Teaching is HARD! Parenting is HARD! Doing them at the same time is seemingly impossible. I'm here to tell you that you can do it! Just follow these 4 survival tips!
When I had my first baby in 2019, I took a good long 6 month maternity leave. I figured that was plenty of time to figure out this parenting thing and be ready to get back in the classroom. It wasn't. I'm convinced any amount of time is not enough.
Teaching and parenting are the two most difficult (albeit important) jobs I've ever had. Doing them (well) at the same time is incredibly difficult. But, it's NOT impossible! I've learned a lot through experience. I also polled a group of 976 teacher mamas to find out the best advice they had for new, expectant, or struggling parents hoping to accomplish this monumental task. Here's what they had to say!
Tip #1: Use Your Time (Very) Wisely
Almost every mom I polled offered this advice. I know teachers don't get enough time to accomplish everything they need to accomplish during the day. Some days, you barely have time to eat lunch or take a bathroom break. I've lived it. I get it. But you do get some time. Make sure you are taking full advantage of every second of that time so work doesn't creep over into your parenting time.
Many teacher moms reported feeling pressured to chat with colleagues during their planning time or lunch. One shared this: "I started putting a sign on my door and closing it that said 'This new mama would love to chat with you, but I don’t have the self control to stop talking.. I’ll catch up with you after I finish up!'" I used a lighthearted "do not disturb" sign on my own door during my lunch break (which was also my pumping break) and left it up way after I'd stopped nursing. If you're a social butterfly, you may find it difficult to cut out the chit chat but... priorities. Teaching + parenting is possible. I'll make no guarantees about teaching + parenting + a social life (for now anyway).
Most teacher moms were adamant about work stopping at the end of of their contract hours (for me that was 3:00). Does that mean every single thing is done when you waltz out the door? Um, no. But that time belongs to your kids. Sure, sometimes you'll have mandatory school meetings. But, whenever possible, that's when you take off your teacher hat and put on your mom hat. You can always squeeze in a bit more prep after your kids go to bed. Just be sure to reserve the afternoons and weekends for them. One teacher mama said, "Fill [weekends] with time with your family, doing things that you love (not school related), saying a few more yeses to your kiddos than normal while picking battles with them wisely. And doing a few things for yourself as well."
Tip #2: Work Smarter, Not Harder
It's not just about using the time, you also have to use it the right way. Teacher mamas had these time saving tricks to offer:
Assign self-grading work whenever possible - One positive that came out of the pandemic was the discovery of self-grading digital assignments (hello Google Forms!). Take full advantage of this beautiful technology whenever you can. For ungraded classwork, I usually had students check their own work in class (or swap with a classmate and check) and write a score at the top. I also stopped giving homework altogether. They were encouraged to read at least 20 minutes a night but honestly, homework is borderline obsolete these days anyway.
Take advantage of outside help - Believe it or not, someone, somewhere in your building is twiddling their thumbs looking for something to do. They would love to make copies, cut stuff out, or laminate for you! I often asked our school media assistant or front office secretary to help me with these tasks and they were more than happy to oblige. I've also had parents willing to come in as volunteers to make copies once a week. Sometimes I even let students help me with simple tasks like filing papers or (cringe) cutting. To be honest, I'm a bit of a perfectionist so asking students to do things I needed done to my standards was very hard for me!
Set yourself up for success - Teacher moms suggested laying out your outfit and packing your lunch the night before while your kids are asleep. For me, trying to get to work in the morning was the hardest part of my postpartum teacher life. Anything you can do to avoid scrambling and mad dashing to school will help set you up for a successful day.
Invest in (or borrow) a second breast pump - I wish someone had given me this advice. If you are nursing and pumping, consider having an extra pump that stays at school. It's one less thing you have to worry about each day. I'll never forget the day I left my pump at home. Thank goodness my husband managed to get it to me before my boobs exploded. Ok that's an exaggeration but that's what it feels like!
