Thursday, April 21, 2011

From Extreme Stress to Easter Sunday

The thing about extreme stress is that it burns itself out eventually. You can't stay that stressed out for long before you collapse in a heap, have a good cry or an afternoon nap, and then let it go for a while. Or at least, that seems to be my coping technique for the time being.

Letting it go.

Not completely, of course, it's still my life after all, that I'm called upon to participate in, but I'm trying to do the work I have before me to be done each day without letting it consume me. Without imagining that I control the outcome or can will things into being with the power of my mind (a delusion I seem to be particularly susceptible to).

Whoever dies with the most stress doesn't win.

I took a line from the "Our Father" and made it a mantra: your will be done. I repeat it when I feel stressed, and it's proven to be surprisingly effective! Although I think the particular package of stress that I've been carrying around recently (aka: what the heck's going to happen to the rest of my life, starting any minute now?) was just plain getting too heavy and was ripe to be set down anyway. The teacher will appear when the student is ready, and all that.

So I guess I could claim I've been praying, although it's mostly just that phrase said again and again, on an as-needed basis. Still, that's something, right?

My mom's birthday falls on Easter Sunday this year. My husband and I -not-practicing-religious-anythings- never celebrate Easter except as a family holiday, getting together for brunch or dinner with extended relatives if we live close enough. This year we're dyeing eggs with the kids, but that's more a good excuse for an art project than any real observance of the holiday. But I grew up Catholic and all six of us girls got new dresses and hats for mass on Easter Sunday, and searched the house for candy to fill our baskets every Easter morning. My mom still goes to church on Sundays and I proposed to my husband that we dress the kids up and take them this weekend. It's her birthday, and that's where she chooses to spend it, so I thought it might be nice to join her.

And it's fitting to say thank-you -on the celebration of the resurrection- for my prayer: your will be done. I let go, and God appears, and carries my load. I'm sure it's a story told countless times in countless creeds; the Catholics don't have any special claim on grace in the universe. But here I am in this story, in my story, and when I look around at what's before me to do, it's to be in charge of dinner rolls and green salad for twenty, hard boil a dozen or so eggs and bring dye kits, suffer through a couple hours in the car with my kids to break bread with my family, and to keep on praying my four word prayer.

And I think it might also be to celebrate mass with my mom on her Easter Sunday birthday.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

I wanted to work part time when I had children. I was adamant about this. I quit my full time teaching job and taught yoga for a couple years, looking for a part time teaching job, waiting for my husband to find full time work and health insurance. In December of 2006 I was hired to work 16.5 hours per week, teaching infants, toddlers and their parents. That was perfect. Exactly what I had in mind. Something simple, a small-j job, just keeping my toes in the professional pool, a backdrop for almost-full-time motherhood, something I hoped for very soon in my future.

* * * * *

My husband found a full time teaching position in September of 2007, and signed up for family health coverage. I got pregnant in October. I worked through my pregnancy, enjoyed my 16.5 hours per week, planned a life in my mind for my baby, for our family. Three weeks after the birth of my first baby I returned to work for a one week training before finishing my three month leave. It was on infant brain development and I brought my newborn son, who lounged in his carseat next to me in the conference room and nursed in my arms while we listened to lectures. We were guinea pigs for the demonstration on how to do home visits. I looked up to the women who taught the training. They were both in their sixties, stylish and smart. Someday, I thought, someday that will be me. My career will peak -like theirs- later in life. Now is the time for my family. Now is the time for my babies. But someday I, too, will be sixty-something, stylish and smart, standing at the front of a conference room, the very picture of competence.

* * * * *

I hoped to come back 12 hours a week, and then gradually work back up to my 16.5. Instead, they rewrote the grant while I was out and expanded my role in the program. I came back 18 hours a week. Less than 6 months after I returned they offered me a promotion. It required 25 hours a week, which then crept up to 30. I negotiated, and ended up at 20 hours with a teaching assistant. I was stressed out a lot of the time. But I loved the work, and it grew more manageable over time as my skill set grew. It wasn't so simple anymore though. Somehow I had ended up in a capital-J Job.

