I turned 35 earlier this month, and with that came the realization that my actual age has finally passed my mental age. I’m not sure what 35 is meant to feel like, but I don’t feel 35. This is a huge change. So much of my identity has been predicated on being the “young mom” that I bought into a lot of respectability politics, determined to prove myself worthy of being a mother, even if I was young and unmarried when I started. Proving myself worthy meant mentally advancing my age, trying to parrot what I thought a respectable mother felt and did. I’ve usually felt older than my actual age, had to correct myself and round down to whatever age I really was.
There is something wonderful and terrifying about being an older undergraduate. I dropped out of art school at barely 20, a few months pregnant and very, very scared. When I went to meet with the woman who processed my forms to leave school, I told her I was pregnant, told her in a clear, carrying voice, and even when I told her I wasn’t ashamed, she rushed to shut the door of her office, began speaking to me in hushed tones. When I repeated that I wasn’t ashamed, that she could tell my teachers why I was leaving, she overruled me and filled out forms so that I wasn’t dropping out; I was on medical leave. In retrospect, there was kindness in this, a stopper left in the door so I could get back in, but at the time, and even now, it felt mostly like it was about covering my shame. My classmates from the illustration department were told I was too ill to return to school and I was sent a mess of get well cards, hand delivered by a friend who knew I wasn’t sick, a friend I deputized to tell people what was really going on.
I hadn’t been a very good art school student. I wasn’t terrible, but I was never a stand out or a star. Younger me’s perfectionism manifested as an unwillingness to try very hard, as trying meant risking what I saw as “real” failure. Failure that came about because I didn’t try could be chalked up to that lack of effort and I could tell myself that if I’d really tried, I’d never have failed. That younger me was so so afraid of failure and she brought that fear to her pregnancy. I had to be a good mom, not just for myself and my child, but for all the people who heard that Kristen got pregnant in her sophomore year of college and dropped out, all those people I was sure were waiting eagerly for my failure.
I know my pregnancy made some juicy gossip. I know because people sometimes chose to tell me what they’d heard, that a person I emailed about my pregnancy who never emailed back had forwarded that message on to people who didn’t like me very much, that a relative had told one of my parents that I’d end up back on their doorstep when my boyfriend left me, that an old classmate I never talked to had asked one of my close friends about my pregnancy. That said, I don’t think it was more malicious or interested than that. It was an interesting anecdote and people were filling in the arc with a generic unwed mother narrative. My whiteness meant I missed out on the racial angle of this narrative, expect when people referred to my non-white Venezuelan boyfriend who was alternately expected to stick around because of an ethnic stereotype of familial fidelity and to leave me because of a racist stereotype about young brown men. It traveled because such news does travel, but most of the sour taste I found in it was due to my own acceptance of respectability narratives.
I had the child and I tried to be older than my age, to mime the gestures of perfect, respectable motherhood. When our son was ten months old my boyfriend and I got married and in time we had two more kids, the third born when I was 26. For all that I was trying to be a model of respectability, our financial stability was often rocky and it is thanks to our families that we got by. The more difficult things were, the more I wanted to appear I steady and capable, the more I wanted to defy my labels and to pass as someone who’d done things “the right way.” Since I’d dropped out of college, this was always a thorn in my side. I feared people thinking that I was unintelligent. I tried to make myself talismans of intelligence, markers that showed that I was not stupid.
And while I loved my children, I tried to hide from myself how little I loved the role of mother. I don’t mean the part where you’re the parent of children, the literal definition of parenthood, but the symbolic role of mother, that impossible archetype we carry around in our heads. I could bake a cherry pie, charming Billy, but I could not keep a tidy house. I could not smile like a beneficent angel on the small upturned faces of my dear charges, never raising my voice, never bringing rain to the sunny lives of my little darlings. Sometimes I terrified myself by roaring like a lion in rage. Sometimes I hated the thought of making dinner so much that I just served whatever food I didn’t have to cook. Sometimes I went into the bathroom to weep. Weirdly, the spectre haunting me in my failures was Ma Ingalls, that fictional mishmash of colonialist ideals in the Little House books. Ma Ingalls would have been calm when she told her children to stop throwing flour at each other. Ma Ingalls would have calmly gotten by without complaint. (And she would have ranted a racist rant about the people she was displacing from their own land, but I didn’t tell myself that when I was castigating myself with the image of Ma Ingalls.)
