I'm a mother... get me out of here

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
So there are now schemes to boost the confidence of women returning to the classroom after taking a break to raise young families (TES, March 7). But what about those teachers who are contemplating starting a family, having built a successful career in education? Can they reconcile their new role as parents with their aspirations as educators?

Women today have a choice: they can have it all, or not. I have recently given up as head of English at an independent selective girls' school to be with my two-year-old son. It is not a decision my husband and I came to easily. Before our son was born I was committed to my professional development and worked hard to achieve the position I held. I loved my job and had a clear view of the direction I wanted to take.

Financial considerations also meant I would have to return to work after Michael's birth. I did not want to teach part-time; it would have meant a reduction in status and income, but not in commitment. Colleagues who worked part-time seemed to be successfully managing a complex juggling act and were no less committed, or tired, at the end of the week.

But when we beheld our son for the first time, I knew it would be hard to leave him; nevertheless, I had made the decision to return to work in September. We tried to console ourselves with the fact that we had a superb childminder, that our careers were "family-friendly", that Michael would grow up to be an independent, resourceful child, that I was working in a school where members of senior management had young families and would be sympathetic and, significantly, that I was protecting my prospects. We were inconsolable.

I returned from work each day to begin the full-time job of caring for Michael. My husband's job at a boarding school meant he was not home before 6.30pm - sometimes later on his duty day - and worked most Saturdays. I was operating at full capacity: all work-related matters, including marking, had to be completed between 8am and 4pm. I had to be organised and disciplined about my workload while ensuring I was available to members of my department for consultation, support and advice.

We managed for four terms, but I had made up my mind to leave by the second. Moreover, we knew it had to be me rather than my husband - because I wanted to, and because our society, which reveres the working mother, still views the full-time father with suspicion. We were also aware that my salary was supporting a lifestyle we did not want, and my career aspirations had begun to pale.

My resignation, after 10 years' teaching, was greeted with understanding by the head, shock by my department, which had no idea how I felt, and with congratulations from women who had done the same thing years earlier, returning to the classroom revitalised and refreshed. I was encouraged by their experiences and they seemed to admire what they considered a "brave" decision on my part, given the culture of the superwoman in the workplace.

It amuses and perplexes me that my decision might be viewed as some sort of political statement, when I have only ever seen it as an instinctive response to my relationship with my child.

I've been a full-time mother for almost a term now and I'm happier (though poorer) than ever. I think about my eventual return, and I keep my hand in by marking A-level scripts, reading what I want to rather than what exam boards want, and doing my own writing. I'm also glad I didn't drift into this situation as a continuation of maternity leave, but rather as a consequence of discussion and experience. I know what I've given up and that's what makes my new life so enjoyable.

To those of you who are making up your minds: carpe diem - your newborn bundle of joy will turn into a recalcitrant Year 9 pupil faster than you can say key stage 3 testing.

Sarah Stewart is the former head of English at Guildford high school for girls in Surrey

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