"The Pause" is a three-part series in which Christina, Jess, and Shannon discuss whether, how, and why they combine work and parenthood.
I always wanted to stay home with my babies. I also wanted to be a teacher- since I was 16. These were the two things I was absolutely sure of as I grew up.
I’m pretty sure I’ve failed at one and am currently failing at the other. So.
I finished grad school and became a high school English teacher at 27. I jumped in with both feet, and, as terrified and unsure as I was, I wanted to succeed. I wanted to do my best for my students. I tried. I must have done well enough because I received my continuing contract after my first year and was asked to teach AP Lit while my Department Head was on maternity leave. Over those first two years, my colleague Meg took me under her wing and taught me how to navigate the subject matter. She had an insane amount of content knowledge and was a seasoned, brilliant teacher. My other colleague, Kristi, took me under her wing, too, and made sure I didn’t work myself into the ground. I was in good hands and I loved my job, hard as it was.
My second year was demanding, but I still reveled in teaching. It was interesting, exciting, challenging, and deeply, incredibly rewarding. I was happy. We had a new, supportive principal. And although I was overwhelmed with the work of a new, difficult AP prep and 150 students, I knew I’d be teaching for a long time.
Then we decided to get pregnant.
I started my 3rd year of full-time teaching pregnant. That was probably a mistake. The support system I depended on (but didn’t realize I depended on) was gone; Meg had moved across the country and Kristi had had a baby and was on maternity leave. We were on our 3rd principal in as many years and we were launching a new program that those of us tagged to teach were ill-prepared for. The year didn’t start out well. And then it got worse. Pregnant and without the two women that I relied on for friendship and professional support in my department, I found myself drowning. I wasn’t loving my job anymore. I was tired, and it felt impossible to do my best work. I didn’t have the skills or resources to truly help the students in my 2nd new class of the year, received at the beginning of 2nd semester, and I felt like a failure. It felt like it was taking too much of me.
But I still intended to return after my 3 months of family medical leave.
And then I had the baby. This sweet, beautiful little bundle of dependence. I was smitten. Consumed. Terrified. I didn’t want to leave him. I couldn’t imagine leaving him. I would have returned to work when he was 4 months old. I was breastfeeding. I wanted to be with him. My son. And then I looked at the cost of leaving him. And it turned out we really couldn’t afford for me to leave him anyway.
The cost of infant childcare in Seattle is astronomical. It would have taken the majority of my salary to place him in infant childcare or to hire a nanny. As a teacher, between planning and grading and commuting and class time, I was working 55-60 hours a week. That’s a lot of childcare.
So, I chose to stay home with him. It wasn’t really much of a choice, to be honest. It was the only logical solution. I could pay someone else to be with my baby – despite the fact that I wanted to be with my baby - and I could spend my 20 minute lunch break pumping breastmilk in my classroom and buy formula for the missed feedings… or I could be home with my kid. We’d pretty much break even either way. So, I took my year of leave and stayed home with my baby.
It wasn’t the pure joy I had imagined. It was really, really hard. It was lonely and sad and frustrating and boring. I lived mere blocks away from my beloved friend Kristi, but between differing nap schedules and life with babies, we weren’t able to coordinate getting together nearly as much as I craved. It was hard.
But it was also really beautiful to be with my son every day. To watch him grow and change. To hear his coos turn to babbles, to watch his spastic movements change into intentional reachings and rollings, to eventually see him begin to sit and crawl and stand and walk. I got to be there for all of it. I was grateful. Even as I sometimes felt I as losing my mind.
And then I discovered I was pregnant again. Exactly 13 months after having my first child, I discovered I was pregnant with my 2nd. A surprise. A shock. Right when I needed to tell the school district whether I would be returning or asking for a 2nd year of leave (the limit in my district). I called Human Resources to tell them I was pregnant again and asked if they would punch the numbers with me. And they laughed. “Oh honey. I can tell you right now that it’ll cost you money to come back. But we can punch the numbers if you want.” I knew. I knew she was right. It literally would have cost me money to go back to teaching. One infant and one toddler in full-time childcare would have cost my entire salary, plus more. It made no sense to return. So I took my 2nd year leave.
And after that year was up, it was still going to cost me money to return to teaching, so I gave up my contract. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done – to step into the unknown and watch what had been my dream float further away. But to be honest, I didn’t really want to go back to teaching. Not yet. That final year had been really difficult, and my babies were still so little. I wasn’t ready. And I couldn’t figure out how I’d do my job – both of my jobs – as well as I wanted to at the same time.
There didn’t seem to be any great solution, and staying home made sense. But it was terrifying to step away from my work – my identity – and give it all over to my kids. That scared me.
It still scares me 4 years later. I haven’t gone back to teaching. I’m not sure I will. I miss the students. They were incredible. And I loved teaching the subject matter. I loved talking about literature all day. I loved giving a room full of teenagers a page full of poetry and watching as they tore it apart. Watching as they learned to value – and sometimes even love – the power of words on a page. It is incredible work. It’s life-changing.
And so is having kids.
I can’t reconcile how the balancing would occur. I know other people do it and do it well, but I’m afraid of failing in the worst possible ways.
As I’ve been home with the kids, I’ve been lucky enough to build my writing life. I’ve done some freelance curriculum content writing – which is a surprising joy; there is nothing I adore more than the excuse to dork out on some literature and get paid for it – but I’ve also had the chance to become a writer. I’ve been writing my whole life in some way or another, but after having the kids, I finally found my voice. And through the Smarty Mommies group, I’ve met incredible people without whom I would likely never have found the nerve to publish. It’s happening. I’ve developed a me outside of motherhood. I’m not sure I would have survived without that.
And so that’s the direction I’m heading now. It’s pulling me away from teaching, and part of me mourns that. Part of me is profoundly sad that I am the statistic I swore I’d never be when I was in grad school. I am the teacher who quit. But I don’t know that I’m strong enough to do it all.
So I’m refocusing. Next year, my children will both be in school full time. I will have time to work. I’ll have time to press play, but this time on a different song. It’s all turning out very, very differently than I imagined. It’s been hard. It’s been really frightening. But, in the long run, it’s led me to place that feels like home. A place that is less stable and less honorable, perhaps, but it feels authentic. I believe in it. I want it.
As cliché as it is, motherhood is transformative. I couldn’t have foreseen how it would affect me. I couldn’t have guessed that leaving teaching – something I dearly loved, and love still – would be the right choice for me and for my family. I wouldn’t have guess that my pause would lead to a complete change in direction. But that’s how it’s worked out. And as we all figure out what this next year will look like, I’m sure it will bring with it more changes and more fears and uncertainty.
But, I will always be glad for the time with kids. It cost me – money and time and possibly a career – but they’re my babies. And for me, this was the right choice. The choice is different for all of us. The pause – if there is one – looks different for all of us. We each have to do what makes the most sense for us and for our famiilies. And we have to stay sane.
With all its surprises and struggles, my pause has turned out to be good for me. Things look different than I thought they would, but I look different than I thought I would. Different is working for me right now. Different is good.