I rocked you to sleep tonight. When you began to rub your eyes and your lids grew heavy, we sat in the rocker in your room. You wanted your pacifier and to sit cradled in my arms against my chest, nuzzled into the crook of my arm in your favorite sleepy-time position. I sang “You Are My Sunshine”; it’s your favorite song right now. Though I could still hear the squelching sound of your pacifier, you were sleeping in a matter of seconds.
I stared at you while you slept. I know these moments are fleeting. You’ve already grown so much and you are not even six months old yet. Pretty soon you’ll be too big to be cradled the way you were tonight. I want to memorize the feeling of the weight of your little body against my chest. I want to immortalize the way your wisps of hair curl around your ears. I want to count your eyelashes and bottle your baby smell. I want to save the puddle of drool that collects on my shirt after your pacifier falls out of your mouth. I want to take a million mental pictures of the way your lips smush together, your face peaceful in squishy baby sleep. I kiss your cheek and your forehead a thousand times because looking at you is the exact definition of love, of perfection, of an angel on Earth.
I want to hold you just a little bit longer tonight.
But I’m sorry, I can’t.
You’re my only child, but you’re not my only child. I’m a teacher-mom, and that means there are approximately seventy-five other children who need me and depend on me every day. That also means there are seventy-five homework papers for me to grade and seventy-five individual learners for me to plan for. Several times a year that means seventy-five interim reports and report cards. That means seventy-five sets of parents or family members to keep in contact with daily.
So that means I have to put you down in your crib earlier than I would like to tonight. I’m sorry, but if I don’t, I won’t get everything accomplished that I need to in order to take care of my other kids. You’re supposed to be my first priority, but the truth is, you can’t be a lot of the time. If I don’t spend two hours or more a night grading papers and adapting my plans each day to meet the results of those papers, then I’ll be considered inadequate as a teacher. The expectation is that I do this each night so that my students receive the best possible and most expedient feedback. And if I was a parent of one of the other seventy-five kids, I would of course want my child’s teacher to offer him or her the very best.
But I often find myself asking, what about you?
I’m sorry, but when I give my all to my job, I can’t possibly give my all to you. By the time I get home from work, we have about five hours together while you are awake, give or take. That’s less than 25% of your day that I get to spend with you. But then we need to factor in the couple of hours (at least) I need to spend grading papers. If I wait until you go to bed, I’m exhausted too, and it’s not the best time of day for me, personally, to be most accurate with correcting. If I’m to dedicate my best efforts to correcting so that I can best adjust my plans, I need to do it earlier in the day. That leaves us with about three hours together at best where I only have to worry about tending to you. That makes about 13% of your day. In which time, I most likely need to cook dinner or take care of various other chores that require business hours or the earlier part of the evening.
So how much of me do you really get?
The answer to that question is depressing. I’m sorry- I’m your part-time mom at best. This weighs heavily on me. While I want to be the best teacher-mom I can, and while I know the seventy-five deserve a lot of my time and attention, that inevitably leaves very little time for you and me. And I know the reality is that most mothers today face this dilemma, whether it be by choice or by consequence, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Some mothers need to work to have adult interaction, to feel accomplished, to feel a part of something. I think that’s great and I envy that desire.
But do you know what makes me feel accomplished? You. I want to be there to celebrate every moment you have. I want to witness every first. I don’t want to miss anything and time is already going too fast. Every morning, you wake up around the time that I have to leave. You smile up at me from your crib, your face still laden with sleep. Your face lights up the room alongside the sunlight. I scoop you up to snuggle you for just a moment before I leave, even if that means I might arrive late to the copy machine, which may just throw off my entire day. You put your arms around my neck and chew happily on my shoulder. I hand you off to Daddy for your morning bottle, and I bite back tears as I say goodbye.
I get in my car and clench my teeth shut, refusing to actually cry. Mascara running down my face won’t do; I don’t have time to worry about washing or reapplying. I spent my “extra” moment already with you. I have to pull it together before I get to work, because someone always kindly asks me how I am doing with the transition back to school. I usually don’t say much in response because I am on the brink of tears every time. I give a short generic response before hurrying off to busy myself with the distraction of work. Because the truth is, I’m not okay. I miss you every second of every day and being away from you is really very hard. Don’t get me wrong, I focus on my other children when I’m working and I work hard, but you are always smiling in the corner of my mind.
We are so fortunate that you are in the care of family members while I work, and I know I don’t have to worry about you at all. But that’s not what causes the tightness in my chest when I leave you for the day. Every day I am working, I am missing so much. You will only be my baby for a short period of time and I’m missing it. Will I miss your first word? Your first wave goodbye? Your first steps? Will I become out of tune with the delicacies of your wants and needs? Am I falling short as a mother?
All I have ever wanted to be is your mother, even before you were you. While I may have struggled more with that transition than I thought as well, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I hate that I have to miss a single moment of your day, that I won’t be home to nurse your first cold, that I won’t be able to soothe you on your toughest days. I hate that life is so expensive that I can’t fulfill the one role that nature intended for me. In order to stay home with you, we’d have to sell our home. We would have to leave the town we moved to, which we moved to for you. We would have to leave our safe, kid-friendly neighborhood. We would have to trade in our reliable vehicle for something more affordable, though potentially less protective. We would have to make a lot of different financial decisions that ultimately would affect the “things” you have in life.
And while I know that it’s easy to say my time would be more valuable to you than anything else I could give you, I’m sorry that even without the material things we wouldn’t be able to afford for me to stay home. Why? The cost of healthcare. I carry the benefits because your dad is self-employed, and there is no affordable healthcare option for those who are in that category. If we applied for health insurance through the Health Connector, a worthwhile family plan can cost between $1200-1600…a month, making it impossible for a self-employed person to provide for a family on a single income.
So, I put you down earlier than I would have liked to tonight. I’m sorry I only get to be your mom part of the time, when the demands of my job allow me to. I’m trying to find a balance, but teaching is a job that could occupy all of my waking hours if I let it. I’m trying to be the best I can for my kids, to offer them every opportunity to succeed. But I have to learn how to let go sometimes so that I can offer you every opportunity to succeed as well. I have to stop wishing that you would nap so I can get some work done during the little time we have together before bed. I have to learn to step away from the never-ending workload and take time for us.
I creep into your room a few more times after I put you down. Because I just have to watch the peaceful look on your face as you sleep. I have to take as many mental pictures of you at this age as I can. I want to sear your perfect littleness in my mind because I won’t get the time to be your full-time mom right now; I won’t ever get this back. And I know that even if I could spend every moment of every day with you like I wish I could, it would never be enough. If I could spend every day watching you grow and laugh and play, it would never be enough. Being your full-time mom would be the greatest thing I could do with my life.
And for that sentiment, I’m not sorry.