2019 was my first year as both a teacher and a parent. What a year it was!
After a full year off on maternity leave, I jumped straight in the deep end and returned to teaching full time at the beginning of the school year. Not only was I suddenly working 5 days a week again, but I started at a new school too. Talk about quick adjustment!
Bub went into daycare 4 days a week, and my Mum cared for him on the 5th day. I was able to take him for some visits before he started, but it was still an adjustment for all of us. I knew he’d grow to love it – he’s such a clever, bright little boy and I wasn’t up to providing the social interactions and activity variety at home that he would get there.
The first full day I dropped him off with great trepidation, but quickly left (on the advice of the educators – dragging out the drop off process can increase the discomfort of the child). I even got a sticker from the reception because I didn’t cry! I was excited for him to have this opportunity, and excited to have the day to myself. I’d scheduled his start date a week or two before I was due to return to work, so that I could get some preparation done and also so that I could be on hand if he just wasn’t coping and needed to come home.
As predicted, he grew to absolutely love daycare. Of course we had many rough drop-offs, but overall he settled quickly into the routines of this new environment (routines we mirrored at home on the weekends for consistency).
The only issue with daycare, especially evident in a child who has no older siblings, no cousins, and no close friend (in age or location), is that he was exposed to many illnesses he hadn’t encountered before. This meant a LOT of sick days. And I mean a LOT.
To put it in perspective, across the year I personally took the equivalent of 5 full weeks off caring for him. I took a further 2 full weeks off for myself separately, as I was also exposed to new illnesses and grew sick easier than I had in the past. He also had probably the equivalent amount of days off where my husband or Mum cared for him while I went to work. So add all that up, and he was home seemingly almost as often as he was at daycare!
But even with the frequent absences, we all grew to adore the educators and the centre, and were genuinely very sad when we moved house at the beginning of 2020 and had to change daycare centres. Having the opportunity to work in professions that pay well enough that we could afford to send our bub to daycare is certainly a privilege, one I try not to take for granted.
If you are in a position of management in a school environment, I cannot stress enough how important it is that you support your staff who are also juggling the realities of parenthood. Understanding that your staff likely love their jobs and fully understand their responsibilities, but also that they should be putting their own family first – that is something that cannot be understated. It is not fair to ask your staff to choose between their job and their family, especially when they are new parents.
That doesn’t mean that they should have less responsibilities or lower expectations than their non-parent colleagues, but simply understand that their priorities may not be exactly where and when you’d prefer them.
I am forever grateful to my school and Head of Department (HOD) for their patience, understanding, and support. I had so much underlying guilt and anxiety over the continued absences, especially given I was working at a new school where no-one knew me.
How could I be sure they knew my absences were genuine? Or that I truly was trying to keep afloat of all the things I was adjusting to in this new setting as well as my new home reality? Surely I’d be asked to leave, or have my hours cut.
But they took it all in stride as perfectly normal for a person in my situation, and never pressured me about my time off. My colleagues even prepared lessons for me when I was in hospital with bub or husband, or when I was too sick myself to do it. Their constant reassurance was lovely, even if I couldn’t quite accept that they truly didn’t mind.
I feel so lucky that I landed in such an understanding school, one who even converted my contract status to permanent status just to make sure I wouldn’t go elsewhere the following year!
One of the biggest adjustments for me was the reality of coming home to even more responsibilities than I had at school.
Before bub was born, I could come home and do what I pleased whenever it suited me. That included marking and lesson planning. I could do school work when I felt like it, and chill out with hobbies when I felt like it. My morning routine was easy.
Returning was not easy. In fact, the change in my mornings, afternoons, and evenings was so severe that it contributed a great deal to my diagnosis of depression. But more on that later.
My afternoons were no longer coming home to do whatever, they were now coming home to spend time with a toddler. My only free time was after he went to bed, and even then that time had to be split between cleaning, prepping for the next day, school work, spending time with my husband, and spending time on my hobbies.
The truth is, I didn’t cope well. My hobbies fell into a dual category of watching one episode of a show, or scrolling aimlessly through social media. I never felt like I had time to actually do anything else. I used to blog, play games, read books, chat with friends, listen to music, draw, even exercise. All that fell to the wayside, and not in a healthy way.