Tip #3: Set Boundaries and Make Them Known
"Don’t feel guilty for prioritizing your own kids over your students. They have their own families, but your kids just have you." That's what one teacher mom had to say when it came to setting boundaries for herself. At the end of the day, your kids are your top priority. Even if you enjoy teaching more than you enjoy parenting (that's ok too, by the way!). Everyone - your admin, colleagues, and your students' parents (they're parents too after all) - should understand and respect your need to reserve time to parent. Here are some boundaries you may consider setting:
Leave work at work - Yes I know you may occasionally need to do some last minute planning or grading in the evenings when your kids are in bed. But, for the most part, reserve afternoons and weekends for your own kids.
Don't take on extra duties - Admin should know better than to even ask you. But, then again, my principal asked me to complete a 10 hour training while I was on unpaid maternity leave. So, you may have to be the one to put your foot down. You just had a baby. It's NOT the time to join the school improvement team or volunteer to make costumes for the school play! Even if you want to.
Don't give in to peer pressure - Just because your grade level team is planning elaborate, time consuming, high-prep lessons every day doesn't mean you have to. Keep it simple and manageable. It can still be done well without being over the top. As this teacher mom put it, "cutting the 'fluff' became huge for me. I had a couple years in there where I was on a team with a lot of young, child-less friends, and that made it harder for me to stick to my guns about not going above and beyond for every lesson. But ultimately, it can be done. You can be effective, have a great relationship with your students, and go home each day and be with your own family. It just takes a lot of intention."
Tip #4: Take Care of Your Own Mental Health
If you've ever been on an airplane, you've likely sat through the safety demonstration. A flight attendant shows you where the emergency exits are and how to put on an oxygen mask in case there is a sudden drop in cabin pressure. In every single airplane safety talk you are told to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. Yes, even your own kids. Even your helpless baby. You put your own mask on and then you help them put their mask on.
Why?!? This seems so counterintuitive, especially to new moms who will and have literally sacrificed everything for their child. Because you can't take care of someone else unless you take care of yourself first. If you pass out from oxygen deprivation, then who is going to help your child? They need you and you can't be there for them without a little self-care. When it comes to surviving as a teacher mom, remember these tips:
Practice mama mindfulness - This means checking in with yourself and your emotions. It may even mean reaching out to a therapist or trusted confidante to vent or talk through difficult feelings. There is a ton of guilt that goes along with parenting, especially for working parents. Prying your screaming toddler's arms off from around your neck and forcing them into the arms of a daycare worker will shake you to your core. But you know you are doing your best and you're doing what you have to do to provide for your family. This teacher mama said it best: "I have felt this guilt on every side. The guilt for teaching, and not being home with my kids. The guilt for putting them in camp during the summers. The guilt for being home, but missing having a work life... and feeling like I should be more present. There's so much guilt waiting to be felt, and the sooner new moms can let go of that, the better!"
Take a mental health day - I know it's not easy to take a day off as a teacher. There are sub plans to write and twice as much work waiting for you when you return. But sometimes you just need to. Don't hesitate to take a mental health day. Stay home and snuggle with your baby or send them on to daycare and take the day to focus on yourself.
Be open and honest with your partner or coparent - Historical gender roles often mean moms still take on the majority of parenting responsibilities. Yes there is a biological need in the beginning (especially if you're nursing), but at some point the bearing of this massive load can shift to the dads. Moms should not be expected to work full time AND parent full time AND take on all of the housekeeping duties. It's an unrealistic expectation and it tears modern families apart. Be open with your partner about how much of this load you carry. Ask him to take on some of the responsibility. Let him know specific ways he can help you manage. Sometimes dads are just blissfully unaware. You may just have to clue him in!
I won't lie and tell you that being a teacher mom is easy. It's monumentally hard. But it's also incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. Follow these 4 tips and you can and will survive it!