A few years ago, while visiting a potential school for my soon-to-be kindergartener, I found myself beside a glass door that had a sign: Faculty mailboxes and workroom, it read. I stopped and sighed, looked longingly inside. The other parents on the tour squeezed right past me -- this was not a room they cared to see -- but I stayed there and time-traveled. Faculty mailboxes, open partitions of smooth wood, printed names beneath each one. I had one once. And damn, I missed it.
For a decade, my name rested below a box in the second row, fourth down from the top -- eight years later, I can still envision where it sat in the grid in Orinda Intermediate School's staff room. Inside it contained the things of my life: grade sheets that needed filling out, meeting agendas, phone call reminders torn from the secretary's pink message pad, Bar Mitzvah invitations, notes from students, both past and current, and books that friends and I swapped. The things that kept me busy and the things that kept me connected -- to a community not only of students and their parents but colleagues and friends as well.
The box was my porthole to conferences and workshops and social events, but it also served as a travel destination, my good excuse. "Sorry, I have to go check my box," I'd explain to students who sometimes hung around my desk for too many recesses in a row, and out I'd run, escape, to find other grownups to talk to when the intensity of dealing with pre-adolescents became too much. We'd commiserate and laugh at the day's antics, warn each other if a student we shared was in a particularly bad mood, as we pulled fliers and messages from the matrix of little shelves.
After a decade of teaching other people's children, I gave birth to a child of my own and huddled down to nurture a new life outside the frenzy of pre-adolescent angst.
I brought the baby to visit my former workplace, where she was passed from open arms and cooed to by my colleagues. Unable to break a decade-long routine, I wandered toward my box. Another name, one I didn't even know, was stuck on the spot that once was mine.
The box would appear in dreams those early years of motherhood, recurring visions where I'd open a door to a staff room and find my box sitting empty or, sometimes, not find my name there at all. I had vanished. Disappeared.
"Do you miss teaching?" my new moms' group friends would ask me. "Not really," I'd say at first. New motherhood was all encompassing, the love so intense. "Well, maybe sometimes," I'd answer in later months, when colic and sleep deprivation took its toll. It wasn't the teaching I missed but doing a job I knew how to do well, had done for so long, where I had felt comfortable and secure. Not going it alone.
In this new motherhood gig, there was no faculty room to run to during a moment's break, to ask, Hey what worked for you? Or, What do you think would happen if I tried this? New motherhood needed a staff room. New motherhood needed a box.
I searched for it those early years, joined playgroups and wrote newsletter pieces for parenting publications, but my e-mail In-box was no replacement. I checked it clad in underwear and my nursing bra in the insomniac hours of the night. But virtual community, while welcome, wasn't the same.
When we started looking at preschools for my daughter, I joked that the school I liked best had parent boxes, those same partitions of wood, just like the one I had when I was teaching. Of course it wasn't the box that made me choose the school over others but the fact that parents were as important as the children, that they worked together to help run the school. Once we were there, one of my responsibilities was cleaning out and alphabetizing the boxes. I laughed out loud at the irony as my diaper-clad daughter helped peel off adhesive backings on the label names. "I stick it!" she said, and I let her. The bottom-row labels stood slightly crooked, and no one seemed to mind.
Two years later, when we came back to visit just before starting kindergarten, I walked right by the boxes and didn't look. Sadly, I knew my name wouldn't be there; the time with this preschool community had passed. There would be a box at the new school. We had transitioned, moved our name to a larger grid.
Today, in the entryway of my daughter's elementary school stand 50 parent boxes. We parents congregate here, reach over and under each other to retrieve the newsletters and notices inside. Mine sits right smack in the middle. Inside is an invitation, not for a birthday party for my daughter but for a holiday party for all of us. There is also a pair of socks that had been left behind on a playdate, a book on CD, and a reminder to bring a dessert to the winter performance.
Being among other grownups -- especially those raising children -- is essential in my life and something I need on a daily basis. Without it, loneliness can settle in, circling around me like unwelcome fog. I'm not the only one. "Have any books to recommend?" asks the mom who's a pilot for United. She tells me about her crazy schedule, how she reads to pass time during layovers, that she misses her daughters. Another mother, a writer, has a new puppy in tow. The dog jumps up and licks my knee. "Let's walk the dogs together one morning after drop-off," I propose. I know she deals with Writer Isolation, too.
When my daughter moves beyond this school, when I no longer have a box here, I know I'll have to create community in new ways, to find that link to a world beyond my mothering life. In anticipation of that time, I'm already planting seeds of thoughts: Teach part-time? Enroll in an MFA program? Just last night, at a reading I gave at a local bookstore, another mother writer and I commiserated about the isolation we felt. She mentioned the idea of shared office space, working in the company of other writers outside our homes. She's onto something, I think; I got so intrigued and excited about this possibility that I simply forgot to ask: Would I have my own box?
Joanne Catz Hartman lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She is a columnist for San Francisco's J and her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter's Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school. She is Literary Mama's Profiles Editor and can be reached at LMprofiles (at) literarymama (dot) com.