It took a good four years before I felt like Beaker and I had friends in Granolaton. Now, we made it harder by choosing to live in the (sort of pathetic) city that's forty miles away for the first two years: the small-town thing just seemed too intense to jump straight into, but it made it much harder to do anything social at either end. And I am extremely shy. Still, four years is a long time. The right Victorian, big and drafty and three blocks from my office, finally called our name, so we bought and moved to town.
Beaker kicked things off by getting involved in good-citizen stuff. He did a lot of work during the last election, and now he's on the board of a respectable local non-profit. He writes strongly-worded letters to our little weekly newspaper and everyone on the village council knows him by name.
We've also gotten lucky that lots of young faculty are now moving into our comfy old neighborhood—it's where houses are coming on the market, this decade, and mostly the Gen-X-ers seem to be happy to commit to old houses (unlike all the Boomer faculty who bought into new-ish developments a couple of miles away). I'm anticipating spending a lot of the late summer and early fall out on our front porch, and people will stop by to say hello. It's wonderful walking to visit friends—and one can drink freely at dinner parties without worrying about the drive home.
Are there fault lines between married and single, childless and child-ridden, sciences and humanities? Of course, and I'm sure we'll become closer to many people who are now distant acquaintances once we're tied in with the (only) local day-care center. I'm also sure it will become harder to connect with new faculty, as my life stage diverges more and more from theirs.
Yes, I've been badly spooked by how many traditional, mom-at-home-with-kids, dad-off-professing families there are (especially in my department). Also by the huge role youth sports appear to play in the social lives of not only the children, but their parents. I hate team sports. Playing, watching, thinking about. Urrrrrrgh.
Still, it was sort of shocking to read When You Don't Fit In, by a biology professor on the verge of tenure at another liberal arts college in another small town:
But try as we might, we have been unable to connect to this place. The town, the area, the people . . . everything is fine, but nothing is right. For some reason, we don't fit.
Perhaps the key reason is that my husband is a stay-at-home father and I am the one who works full time. In larger metropolitan areas, that may not turn heads, but in Small Town, U.S.A., we are an anomaly.
That has been particularly hard on my husband. Although he has come up with creative ways to keep himself occupied (we now have a garage full of power tools), he has found it very difficult to fit in with the mommy crowd. He has tried to take the kids on play dates and to picnics in the park, but, as he put it, "It just doesn't feel right to spend all day with other men's wives." Add to this the assumption that he is willing to go on "blind dates" with any other stay-at-home father rumored to exist and you can start to understand why he spends a lot of time actively avoiding other parents.
My adjustment hasn't been as difficult. I have found mentors both within and outside of my department. For the most part, my colleagues have been very helpful and supportive -- even when I was pregnant with our second child.
Nevertheless, my husband and I have found it hard to identify with my colleagues on a personal or social level. Our life experiences are just too different. Some don't have children and have dedicated their lives to their work. Others have grown children and spend all of their free time at the office. Those with small children have wives who are stay-at-home mothers and, thus, operate under a more traditional paradigm.
One thing Granolaton is terribly, terribly aware of is how many highly educated, yet not fully employed in the monetary economy, spouses there are in town, both female and male. They're the people who keep the town running in a lot of ways. Heck, our mayor is, arguably, a stay-at-home dad.
I've now lived in Granolaton long enough to know how some of the at-home parents became at-home: what they did beforehand, and what combination of personal belief, economics, and physical resources inspired their choices. We are still friends, too.
Do I know how things go on the playgrounds on weekday mornings? No. But I hope that rejection this strong would not happen, where I live.
Without the students around, I feel like a tourist in my own backyard. At about this time last year, I began to understand why.
One day last spring I went to pick up my oldest child from school. As I stood in the parent-waiting area with the other mothers, I looked around and noticed a number of women whom I knew. A large group of them were chatting and laughing, but none of them engaged me in conversation and only a couple acknowledged my presence.
I had been in their houses. They had been in mine. Our children had played together, had had birthday parties together. I work with some of their husbands. As I watched them, a profound sense of isolation came over me.
I realized then that I would never belong. I would never be part of this community. Those women, whom I had eaten with, partied with, drunk margaritas with, all considered me an outsider. Standing there, I also noticed a sign advertising a support group for stay-at-home mothers.
My husband doesn't fit into the mommy crowd because he is a man and he doesn't fit in with my male colleagues because he doesn't work. I don't fit in with my male colleagues because I am a woman, and I don't fit in with the mommy crowd because I work full time.
Now, I feel like this all the time, at professional gatherings. (And I know that there I'm paralyzed by my own feelings of incompetence, of unworthiness to even talk with other people, even when I don't like their work much.) But, but, I've seen the damn confabs over soccer or softball or the awful state of the fourth-grade science curriculum that happen whenever parents of school-age kids assemble. I have to wonder: is the author depressed? Have she and her husband somehow missed the glue binding their town together? Or are the fault lines just that much deeper in their little burg (despite its being in the blessed Northeast)?