Think What You Could Give Them

“One final question,” she added. “Why should we admit you to this program?”

I wrung my hands nervously and then replied, “You should admit me because I really want this.”

“Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch,” she told me.

I left the room, took a deep breath, and hoped I had said enough. At that point, I had done all I could do. I let go of all of the tension I didn’t realize I had been holding and walked to my car. Then I waited for six weeks.

***

My journey toward pursuing a new career has been a roller coaster of emotions. In my interview, I meant the words I said in answer to the final question. The application process had been rigorous and competitive, and I was tired. When I opened my acceptance letter, I cried tears of relief and gratitude. But a million times since that interview day and even before then, I’ve asked myself, “Do I really want this?”

What I want for my life today is so different from what I desired ten years ago. Ten years ago (and even five), I would have told you that I wanted to always be a working mom. “My kids would drive me nuts at home. I would need a break,” I said to myself and others. Now that I actually have kids, they do drive me nuts! I do need a break, often! But, much to my own surprise, I love being home with them. Like, I really love it. If I could make a career out of raising children, I would totally do it. I can’t. So I work.

During my final year of teaching is when things really began to change for me. I had given birth to our youngest that August and returned from maternity leave in October. I cried every morning on my way to work. Interestingly, I adored my kids’ daycare and my job that year. There was just something about leaving two kids instead of one that undid me. I knew I needed to make a change, and dental hygiene seemed like a positive one.

I have spent the last three years slowly working on pre-requisite classes for the hygiene program and going through the interview and application process. Mostly, though, I’ve gotten to be home with my people (and other people’s people when we’ve fostered). Last year, I had a part-time Title I tutoring gig that challenged me without stressing me out and allowed me to only work the hours that my kids were at school. I hated to walk away from that. Tutoring, like raising children, is a job I love that is not a career.

Walking out the door on the last day of tutoring in May felt like the first of many sacrifices I’ll make for dental school, and I’ve felt myself struggling to have a good attitude about each sacrifice as it arises. It is so much easier for me to see the things I am giving up in the next two years than it is to see the things I will gain. Isn’t life usually that way?

***

Three weeks ago, I sat in a room full of the other aspiring dental hygienists at my school as we drank from a fire hydrant of information at our summer orientation. It is very rare that I walk into a room and feel old, but at 31, I felt old that day. Most of the girls (and one guy) are 20. Few are married. Even fewer have children. All were geeked out about dental hygiene. As the day wore on, I couldn’t help but think that literally every person in the room was more excited about the program than me.

***

I half-heartedly flipped through magazine pages in the doctor’s office last week, waiting to get shots and blood work completed as part of my entrance requirements. I’ve been going through the motions of getting ready for the program to start, but my heart really didn’t want to be at the doctor’s office that day. A new doctor finally came in, and as he looked through my required immunizations paperwork with the OU College of Dentistry letterhead at the top, he asked me the question I’ve come so accustomed to hearing, “So, are you excited for school?”

mom studying

Normally, I mumble something about not really being excited for school but very much excited for the end result. There was no mumbling or beating around the bush this time. I’m completely overwhelmed. “No,” I said, “I’m really not.”

He looked at me and then chuckled kindly. “You know,” he began, “I started med school when I was about your age. I had two young kids at home. There were a lot of late nights. Lots of studying. I missed a lot at home. It was hard.”

Then I asked him the question I’ve been dying to hear someone who has walked this road before answer, “Are you glad you did it?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said.

The doctor went on to tell me how much he can give his family now that he is a doctor. They are comfortable and happy, and he’s happy, too. He loves his job, and it’s pretty flexible. The sacrifices paid off.

He probably thought I was crazy, but I cried. That conversation was God’s kindness to me that day.

***

I can’t say that I’ve gotten any more pumped about school since my doctor visit. But keeping the long view in mind has helped me dread it less. I may not be as excited as most of my classmates, but the years of life have given me something they may have less of: perspective. We’ll need each other to make it through these next couple of years which, the doctor convinced me, will fly by.

Possessions aren’t everything. Comfort isn’t everything. I know this, and I’m not going into dental hygiene solely because it pays well. There are a ton of well-paying jobs that I would never consider. But on the days when I’m feeling down about being away from my family so much as I complete my program, I try to focus my mind ten years down the road and think about what I can give them when this is over. Private school (maybe). College. Transportation. Trips. Weddings. Heck, we could even add another kid to our family and give him or her those things, too. People don’t talk about it, but those are not things that many Oklahoma teachers can give their families. (It’s a shame, really.)

My dad did this for my brother and me, and I’m forever grateful. I remember all of his late nights studying and going to class. And then I remember him graduating. And all of the things he gave us because he did. College. Trips. Weddings. He had a couple of terrible jobs, but mostly he enjoyed his work, and he was very good at it. The ten(!) years that it took him to finish school? Worth it.

I want my dad’s story to be mine, too. I might not be thrilled about the difficulty of the next two years, but I can’t wait for my kids to watch me walk across the stage on graduation day, when I can look at them and say, “I did this for me, but mostly I did it for you.”

beach-children-family-39691.jpg

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

Daycare is not the devil.

