This blog was originally written for the #Teacher5aday Handbook and Journal and a version of it will be appearing in the forthcoming book. Contact @naomi7444 for more details.
Given that I’ve been researching the balance of teaching and parenthood for the last five years, this seems like the kind of blog I would be writing regularly. So it strikes me as quite remarkable that this is the first of its kind. Plenty of arm’s length, research-based reflections on the balance, the triumphs, the struggles of balancing teaching and parenthood but, up to now, nothing personal which reflects on that early transition to parenthood and how it combined with my career.
When it comes to the issue of balancing teaching and parenthood, I balk at any requests for ‘advice’ or ‘wisdom’. What has become increasingly apparent through life and research is that every situation is unique. I wince at the whisper of ‘parenting gurus’ and laugh at myself for the parenting guides I read during my first pregnancy. One of my early fellow-mother friends memorably described herself as ‘a Gina Ford mother without a Gina Ford baby’. As the world’s most reluctant cook, I prepared assiduously for weaning with package after frozen package of colourful Annabel Karmel recipes, all of which dribbled out of the bin bags several months later after being laughingly rejected in favour of (if we were lucky) something out of a jar or a chip. Similarly, my birth plan was a work of laughable fiction. Both of my pregnancies were ridiculously complex. I was tactfully not invited to join the tour of the birthing centre with my fellow Mums-to-be and have still never seen a birthing pool in the flesh. I am forever the biggest admirer of the team of midwives and consultants who turned what was a series of frightening health scares for me and both my children into the two screeching, giggling, cartwheeling, Harry-Potter-junkie girls on the trampoline as I look out of my window and telling me every thirty seconds how hungry they are.
So what you hear here is as unique and as flawed and as authentic as I am as a mother – and as a teacher. These are the key lessons that becoming a parent taught me that have also touched every other element of my life and my teaching.
If I ever had to torture someone, I would deprive them of sleep
My first daughter didn’t sleep for more than three hours at a stretch until the age of fifteen months. When she woke, she would stay away for two hours at a time, feeding intermittently but mainly demanding entertainment. I returned to work when she was ten months old and remember little of that blur of a year. The results weren’t great that year… I can’t imagine quite why. Snapshot of a scene in the corridor when I colleague asked me if I was ok. ‘I’ve been awake since 3 a.m’, I said. ‘Go home’, she said, firmly and kindly. I spent hours mooning around the nightwear section of M&S.
The upshot of this is that I continue to worship my sleep, stubbornly heading to bed at 10 p.m whilst on holiday with friends and compulsively calculating my absolute minimum of 7 hours per night.
Becoming a parent is unpredictable
I loved being pregnant. I was enviably vomit-free and I bloomed happily, lapping up the attention my bump received and letting gallant and considerate students carry my books and beached-whaling it on the back table whilst my students wrote on the board for me. I thought I would swan equally well through maternity leave. My first birth, however, was a horror-film hell about which my husband can still not even joke. ‘Teachers are the worst’, said my midwife. I think she was talking about control and being willing to lose it. I wasn’t. Seeing the small creature for whose life we were entirely responsible lying in her car seat on our bed was the single most terrifying moment of my life. The health scare I had within hours of getting home, which involved being taken away from my baby in an ambulance was the second most terrifying. It’s hard to admit, but the first year of my first daughter’s life was a struggle for me. I was restless, self-critical, grew to resent the constant domestic chores, rivalled my husband in ‘who’s more tired?’ competitions and experienced stabs of resentment at his audacity and luck at being able to leave for work in the morning. I longed to be needed by society again and missed my department and my students and feeling useful. And the sleep-deprivation ate my head.
Nobody is indispensable
Keeping in Touch Days were therefore welcome. However, my biggest shock was learning that, after torturing myself with guilt for years at the shortest of absences, they had continued to function just fine without me. LIfe was going on! How could this possibly be? Not only that, but I was a million miles from it all. Someone asked me a question about A Level Spanish re-takes. I realised that I neither had an inkling of – nor cared – about the answer.
Through my second maternity leave, this knowledge was actually a comfort and I was able to reflect on the culture we help to create and how it can continue to grow in our absence.
