Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Stop Ignoring Your Children": Guilt, Love, and Exhaustion

This afternoon, the fates aligned on one of the days where I finish teaching early, I didn't have a committee meeting, I don't have a presentation to give later in the week, the grading is caught up (enough), and tomorrow's lessons are planned. The sun is shining, I don't have a cold, and it's neither 20 nor 90 degrees. My dissertation is certainly in need of work, but I'm awaiting feedback on my last submission and feel sufficiently accomplished enough to take an afternoon off without writhing in anxiety.

All of those serendipitous things lined up, and I went for a run.

A run is a wholly self-centered act in the best sense. It is an act I do for multiple iterations of myself. When I run, it lets the present me relax and work through the mental stress of tasks and deadlines and lists. It is also a gift to my future self, a promise for tomorrow's strength. I run for me, and it feels great (even if I don't always recognize that red-faced and mid-stride).

On my way back to my house, I noticed this stop sign and accompanying sticker:

"Stop ignoring your children." 

Well, shit. 

That momentary passing caught me off guard and I was suddenly flooded with guilt, then anger at having been made to feel guilty, then confusion at trying to sort through the two. 

See, there are some things going on. Every morning on Saturday or Sunday (or sometimes both), I get up at 6 so that I can go work in a coffee shop on my dissertation for two hours before my husband and daughter wake up. I try to be home by 9, which is about the time they'll really get up and moving. If I'm not home by 9, I feel absolutely wracked with guilt. 

Why? It's not because my husband cares that I'm gone and thinks I need to be back to take care of the household. He has even told me to get a hotel room and write for the whole weekend, a move in support of my educational goals that we're working toward together. 

It's not even that my daughter particularly cares that I'm gone, though she does always greet me with "Mommy, I am so glad that you're back!" and a big hug, but then she's right back off to fighting imaginary enemies or braiding the hair of imaginary ponies. 

The guilt is internal. It's my fault. I put it there. I feed it. I help it grow. 

But I didn't do it alone, and this defaced stop sign proves it. 

I can't know the motivations of whoever enacted this socially conscious graffiti, but I doubt it's a personal attack. My daughter is loved, adequately supervised, and more than adequately entertained with toys, games of hide and seek, and trips to the playground/museum/whatever. I don't, in a very objective sense, ignore my child. 

But when I saw that sign, the first thought that ran through my head was, "Maybe I should have picked her up early from daycare and taken her somewhere." Then I rationalized that it was nap time until 3 anyway, and there was no reason to rush. Then I further guilt tripped myself by wondering if, instead of being out in the sunshine running, I should be at home reading the book I just ordered on how to more effectively communicate with children. At no point in this ping pong game of emotions and internal demands was I ignoring my child; she was foremost in my mind even when she wasn't present. 

See, we're having some "challenges" with my daughter that seem to stem from a  cognitive-social disconnect. This means that my four-year-old child throws tantrums like a two-year-old while using the vocabulary of a sixteen-year-old. It is exhausting. Sometimes I cry. 

We're taking several steps to redirect, address, and otherwise survive this obstacle, and I'm now reading on effective communication, which I thought was silly since I've taken multiple graduate-level courses in communication but am now realizing that all bets are off when you're talking about a child. I can explain ethos, pathos, and logos to her all I want, but she's still not accepting the fact that the dog ate her favorite red cup and that bedtime exists. 

Each day that I pick her up from school and hear the report that she threw a fit or was rude to a classmate or refused to cooperate at lunchtime or kicked her shoes across the room at nap time, I feel like a failure. Every time. And there are a lot of times. 

I hold my breath when I pull up into the parking lot, hoping that today will be a good day, that today the report will be positive, or even just neutral. 

And when it's not, I start to examine every moment of the past few weeks. Did I read enough bedtime books? Was I firm enough in sticking to the consequences? Did we play outside often enough? Were there plenty of structured activities? Unstructured activities? Did I leave her enough room to make her own decisions? Too much room? Had I let her listen to a Rage Against the Machine song on the way to school? Did that trigger her anger? Was the house too messy? Did she feel insecure in it? Was dinnertime too varied? Did she hear me complaining about the work I had to do? And on, and on, and on. And it is exhausting. 

The findings of a parenting study took my social media feeds by storm last week. This study found that the quantity of time spent with a child had no real bearing on their overall outcomes. In fact, the only thing that really mattered was that time spent with the child while "stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty, or anxious" was detrimental. 

Again: Well, shit. 

And while many commenters took this revelation to be a freeing one, all I could think about was how reading this was making me feel even more stressed, guilty, and anxious about all the times I'd spent with my daughter while stressed, guilty, and anxious. I was stuck in an Escher painting of parenting woes. 

