I read this Motherese post this morning with great interest. In it, Kristen weighs in gently on the whole “leaning in” debate, speaking a bit about work/life balance and more about her own ambivalence toward workplace advancement. It really resonated – with my own history and passions, and with where I’m at on this issue right now.
Like Kristen, a high-powered career never appealed to me. After college, I worked in a number of different family support and education capacities: first with a program that took American high school students on service learning trips abroad, and then with an early childhood literacy program and an adult GED program, both through AmeriCorps. After that I worked a brief stint as a preschool teacher before moving to New York City to work with an amazing small anti-poverty organization called Fourth World Movement. While I found all those jobs satisfying and meaningful, it was in New York that I felt most truly in my element: grateful every day to be surrounded by good people with a common ethos, challenged in intense but healthy ways to reconsider what I thought I understood about poverty, and welcome and necessary despite my own shortcomings.
When I first came to farming, I felt a real loneliness. My bosses and coworkers were lovely people. I loved the ache in my forearms, the tingle of sunburn on my shoulders and in the small of my back, and the faint semi-permanent black filigree on my hands familiar to anyone who has picked as many tomatoes as I did that summer. I felt strong, and healthy. But if I had to choose between a lifetime supply of dead ripe organic Cherokee Purple tomatoes and world where we all tried our damnedest to exclude and judge less and love a whole lot more – I’d choose love every time. I really, really missed my people in New York.
But I was also in love with a farmer, and so I kept learning how to troubleshoot irrigation headaches, and how to tie a Florida weave, and how to to judge the ripeness of an eggplant. The next year I worked on a pastured livestock farm, where I learned to walk down a steep incline with a massive cedar fence post balanced on my shoulders, and that the best defense against poison ivy was to COVER YOURSELF UP FOR PETE’S SAKE!. I got pretty good at eviscerating chickens, and I can still tell you why oxtail has so much more flavor than a filet mignon, and I can also tell you it is totally possible to get a bruised rib from a Katahdin ewe.
It was near the end of that season that we decided to get married. And – despite many years of declaring I would never own a business and never be anyone’s boss – the next step seemed a natural one at the time: I became business partners with my husband. We continued operating his farm on leased land for one more season before buying our own acreage and moving four hours south the following winter to build our own farm from scratch.
I was a reluctant farm owner, and I want to be frank and say there were many times that keeping our business afloat felt like nothing more than sheer survival. We were constantly triaging expenses that all seemed equally necessary, and it was an uphill slog for us to earn a living wage from full time farming in an area where the local food scene was still young. But. But! I was also a necessary part of something much bigger than myself again – our farm itself was a living thing, with a rotating roster of crops and crew who kept life delicious and interesting, and developing relationships with our market customers and CSA members was a deep joy. I found ways to use my natural inclination toward recording and storytelling in the service of our farm; the stories and recipes on our farm blog were vital in explaining to new customers who we were and in encouraging current customers to stick with us. And when our son was born – bringing with him a whole new set of questions about responsibility and contentment and work – the fact that we were running our own business meant, in some ways, that we didn’t have to ask those hard questions about whether I would stay home with him or not. This is not to say it was easy. We couldn’t afford much childcare, and I struggled enormously to be as present as I wanted to be for both our son and our farm. But we did manage.
This post is not titled What I Learned About Running a Business with Your Mate, and it’s not titled What I Learned About Starting a Farm – although I sure as heck do have more than a few thoughts on both subjects. No, what I’m getting at today is that it seems limiting to talk about whether we should be leaning in or checking out or doing right by the women who came before us. For me, right now, those just aren’t helpful questions. What I need and what I can manage are always changing. I thought I knew for sure that I didn’t want to have the power and responsibility of running a business, but I figured it out, and right now I really miss it. I also thought I knew for sure that I wouldn’t be a stay-at-home mom; my own parents both worked full-time throughout my insanely happy childhood, and my dearest friends and coworkers in New York had jobs they loved and kids they adored, and that’s how I thought I’d do. And then my son was born, and all I knew for sure anymore was holding him, and the shape of our life at that point meant I could figure it out slowly. And these sweet first years of long walks and waiting for the wild blackberries to ripen and collecting eggs and getting really very muddy have been such a gift. But he’s bigger now, and we don’t have a farm anymore, and that old ache – to be a part of something bigger, something collaborative and meaningful – is back. We’ll see where it leads.