Solidarity is invaluable
I don’t see as much of all of them as I should these days, but the group of fellow mothers with whom I went through the early transition to parenthood will always hold a unique and special status for me. They kept me sane. From cracking bits and blocked bits and bits that never ended up quite in the same place again, there was such huge comfort in not feeling alone. Sometimes we just sat and stared at one another in our fog of sleeplessness – and that was fine.
EDIT: I have just shared this blog with a fellow-sleep-deprived mother of the time. Her response brilliantly summarised our priorities at the time:
I remember A. and I trying to think how things could be worse – and trying to count our blessings that our kids weren’t disabled and the country wasn’t at war! I was employed by Christian Aid when I was on maternity leave and at the time there were massive floods in Pakistan and thousands lost their lives. I remember saying to my husband that I didn’t have it in me to even care and he was horrified, but the ONLY thing I cared about was sleep!
At work, reassurance that, ‘you’re doing just great’ from a complete stranger a few months ahead of me in the journey (or light years, as it seemed at the time) led to a new and lasting friendship. There were colleagues with whom a mere shared look or shake of the head could remind me that someone else understood – and it’s been a privilege to give this back to others in subsequent years.
I remember with rather less warmth the child-free colleague who asked me, with a smirk, ‘how was your year off?’ on my first day back.
The value of schools which welcome children
In so many ways, working in London the early 2000s was a heyday that I don’t think we fully appreciated at the time. Things have changed in many schools now – and I fully understand why, as there are H&S and insurance implications that must be considered. However, with both my children, I was in a position to take them into school if I needed to. I have some very happy memories of this.
During my maternity leave with my second daughter, here was the ash cloud which left several teachers stranded all over the world. I stepped in and taught for two days with her strapped to my front in her sling. When conjunctivitis meant the childminder wasn’t an option, my first daughter spent many happy hours being wheeled and carried around the school by stroppy Year 9s and cooing at the naughtiest boys in the class. My Head at the time chucked her into the air and let me change her nappy in his office.
Before I get too starry-eyed, having your child in school is actually the most intensely exhausting thing every. Having your two biggest priorities in the world make demands on you consecutively is uniquely draining. These are nevertheless happy memories, and I will be eternally grateful to my Head at the time for making them possible.
The joke that never got tired. ‘Is that yours?’, dozens of students would ask as I carried the child in. ‘No, I found her at a bus stop.’
This leads to my two final lessons – the two that have most profoundly influenced the way I think and feel about balancing parenthood and teaching.
Do what works – as long as no one is harmed
Parenthood is a minefield of debate and opinion. I remember a friend who struggle for weeks to breastfeed through blood and tears and was eventually forced to give up. Living in Ealing, she was so mortified at bottle-feeding her child that she used to go home to do it rather than be seen in public. From the bum-on, side-on fierce nappy changing to co-sleeping to baby-led weaning, it can be worse than politics and religion at a dinner party with strangers.
Likewise, abandoning your child to go back to work. Not only was taking a few years off not financially feasible, but I wanted to go back to work! Yes. I love coming home to my children, but I continue to take great pride in – and ownership of – my decision to pursue my career – and my doctorate.
Do what’s right for you and your family. If it isn’t putting anyone in any danger, it’s FINE. End of debate.
Like so many of my blogs, this one ends with a mantra that has (quite literally, at times) kept me sane. Amidst the birthing guides and the how-to-be-a-perfect-parent manuals, a friend introduced me to Winnicott’s concept of Good Enough. It was like a liberation. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually, I stopped worrying about the housework so much. I stopped resenting my husband over the piles of washing up. I figured that a true friend was visiting to see me, not admire my cleaning skills.
At work, I learned to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands. I learned that if I had to leave at 4.00 to pick up my kids, that was just the way it was. I gradually let go of what I observe to be the biggest scourge amongst many of the most talented teachers I know – perfectionism. I learned to laugh at the disasters (as long as no one was hurt) and conceal the wet patch on my top during the Year 8 lesson and not leave the baby on the bed again whilst I had a shower… And, as they’ve grown, I’ve learned that children don’t require perfection. Children have the emotional intelligence to understand that people have flaws and limitations and send them into school in a fairy outfit on the wrong day…
The unconditional devotion I have for my children and the stubbornly optimistic commitment I have for my career are – and have to be – good enough.