Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Finding Balance

Last week I was invited to speak to one of the Teach For America national teams. I said that I would gladly come, but I let them know that I was still on maternity leave and would need to bring my baby with me. I asked if I could come at 11:15, which I knew would be the start of Tate's morning nap.
I woke Tate up from his first nap at 10am and breastfed him. Then I gathered our stuff and drove downtown. Once we got there, I put Tate in the Moby, gave him a pacifier, and gently swayed him to sleep while I spoke to the group and fielded questions about the work we are doing. Whenever he started to stir, I would gently pat him on the back for a few seconds and he would fall right back asleep.
Later that week, one of our volunteers came over to my house so we could collaborate on a grant application. Again, I wore Tate in the Moby through his naps, breastfed him while my colleague and I continued to work, and put him on the floor under his wooden arch during his awake times.
Both of these episodes left me feeling incredibly--over-the-moon--grateful that I get to have everything I want. I get to be there for my son during these formative months and I get to pursue my personal passion for educational reform. I get to work and be with my son.
I'm not talking about this set-up in order to brag. I'm talking about it because I was only able to make this happen for myself by a) being really honest with myself about what I want/need in my life b) having conviction that I could make it happen for myself and c) having the courage to make it happen. (Of course there's a whole other conversation about the privilege in my life that is the foundation upon which all the rest of this was built. This article pretty much sums it up; I, too, had "challenges" while young--my single mom was on welfare when I was a baby--but at the end of the day my family's perspective on education, my race, culture, background, sexual orientation, etc. bestow incredible privilege upon me.)
After staying at home with Henry for 14 months and pushing myself to the edge of my sanity, I realized that I needed to work. I'm not the best version of myself if I'm not engaged in activities that are directly and urgently impacting social justice out in the world. And if I'm not the best version of myself, then I can't possible be the best mother possible for my sons.
But on the other hand, I realize that we aren't making the world any better if we compromise the health and wellness of our own families. And so I spend an immense amount of time trying to figure out how to do both: How to be there for my sons and to work in the wider world.
That was the be-honest-with-myself-part. The second and third parts were about having conviction and courage, despite not having too many mentors/role models in this arena. I had to get over the fact that I look like an unprofessional hippy when I'm wearing Tate in the Moby. He's cozy. He sleeps. End of discussion.
It's been a constant creative pursuit. At first making this all work looked like five days a week of part-time daycare for Henry while I worked. Then I consolidated those part-time hours into three slighly longer days. Henry napped at school and then we spent the afternoons together. I tried to have our second baby in between turning in the charter application and opening the school, but then I had a miscarriage, which meant that the ideal window for having a baby closed and we had to revise the plan based on our new set of circumstances.
I officially start part-time work on the school in October (if the charter goes through--we find out on the 27th). I'll continue to piece together creative solutions that meet all of our needs. It's definitely not easy, but it's the only thing that feels right.

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Kelsey said...

I'm really excited to work towards the balance that I want to have. It is a bit scary because it's not conventional but it's inspiring to know that it CAN be done. I know that everything will work out with you going back to work and finding care for Tate!

Lea Shell said...

Can I just say how amazing and inspiring it is that you are accomplishing all of your dreams while your family grows? My boss has generously offered a nursery office so that I can return to work with my daughter in tow

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Kelsey! I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to respond to your e-mail message yet. I'm so excited for you!

Hi, Lea! That is awesome! Please keep me updated about how that goes.

-A said...

I just want to mention how fantastically happy you look in your photo! Your happiness and hard work are shining through, we can see the satisfaction of doing something hard on your face! Great job Sara!

Sara E. Cotner said...

What a nice thing to say, -A!

I am feeling so, so grateful for my life.

Wishing you well!

KRISTIN said...

Sara, this post is truly inspiring to me. As a woman trying to complete her dissertation for her PhD in social work and as a mom of a 12 month old + 1 due in early March, I OFTEN feel overwhelmed.

I was honest with myself, and my 12 month old started part-time childcare last month. This opened up time for me to work on my dissertation which helps me to feel like the best version of me. I worry about finding a school/work/life balance with baby number 2 in the mix, but you have inspired me.

My husband and co-parent is an educator. We're both the best versions of ourselves when we're engaging in the work that we truly believe in.

Honesty. Conviction. Courage.
This is now written across my iPhone as a reminder.

Wish you the best!

jlee said...

Hi Sara, As a teacher I feel compelled to comment on your "personal passion for school reform". If you were really wanted to make the world a better place and impact social justice in a positive way you wouldn't be working with TFA. I don't know how you can be behind 5 weeks of training to replace properly trained and experienced teachers. I know you are an alum, but I guess I hoped you had seen the light, especially with how much you seem to research other areas of your life. Follow the money.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thank you, Kristin!

