I will have to walk into the classroom and I don't know anyone." My daughters, who had been through the same ordeal themselves, gave me a hug.
"Can you give me any advice?" I asked. My four-year-old put her hand on my shoulder and offered a sympathetic smile. "Just walk through the scared," she said.
On the flight to Vancouver, I began to think. My daughters and I have an important thing in common now, as we are all students. I decided that, for the next five years of the Master of Fine Art programme, I would be spinning this common factor into some great life-lessons for my girls. But based on my experience at the airport, I could see that I would be learning just as much.
That was five years ago and I have now graduated. The plan was to take my kids to Vancouver for my convocation. I had thought, perhaps with a bit of self-centredness, that it would be another inspiration for them - but when the time came my girls said they were too busy with school, and I wasn't keen on the two 12-hour flights for a brief moment of glory.
So I told the university to just put my parchment in the post. When the document came I gathered everyone around and my daughters helped me open the package. We opened the vinyl case and there it was, Mummy's new graduate degree. I walked slowly across the living-room holding my degree, wearing a dressing gown in place of graduation gown. Everyone clapped. It was a proud moment.
Months later, I sat with my daughter, talking about her own studies. She mentioned those five years of knowing that I was working at my desk late at night. Then she said, "Sometimes, Mummy, you inspire me." Had I ever lamented the cost of that degree, that would have made the expense worth it.
Over the years I have talked to my girls about "lifelong learning". I saw my work and studies as good role-modelling in that regard. But I was also thinking about what I would do when I completed the course. Now what? I have been warned that a hands-on mum like myself would have a tough time with empty-nest syndrome. My older daughter's high-school graduation is still five years away, but I am already starting to give it some thought.
There's a lot of inspiration in my community. I know mums who changed careers - fitness trainer to school teacher, writer to nurse, and mums who started new careers, like lawyer and counsellor. That sounds intriguing. But maybe I had better ask my girls: "What do you think I should be ... when you grow up?"
Ironically, while I am thinking of career changes down the road, I am also thinking about taking it easy and making an effort to be more available to my children. I asked a friend, formerly a broadcast journalist in Japan, if she ever missed her busy, high-powered days, and her answer was very assured. She doesn't, because she has chosen to help her daughter navigate her way from schoolgirl to university student.
They have set their sights high - all the stakeholders in the family - because they are well aware of what is achievable. And they know that good things, high hopes, ambitious plans don't just happen.
It takes effort. And not only that, such achievements rarely happen by one person's effort alone. It takes a team. Parents have a very special role on this team, a role with no substitute and no deputy.
I get that. Teenagers especially need their parents in a way children do not. My children need me to be available in mind as well as in body, and that just isn't possible when I am in the middle of writing a book. They know when I am "switched off" for them and they are getting tired of it.
So my latest book project is on hold. My current work output is characterised by its relatively short length. The only "character development" I am concerned with is my children's. And I don't bring my work home with my any more.
It's not easy to surrender the career and artistic ambitions for the sake of family But I will endeavour to do it. I have resigned myself to leave my biggest professional ambitions sitting on the backburner for the next several years, until my daughters are both in university.Now that I have made this decision, I am starting to see the benefits. Getting back to work on all my grand ideas, when the time comes, will keep me occupied on many levels.
It will help me transition through to a new chapter in a mum's life - post-parenthood and the empty nest. Karmel Schreyer is a writer and mother of two children