Teacher-Moms: The Personal (Female Leaders Response, Part 2)

One day in my early years of teaching I overheard a couple of young men in my 11th grade American Studies course talking about another student’s mother. “She has an MBA from Harvard and she’s, she’s, . . . just a Mom!”

The contempt reverberating through his statement stunned me. I had just come back from a short maternity leave for my second child, and was busy juggling the demands of a young teaching career with the all-consuming responsibilities of caring for our newborn daughter and just-turned two year old son. Along with the familiar guilt of not doing enough as a mom, teacher, wife, and citizen, the student’s statement triggered anxiety about the unfinished dissertation that I had stuck in a desk drawer when I had began teaching high school five years earlier: What message would I send to my children if I left my PhD unfinished? More specifically, would I be showing my daughter that women can’t “have it all” if I remained a perpetual ABD (all-but-dissertation) candidate?

As I wrote in a comment to George Couros’ (@gcouros) post, “Do One Thing Everyday that Scares You,” these questions haunted me and, without a doubt, compelled me to finish my PhD. However my student’s “just a mom” comment also drove me: I was determined to set an example for my children and my students — all moms are more than “just moms.”

But it was the process of “proving” this that I discovered the dirty little secret of feminism: women cannot have it all without paying a price. As Ann-Marie Slaughter put it in her 2013 Atlantic Magazine editorial, “glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk” (“Why Women Can’t Have it All”).

Yes, women have changed and, undeniably, attitudes and avenues have opened up to give us access to more opportunities than our foremothers; however, social structures and institutions have not kept pace (see my previous post for more on this). Parental leave policies, second-generation gender bias, ideas about women’s capacity to lead, the mom/pregnancy penalty, and other barriers still prevent women from “having it all.”

Still, in those early years of teaching over fifteen years ago, when I was relatively young and positively naive about such things, I believed that should be able to “do it all.” The fact that I could not made me believe that I was weak, somehow deficient as I compared myself with others and tried in vain to juggle a full-time teaching job with family life and completing my dissertation. Faced with escalating anxiety and sheer exhaustion, I finally had to face up to the fact that I was one double-ear-infection-I-can’t-miss-school-again moment away from a nervous breakdown. For the first time in my life I was forced to confront the limits of my own mental health. I knew if I something didn’t give, I would break.

And so I bailed. Half-way through the school year I went out on family leave. But in addition to a huge sense of relief, I felt a profound sense of failure: I left teaching because I couldn’t hack it as a Teacher-Mom.

Like many women who pursue academic careers, I had to adjust my course. I took a leave from full-time teaching and started waitressing & teaching college part-time at night in order to afford daycare for our (eventually) 3 children as I dissertated out of the local public library a few days a week. In then end, it took close to 9 years (albeit the project had been largely ignored for most of that time) for me to complete the dissertation.

After I finished, my advisor, Professor Leisa Meyer of William & Mary, helped me put my accomplishment into perspective. She told me how proud of me she was and noted, “You beat the odds. The majority of ABD candidates who become moms never finish.”

Only now am I able to truly appreciate my own unique life path, which includes my three amazing children, a healthy marriage (no mean feat!) and a handful of non-traditional jobs in education in addition to teaching. Having recently gone through the interview process that led to my new position (my dream job!), I see now that I am all the better for it.

I couldn’t help but think back to the challenging days that led me to step away from teaching for awhile as I read the courageous #semicolonEDU posts and tweets, led by activists Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza) and Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher). Certainly Starr Sackstein’s “Pregnant Pauses” post about her own Teacher-Mom story also resonated. Reflecting back on that time in my life now, I see that it wasn’t only the stats or the glass ceiling that held me back, but also the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of motherhood — or, more precisely, the impact of the combined demands of being a Teacher-Mom.

I write this post to recognize all of the amazing Teacher-Moms out there. Remember to take care of you. Don’t be dissuaded by others who do not agree with the decisions you make for you, your family, and your career. It’s your journey.

Thinking back on my “just a Mom” story, I hope we can teach our children and our students something about “perspective-taking” and help them consider the complexity of our identities. We are, none of us, “just a mom” or “just a teacher.” We are also/always all kinds of other things beyond “just” our gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, and more. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has explained so beautifully, there is danger in a single story.

But I also am writing this post to invite questions and promote activism around ways schools can better support not only Teacher-Moms, but also Teacher-Dads and Teacher-Families:

  • Can we do away with rules that penalize women for taking time out for maternity leave and create a more equitable way of “counting” time served for promotion?
  • Are there family-friendly models that districts/schools can follow in order to allow more flexibility for working parents (e.g., job sharing)?
  • How might we leverage technology to make teaching work better for working parents (e.g, use Google Hangouts or online learning to teach from home when caring for a sick child)?
  • What supports can HR departments offer (e.g., assist in finding childcare)?

These are just a few ideas. I would love to hear other ideas and stories. Are there family-friendly policies that you can point to or that you’d like to see implemented? How can we better support Teacher-Moms?

PS: This post is dedicated to the two Teacher-Dads who got me through some of my most challenging days of being a Teacher-Mom. My husband, Sterling, and my former teaching partner at Hingham HS (now Social Studies Coordinator for SPS), Steve Swett, whose mantra, “Even on your worst day you’re better than most,” sustained me during the worst of days.


One thought on “Teacher-Moms: The Personal (Female Leaders Response, Part 2)

  1. Thank you, Colleen, for sharing your story. We need to get rid of ‘just a (parent, teacher, student, leader)’ and ‘not even a (parent, teacher, student, leader)’, focusing instead on facilitating and allowing choices for men, women, parents, non-parents, teachers, leaders, everyone! While also valuing self care, mental health and time out.

    I shared some of my own story in this post about balancing parenthood, teaching and PhDing: http://wp.me/p4TJTj-6d . The comment from Annabel Crabb’s book that sticks with me from that post was that women (and perhaps men?) feel “that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one does not have a job. To do any less feels like failing at both.”

    Hopefully individuals will get better at making life and work choices which honour themselves, and workplaces will get better at being flexible and thoughtful around the lives and health of their employees.



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