the myth of the working (teacher) mom.

I beat myself up. A lot. Like a lot a lot. I know I’m not alone–especially for those of us who are juggling responsibilities at home AND at school. Whether we’re raising babies or tolerating teenagers or caring for elderly parents or working second jobs to make ends meet…it’s a lot.

And that whole Summers-Off-Done-By-Three shtick was clearly started by someone who didn’t know a single teacher. Had they known a few, they’d know that teaching is one of those jobs where, once you’re done working your contracted day (which started hours before your contract time did), you head home to start your part-time job: preparing for Tomorrow while giving feedback on Today Last Week. (And most of us work in the summer, too–whether that’s curriculum-revising or lesson-planning or college-recommendation-writing or grad-class-taking so we don’t lose our certification.)

That’s why I wasn’t quite sure how to respond when a colleague cornered me. She had just had her first child and wanted to know when It would get easier. By “It” she meant that trainwreck of a delicate juggling act of teaching and motherhood. I wanted to be honest–but not soul-crushing–and to tell her what no one told me.

It gets easier when you accept mediocrity.

That looks a lot worse written out, but give me a minute. It’s impossible to give 100% at home and 100% at school. Society trains us to do the former, and Grad School trains us to do the latter. But as I told my coworker, there’s simply not enough of You to go around.

In order for It to work, doing your best no longer means being the best. It means being the best you can be in this moment.

Before kids, I felt like I was a pretty solid teacher. Did I get essays back the next day? Of course not. I was too busy creating 3 different ways (per class) to engage 100+ students the next day. But I worked my tail off, I connected with my students, I made it to a slew of sporting events and plays and concerts, and I felt like I did a pretty okay job.

And then I had kids.

I no longer felt like a decent anything. My own kids needed every ounce of me the second I stumbled through the door. Literally. (I’ll spare you the realities of being a nursing Teacher-Mom and will just say this: If you thought finding time to use the restroom was a problem…) That’s when I started getting up at 4 AM–a practice I resented then (“What other job makes you…!“) that has become a saving-grace routine now. The early morning is the only time of day when no one needs me to sign anything or proofread anything or wash or cook or buy anything. Don’t misunderstand: It’s definitely not Me Time: I’m not up training for a half or doing mindfulness exercises, but I am able to focus entirely on my students–guilt-free.

Being a working mom comes with so much guilt. However, being a Teacher-Mom adds an even heftier helping of it. I think it’s because our entire career is about nurturing other people’s children, putting the needs of someone else’s kids ahead of our own kids’—at least during the work day. And those prep hours before the work day. And the ones after.

And yes, we’re fully aware that “we chose this profession” and that “we could find another job.” Sadly, I’ve heard that a lot. It ramped up about 38 seconds after teachers were “heroes for switching to remote learning overnight.” Our 15 Minutes of fame was short-lived compared to the 18+ Months we’ve been feverishly trying–under much scrutiny–to engage students during Pandemic Teaching. But that’s another post.

We teachers are still here because we genuinely love what we do.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t catch ourselves dreaming of wide-open weekends, ones without grading piles. Or a life where we’re not deciding between Sleep and School Work, Family Outings and Essays, Beach and Recommendation Letters, Scrimmages and Classroom Set-up.

Obviously, I’d lay down my life for my children. But I couldn’t imagine my life without my rewarding teaching career either. And I definitely couldn’t imagine how I’d do either without a partner who has spent more Saturdays at bounce houses and parks and playgrounds than just about anybody I know. #Eric2024

What no one tells you in grad school is that you really can’t have it all. You can, however, become skilled at creating a little Smoke over here and strategically placing a few Mirrors over there. For me though, being a Teacher-Mom has meant letting go of my perfectionism and being okay with being the best I can be in this moment. That’s a whole lot easier to type than to actually do, so if anyone has that mastered, teach me, Sensei.

In her book Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman captures the tension perfectly: “One of the darkest, deepest shames so many of us mothers feel nowadays is our fear that we are Bad Mothers, that we are failing our children and falling far short of our own ideals.” Tongue-in-cheek, she continues:

A good mother remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer. She remembers to make play dates, her children’s clothes fit, she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games.

Waldman gives all of us permission to leave that package of Mother Guilt unopened. Which is good, because that will never be me.

My kids have The Usual orders at all of the local eateries. Our #1 has been getting herself up, fed, and out the door—with self-laundered clothes—for years. (We’re a work in progress for #2.) But even as I type all of this–with seventeen years of practice, I still wrestle with so. much. guilt.

As we head back to Year 3 of Pandemic Teaching, we moms (or at least this one) will do what we always do. After the forms are filled out and the school user fees are paid and the clothes are purchased and the backpacks are restocked and the transportation and childcare are arranged and the appointments are scheduled (in between our kids’ part-time jobs and their sports schedules and everyone’s Back-to-School Nights), we’ll dust off our Mom Guilt, force it back into our Teacher Bags in between all of the shtuff we promised we wouldn’t buy for our classrooms, and head back to another incredibly rewarding year of teaching.

Our #1 heads to college next year—independent, fierce, and self-reliant. While some of that is Wiring, I’d like to think that some of it may stem from having a Traveling Dad and a Paper-Grading Mom. Either way, she’s just about ready to take on the world.

And the classroom. Despite all of my failures and Mom Guilt and imbalance, #1 wants to be a teacher, too.

Social Studies though. Not English.

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