Like this, only behind every door is a room where Doc McStuffins blares at full volume
and the floor is covered in particularly sharp-edged Legos.

Then today I came across this article by Jen Hatmaker (born in 1975) who reflects that her own mother didn't face these parenting standards of perfection and simply forced the children outside to roam the neighborhood freely "like a pack of roving wolves." 

And there's something comforting in her "return to our roots" parenting philosophy that reasons we survived what would now be considered neglect and so should stop worrying so much. But at the same time, those actions are now legally questionable and our decisions exist in a different social climate. 

Even so, I can't rightfully compare my own childhood to my daughter's as the two are so drastically different as to be nearly incompatible. I grew up in the middle of nowhere with acres and acres of lawn and forest. She's growing up in the middle of an urban neighborhood. I grew up first with a stay-at-home-mom in a working class family and then in a single-mother household in poverty with no transition in between. She's growing up with married parents who both work in professional fields. I never even went to preschool. She's been in daycare since she was seven weeks old. I was painfully shy and quiet around strangers. She's an outgoing daredevil who asks embarrassingly personal questions of strangers in line at Target. I don't even know how to compare what was normal for me to what should be normal for her, and attempts to do so often leave me even more distressed than I was when I started. 

Then there's the fact that, at it's core, this is an emotional (not logical) debate for me. I know, without a doubt, that going for a run this afternoon made me calmer, more focused, and less stressed and that all of those things make me a better mother. I am absolutely certain that taking time for myself is not only okay, but necessary. I would not hesitate for a moment to tell my other parent friends to do exactly what I did and more. Self-care becomes a radical act, and I'm all about revolutions. 

But I'd be omitting an important part of the story if I didn't tell you that sign stopped me in my tracks and brought forward the ever-present guilt that I try to stuff down with animated readings of Green Eggs and Ham and dining room dance parties to Katy Perry songs. 

Eventually, though, I had to stop looking at the sign and walk the rest of the way home, one step at a time and on legs shaky from the first real run they'd had in a while, and in the end that's exactly how I'll move through it all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

I'm not even going to make excuses for how this weekly link round-up turned into a kinda, sometimes monthly one. Life's just busy. Like, so busy sometimes I forget to eat. Like, so busy sometimes I lose four hours and have no idea how they passed. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but until then (then being, most likely, December), this is the best I've got. So, without further ado, here's what I've been reading that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). What have you been reading (or writing)?

The Good

First and foremost, spring. We had a very mild winter with virtually no snow, and I really shouldn't be complaining about it, but I was so sick of cold, dark days. I took this picture today, and I am so ready for spring:

To celebrate all that glorious spring, I've been spending as much time as possible in the park. While there last week, a boy who looked to be about 10 asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick. He found my cards in an adorable, clearly oft-practiced trick. Then he went off to find some other stranger to continue honing his craft. 

Shannon Barber's Medium post reminds us that rules were meant to be broken, especially when those rules concern what grown women can and cannot wear on their bodies
I am over 30 and should have long ago hung up my fashion eccentricities- but what has happened is that I’ve shed my ability to care about how I am supposed to be doing it. 
I know the rules I just don’t care.
Also, my daughter finished her second round of roller skating classes:

One self-described "redneck Republican" is wearing IUDs as jewelry.

Michele Burmaster wants us to take back fitspo, and she has some choice words for a fitness magazine who asked her to submit "better" photos.

Read what K. M. O'Sullivan did when her teenage son brought home a condom.

The Bad

Everything about the DOJ report on Ferguson makes me cry, but this part is particularly shocking:
It turns out that nearly everyone in the city is wanted for something. Even internal police department communications found the number of arrest warrants to be "staggering". By December of 2014, "over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court." The report makes clear that this refers to individual people, rather than cases, so people with many cases are not being counted multiple times. (Though clearly some of these cannot be Ferguson residents, since the number represents more than the entire adult population and Ferguson policing applies to visitors as well.) However, if we do look at the number of cases, the portrait is even starker. In 2013, 32,975 offenses had associated warrants, so that there were 1.5 offenses for every city resident.
While we're on the topic of North St. Louis County overreaches in the name of "justice," take a look at this lawsuit against the city of Florissant. A "defective muffler" charge that the woman paid ends with an unwarranted arrest and brutality.

Cherelle Baldwin faces decades in prison for trying to flee an abusive partner whom she had an order of protection against.

And to balance out (though definitely not to brighten) the law enforcement portrayal, here's one police officer's horrifying account of responding to a five-year-old gunshot victim.

The Curious

Anna Ross has a great post at Vida on the many implications of saying "I don't know how she does it":
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how you do it. Not surprisingly, the only people who are actually interested in hearing a response to this statement are other mothers, and for them the particulars are practical, not theoretical.
Mental Floss posted 15 Phenomenal Female Circus Performers.