The part of me that was most desperate for acceptance was also the part of me that least accepted me as I am. I held on to a thought of returning to school, and sometimes I took some of the community college classes necessary to get me back into a four year institution, but I kept putting off the moment of actually applying because that spectre of failure still hung in the air around me, and I still believed with my being, if not my head, that only by not-trying could I avoid failing. After I’d taken enough classes to have the credits to go back, I still couldn’t bring myself to apply.
That I did apply, I owe to community. On Twitter, and possibly on Facebook as well, I asked for people to hold me accountable, to ask me if I’d applied, to push me to do the work to get back to school. Once I’d publicly announced my intention to apply to school, I hoped that the possibility of public failure, of shame, would push me the rest of the way. To some extent it did, but I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many friends who looked at my application essay and offered me tips and criticisms and help, especially Christine, Ashley, Kelly, and Sarah, women who all took the time to comb my words and tell me to keep going. I had an almost pathological fear of the forms, so I kept my vision myopic, dealt with one at a time, and shook and retched and allowed myself the physical results of terror after each one.
When I first started filling out the forms, my goal was to go to UC Berkeley. I’m from California, and Berkeley has always been held up to me as a great school. When I was applying to colleges my first go around, I didn’t apply to any of the colleges that I instinctively felt were out of my reach. This time, I applied to every school at all nearby, but my dream was to get into Berkeley. It seemed more feasible since my little sister had transferred into Berkeley as an older student, done wonderfully well, and graduated. I added an Oakland women’s college, Mills, out of obligation to my goal of returning somehow, anyhow, and at first thought no more about it.
Then the phone calls began. Once I’d sent in my transcripts, before I’d even applied, Mills started calling. The women I talked to were friendly, told me that Mills had a reputation for being dogged in its pursuit of students, and they kept calling, kept inviting me to events, kept sending me reminders in the mail. One day I took them up on an invitation and went with my husband to the campus for a presentation for potential returning students. I’d never been there before, even though we had lived within a few short miles when we first moved to the Bay Area. The moment we passed through the gates, I started shaking. The campus was beautiful.
We sat through the presentation and went to a catered lunch, and my terror grew, because as the presentation went on, I wanted this. I wanted to go to this school so much it hurt. I had begun the application process only out of loyalty to my plan of applying to all the nearby schools, but now that I was here, I wanted it and it terrified me. People told me about the ways in which I seemed like a good match for the school, and when we left, I cried in the car on the way home. My husband understood. He’d begun wanting it, too.
Mills is a private school and the tuition was far outside our budget. To be honest, the public school tuition was far outside our budget, my procrastination having resulted in my applying to California public colleges after a devastating series of tuition hikes that has placed college outside the reach of many – most, really. I hoped to get through and make enough to pay off the inevitable student debt, but there was no way I could get to Mills even if I got in at all, something that I’d been told by my community college professors was a real challenge in itself. So I applied and hated myself for wanting it, told myself that I had backup schools. I’d get in somewhere. I’d go to school somewhere. I’d get that necessary diploma and I’d get a job and it would all be OK. But in the back of my mind, I kept wanting.
