Profile with Heather Ure Dunagan

Heather Ure Dunagan (Utah & Jesus 1995) is a writer, volunteer and mother of four, and lives in Redmond, WA. She was previously an English teacher at The Roxbury Latin School. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University, a BA, MA in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, and a BA in English from Wellesley College.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?

Heather Ure Dunagan: My dad is an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain, and my mom is an artist. I was raised mostly in Utah, but when I was eight, my parents decided that we would spend one year living in California so that my dad could complete his chaplain training at a hospital in Berkeley. The apartment that my parents could afford at the time was a modest one in Chinatown in Oakland. I went from being one of the only non-Mormon kids in a nearly all-Mormon school in Salt Lake City, to being one of the only white kids in an almost entirely Vietnamese, Chinese and African-American school in Oakland. It was an incredibly formative, positive time for me, because I was “not like the others” and wasn’t immediately accepted, but I also eventually made friends, became part of the community, and had a really deep, wonderful experience. That was probably the most memorable year in my childhood, and is part of why I continue to celebrate, identify with, and advocate for people who are perceived as different, who stand out, or who might even be characterized as outsiders.  I even had a tutor at Oxford tell me once that I was “an outsider and always would be one.” She didn’t exactly mean it as a compliment, but even as young as I was then, I decided to own that descriptor and just run with it!  Outsiders may disrupt the expected order of things, and with that bring a new life and a new energy.  This is a good thing, right?

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be and why?

Heather Ure Dunagan: One of the books I read recently was Rhodes scholar Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.  Steve Jobs’ vision and work bridged many of the same things that we are passionate about in our house. My husband is in technology, so there’s a connection there. At the same time, Steve Jobs also had this fascination with the arts, the humanities and with design, an engagement with those parts of the brain.  My own kids seem to be polymaths, a combination of both their mom’s and their dad’s interests, and in reading about Steve Jobs, there are anecdotes about him as a kid that remind me of more than one of my own kids.  I would love to have a long conversation with him about “quirky,” polymath kids and adults, and about working and, well, being married across disciplines myself—as long as he didn’t bite my head off! He did seem like a challenging person, but mostly in a good way! 

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a piece of your writing that you are particularly proud of?

Heather Ure Dunagan: Since becoming an “at-home parent,” I have continued to work as much as possible on poems. It’s been the most manageable thing, and I am proud that I have continued with it at all—focusing more on the process than on trying to publish—because you could say that the odds are historically stacked against full-time caregivers doing anything other than caregiving.  For now, I focus on what’s possible, and with my children being so young and “so many,” I find that poems are actually the most doable form. I used to write a lot of fiction when I was younger, but since I am interrupted frequently, poems are a little easier. I think for the foreseeable future, that’s what I will continue to do. At the same time, I have found that with the advent of social media, I’ve been able to put a lot of my political thoughts online and share them in that format, primarily as opinion pieces about autism acceptance, equality in its many forms, and issues of race and class.  I consider this a great use of my “writer’s powers,” especially when I can write with passion and personal knowledge about something like autism acceptance, and hopefully change readers’ perceptions and actions for the better. 

Rhodes Project: Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Heather Ure Dunagan: I am not someone who experiences classic writer’s block, but I would say that I experience life intervening with actually having the time and space to write. That’s always been my conundrum. I have a very challenging set of parenting demands. One of my children has Asperger’s, and all of my children love to converse—a lot—so my main question is always, how do I carve out time and space to do the writing while also being a good and fully present parent?

Rhodes Project: What do you miss most about teaching?

Heather Ure Dunagan: I miss the structure that it gave to my days. One thing that is nice about being in the salaried, working world is that there are very clear expectations – at least in teaching. I had a syllabus that I was in charge of, and there was a certain movement to the year that was fairly predictable. I felt very close to my students and I worried about them, especially the kids who were struggling with difficult family situations. But, at the end of the day I could let things go, go home, and not dwell too much upon work. The difference between that and my main job now, which is taking care of my children, is that it permeates every moment of every day. There’s a lack of beginning and end, a lack of boundaries to it that makes it more challenging even than being an English teacher at an all-boys school in Boston. So yes, I do miss the relative clarity of teaching, even though I do not plan to return to that profession at this point.  The human part of teaching, and the intellectual part—I am fulfilling my need for those in other ways now, through my family and friends, my community, my reading and writing, my activism.

Rhodes Project: What kind of volunteer work do you do?

