I was one of those lucky people who knew what she wanted to be when she grew up early on. The way I remember it, I was sitting in an 11th grade English class and had the thought, “I would like to do this. I would like to teach English too.” And that was it. I graduated from high school, went off to college, completed an English degree and a secondary language arts teaching certificate, student taught for a wonderful preparatory semester, then started my own career in the profession at that same delightful school. A few years down the road, I started an M.A. in English, inspired by fellow Doves & Serpents writer, Heather, who was already in graduate school. Then I had a child. Even when I stopped classroom teaching after the birth of my son, I was still working in the arena of that long ago goal of being an English teacher, writing my thesis and tutoring ESL students. And when M.A. was done and my son was two, I returned to the classroom, happily teaching part-time at a community college. I taught part time for six years, taking a semester break when my daughter was born and adjusting my course load as needed; also, I considered myself a stay at home mother that whole spell. A night class here, mother’s day out there, help from a wonderful ward friend, then the world’s greatest preschool, meant that I still spent most of my days in the trenches of swing sets and high chairs and car seats. And I was grateful.
I’m still grateful.
I learned firsthand that the more education one has, the more flexible work options can be. I understand now why my parents were so worried that I wouldn’t complete my degree when I got engaged at 19. No worries, people. I didn’t get married then, but I did keep writing essays on the history of the British novel. In my modest but deeply satisfying field, earning that teaching certificate and then that M.A. meant that I could also earn a living as needed. And I am grateful that I managed to complete my schooling before I had kids, though that’s only one approach, obviously! I feel like I lucked into this path of education first, then family, in some ways. And I am grateful for the luck of the path, because my luck didn’t hold in other areas.
After six years of part-time teaching, everything changed. I became a single parent. The new reality meant I was going to have to work full time. Reader, I am not going to lie: I was extremely unhappy about this change! I may have stamped my feet a few times. I know I exhaled loudly, and often. I loved my career-motherhood balance, for the most part. I had no interest in upsetting it. Yes, my brain was often in more than one place at a time, but that’s probably true of all parents. I graded papers on the playroom floor surrounded by stacking blocks. I shared stories about my kids learning to read with my college writing students. Going to teach my classes was energizing, returning to be with my kids was grounding. I’m sure I’ve romanticized those years from this distance, yes, but mostly, it worked. The floor was a sticky mess, but I felt like I was holding it together. On the kid front, at least. I probably felt grumpy more often than I remember, but thank goodness for selective memory! I felt fulfilled to be at home with my kids. I mostly loved our routine of play dates, museum visits, lazy afternoons in the pool, and marathon nap-wrestling sessions. I did not want to be somewhere else. And I was very privileged to be at home. I think I knew that then, but I am certain of it now.
But because I had been working part time and had taught full time before having a family, I was able to segue into a full-time teaching position when I had to become my own breadwinner. (Can I just mention that I love that phrase, with its implication that a job involves some kind of contest? “I won! I won some bread, kids! Eat up!”) And because it was a job I already knew, in a place close to my home, there was minimal upset to the schedule of the family. However, the new work load was draining. The truth is, the difference between part time and full time was enormous, at least in terms of my energy levels. Another truth is that in the four years that I’ve been doing the single mom-career tango, my attention span and ability to focus seem to have diminished, while my flakiness levels have increased 1000%. I do a lot of work from home, which too often means both my work and home life suffer in quality control. Attempting to answer student emails while feeding my children breakfast, for example, is a surefire ticket to a temper tantrum.
Mine, I should clarify. I am the one having a temper tantrum when I lose that balance.
But I shudder to think where I would be without this job and without my work experience. I would still be working full time, but with a less flexible schedule, fewer benefits, and even more drain on my energy levels. Like I said, I am grateful. More than tired, more than excited, more than anything else, I feel grateful. I am sometimes surprised to look around my life and see my various responsibilities and skill sets. I recognize, even now, that it was my parents’ vision, generosity, and expectations that put me on the right path of job training. That, and my insatiable love of reading books. I figured out a way to get paid to do something I love. That the job includes lots of tasks that I love less than that is to be expected. Still, I get to talk about ideas that fascinate me. Again, I am grateful.
Interestingly, my patriarchal blessing contains a phrase that means much more to adult Erin than my 15 year old self; it said that I would provide for my family through an honorable career. When I first registered as an English major at the beginning of my college career, I felt strongly that such a course of study and the following career plan was indeed honorable. Nothing better than teaching poetry, people! Well, except all of the other wonderful career paths people pursue, of course. And people who build bridges and provide nursing care and repair highways have honor galore. But you know what I mean …
I’ve shared that phrase (paraphrased above) with friends and church members before. Some were surprised. The LDS church’s directives to women don’t usually include that kind of rhetoric, which is unfortunate. But perhaps things are changing. The reality is, life is work, whether paid or in the home. And the season of caring for young children full time is usually just one of many seasons in a woman’s life. My own mother worked as a public school music teacher before I was born, then spent many years teaching piano lessons and accompanying choirs, before returning to school to become a psychologist. My sisters have both forged part-time careers while also rearing young children, and both of them have worked full time in their fields. They also had enough education and experience to be able to shift to part time work when that was desired, but could shift back, if needed.
When I was called as ward Young Women’s president, right at the time that I was about to transition from part time teacher/stay at home mom to full time nut case, I couldn’t quite believe my bishop had confidence in my ability to be in charge. “Are you sure about this?” I asked him. “My life is falling apart right now.”
“I’m sure, Erin,” he said warmly. “The young women in our ward need to see how you’re doing this, to see you handling real life, to see how you’ve been preparing yourself.”
And I think he was right. I hope my daughter (and my son) see that life is a crazy collage of work, home, fun, and drudgery, and that the better trained they are to do something they love and the more skills they possess that will allow them, too, to provide honorably for their future families, whatever those look families like, the more balance they will be able to achieve.