* * * * *

Time passed. I miscarried. I couldn't get pregnant. I weaned my son, waited a couple of months, conceived. Members of my team at work left; new people were hired, and suddenly I was the person with the most seniority and a position of leadership. I got better at the work; it wove its way deeper into my identity; it became a career. Small c. That's more than I wanted, but I found I could handle it. Small c. I could handle it.

* * * * *

I had my second baby, took another 3 month leave, ended up working a little bit of it, and then drew some boundaries and settled into a long winter with my babies. Daydreamed stay-at-home-motherhood, but committed to my small-c career, to my part-time, perfectly balanced, so-well-plotted-out-on-paper-before-I-ever-had-babies, my precisely planned, small-c career.

And then the funding was cut by the federal government, and the professional rug was pulled out from under my not-yet-steady work legs.

Still lost in the magic of my babies I concocted a Plan B. Plan B happens in my home. Plan B happens with my babies. Plan B probably ends up bringing home more money than Plan A because Plan B doesn't spend over half my income on child care. Plan B ain't anything fancy on the ol' resume, but that's okay because I am nothing if not the master of beautiful bullshit, most especially in the realm of the ol' resume. Plan B, while not the thing of beauty that is sticking-with-Plan-A-because-it-took-me-long-enough-to-get-here-and-I'd-prefer-to-avoid-any-more-change-right-now-thank-you-very-much, has a helluva lot going for it, assuming it works out alright, which it probably would.

* * * * *

I went into work this morning to find a surprising e-mail. There's a chance we can continue our program. We'll be in the running for a small pool of state funds against a number of other highly competitive programs. If we win, we'll be funded for one more year, and then begin the process of seeking alternative federal grants, revamping and reorganizing our program to align with the goals of the federal government's vision for the future of education in our country. For this to work I will need to be a teacher, an administrator, a team leader, a grant writer, a political player of sorts in the field of early childhood education, and an advocate for the work that we do on a local, state, and national level. Please don't get me wrong; I'm not bragging. I'm not claiming to know how to be all these things. Quite the contrary. I feel as if I'm suddenly staring down the barrel of a capital-C Career.

* * * * *

How in the hell did I end up here so soon?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Too Much, Too Soon

I'm usually good with change. I thrive in ambiguity. I have a high tolerance for living in the in-between; it's always seemed to me to be the place where dreams and possibilities reside. One reason I love my job is because it doesn't always look the same. We have to work toward what's officially called "continual improvement," which really means constant change in the service of making things better. Data is collected and analyzed all the time and we can decide on a dime to change a morning class to evening to accomodate a student's work schedule, or devise a brand new parenting lesson plucked from the results of a recent rubric that suggests reading storybooks to toddlers is a skill that needs some brushing up.

It's what I liked best about being home with my kids too. The rush of realizing -through an ongoing process of careful observation and constant reflection- exactly what my children needed in any given moment, and then successfully supplying it. My brain moves fast; I never stop thinking; I've always related well to people with ADHD although I don't think I have it myself. I like when life requires me to think as fast as I want to, and then to implement those thoughts almost instantaneously. It's a challenge that makes me feel alive.

What I take for granted when I find the thrill in these challenges: I have gotten enough sleep, enough of the right things to eat, and a chance to exercise. In short, I've got to be in fightin' shape to get out there and get the job done. And right now: the job is kicking my ass.

I'm exhausted. Constantly stressed out. I feel like my stomach acids are eating me from the inside out. This is too much change, too soon, and way too much time in the muddled middle, uncertain of what will happen next.

I became a super-bitch on Sunday morning, huffing and puffing over piles of laundry and snapping at everyone in sight. It was all of sudden, and my husband began to press me on it: What is going on with you? What is this really about?

Suddenly I heard myself shout: My job is over! It's gone! It's gone! And I LOVE my job! And then I burst into tears. I actually had no idea what it was really about before I said it. In fact, until I finally spit it out, I found it irritating that he kept questioning me. Can't a girl huff and puff over a pile of laundry and snap at everyone in sight for no apparent reason? Apparently not. And thank you sir, for asking, and asking, and then asking again, because I didn't know why I became a super-bitch. All I knew is suddenly the bitch flag was flyin' high and the super-bitch cape seemed to be secured very tightly around my neck and I didn't have the slightest clue of how to go about loosening it.