My daughters' last day at their childcare center is next week.  After that, our oldest will be in "big school", and our youngest will stay home with me.  Though I am eagerly anticipating our family's new adventures, I am also sad and nervous about the days to come.  With a few short exceptions, my children have stayed at this preschool since they were seven and nine weeks old, respectively.  It will be strange to walk out the doors of the facility that became their home away from home for the final time.

Some people see daycare as a detriment to children.  While I don't believe that every childcare center is quality or that anyone can be trusted to care for kids, our girls' preschool has proven that exceptional care can be found.  This place has been a blessing beyond words.  

For primarily financial reasons but also some personal ones, I have needed to work throughout the past four years of our kids' lives.  Thankfully, I have not had to worry about their well-being for a single day after I've dropped them off with their teachers.   

Piper and Caroline have blossomed at their center.  Their development and character are ultimately my responsibility, but both of their teachers have partnered with us to help them become the spunky, curious, sweet, smart, and loving girls that they are.  

Teaching (because that's what it is, not babysitting) at a childcare center requires skill.  The average four-year-old asks 400 questions per day, but even the little ones who don't ask questions yet poop their diapers, fuss, refuse to take naps, spit their food out, destroy things, and engage in other similar sorts of mischief.  Not only are childcare workers simultaneously dealing with all of this times eight to ten, but they are also training the children to be kind, to play with toys appropriately, to identify all of their letters and numbers, and to make wise choices.

At times, I am impatient with my own two children.  Our girls' teachers perhaps become impatient with them, too, but they do not show it by raising their voices or inflicting punishments not fit for the crime, as I do embarrassingly often at home.  I can also be lazy about teaching them important academic and life skills, while the girls' teachers are tirelessly intentional and persistent.  And people say that anyone could do their job.

Though I have paid for childcare, payment alone does not entitle me to the extraordinary standards that I hold.  Yes, their teachers have been required to check their diapers every hour, to make sure that their classrooms never exceed the established student-teacher ratio, and to follow a specific curriculum and schedule.  

They didn't have to bend over backward when my kids have had rough adjustments to new classrooms.  They didn't have to read books on the floor with them, hug them as I dropped them off the in mornings, send me pictures of their days while I've been away, or volunteer to babysit them outside of school hours.  

They didn't have to love my girls.  But they have, and they've done those parts for free.

Piper and Caroline may never remember Miss Barbara, Miss Sierra, Miss Michelle, Miss Shelby, Miss Nicole, Miss Tamara, Miss Eliana, or Miss Tracey, but I will.  Our family is forever indebted to these ladies who have made it possible for me to leave my precious little ones for a few hours each day, knowing that they will be happy.  

If your child attends a daycare, hug her teacher.  Daycare workers do a big job.

You are bigger than your fear.

Andrew Alaska Rock Climbing

This May marks one year since I left my full-time teaching job.  In the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on the year behind me, wondering if I made the right decision.

I don't write lesson plans or go to meetings anymore.  I don't spend my days conducting science experiments or facilitating art projects.  I'm not responsible for the direct care of a classroom full of little ones who are trying to navigate school for the first time.  Now, I cook lots of food, wash lots of dishes, and care for exactly two children (my own).  I go to class at night, and then I wake up the next morning to do it all over again.

At times, I doubt my value at my girls' preschool and even as their mom.  My current state of living the "in between" as a part-time employee, part-time student, and full-time mother feels insignificant.

"Do you think I'm different than the stressed-out mess that I was last year?  Did I do the right thing?"  I ask my husband.

"Yes!" he replies.  "Are those even questions?  Your decision to leave your job is the best thing you've done for our family."

***

April 2016.  I had a wonderful job and adored my students but was looking to make a change and leave special education.  I interviewed at a school across town - a wealthy school with involved parents where I wouldn't have to pay for my own copy paper.  (Yeah, you read that correctly.)  I would be teaching general education Pre-K but could use my special education background to help struggling students.  It was the perfect position, and I immediately accepted when it was offered to me.

Two weeks later, it still didn't feel right.  

Why couldn't I get excited about this opportunity?  Why was I plagued with a nagging sensation that even the ideal class, coworkers, parents, and school wouldn't be enough to make me happy?

***

Also April 2016.  My allergy-prone youngest woke up one morning with conjunctivitis in both eyes.  Her eyes were swollen shut so that she couldn't look at me.  She was scared.  I had already used all of my sick days during maternity leave in the fall, so my husband stayed home with her.  My sweet eight-month-old was clearly in good hands with him, but I bawled all the way to work.

That was the day that I knew I would never teach again.

Even on the really easy days, my job got my best and my family got my leftovers.

***

May 2016.  Feeling like a fool, I sat in my boss's office and declined the offer that many others would have been delighted to take.

She was so gracious.  "This decision doesn't have to make sense to anyone else if it makes sense to you," she said.

As I walked out of her office that day, I felt simultaneously very relieved and very afraid.  Relieved because I had followed my gut.  Afraid because I had no idea what was next.

