There are days when I find myself doing things I swore I wouldn’t do — bribing them with junk food, or using screen time as a reward. There are days when they test my boundaries so much that I’d swear they’ve got a bet going over who can make me cry or curse first. There are days when I’ve cleaned up three separate bodily fluids by noon, and haven’t had a single break to expel any myself.
And this is all BEFORE I leave work to go home to my kid.
As a high school special education teacher working with a high-needs population, my work life mirrors my parenting life in a lot of ways. Many of which are heartwarming — the thrill of seeing young minds master new skills, the handmade thank-you cards on special occasions. And others that are less picturesque — the tantrums, the attention-seeking behavior… did I mention the bodily fluids?
The balancing act
I can say with certainty that being a special educator has made me a better parent, and being a parent has made me a better special educator. I remember distinctly the day that I learned about the strategy of giving “what to do” directions during my teacher training (“Keep your eyes on the speaker and voices off,” rather than the abstract “Pay attention”) and having my first thought be ‘I can’t wait to try this when I get home.’ But there are struggles as well. Real ones. As I’m sure any parents who are nurses, social workers, or therapists will tell you, taking care of tiny humans while pursuing a career in caregiving can rock your world and wreck you emotionally if you’re not careful.
I had my own wake-up call this past school year. After a particularly difficult day at work, I snapped at my 3-year-old over something minor that totally didn’t warrant such an overreaction. As I registered the hurt in her eyes, I realized what had happened — I had given so much of my patience to my students that day, there was none left for my own child when she needed it. After a good long cry and some consolation ice cream (for both of us), I knew I needed to start being more intentional about my work/life balance if I didn’t want my psyche to implode like a dying star of stress and guilt.
Making a plan
This is a journey I am still on and I’m not anywhere close to perfect. There are many days where I suck at it, a lot. But on the better ones, these are a few of the strategies I’ve put in place to preserve my sanity and ensure that everyone in my life—myself included—gets the care they deserve.
1. Create a conscious mental shift from working parent life to home life
My school network has recognized the need for better staff work/life balance. And, as part of that initiative, they manually shut down internal email communications on evenings and weekends. Which is awesome. But only I can shut down my brain. As difficult as it can be when a student has been going through something traumatic, or the lessons plans just aren’t working, I have to make a conscious decision to STOP thinking about it so I can be fully present with my family. And honestly, have I ever come up with some brilliant solution to a work-related problem while anxiously perseverating on it as my daughter is trying to show me her new karate moves? Not even once.
2. Be honest with my kid when I’ve had a hard day
Some folks may disagree, but I believe in a pretty high level of emotional transparency with children, even at a young age. I keep everything in age-appropriate terms, of course, but I let my daughter see me cry when I’m upset, and I try my best to answer her honestly when she asks me how I’m feeling. Some days this sounds like, “Mama had to do a lot of hard things at work today, and I’m feeling a little sad and tired, but it has nothing to do with you. In fact, you make me feel better just by being you. Let’s make a smoothie and watch Tangled.”
3. Keep “me time” sacred
This is especially important for us contemplative introvert-y types. I’ve realized recently, though, I have to make the distinction between what I’ll call “empty calorie” time — where I just browse the internet mindlessly or binge watch a Netflix show and call it self-care — and “nourishing” time — where I engage in activities that bring me real satisfaction and healing, like writing, exercising, prayer, tinkering with herbal stuff, or sex.
The bottom line
Every working parent can benefit from applying these principles. But for those of us in high-risk or emotionally demanding professions, it becomes a matter of survival. A burnout is no good to anyone, but with some healthy boundaries and a lot of intentionality, one may just be able to make this whole crazy thing work. After all, who doesn’t want quadruple the poorly-spelled, lovingly-colored crayon-and-construction-paper cards on their birthday? My refrigerator will be forever full.