Then he reminded me that the federal budget that finally passed this weekend, eliminating my program, was for this fiscal year, and not next fiscal year, and so technically speaking, I'm still waiting-and-seeing, which is actually not comforting at all. I'm both impatient for and resistant to change right now. I want it done already, and I also want it not to happen at all.

But it's happening.

And the most I can aim for is to navigate it with a modicum of grace.

This morning I carried my daughter into my son's room to wake him, so we could get on with our day. He was fast asleep and didn't respond to my voice or my hand on his back and she was squirmy-whiny, so instead of waking him I sat down in the recliner in the corner of his bedroom to nurse my squirmy girl. She pounced on my breast like a small rabid animal and nursed like she was coming off a fast. It's teething, starting already. Both my kids are crazy little nursers when they teethe, preferring my poor nipples to any of the nice teethers they have on the market nowadays.

She settled into a tentative peace, relaxing and suckling for a short while in my arms. And then she began to squirm again, flailing her head back like an infant possessed, stretching my nipple as if it were made of taffy. This is a sign I recognize. I removed her from the breast, placed her in a sitting position on my lap, administered a few sharp pats to the center of her back and heard the loud burp I knew would be coming soon enough.

I felt as if I could sit in that dark room, listen to my son snore, and breastfeed my daughter forever. I want to hide out in a cave. Most days I feel as if I can't take anymore.

But like her, even if I found that temporary peaceful place, I am still subject to forces rising within me that I can't quite control. Even if I took a week and lay on a beach somewhere (oh, please! oh, yes! oh, yes please!), there would still be real, immutable facts of life that have concrete and tangible consequences, and I can't control them. I can't daydream them into alignment or frogmarch them into submission. I can only sit, and squirm, and burp in the face of God. And trust that the universe loves me like a mother and will somehow take care of me despite it all.

I'm not at trusting yet. I'm still at squirming. I see a lot more squirming in my future. Maybe I can squirm my way into fightin' shape.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lots of Words for Plumb Worn Out

I am so tired.

So tired that after I wrote that sentence, I considered leaving it as is, a one sentence blog post. Then I figured it would be more appropriate as a status update on Facebook. I sat, staring stupidly into space, wondering if it would be easier to click over and rewrite it, or copy and paste it. I thought about it for what might have been a very long time.

Neither one seemed easy enough.

I am so sleepy.

My first day back to work was my colleague's first day out. Her three month medical leave perfectly backed up against my three month maternity leave. We didn't quite get to pass the baton. And her medical needs escalated so quickly at the end that there was no time to arrange for a substitute teacher. So my first day back, we're down a teacher -the only teacher qualified to teach GED classes- and I'm winging it.

Covering for my colleague, without any of my regular duties, could be my whole job, and I wouldn't run out of things to do. But that's not my whole job. And I'm feeling so spent.

I planned curriculum for my leave, left three detailed months in the hands of another colleague, who covered my parenting classes while I was home parenting my own children. I came back to big stacks of curriculum to assess so I can take over my classes again. But I haven't even had a moment to skim the stacks. So I'm winging it, making lessons out of thin air, observation, and an ongoing attempt to get to know the new parents who started our program while I was out.

Curriculum -planning and teaching it- used to be my whole job. It kept me plenty busy. There's so much more to do now. And I'm beat.

The funding is cut, but the advocacy isn't. There are letters to be written and congressional offices to be called, and websites to be visited to stay on top of the changing news, and information to be digested, interpreted, shared with my team. There are questions to be formulated, and answers to be sought, and plans to be made, and back-up plans for when the first plans potentially fall apart. I am so winging it here.

Political advocacy is a job I've never done. It's a job I might have grown into slowly, through years of experience in the field. Or, in this case, overnight. And not a night with nearly enough hours for sleeping, did I mention? I am feeling fatigued.

We have a major visit quickly approaching, in which the person directly responsible for funding our program comes to see if we are meeting all the requirements in the legislation that originally created it. This happens once every four years, and it's the first time it's ever happened with me at the helm. I'm following detailed written instructions and a long list of highly specified legal requirements. And yet, it still pretty much feels like I'm winging it.

Preparing for this visit could easily fill every minute of every day between now and the time it takes place. But I don't have that many minutes available. And I'm feeling so done for.