It is highly unlike me to make decisions without calculating every detail of the aftermath.  What career will I pursue next?  How will we make ends meet without my salary, meager as it is as a teacher in Oklahoma?  Do I even understand how to be a good mom to my kids, and will I enjoy being with them for most of the day?  That last question was the most frightening to consider.  But it had to be asked.  For three years, my girls had spent a good chunk of their waking hours in daycare.  Will I even know how to parent them?

***

My three-year-old is terrified of everything from walking alone on the balance beam, to putting her head underwater, to the Chick-fil-A cow, to anything else in a costume or wearing face paint.  She is smart and persevering, but she lets fear dictate what she will and will not accomplish.

"You are bigger than your fear," I've started telling Piper in a feeble attempt to convince her of this truth while also convincing myself.

I wonder how often I have let myself become paralyzed by fear of the unknown.  It's so easy to spot this in other people.  "If he's abusing her in that relationship, she should just get out!" I think. But it's not that simple.  Sometimes, staying in a familiar but dysfunctional situation feels more comfortable than stepping out in faith to a bunch of question marks.

***

Last May was a turning point for me.  I chose to acknowledge the presence of fear without allowing it to determine the course of my life.  I spent that summer praying for direction and enjoying my children ... and mostly doing nothing.  It was weird and awesome.  I enrolled in classes for dental hygiene a week before they began.

Since then, fears of all sizes have continued to arise, but they don't define me anymore.  I even had a fear of starting this blog.  What if no one reads it?  Or, scarier still, what if people do? 

Obviously, I did it anyway.

***

Alaska

My husband and I went on a rock climbing date a couple of months ago.  He's good at that kind of thing, and I wanted to pursue one of his interests since our dates are usually the other way around.  I had no idea that I was truly afraid of heights until I reached almost to the top of that first wall, looked down, and started to cry and panic.  

"You are bigger than your fear," I remembered myself saying to Piper.  Instead of looking down at the ground, the place where I was comfortable, I looked up to the ceiling of the gym.  I made it to the top, and then I climbed another wall, and another one after that.  Eventually, I was unable to keep climbing, but what kept me from doing so was my embarrassing lack of upper body strength and not the panic that I had experienced so intensely at the beginning of our date.  Fear didn't win.

***

May 22, 2017.  I went back and visited the school where I taught.  I wanted to see my old friends and students, but I also needed to feel confirmed in my decision to leave.

I do miss my students.  Some of their parents text me on occasion, and I've been invited to birthday parties and awards ceremonies over the years.  In the moments when I question whether or not my six years in the classroom mattered to anyone, I remember these things and know that they did.

I also know, with every fiber of my being, that I did make the right choice at this time last year.

"Have you had a good year?" people have been asking.

"Yeah," I smile.  It has been pretty perfect. 

I take showers.

The nine of us sat in a circle in her family room, most with hands wrapped around a cup of hot coffee, all with the cares of being a young mom written in the lines of our tired faces.  We had met together to pray for our kids, a discipline which I don't practice nearly often enough, though it is some of the only advice that my mom has ever given me about being a mom.  "Mary Rachel, always pray for your children."

Toward the end of the evening, we began to share ideas with each other about how we find time to think intentionally about and pray for our kids.  I suggested praying in the shower, because my shower currently looks like this:

shower notes

Yes, those are science notes.  And a Bible verse.  Somewhere (not pictured) is soap and shampoo and a razor, too. When I stumbled across a waterproof notepad on Pinterest several months ago, I knew that my life was changed forever.  I really love hot showers, and I really love not wasting time.  For $8.12, I could do both simultaneously. Depending on the day, I might study for an exam, memorize Scripture, or pray while washing my hair.  But, if we're being honest, I suppose that I mostly review chemistry and microbiology.

Anyway, my suggestion to pray in the shower was almost immediately met with, "I can't remember the last time I took a shower," and, "It must be nice to be able to bathe for that long."

I get it.  I really do.  It is hard to find time to do anything for yourself as a mom.  More often than not, my few moments of quiet bliss under the running water are interrupted by the toddler pushing open the bathroom door to come and play in the toilet or by the preschooler barging in with the announcement, "Mom, I have to POOP!"  

Good morning, Piper and Caroline.  [End shower now.]

I don't really care when people take showers, unless I can smell them from across the room.  If you can go a week without showering and no one notices, rock on. That's impressive and I'm slightly jealous.  

But y'all, motherhood is NOT a competition to see who has the least amount of time to themselves, who is the most tired, or whose kids require the most attention, as if those things are the standard by which one's abilities as a mom are judged.  

We're all on the same team here!  

When I was a teacher, some of my coworkers would constantly compare who stayed up at the school to work latest the previous night, displaying the assumption that staying later automatically equates to better teaching.  

It doesn't matter.  

Nobody gets extra points for dirty hair in the case of moms or late nights in the case of teachers.  The opposite is true, as well.  I'm certainly not earning any bonus points for bathing. 

It just doesn't matter.

I am a mom of littles, and I take showers.