I didn’t get in to any of my backup schools. Not a one. I can’t tell you why, because I don’t know. I received an automatic no from SF State, because I hadn’t correctly fulfilled all of their requirements. I don’t know why I was rejected from the other schools. But Mills said yes. The letter came with a scholarship offer, and the wanting became tangible. It was a generous scholarship, but still not enough money for me to go. What I didn’t fully understand was that the initial scholarship was not my full financial aid package, and so, when that arrived sometime later, and I sat down and read it and saw the numbers and realized that I could go to Mills and graduate with less debt than I’d have had if I had gotten into those public schools, I felt my terror grow like a bamboo shoot inside me. I had gotten what I wanted and it scared me more than anything had ever scared me. All that money telling me that I was trusted. All those people who’d helped me through the process. I owed something to everyone, and even, I allowed myself to feel, I owed myself. There would be no more withholding of effort. I was going to try and all failures would be my own. It was a heady, beautiful, horrible mixture of joy and terror. Getting what you want is painful.
I’m entering my last semester at Mills next week. The first year went better than I had any right to hope. I loved every single class I took. I won a fiction award in the English department and later, a merit scholarship for returning students. All of that pent up desire to be able to think and learn and grow has been met beyond my expectations. I know that there is enormous privilege in this. I know that not every woman at Mills has this experience. I’ve heard from women of color that they often feel excluded in classes. I’ve read discussions on the walls in the Lucie Stern bathrooms talking about ways in which people feel isolated or hurt or discriminated against. I know that my rosy return to college is mine, and that I owe much of it to the support of people around me, some of it unearned.
My feminism has changed as a direct result of school. I am trying to reexamine my feminism, to see how much of it was based on imagining all women as just like me, on respectability and the exclusion of the most vulnerable. One thing I’ve realized is that I want to be more careful with my humor, because careless humor hurts others. I will be taking down my (also deeply neglected) blog Lady Business, because I look back and see that much of what I wrote there was based on a diet of easy answers and quick jokes without examination of the impact. The bodily definitions of womanhood that I made were trans*exclusionary, and even though that wasn’t my intent, intent is far less important than effect.
And while I desperately want to give credit to all of the many, many people who have helped me here to where I am getting what I wanted, I also find myself feeling defensive of my work because I notice that there are also many people who are quick and happy to give my credit away. When people find out that I am in school and that I have three kids, they often talk about how great my husband must be. And he IS great, and I love him, and he’s been absolutely wonderful, but why are people so ready to give him credit for my successes? It’s a small thing, but when he posted on Facebook that I’d won an award, a very few people told him that it was really a family effort, and I felt indignant, because no, the part where I worked my ass off and tried harder than I’ve ever tried before, that was me. That was a deliberate and intentional change in my work habits, a careful recalibrating of my perfectionism so that it worked for me instead of against me, and while the support has been crucial to some parts of my enjoyment and success in school, some part of it is up to me. The response felt gendered because I don’t think I’ve ever had someone tell me that I had ownership of my husband’s successes. They tell me that he deserves it, that he has worked so hard, that I must be so happy for him, but what they don’t say is, “Wow, that must have been a family effort,” even though, to the same extent that it applies to me and school, it is a family effort. My husband relies on my support as I rely on his. My unpaid female labor was applied for thirteen years in our home, and even when I wasn’t tidy or perfect or wonderful, I was working, doing often physical work that our society tends to write off as demeaning when it is done for pay, natural when done without pay. When my husband tells people that he has three kids, they don’t marvel that he also works outside the home. They don’t gush about how great his wife must be that she allows him this opportunity.
So here I am, about to start my last semester, still elated and terrified. I haven’t loved school since early elementary, but I love this, love it so much that the terror has never left me. I want to rush forward and yet I fear what I’ve left behind. I want to enjoy this experience now, but the future without this specific hard work that I love so much is also scary. For now I am not fully allowing myself to feel the approach of the end and the next start. I still have a lot of work before then: a thesis that I am excited to write, a novel that is pressing me for a finished draft, readings upon readings. I’m 35 years old, far older than a usual undergraduate student, grateful for my age in how it has changed this experience for me, sometimes wistful about how the time has already passed.
For now, I’m getting what I want. It’s like staring into the Grand Canyon. I am awed by its beauty and so afraid of falling.