After the visit is done I start our annual report. At this point, it looks like I will still have to write the whole darn thing, even though it may well be the last time I write it, since further funding is not -as of this juncture- forthcoming. Every year this report is the biggest, hardest, most time-consuming-est thing I do. With so many other things to do, I'm afraid this year I'll be winging it.

I'm dog tired. All petered out, played out, tuckered out, plumb worn out.

But when I look back on this fifty years from now, I don't think that's what I'll remember. I think I'll remember that I did it. That I kept my head above water. That when my limbs were nearly limp from exhaustion, I kept on treading.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Think Aloud

In grad school I had to take a number of classes on best practices in teaching literacy. I found these classes almost unbearably boring at the time (and yes, I do work for a literacy program now, but it's not my job to teach literacy to the adults; I teach parenting. And literacy with birth to three year olds, which is part of my job, is very different and -in my opinion- much more fun!), but some of the information stuck with me, and even comes in handy sometimes. This morning it offered me a new strategy in managing the minefield that is my toddler's emotional development.

I talked in a recent post a little bit about how we're using time out non-punitively, as a place to go when your feelings are out of control, to express them safely and pull yourself together. This is difficult. It's a much more challenging balance to strike as a parent than using it like "the naughty chair" SuperNanny espouses (I'm not anti-"the naughty chair" either, although that name really needs to go. I just want to try another approach.). What makes it so complicated is that I really want to put my son's emotional choices back in his own lap. I don't want control. I don't want it to be my job to decide when he's out of control, when he can pull himself back, and when he needs assistance to do so. I want him to own that, as well as he can at two, and ultimately, in the long run of his life. So it's a slower, more halting process, and I have to be observant, reflective, and willing to revisit the same questions over and over as circumstances and his skills change. This requires more of me as a parent than making a list of grievances that will land him in the naughty chair and then enforcing the policy the same way each time. Consistency is important, but so are critical thinking, empathy, and flexibility due to circumstance. And so is grace, as my friend's posts here so eloquently reminded me when I was struggling with my boy last week. Weighing all of this can be a really hard balance to strike, especially if I'm tired or stressed.

I say "I" here because I have the kids alone for most of the day. My husband leaves for work before they wake up (most days), so I'm on morning duty and then I spend the afternoons with them while he's at work as well. So I'm usually formulating and testing our discipline strategies, and then we talk it over in the evenings. We try to be generally on the same page in our approaches, but I have a non-interference policy. If I don't like the way he's handling things, I talk to him about it later, but at the time I let the two of them work it out (I say two because it's only ever my son he battles with. For now. Heh! I'm sure the three month old will be pushing the envelope soon enough!). Even if we disagree, I figure he's their dad; they're going to have to learn to deal with him one way or another! So these are largely techniques I'm trying on my own, at least at first.

And thus it was with the think aloud. The think aloud is a technique straight from literacy teaching techniques 101 (or 501 if that's how grad school works), and I never expected to use it in my parenting. It's a way to demonstrate how strong readers think. Research has shown that when strong readers read, they are constantly making connections to the text. Three types of connections they make are: text to self (how does what you're reading connect to you?), text to text (how does what you're reading connect to something else you've read?), and text to world (how does what you're reading connect to the world as you know it?). A technique to teach these connections is called the think aloud. While you read a story, you pause and "think aloud" about these type of connections, making your invisible thought processes visible for those students who struggle to make the connections for themselves: Oh, the little piggy in the brick house reminds me of my grandmother's house! It's made of brick too!

This morning I was standing at my daughter's changing table, getting her ready to go the sitter's house, so I could go to work. My son was whining at my knees: I don't want you a go to work! I want you a stay home wif me!

I tried to explain that I had to go to to work, but of course, at two, he wasn't getting it, and continued to whine. Suddenly I found myself in the midst of a think aloud:


Now Mommy, you have to go to work.


Mommy, you have very important work that you must do. You can't stay home and watch TV all day, no matter how much you want to. Can you pull yourself together or do you need some time to sit in time out?


My son stared up at me, head cocked to one side like a little puppy, face twisted into a mask of concentration. Then he slowly broke out into a great big grin and said: Mommy, argue wif you-self again!

He didn't give me any more trouble getting ready for the day. It's nice to know that expensive special education degree, complete with expired certification and no intention to work in the field, is good for something after all!