My husband was sick last week, so it was just me on Bailey duty. The first day was the roughest, with Bailey being in one of those moods where everything that’s not a toy is a toy, and everything that is a toy is completely uninteresting.
So the next day, I was determined to make naptime line up so that I could still keep my walk with my best friend Emily on the calendar.
I managed to pull it off, and snuck out of the house to do a quick loop around the block. It felt decadent and self-indulgent, despite the fact that I technically needed to take the dog out anyway, so it could have counted as checking a chore off the long list of things I needed to do.
More importantly, it’s ok for me to take the time I need for myself, even if I am a mom.
Emily and I talked about this: the temptation in parenting to feel like every moment needs to be maximized and spent productively towards getting things done.
Emily knows this challenge well. She’s a stay-at-home mom, so the tasks that seemed immense to me that week are routine for her.
“I don’t know how you do this all the time, this is such hard work,” I say, knowing it sounds like a cliché but needing to express the sentiment anyway.
“I don’t know how you manage to work while still taking care of her,” she offers back to me.
This is a dance that moms are very familiar with.
The undercutting of someone’s recognition of your own accomplishments to highlight your shortcomings compared to others.
If I’m feeling cynical this is because of the unrealistic expectations that society sets for women.
If I’m feeling optimistic it’s because we love our babies so much that there’s nothing we can do that will ever be good enough for them.
Either way, I mean it when I tell Emily that it is a uniquely difficult job. My body is so physically tired at the end of the day, that it reminds me of when I was teaching.
There are commonalities between my relationship with motherhood and my relationship with teaching. They are both underappreciated, thankless jobs that are misunderstood by people who have never been through them.
And I underestimated how much I would struggle with the guilt of not meeting my expectations for either one.
When I graduated from college, I decided to join Teach for America. I had always had an interest in educational equity, and I had an ego. I loved the idea of being able to do something prestigious but meaningful and challenging.
I trusted that the program would prepare me well. I thought that teaching was all about knowing the content. I had not yet developed an appreciation for the art and science behind high-quality pedagogy.
I moved half way across the country to start teaching elementary school.
I had heard from others that had completed the program about the long hours, the sleepless nights, the months of chipping away at the toughest child’s exterior before finally having a breakthrough.
I thought I knew what to expect. That it would be difficult, but in the kind of way that was rewarding to suffer through. The type of hard work that left you feeling exhausted but satisfied, knowing you were giving every piece of yourself to advance a mission you cared so much about.
In reality, Teach for America was the worst period of my life, by far, until mania. I had set astronomically high expectations for myself, and the quick and dirty summer training they gave me was nowhere near enough for me to be successful as a teacher, much less to excel at it.
Realizing that I was failing miserably at something for the first time in my life sent me into a spiral of anxiety and depression that nearly destroyed me. I don’t think I slept for the first week of teaching, replaying each large and small mistake I had made in the classroom over and over again in my head.
The program reiterated constantly how important it was for our children, in particular, to succeed, and so each day that I spent not optimizing their learning felt like a personal moral failure.
What I needed to do was accept that I wasn’t going to be good at teaching in the beginning and gradually work to get better. But my anxiety wouldn’t let me calm down enough to see that rationally. Instead, it was all I could do to cry, eat dinner, and calm my body enough to fall asleep when I got home from my post-work grad school classes.
I would therefore set alarms for 3:30 or 4:00 am so that I could get up and finish lesson planning for the upcoming day, which started at 7:50.
I had a half hour commute, and it’s honestly a miracle that I managed to not fall asleep at the wheel.
I cried not just daily, but multiple times daily. Sometimes in front of my students.
I had routine panic attacks about not wanting to do this anymore. I remember one time, in particular, collapsing in our hall closet, feeling completely trapped and like there was no way out for me. Shrieking at Matt, like I was a child, begging him not to make me go.
There was no glamour to this suffering. And despite some small successes with students, the benefits to them in no way outweighed the costs, for either of us.
In retrospect, I should have been counseled out of the program.
Particularly knowing what I know now about having bipolar, it’s a miracle I didn’t intentionally or accidentally harm myself during that time period, not to mention the fact that it wasn’t in children’s best interest to be taught by someone who was in such a mental state.
So when it came time to have children, I maybe should have learned to be a little more self-aware in my expectations. From everything I had heard from family and friends, I knew parenthood would be challenging, but rewarding. I took all of the classes, I read all of the books.
I had been warned about the lack of sleep and the sounds of a baby that couldn’t be soothed. I had been prepped for the pains of childbirth and the ennui of breastfeeding.
In reality, early motherhood looked almost nothing like that for me.
It goes without saying that I did not expect mania, or psychosis, or any of the harsh realities of my first month as a mom.
But even after the joy and contentment of being reunited with my baby, motherhood looked different.
I couldn’t breastfeed on my medications.
I had to stop the night feedings in order to ensure that I got enough sleep to stay well.
Bailey was an angel baby who very rarely fussed at all.
Instead of being able to revel in the joy of having an easy baby, I was racked with guilt and disappointment.
Despite the immense amount of suffering I had already been through, it didn’t feel like I had suffered in the right ways. My heart ached for the noble torture of breastfeeding, the type of pain and exhaustion that felt productive. Selfless.
Instead, I felt selfish for focusing so much time and energy on my own wellness. I felt incapable of providing for my daughter in the ways that other moms did.
A year later, I understand that most moms feels this way, even if they haven’t been through psychosis or mania or depression.
One of my friends felt guilty that her labor with her second child was too easy- that she didn’t suffer enough to earn a child.
Another friend felt guilty for having one of those auto-rocking bassinets that helps a baby to sleep.
One of my friends even felt like a bad mom for not being able to get her infant twins to be able to wear shorts and shirts without them riding up.
The expectations we place on moms (and teachers) are ridiculous and flawed and heartbreaking.
The achievements that moms (and teachers) accomplish in spite of ourselves are amazing.
I can’t say I always feel like a great mom, or that I know enough about how to be one.
But I am finally starting to understand that to be either a great mom or a great teacher, you must let go of your previous expectations for the job and instead focus on taking one step at a time. Being present in the moment. And giving generous amounts of love and grace.
To your children, yes. But, just as importantly, to yourself.
Thanks for reading,