When you first have a kid, your priorities are crystal clear. You see, babies are incredibly stupid, and are constantly trying to die. They do things like roll off changing tables, eat Lego bricks, and use any available objects to explore electrical outlets. If you’re nursing, your body reminds you messily and painfully if you take your mind off your child for one second longer than you should. Babies consume every second, and every shred of sanity.
But then they get older and, if you’re a teacher, you start worrying about how to balance raising your own child with raising umpteen other people’s kids that just keep showing up in your classroom and expecting to learn something. When I found myself in that situation, I did what English teachers do; I read All the Things. And All the Things told me that it was very important to create boundaries between work and home, to compartmentalize my roles, and to find that elusive work-life balance.
I tried. Oh, how I tried. I stopped bringing home papers to grade, and I gave up on a lot of the extras at work. While at work, I didn’t talk about my son; I was there to focus on my students. I had to give my students my cell phone number—it’s in my contract—but I set specific times that they could call me, generally the hour after my son was in bed. Work stayed at work and home stayed at home…and I nearly lost my mind.
I spent all my time at work frantically trying to keep my head above water. It was like being a first year teacher again, but I’d been in the classroom for six years. There was never a second during the day where I could sit and take a deep breath, and if I ever tried to, it felt like I was robbing either my students or my son of time and attention that was rightfully theirs.
That anxiety bled over into what was going on at home. I couldn’t sleep—partly because I had a small child and partly because I felt like I was drowning in the minutiae of work. I felt like I had to spend every moment at home doing Good Parenting – face-to-face, hands-on interactions with a toddler who, honestly, was perfectly content to sit for thirty minutes and feed the dog Cheerios. I had to be constantly productive at work and constantly engaged at home.
So I eventually made a life-changing decision; I gave up. Instead of being a teacher for nine hours a day and a mom the rest, I became TeacherMom. I started taking home papers to grade a couple of nights a week. I’d grade papers while my son colored or played. Now I grade while he does homework, and sometimes we skip his number-writing practice in favor of letting him write the grades at the top of my kids’ papers. Every now and then we pack homework and the grade book and a few books or art supplies and spend an afternoon at the Waffle House taking care of business together.
I picked back up the extra stuff that makes me love my job; mentoring kids, planning extra programs, being the default social worker for my students. But now I do it with a sidekick. My kid spends Saturday mornings at school soccer games sometimes, which he usually enjoys even if he does complain about it beforehand. He’s been hauled around a variety of low-income housing areas, and he’s seen my students’ little brothers and sisters enjoying his hand-me-down clothes and toys.
Home bleeds over into work more now, too. Since I’m somewhat on top of grading and planning, I occasionally take a planning period to go read to my son’s kindergarten class. Last year, we took all the seventh graders on a three day camping trip while my husband had to be out of town for work, so our four-year-old came along. He perfected his arm farts, tasted mango with chili powder (not a success), and was used as a spy in an epic game of Capture the Flag. My students know him and love him and understand when I have to miss work to, say, have a tiny Lego piece surgically removed from his ear canal. (The surgery was fine, by the way.)
There are some boundaries that are sacrosanct, of course. My kids call me for help with homework after school, but if they call while I’m reading my boy a bedtime story, they leave a voicemail. My students love hearing stories about my son, but as he gets older I have to be a little more mindful of his privacy…after all, he might be attending my school in a few years.
And my way wouldn’t work for everyone. I only have one kid at the moment…when the second one makes her appearance in about a month, this carefully-crafted unbalance may go straight to hell. Our house, my school, and his elementary school are all about five minutes apart. My kid is relatively healthy and outgoing. Not all of us have these factors in place, which means the juggling act is going to be different for everyone.
But I guess that’s my point. A strict separation of teaching and home is often touted as the only way to keep your sanity and be a decent teacher and a responsible parent…but it’s not. Like everybody else in the world, I have many different roles; teacher, parent, wife—even, sometimes, independent human being! When I stopped trying to schedule each of those identities into a neat, specific time slot, it became much easier to be a messy, fluid, complete human being. And that turned out to be exactly what my students and my family needed.