It’s now been four weeks since I came back from a truncated paternity leave(1). It is killing me to go to work these days. Each morning I change his diaper and he’s started to get infectiously smiley right when we wake up. I try to get my wife some breakfast and take our dogs out before I crawl into my car and go to school.
Prior to the baby, I operated on razor-time margins. A day goes well when I get up by 5, get to school at 7, get my room ready for class while tutoring or chatting with early-bird students, getting copies made on one of our school’s fickle and temperamental Xerox machines. My conference period is typically swallowed whole by UIL housekeeping, debate team, ARD Progress Reports, meeting with administrators to discuss benchmark data(2), attendance verification logs(3), meeting with or calling parents(4), or once in a blue moon if I’m feeling indulgent, going to the bathroom. If something fell through the cracks during the day, I’d always have after school or the following morning. Now that I’m operating on a shoestring time budget that has been reapportioned for a hefty domestic load, that razor-thin margin is utterly decimated.
This has meant that my teaching practice suffered as the time I’ve used in the past to add language objectives or think more deliberately about modifications is gone. Now I’m lucky to get my copying done in time for 1st period on some days.
While I’m at school, I have had what I can only describe as depressive episodes. I feel stranded at school, set adrift from my wife and son who need me as a caretaker. Being away from home 12 hours each weekday feels like a dereliction of my responsibilities as a father. And while I’m at school, I’m similarly drowning in obligations. I don’t have the energy to tackle many of them. When I get home, it’s time to get dinner on the table, change diapers, possibly do another load of laundry, feed the dogs, wash the dishes, give him a bath, take the dogs out again, change another diaper, carry him around and make motorboat noises while my wife finally has a chance to get cleaned up, change another diaper, change his clothes because he peed all over them while I was changing his diaper. On weekends, add grading to this for several hours. At some point we’ll drift into the bedroom and I’ll pass out next to my wife while he’s feeding. If I’m lucky he’ll sleep through the next 5 hours until I get up and do it all over again.
This experience has confirmed for me the pitiful inadequacy(5) of this country’s family leave policies. The Family Medical Leave Act entitles families to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the case of select medical and baby-related reasons. This puts families in challenging positions: do you do what you think is best and stay home with your child as long as possible, knowing how important developing the bonding time is? Or, will you be too economically vulnerable to risk not getting paid for such an extended period of time?
My wife has chosen to stay home until April but I know that if we had the option and the pay, we’d both be home for a lot longer than that. Instead, we’ll need to put our son in day care in a couple of months until summertime when we’ll both have the opportunity to be home(6). I’ve gained a new appreciation for stay-at-home parents. The work of raising a child is strenuous but infinitely rewarding. If I lived in Sweden, I’d take a year off in a second. Even still I’ve considered it.
I’ve thought a lot about my students who have kids or having them soon. A couple had their baby girl about two weeks before ours. We talk about parenting and how our babies growing and how they’re hitting their milestones and the endless comedy of getting peed on. They both seem to be handling the transition okay, but I know there are other family members helping to take care of her while they’re at school.
I think about how challenging this is as a grown, married man with a good job and health insurance. How stressful must this be when you’re stil a child yourself, or when you’re on the outs with the child’s father, or when you’re uninsured and getting hospital bills every week(7)? I can’t imagine studying for an exam while my child is looking me dead in the eyes and screaming inconsolably. I can’t imagine feeling anything but heart-wrenched having to be away from my child all day.
Ideally, our policies would reflect the lip-service we pay towards the importance of family. Other than the child tax credit, though, there really isn’t very much support for families as they’re starting out. As is the case in many areas of public life, American citizens are very much on their own.
In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with the photos and videos my wife sends me while I’m at work, I just hope I don’t miss too much while I’m out.
PS – My wife read this and commented “Uh, this is really self-centered.” Totally boneheaded on my part. Let me add that everything I do at home she does many times over each day in addition to nursing him all day and taking him to appointments and that my list of things to do is for a brief window in the evening and that she has this same list all day and did I mention that I basically think of her as superhuman? Because she is. I already thought she was an extraordinary person before, and now she is an extraordinary mother, too.
(1) Read: saved-up personal days.
(2) More on this in a future post, but suffice to say that the 10th grade teachers — math in particular — are feeling some substantial pressure for our kids to perform on the STAAR end-of-course exams since ours is the grade he state uses to determine a high school’s accountability rankings.
(3) Since schools lose money from low attendance, our school has been printing reams of attendance reports so that we can correct for any mismarked absences of students who had excuses or were actually tardy. Fortunately I keep a manual record of attendance in addition to the required online attendance, but this is nevertheless a time-intensive chore.
(4) This has truly been one of my weak areas in my first year of general ed. I think I took for granted how easy it is by comparison to stay in touch 20-something families as a case manager when you have designated periods for such contact. Now I have 140-plus families and maybe 14 seconds to get ahold of them if need be. It’s an adjustment for which I don’t think I adequately prepared myself.
(5) Money quote: “And the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate that parents of newborns get paid leave.” Not to mention the many developing countries that still ensure paid maternity leave. This feels so monumentally unfair I could scream.
(6) For this I am so grateful that we both work in schools and have extended periods of time off to be home.
(7) This has been a treat, really. God bless the market.