Like New Professor, Like Mom

Stephanie L. Liberatore describes eight ways the two roles are quite similar.

January 30, 2020
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Sorbetto

When I returned to campus this fall after giving birth to my second child, things felt strangely familiar. Not because I was teaching the same classes I’d taught for six years or because I’d had a kid once before, but because being a new mom again was a lot like being a new professor. Let me show you what I mean.

1. You lug a ton of stuff around with you wherever you go. Right now, my teaching bag (which is separate from my pumping bag) has in it the following things:

  • 12 dry-erase markers and a rag to clean my whiteboards with, since the eraser in my classroom keeps disappearing;
  • 3 Band-Aids;
  • 2 blue felt-tipped pens, used only for grading;
  • 7 regular pens in various colors, often with the wrong tops on them;
  • a bunch of hooks and a nail from the time I tried to hang stuff on my office walls;
  • my laptop, computer charger and USB drive;
  • 1 binder with attendance sheets for each of my four classes, extra loose-leaf and name tags for the first day of class;
  • 4 hair ties I can never find when I need them;
  • the screw top from my daughter’s applesauce pouch; and
  • 2 cents.

My diaper bag is more of the same: there, I’ve got a changing pad, wipes, diapers, those plastic bags you put diapers in to stifle the smell … You get the idea. And yet, even with a bag full of stuff, I often feel like I’m missing something.

2. You can read all the books and take all the classes you want, but nothing can really prepare you for this. Before I became a professor, I took classes on how to teach, obsessively read pedagogy books, observed other professors and had them observe me. I prepared for motherhood much the same way: I read every book I could find about pregnancy and the baby’s first year; took classes on labor and childbirth, breastfeeding, and how to do things like swaddle and bathe my baby; and asked all of my mom friends question after question and observed them with their kids. And yes, this research helped to some degree: I would have felt even more submerged as a new mom, or a new professor, without it.

But really the end result was the same: I had no idea what I was doing until I did it. My daughter, Stevie, taught me how to be a mom, just like my students taught me how to be a professor. Teaching and motherhood are both learn-as-you-go kind of things.

3. Even though you don’t want to (and you really shouldn’t), you’ll compare yourself to others. At any college or university, there are standout professors. You hear that one is using some active learning strategy you’ve never tried or another has a great way to peer review, and you wonder: Should I be doing that, too?

I did this as a new mom, too, all the time. I’d hear about someone using baby-led weaning or teaching their kid sign language and think: Should I be doing that?

It’s hard not to compare yourself to other moms -- just like it’s hard not to compare yourself to other professors. But in the end, you have to be confident in yourself and your abilities while being open to trying things that make sense for you.

4. There are a lot of sleepless nights your first year. Do I even need to explain this one?

5. Having a crew is crucial. My first year, I shared an office with a colleague who also happened to be my best friend. We shared lesson plans and assignments, but we also just talked about what was going on in our classes. When a student sent a weird email and we weren’t sure how to handle it, we talked about it. Or we’d just complain about how busy or tired or smelly we were at the end of a teaching day. (Why is teaching sweat unlike any other sweat on the planet!)

I could not have survived that first year without those moments. And the same is true of motherhood. I have three best friends who had kids before me. So when my daughter was taking her first bottle or refusing to nap, I texted or called them so I could talk to someone who knew what I was going through. Neither job is doable without people who support you -- or, sometimes, just listen to you bitch.

6. You’ve got to take -- and ask for -- help when you need it. I got my first full-time teaching assignment -- teaching four sections of a course I’d never taught before -- three weeks before the semester started. I tried developing my syllabi on my own, but I was getting nowhere fast. With two weeks to go, I decided to ask for help: I met the director of my program for coffee and asked another friend I knew who’d taught it before to share her materials. And with their assistance, I put a syllabus together that got me through that first semester.

When my daughter was born, there were days when I didn’t shower or see the sun except when I left the house to pick her up from daycare. But eventually, I learned it was OK -- necessary, even -- to ask for help when I needed it. My mom and husband now share the pickup and drop-off, and we eat takeout more than I’d like to admit. But those little things make balancing family and career just a bit easier -- just as my colleagues’ help did that first semester.

7. There’s no one right way to do it. As someone who likes following directions and recipes, this is one of the most frustrating -- and wonderful? -- things about both teaching and motherhood. There are tons of competing philosophies about pedagogy, just as there are tons of competing philosophies about parenting. Should I breastfeed or bottle feed? Swaddle or not? Start with purees or finger foods?

In the end, we all have to do what works for us. I have to make the decision that’s right for me and my family, just like I have to decide what’s right for me and my students. Each class is different, just as each kid is different, and one-size-fits-all doesn’t apply to either.

8. But when it works, it’s like no other feeling in the world. With motherhood, there are lots of moments like this: the first time I heard my daughter laugh, the little coo she used to make while eating, the hand clap my son does when I pick him up from daycare.

And teaching is more of the same. It’s a tough job, but every now and then, there’s a moment that makes you remember why you do it in the first place: one of your students finally writes a clear and compelling paragraph, or you look around the room and see them all fully engaged in the revision activity you’ve spent weeks planning -- they get it and are with you. These are the moments that make the tough stuff worth it.

Bio

Stephanie L. Liberatore is a term assistant professor of English at George Mason University.

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