I resented having to spend time in my evenings doing work, and I honestly feel like my lesson planning suffered because of that. Between the constant absences and constant anxiety over bubs illnesses, I feel like I became less of a teacher. I planned simpler lessons with less interaction, more chalk-and talk, and almost no variety. I hated that I was doing it, but at the same time I recognised that I was in survival mode. The students survived, even thrived, and I can take solace in the fact that my teaching was good enough that they did actually enjoyed being in my classes.
It took almost the entire year, and some time with a therapist, for me to recognise and accept this new dynamic in my daily routine. It took a lot of mental willpower to accept that I could actually keep doing all the things I used to do, I just had to adjust my expectations, particularly with regard to the time I had available.
My mornings ended up with much more of a strict routine then what I had before bub. I get up earlier now, have things more planned out in advance. My spares and lunchtimes at school are fuller, planning as much in advance as I can (even supervision lessons if I think I might be off the next day). My afternoons are family time, work happens as much as possible at work, and the overflow happens after bub is in bed. Yes it means sacrificing hobby time and husband time, but I also know it won’t be like this forever. This is just one season of my life, and it’ll change again all too soon.
At the risk of getting too personal, I wanted to touch on the topic of mental health. My gosh it’s so important. If this is too uncomfortable a topic for you, please skip ahead. I am writing about my mental health struggles here because I know I am not alone in this. Teaching is hard, parenting is hard, and lumping them together on top of mild depression to begin with is surely a near guarantee for some sort of disaster.
As I mentioned above, I was diagnosed with depression. This happened in the first half of the year, after I slid dangerously down into a spiral that I couldn’t see the way out of. I wanted to quit my job, but I also desperately wanted to keep my job because I love it so much. I wanted to not be a parent any more, not be a wife, even though I loved my son and husband so completely, and on the darkest night of my life to date, I even wanted to not be alive. Surely leaving in some capacity would be easier than trying to keep going.
When it got to that point, I finally accepted I needed professional help. My husband had been seeing the signs for far too long, but I refused to accept it – I was far too proud to admit I needed help.
Even though it was almost a year and a half after bub was born, my depression was put down to a combination of post-partum depression and my inability to adjust healthily to my return to work. It was compounded by things like adjusting to a new school, anxiety over bubs health, guilt over my absences, fantasies of life before becoming a parent and even before becoming a wife, feeling like I never had enough time for anything, and not being willing to accept that I felt all those things.
I have a seemingly picture-perfect life – truly great husband, beautiful and intelligent son, fantastic job that pays well and that I enjoy, good overall health, good family and friend relationships, even buying our very own house at the end of 2019. But having all that didn’t change my depression, it never does for anyone who has been through the hells of mental health issues. The saddest people smile the widest, right?
Teaching is such an all-consuming profession, and becoming a parent is such an all-consuming life change. I just couldn’t adjust, simple as that. I see now that there should never have been any shame in it. But it took me a long time to get there.
I ended up on medication for about 6 weeks, and saw a therapist 4 times, before I felt like I was back in the swing of things. It might not seem like much treatment, but for me that was enough to reset my expectations and adjust to my new dynamic. I haven’t needed to go back since then, and can honestly say I am happy right now. I am not depressed at this stage of my life, but I also know that after our little girl is born I need to be extra vigilant about my mental health, extra honest with myself and my health care providers, and get help much much sooner should I need it again.
I can’t urge you enough to take stock of your own mental health, especially if you are playing the duel role of parent and teacher. It is not worth your life to sink so low you can’t get out.
Overall it was a heck of a year. Adjusting to a new school, adjusting to being a full time working parent – it was a lot. But I got through. And now I’m about to do it all again after our second bub is born and I return from maternity leave. This time back to the same school, so hopefully a little less adjustment on that end of things. But being a full time working parent with two children is going to be a challenge, that’s for sure!
If you’re also a parent and a teacher, what advice would you give to those who might be returning to the classroom after maternity leave?
Photo of our little family, taken by The Image Collective