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The Big Picture

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a marine biologist, or a lawyer, or a writer. When I got to high school, an English teacher introduced me to art history, which sparked my passion for combining literature and art to understand the past. It was also at that time that I learned Spanish, a language I'd continue to study, and practice, during my high school and college years. Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, I refined my interest in people and culture, our understandings of ourselves and eventually, I studied how "stuff" tells us about people, culture, and place.

Growing up, my mom would say, "Why don't you become a physical therapist? They help people and it's a well-paying, secure job." Unfortunately, I paid no attention to her. Honestly, my math and science grades weren't exactly stellar enough to propel me into a good college program to study physical therapy or anything that would require me to successfully identify body parts of a dead pig. Plus, I loved to read and write and evaluate how contemporary society fits into an historical context. I thought it was more fun to identify the date of a portrait based on the sleeve of the model's dress, or tell you if a chest of drawers was made by a particular Pennsylvania Dutch immigrant. My mind was in the clouds and I was in love with a newly (to me) discovered field of American and Museum studies.

Poor Mom. What was she to tell people when they asked what I was going to be when I grew up, when they asked her how I was to pay for those big student loans from that fancy women's college? She had no idea so I wrote it down on an index card for her reference. I wrote something like, "I am majoring in American studies and I plan to get a Master's degree in Museum studies. I wish to be a museum curator. I want to be that person you see interviewed on the History Channel about some random topic in American history." In graduate school I continued to define my big dreams. I no longer decided I needed to be a curator. I wanted to be a museum educator. I liked working with the museum vistor. I wanted to help them understand history and material culture (aka stuff) in a fun, engaging, and interactive way. This was what I was going to do and I planned to be good at it, to move up the ladder, and make a little money while I was at it, too.

When Andy and I first started dating and got married, I was full speed ahead with my budding museum career. I had a good entry-level job at a nationally acclaimed museum. Through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, I was learning and growing professionally and it seemed like I was on the up and up. Andy and I spent lots of quality time talking about our career ambitions, our plans, and how we were going to get there. We felt the energy of our collective potential and we were excited about the hard work ahead of us and the benefits we would reap from our labor. Then I had to go and get pregnant. Yep, the old career killer- kids. I didn't intentionally decide to shift my focus. It just happened. I had no choice.

Less than a year after Caroline was born, I left the museum for a flexible, part-time position at a local college. While it was a shift from my original career path, it afforded me a chance to use transferable skills, to still help people, and to collect a competitive wage with benefits. As time went on, I plugged away at my job and decided one kid was not enough so we doubled the child population in our home. Over the last six years, as I've struggled to be a parent and a professional, I have lost sight of the "big picture". I no longer think about whether or not I am on the up and up. I worry about whether or not Caroline's math homework made it into her homework folder and then into her back pack. I worry if Charlotte has enough diapers and wipes at daycare. My focus is on running our household, keeping up with laundry, choosing healthy food, or at least making edible food. I care less about how much money I make and instead make sure we can pay our daycare, car, and mortgage payments each month. I'm less concerned about moving into management and more concerned that the kids see me as the boss and not the other way around.

It's not about the future. It's about survival. I can't craft a five year plan when I don't know where my kid is after school this week. I can't schmooze at cocktail networking functions, meeting people who will open doors for me, when I am trying not to cry as my children throw toys in a tornado-like fashion around the house while I clean dinner dishes and shout at them from the kitchen.

I can't be the first one at work, or the last gal out the door in the evening, when I'll get charged $10 for every ten minutes I'm delayed in picking Charlotte up from daycare. I can't step up for weekend shifts beause we have swimming and riding lessons and I can't afford to pay for a babysitter so I can work and Andy can work at his regular or one of his many part-time gigs that helps us pay those monthly bills.

These days I think less and less about what I'm going to be when I grow up. I think about how to be the best mom to my kids as they grow up. If I show up to work wearing business clothes that don't have food or dog hair on them and I don't get the "your kid just had explosive diarrhea" call from daycare within 30 minutes of being at my desk, I feel like I'm on the up and up.

The other day, on our way to work, Andy and I got on the topic of the Big Picture. We haven't really had a focused conversation about it in years and this wasn't exactly a focused conversation either. It was more like a short paragraph of thoughts we exchanged between answering Charlotte's why? why? why? questions. I asked Andy what the big picture was for him and he had to think about it a little bit and I did, too. We never did come to a conclusion and the conversation faded from our memories as we continued with our usual, frenetic day of juggling work and kids.

The next day was Valentine's Day and I had a card and candy waiting for me by the bed when I woke up. I opened the card to read, "Melissa, I love you very much! This is the big picture-being with you, Caroline, and Charlotte. Love, Andy"


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