This is a story about befores and afters. We will start with before…
I could go further back, but I think going back to my high school graduation is far enough. I graduated on my 18th birthday and I was salutatorian of my class. Take that with a grain of salt because mine was a “large” class of about 45 people in a really small public school in the south western part of New York State. Even so, I was the only female in my graduating class that took all four years of science (“how would I know if I’m supposed to be a physicist,” I reasoned, “unless I take physics?”). That’s the type of person I was.
In college, I was an honors student. As a result, I was able to take one extra three-hour course each term. While most people I knew took twelve to fifteen credits per semester (at or slightly above the minimum requirement to be considered a full time student), I took eighteen to twenty-one. Why? I liked electives and since my tuition was the same price regardless of if I took twelve or twenty-one credits, why not take as many as I could?
After college, I immediately started working on my master’s degree in reading. My cooperating teachers both had their master’s degrees in reading and told me it was a good idea to do that since it would afford me another certification. I also immediately started a long-term sub position as a 7th grade English teacher. When I registered for my courses, I enrolled in four classes for the Fall Semester because that was only twelve credit hours. Having taken nearly double that in undergrad, I naively thought taking twelve graduate level credit hours would be a piece of cake. Even though I was wrong (I mean, like couldn’t-have-been-more-wrong), I continued to take four courses per semester for my entire program.
My husband proposed to me on my 23rd birthday. Within twelve months of his proposal I started a tenure-track English teacher position, finished my master’s degree, got married, and enrolled in a program to become an administrator. A couple of months after my 24th birthday, we bought our first house.
Just before my 27th birthday when I thought my life was going to slow down and I would take it easy, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program. In that program, I was required to have a residency which meant that I would have to take four doctoral level classes per semester for two back-to-back semesters. At the same time, my husband and I (actually, it might have been a little more me than him) decided that we should start our family. I did the math (wrong) and calculated that August would be the earliest I could get pregnant because if I got pregnant in August, the baby would be due in June. A June baby would be okay since by that point my courses would be over and I would be working on my dissertation. So for that school year, I worked full time as a staff developer, I went to school full time to finish my doctoral course work, and I grew my first child full time. On a side note, if you get pregnant in August, the baby comes in May. You know what else happens in May? If you’re in school, you’re finishing up your semester. This is, in part, why I literally prayed for my first child to be late. My husband asked, “Would it be so bad if you had the baby before your classes were finished?” God bless him.
What are words you would use to describe me based on these details? Aside from crazy, you might use descriptors like driven and ambitious (which tend towards positive attributes) or work-a-holic and over-extended (which tend towards negative or at least precautionary).
This was all before...Before being becoming a mother.
This is all after…
I was sleep-deprived and dying to go back to work. My husband would come home from work and I would be seething with jealously that he had a real reason to bathe and get dressed and leave the house. My career and education were not just things that I did because I had to, but important pieces of my identity. I didn’t recognize the person who I became: a Mom.
Even when I went back to work after just two months of maternity leave, I was different. During the day I had to stop doing my work and find a room to pump (I made the choice and was committed to nursing my kids for a year). Keep in mind, I was a staff developer who went from school to school so I had to find different and new places to pump regularly. When I got home, I had to make sure that my child was fed and bathed even if all I wanted to do was feed and bathe myself like I had been able to do before. It’s not that I didn’t love my son, it’s that I didn’t recognize myself. I felt like my work was not at the same caliber as it had been before. My time was not able to be used as it had been before. My options were not what they were before.
The words used to describe me in my “before” state were all still applicable after I became a mom. I was still driven and ambitious; a work-a-holic and over-extended. Who I was didn’t change even if how I operated had to.
When I compared myself to myself, I convinced myself that I didn’t measure up. I looked different physically (every woman does after childbirth) and I was okay with that. “This is the price you pay for having the greatest gift ever” I thought—and I meant it. I could watch my beautiful baby boy sleep for hours. He was angelic. He looked like his father and he was the literal personification of our love for each other. If ever there was evidence of miracles, a child is that evidence. Yet it wasn’t my physical changes that were difficult for me to accept—it was my feelings about my work. I kept thinking about how much more work I could do if not for being a mom. I thought that not only would my work have been greater in quantity, but also greater in quality.
I have heard my colleagues repeatedly throughout this COVID pandemic struggle with this same feeling of inadequacy. Their before and after is not about being childless compared to being a working parent, it’s being a teacher before and after (some might say “during”) COVID. They’re looking at themselves and saying things like, “In the past, I would have done it this way” or “I wish that all the kids were back because I would be able to do…” or “I’m trying really hard, but what am I supposed to do when…” The list is long of how any of these sentences end. If school was better when done remotely or socially distant, we would have been teaching this way already.
Honestly, all instruction in this new world is challenging because we have never done it before and never even considered it prior to being told we had to this year. How do you compensate in a virtual platform or in a socially distant classroom for the common and important practices that traditionally take place in all classrooms—practices like group work, turn and talk, and patting a kid on the back? Please do not mistake what I’m saying to be interpreted as though I’m suggesting that what we are doing is impossible or teachers are incapable or we should not be adhering to the health and safety precautions that we are practicing right now. My point is simply that if you are comparing yourself to the “before” COVID version of yourself, you are going to feel frustrated, disappointed, and like a failure. This is why I want to remind you that WHO you are hasn't changed even if how you operate has had to.
Would you say that a working parent should compare him/herself to the pre-parent version of him/herself? Of course not. You would say “The best version of you right now is the one that rises to this occasion.” No one looks at me and thinks, “That Heather Lyon, she’s a slacker!” Why not? Because I’m not. "Slacker" has never been a descriptor for me. I have found a way to be really successful professionally and personally. I’m not sacrificing one area for another because of this unrealistic idea that my before and after should be identical—and neither should you.
How did people describe you a year ago? My guess is that description is still what they would say about you now. I am not giving you permission to check-out, give-up, or phone-it-in; I’m saying be the best version of yourself given the situation that you are in. Tell that voice whispering “You’re not good enough” that messages like that are what’s not good enough. Be forewarned, that voice may start to get louder in protest…but you’ll be too busy doing your best to notice. After all, soon enough what we’re living through right now will be your before!