Heather Ure Dunagan: The main volunteer work that I have done over the past several years has been focused on my children’s schools - mostly chairing committees. Having been a teacher myself, I think that it’s really important to take care of your kids’ teachers, and to let them know that they are appreciated and esteemed. For quite a few years, I was in charge of a monthly lunch that we would put on for the teachers. I also ran a used uniform closet, and other projects of that nature. At the same time, it’s important for mothers who are focusing most of their time on their family and who intend to return to paid work, to be somewhat pragmatic about those volunteer jobs – to look for the most interesting volunteer work, and that which helps keep your organizational and leadership skills fresh. There’s a tendency to downplay volunteer work as “Mom stuff,” and then for some men who are still in paid work to be very pompous about being members of the school board. I think mothers should also be very proud about their volunteer and community work, and that it should be considered an important part of both your family identity and your professional identity.

Rhodes Project: What is the most frustrating misconception of stay-at home-moms?

Heather Ure Dunagan: One that I have encountered is that we are very traditional and that we’re not feminist. There’s a lot of sentimentality around why people think that women may stay home. They assume that it’s because they have very traditional ideas about staying home, caring for the children and creating this warm and cozy nest. I think that for many families, which is true for mine as well, there are huge economic factors at play when women or men make the choice to “stay home.”  In our case, we took a realistic look at what I would be making as a teacher, versus my husband as a technology worker, and how much childcare would eat up of my salary versus his. Especially when our twins were born, it made sense for me to be a full-time caregiver. I always thought that when they were quite young, I would go back to work, but our son ended up being a very high-need kid.  Every time I thought of leaving this kid in daycare—a kid who was so much more sensitive and more easily upset than his twin sister--I just couldn’t imagine that working well. It turns out he has Asperger’s. We didn’t realize this for a few years, but even before he had an actual diagnosis, leaving him with someone else besides me just didn’t feel right, at least when he was little. So, for our family, it was primarily a combination of economics and special needs that led to my becoming a full-time caregiver, and I think often times, when families make the decision to have one parent stay at home, it’s something similar, something more than just their having a 1950’s mind-set. Someone who had that assumption might be surprised to observe some of the events in our home. For example, my job is not doing all of the housework; I don’t do all of the dishes, the laundry, the cooking, and the cleaning and so on. My husband and I split that up roughly fifty-fifty, even though he’s the one that has a salaried job outside of the home. A majority of my work is as the coordinator of our son’s special needs care, and attending to the childcare and education for all four of our kids.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about an important lesson you have learned from your children?

Heather Ure Dunagan:  Let them show you who they are, and who they are becoming; don’t let your expectations of who they should be keep you from seeing their actual, developing selves. That is one of the keys to everyone in the family being more centered and more fulfilled.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address an issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Heather Ure Dunagan: I would most like to give to this amazing organization called It started in Seattle and was founded by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Nanette Fondas and Joan Blades. They are national advocates for issues that promote the rights of women, children and families. What I really like about them is that they have this focus on “kitchen-table” socioeconomics.  They’re about equal pay for equal work; access to quality, affordable healthcare and childcare; early education; safe communities and products; basic things that all families and all people need in order to thrive and that don’t get enough attention in our country. They are actually pretty powerful too. President Obama invites them into the White House and listens to them, and they have been very successful in influencing legislation. They do funny and cheeky things where they’re kind of acting like nice mommies, but at the same time there’s a strong, serious message behind it. They’ll dress their babies up like cows and visit Congress and say, “Hey, Congress, don’t be cowed by the NRA!”  My own kids and I recently visited the local offices of our Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, bearing stories written by MomsRising members who have been affected by gun violence, which the kids clipped together with laundry pins.  It was a great opportunity for my son in particular to practice his communication skills—he delivered a short speech at each office—and for all of them to engage in some political activism, something the oldest two had actually been begging me to let them do!

Rhodes Project: What are you most looking forward to?

Heather Ure Dunagan: I am most looking forward to having older children who are somewhat more independent. It will allow me more time to write and be politically active. I am looking forward to having more time to be involved in the world beyond home and beyond family. I’m turning forty in August, and that’s a milestone. I’m fortunate that the women in my family tend to have good longevity, and I’ve taken pretty good care of my health. So, I’m hoping that I will have many more years after rearing young children to use my skills to engage, support and maybe even supercharge (!) other people outside our family. I also hope to write a lot. I’ve had to push some of those things off, but I am excited that they are on the not too distant horizon.

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