I rode the elevator to class with one of my students yesterday. She missed class on Tuesday--a definite no-no for summer school--and I could tell she was nervous about talking to me. She took a deep breath and plunged right in: Her three-year-old son had food poisoning on Monday night.
"I couldn't leave him with the sitter," she told me. Then she looked away for a second. "I'm...I'm still very attached to him and didn't want to leave him alone."
She seemed apologetic, almost--ashamed to admit this.
I wanted to take her by the shoulders and stare into her eyes and tell her, "Of course you're still attached to him. He's your child!"
I'm not sure what she expected me to do--reprimand her? Lecture her about her responsibilities? Clearly, though, I wasn't going to fault her for choosing her son over my class that morning. She seemed incredibly relieved--and surprised--that I didn't criticize her for her choice, and this, in turn, surprised me. I don't work in the most family-friendly of places, so it's possible she's encountered difficulties before, trying to meet her responsibilities as a student and a single parent. It's one thing to juggle working and being a parent, and another to juggle being a student and a parent. It's hard either way, and I won't pretend that I don't feel extra sympathy for my students who are parents, and a sense of sisterhood with the other moms in my class. No matter how much we think we can do it all--study, work, come to class, meet deadlines, be there for our kids no matter what--there are always bumps along the way, and too many people waiting to pounce on your mistakes, to look critically at your role as a parent trying to do it all, and to judge you based on any very human failings you might reveal along the way.
Not long ago a good friend asked me if I thought being a parent made me a better teacher, and I answered her right away, without hesitating, and told her that I thought it did. I don't think being a parent is in any way a prerequisite for being a better teacher, but it has made me better. When I think back to my graduate student days, and my early teaching years before I became a mom, I was a different sort of teacher: less flexible, more judgmental, more inclined to map out every little thing before coming to class. Of course I am older now--eleven years after I first stepped into a classroom--but I think I have learned not only to be more patient and flexible, but also that teaching is more about nurturing than most people think it is, and that teaching and parenting have an awful lot in common. They are both, after all, about leaving your preconceptions and expectations at the door, rising to unexpected challenges, and picking yourself up again when things go wrong and you're just plain burned out. To teach and parent you have to constantly place the needs of others ahead of your own grouchy moods, or your lack of sleep, or your bad day.
When the elevator reached our floor, my student smiled at me. "I won't miss class again," she told me. "My sister is coming to stay for the last two weeks of school."
But she may, of course. Her son may get sick again, and again she'll feel torn--the attachment she feels for her young son pulling at her, calling her home again to care for him, because she's the one who does it best.
It's not easy, doing it all.