Somewhere this week or so marks the 8th anniversary of my starting my last semester of teaching. That occurred to me today as I stood too long in the shower, trying to make sense of my day. Eight years. The passing of those years has witnessed changes in my body, family configuration, hair color, skin tone and psyche. Time has passed. But one thing among many has remained constant: the reason I left a career that spoke so loudly to my head and heart that I was always a teacher whether I was in my classroom or not. I left teaching because I was at my breaking point.
My daughter was born on a beautiful Sunday in October. The sun was very bright against that Minnesotan blue sky, framed by leaves caught fire by the season. It should have been the most perfect time, but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t perfect because of the path I had been following, always following towards a place in the distance, drawn toward it the way an artist draws a road wide in the foreground and closing in upon itself on the horizon.
And eight years later, I am still on that path that squeezes itself into the smallest of spaces. I know this because my house is in shambles.
I am editing a short story I plan on submitting. As I told someone, I don’t know if I am making it better or just different, but I have had my butt in the editing chair for a good chunk of time these past few days. The deadline submission date draws near and so I have both internal and external pressure to work late into the night. And when I am working late into the night, I drag myself back into the land of the wakeful too few hours later and stumble through all the things I must do as wife, mother, employee, friend, human. Last night that stumbling did not include cleaning the kitchen.
This morning as I tried to make coffee and school lunches, while feeding children and pets, I thought to myself, “I CAN’T KEEP DOING THIS!!!”
And that is precisely what I thought eight years ago as I contemplated returning to work with an infant, a three year old, a husband, and a job that took way too much time to do right.
Eight years ago, the energy it took to spin all the plates was too overwhelming. So that spring I quit. I turned in my application for a personal leave and moved away from the life and career I had worked so late into the night to create.
When I went to graduate school to become a teacher, I made a promise to myself that the day I couldn’t give 110% to my students was the day I needed to leave the classroom. For 10 years I did that. But I also gave to everybody else. I never missed a family function, I rarely skipped church to sleep in, I was the person others counted on. I kept all the plates spinning through sheer willpower and lots and lots of coffee. But the house of cards I was stacking began looking rather shaky.
Mister Soandso and I waited a fair bit to have our second kiddo mostly because we were so sleep deprived dealing with the non-sleeping Biggest. Although he napped for 2-3 hours every afternoon, it took at least 45 minutes to get him to fall asleep. Every night, another 45 minutes to get him to sleep was a “good” night. A bad night was 2 hours. But time was wasting right along with my fertility so we checked calendars and counted paychecks and decided the time was right.
And it was for 8.5 weeks. But one morning I woke up and my boobs didn’t ache. By that night the spotting turned to bleeding. And then it was over. I lost a baby and a dream. A plate came crashing down–one that couldn’t be put back together.
I gave myself time to grieve, to rail against things, and then I added more plates, stacked more cards.
I got pregnant easily and quickly with Middlest. I worked every day, graded papers until midnight or two or dawn. I went back to graduate school that summer and collected straight As. I went to the grocery store and read stories to Biggest. I spun plates.
The day I knew I couldn’t continue like that, I was nursing Middlest in the front room, watching the snowflakes make the snowbanks white again. It occurred to me that Biggest would be starting kindergarten in only a year and a half and I couldn’t remember much of the blur between the last time I’d nursed him and that moment. Thinking back over his short life, holding my infant daughter, I wanted to slow time so that I could enjoy their lives. Enjoy my life.
Like many parents thinking about staying at home with their young children, I somehow thought that by removing my “career” plate, it would make spinning all the rest easier. One mom-friend of mine said it best, “I thought when I stayed home I would be the kind of mom who would bake chocolate chip cookies for her children, but all that happened was I could not longer afford to by the chocolate chips.” What we think will be the salvation is really only a change. Spinning eight plates instead of nine isn’t necessarily all that much simpler.
I’m still spinning too many plates, trying to figure out how to stack another layer of cards on my shaky house. But now it looks like me running from one plate to another, just managing to give it a spin before it topples over. I spend my days running from one part of my life to another. And if something takes more time or energy than usual, some plates fall.
Thinking about the retired folks I know, not one of them lazes about all day. They seem as busy today as they did when they were working. And yet many of them look happy, stable. Perhaps the secret is not in trying to rush about spinning all the plates, but in finding your peace–as long as you spin the plates often enough, they will keep from crashing to the floor.
I’m not going to edit this one. I’m just going to push publish and send it away. Today there’s too many plates to wash, socks to fold, chores to do. But it was good to get it out. To take the time to grieve what I can’t always do because there are only so many hours and I have only so many resources.
To take a tiny moment as the water runs from hot to tepid remembering why I knew I couldn’t go on like I had before…because I want to teach my children that even more important than clean dishes or socks is that extra moment taken to hold someone close and just breathe. Doing just that shores up our breaking points, stills our houses of precariously stacked cards. Today, I take the time to breathe.