Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Children and Activism

I recently came across a blog post about a musician I admire. Apparently the musician is about to have a baby with her partner, and this blogger seemed concerned that she would no longer write and perform songs with the same activist spirit she has shown for decades. The idea was that, once she has a child, she won't care about the world any more. Instead, her focus will shift to her family, and her songwriting will stagnate.

Immediately I fumed about the ridiculousness of the fear. Here is a musician who has written and performed heartfelt, often politically driven songs since she was a teenager. Thirty years into such a career, it seems unbelievable to me that a child would cause any shift in her dedication. And besides, I figure if she writes about having kids, I'd enjoy that music anyway. I laughed about the blogger's irrational fear.

Then I started reflecting on my own life. I always knew that 27 would be my favorite year, and it was certainly my most challenging. After completing a rigorous graduate program in Urban Planning, I had joined Teach For America. Since I was a child, I had known I would make a difference in the world. I wanted to help people, and had been focused on the challenges faced by urban youth. Finally, I had found a job that offered me the opportunity to start to accomplish that. At 27, I embarked on my career as an educator in Oakland, CA.

Two and a half years later, I became pregnant with my first child. I didn't think it would change my life direction at all. I would have a baby, find day care, and return to work. I'd take my allotted maternity leave, for which I would meticulously prepare, and I would return to work a couple months later, with no changes. Two fathers at my school, my principal and my curriculum coordinator/mentor, didn't believe me, but I knew they were wrong. I wasn't the stay-at-home mom type, and I loved my job. I was motivated; I wanted to change the world, and I was good at my job. I helped my students, and I learned from them. I confidently told them I'd return after 6-8 weeks, and they smiled knowingly.

Things started to change even before Chris was born. I planned to work right up until the baby was born. But on a Friday afternoon, two weeks before I was due, I went into my principal's office in tears. I told him that I had done the unthinkable in my class that day. I had put in a movie because I was too exhausted to teach. He assured me that many teachers had done far worse, but when that didn't comfort me, he called my long-term sub. As I waited in his office, he told the sub to come in on Monday. After he hung up he told me that the rest was up to me. I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted, or to start maternity leave on Monday. I came in for a couple days to get the sub situated, and then waited at home until Chris was born.

I planned to return to work on January 2nd that year. My dear friend came to visit to meet the baby in early December. She was the last in a string of family members who had flown across the country to meet the newest addition, as we had no family nearby. When she left I called my principal to check on my classes. Again, he saw through me. I was worried about something, and I didn't know exactly what. Finally my principal said directly that he wanted me to come back, in whatever capacity would work so that I would stay. We decided to push my return to the end of the semester, which added about three weeks to my maternity leave. Somehow 6-8 weeks had turned into 3 months. I ended up returning part time, to teach only 3 classes instead of 5.

As the year progressed, the pull of family strengthened. By February we were looking at apartments in Boston, and then Cambridge, and then Somerville, and then Medford, Natick, Hopkinton, and ultimately my hometown of Hopedale. John and I decided we would move back east, and both look for jobs. He could do flexible consulting work, and with the help of family, I would be able to work in a city or in another capacity where I could still make a difference. We purchased our first home in May, a half duplex in Hopedale. Without even looking, John was offered a job at MIT that was too good to turn down. I decided to wait until we settled in, and he finished his initial job training, to find a job. In June, I left the job I loved, where I felt I had an amazing impact on the students, who in turn impacted me more than any other experience in my life.

That September I started looking for a job. I found one that seemed perfect for me. The position was an education planner, and it combined my skills very well. I could help shape schools into the future, and have an impact on a larger level. The position came with extensive travel, as I would visit urban and rural schools across the country, and maybe some internationally. I attended the job interview the day I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I was such a perfect fit for the job, that I was able to work out an alternate, part-time option. For the next 2 years I was functionally a stay-at-home mom, doing sporadic work to help the education planner they hired when I turned down the job.

Three years ago I received a call from the principal of the local suburban high school. He asked if I might have any interest in a part-time position, teaching 8th grade English. I was only mildly interested. I had grown accustomed to staying at home with my boys, and was planning to continue it for another year or two, until they were in school. I ultimately did apply for the position when it became available. When the job increased from 60% to 80% time, I almost turned it down.

I ended up taking the job, and this year it increased to full time. Now I teach English and coach soccer at the local high school. I walk to work, one mile, down a tree lined street. My 6am walk is the best part of my day. I enjoy the exercise, the beauty of the trees silhouetting the sky as the sun approaches the horizon, the serenity of the street, which will soon come to life. I greet the dog walkers, the occasional joggers, and the newspaper delivery man. I take in the chilly air.

As I walk, I listen to music, much of which is written by the musician who is about to have a baby. Her lyrics question the state of the world, explore the possibility of peace, encourage equal treatment of all people, and implore me toward activism. Some mornings I am able to convince myself there are actions I can take in my life today that will make a difference in this world. Most days I consider what I can do next, and when I will do it.

When I pull open the door of the high school, the heat surrounds me and I rush to remove my hat and gloves and unzip my coat before it suffocates me. I reluctantly remove the headphones from my ears. I smile and greet my coworkers, turn on my computer, make a cup of coffee, and chat with the teacher next door. I go through the motions of my day, and look forward to the next morning's commute.

I still hope the blogger is wrong about the musician I admire, but I think she may have described my life perfectly. Perhaps it was my own fear that had me fuming from the start.

1 comment:

Ms. L-P said...

This post describes the angst I know many other parents feel, including myself. Honestly, I do think it is something mothers encounter more, for a variety of reasons. But you do make a difference, and you can't ever discount the fact that you are raising two amazing children who are also going to go out and change the world. Thanks for writing such an honest and thoughtful piece!