@ jlee: Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts. I personally think that pitting TFA against traditionally-trained teachers is incredibly polarizing and takes our focus away from the real enemy--the achievement gap.

I am so grateful for TFA for helping me sidestep the ineffective ed department at my university (I'm not saying all ed departments are ineffective--just saying mine was) and allowing me the opportunity to learn by doing. In my second year of teaching, I was named Phi Beta Kappa's Teacher of the Year for the state of Louisiana. I certainly wasn't replacing "property trained and experienced teachers;" I was filling a sincere need in rural Louisiana. I stayed for three years, which was on par with other new teachers in our high-poverty, high-needs school. I went on to teach for a total of 9 years in low-income schools and now I'm trying to start a national network of public Montessori schools in diverse neighborhoods. I am so thankful that TFA exists and I'm proud of my colleagues who have had real impact on the ed reform movement.

I'm definitely not saying that the TFA route is better than the traditional route; I'm trying to say that we're all in this together and there is room for everyone in this movement. The enemy is not other committed teachers; the enemy is the lack of high-quality schools for economically-disadvantaged students.

Suzuki said...

" I had to get over the fact that I look like an unprofessional hippy when I'm wearing Tate in the Moby." This is so true and really struck a chord with me. When I returned from maternity leave, people often assumed that I'd be bringing my son with me while I taught. I resisted this option for many reasons but, if I'm honest, one of them was just as you said--the unprofessional perspective. Yet, as highly educated women living in this post feminist revolution era (which has now become more of a private revolution), perhaps there is a need to redefine professionalism in a way that supports rather than hides any sense of family obligation (or desire). Attitudes and practices that are good for families are ones that are good for women because they support not only the women themselves, but the supporters of women (husbands, colleagues, etc.). These changes in perspective (and such things are so subconsciously ingrained!) are what will allow us to wear our children in a wrap while doing many things professional and not considered --by anyone--anything but capable and professional. Good for you for "getting over it" and demonstrating what modern professionalism looks like!

Lea Shell said...

Suzuki said it well - and I'll definitely keep you updated about returning to work with baby!

Sara E. Cotner said...

YES, Suzuki! I love this:

"There is a need to redefine professionalism in a way that supports rather than hides any sense of family obligation (or desire). Attitudes and practices that are good for families are ones that are good for women because they support not only the women themselves, but the supporters of women (husbands, colleagues, etc.)."

Wow, wow, wow. That's exactly it. I think about this stuff a lot as I move full speed ahead into a very consuming career. I want to be effective as a CEO/Superintendent/Principal AND as a mother and wife and daughter and friend. And I want to do it in a way that feels balanced and enjoyable--not in a way that leaves me feeling stretched and inadequate.

Sara E. Cotner said...

P.S. I've been bringing Tate to meetings with me already, but I've been trying to find babysitters when I feel the need to seem ultra-professional. You've inspired me to push on my own thinking a little bit. You've made bringing my baby with me feel like an act of revolution!

Shawn said...

Love it! I feel there is so much useless debate about how you "can't have it all" and what "it all" means. The dialogue ends up feeling very negative and overwhelming. This post was real and acknowledged how much hard work it takes, but was hopeful that if you get creative and get over yourself and ask for what you want (so hard to do!) that you can find a balance that works for you. Thanks for that positive message! I really hope everything goes well with your charter. You are an inspiration - soldier on!

k said...

Love hearing about your thought process behind all these choices. I'm another working mom of two engaged in education reform and grassroots community activism. My kids (now 3 and 7 months) have been to their share of meetings. My daughter actually plays 'meeting' sometime! But I'm grateful for the chance to show them how things get done and I've gotten very creative with breastfeeding and napping on the go.

jlee said...

You are an exception for sticking with teaching for nine years through TFA while most stay only two. This creates a revolving door of inexperienced teachers, many times teaching our neediest kids. This, (along with for-profit charters, who skim off the top leaving regular public schools in even more dire circumstances), does not create a more equitable system. The achievement gap would be better addressed if we strengthened our public schools with highly trained teachers, art, drama, music, hands-on experiences, beautiful schools & playgrounds, and smaller class sizes.

And it is TFA who creates the "polarization" you mention. Just look at Chicago- hundreds of teachers were laid off and schools closed, but TFA manages to get a contract. This may not have been how TFA started but it's disgraceful now.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thanks, Shawn!

Yes, k, Henry gets on his bike and says, "I'm going to a meeting."

Just to clarify, jlee, I didn't stay for nine years in my TFA placement site. I stayed for three years and then worked in other public environments (including non-profit charter and public Montessori).

There are definitely drawbacks to the TFA model, but I still feel like it does more good than harm.

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