This post about one family's journey through opting out of standardized tests really brings up some of the tensions in this debate.

Bonbon Break has a great post on why overwhelmed moms don't ask for help.

What happens when one identical twin exercises and the other doesn't?

XOJane published a truly unpopular "Unpopular Opinion" piece about not tipping, and this Jezebel response said everything I thought (and then a little more).

This Love, Joy, Feminism post about the balance of parental needs and children's needs in Attachment Parenting hit home for me.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

If We Don't Believe in Our Students, What's the Point?

Last night I came across this post from Jesse Stommel and felt a little leap for joy as I read it. See, he's taking to task the Chronicle of Education's recent blog series called "Dear Student." In this series, professors are asked to write responses to infuriating student-teacher situations. 

The series started a month ago and has so far enjoyed four entries:

Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before the Midterm. . . 

Dear Student: No, I Won't Change the Grade You Deserve

Dear Student: It's February and You Still Don't Have Your Textbook?

Dear Student: Sorry You're Too Late to Sign Up For My Class

The entries consist of emails written to these imaginary students, and while there are moments of educational reflection and maybe even some helpful ways to approach difficult situations, it's clear that those aren't the point of the series. The point is snark, cruelty, and a smug self-congratulatory air of superiority over the power instructors wield.

Maybe this is coming from a space of insecurity. Maybe facing down online lectures that make some of the most powerful classrooms freely available to the world coupled with the rapid availability of tools that allow students to undercut the power dynamics traditionally found in student-teacher relationships (sometimes in cruel, problematic ways of their own) is too much to take.

Whatever the source, though, those "Dear Student" posts dug deep under my skin. Every time they popped up in my social media feeds, I felt compelled to click, and every time I was met with deep disappointment and anger. Stommel identified the source of this feeling perfectly:
What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:
Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
Rant up, not down.
"Rant up, not down."


I have faced every single one of those situations mocked in the "Dear Students" series. I teach developmental writing, and my students often enter my classroom with no real sense of college expectations and very few habits of academia. Does this sometimes irritate me? Of course. Do I sometimes rant about it? Absolutely.

But key to my rant is an attempt to return to the center, an attempt to remember why I do what I do, an attempt to find a path that will lead that student to success, even if that success is clearly not going to happen this semester in my class.

The day that I feel the need to climb onto a pedestal of my own making to smugly look down on the students who I got into this profession to serve is the day I need to find new work. That's not so much a marker of my superiority as an instructor as it is a letter of warning to my future self. If I lose focus of that core respect and belief in my students, I can't possibly do my job.

And losing that focus is a real possibility.

As Adrienne Rich discusses in her article on teaching in an open admissions institution, "a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else." But she also admits it's not easy to maintain:
it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be.
It's really hard to watch a student make deliberate, infuriating choices that practically guarantee his or her failure in the course and maintain hope in that student's future potential, but that's the job. That's the point. If we, the people tasked with guiding them through the obstacles between them and their desired futures, don't believe it's possible, then what's the point?

Many defenders of the Chronicle "Dear Student" series say that students need this dose of reality because people aren't going to treat them with kid gloves in the "real world." Of course students need to learn that their actions have consequences. Of course students need to learn about rigid expectations and firm deadlines. Of course students need to cultivate maturity and problem solving skills. Isn't that why they came to us?

We've already seen that there are online courses available for free on just about every topic imaginable. Students can go on Amazon and buy textbooks to teach themselves any course content they want. Our contribution to education is not and cannot be merely the knowledge we carry because I promise you there are streams of information that carry it better and more accessibly. If we're going to set ourselves up as knowledge-based competition with ever-improving content delivery systems, we will lose. In fact, we already have.

But what we can and should provide is a path to navigate that content, a respectful prodding into the right habits, a practice space for that "real world" that is both rigid enough to set up realistic expectations and flexible enough to allow for mistakes.

That means we have to stop seeing our students as the enemy of education. They are not diluting the power of knowledge. They are not destroying our institutions. They are simply trying to exist the best they can in a web of technology, inequities, and expectations that change faster than any of us can catalogue. They come to us for help, and we told them we'd deliver it.

Yes, I've been infuriated by a student who didn't have a textbook in February. I've also been awe-struck by a student who had an epileptic seizure in my classroom, was treated by EMTs, and then returned to class that day because he didn't want to fall behind.

I've been frustrated with a student who missed the deadline on an assignment after I talked about it in class, put it on the syllabus, created a separate assignment for it on Blackboard, and sent out a reminder email. But I've also been stunned into silence by a student who comes to my class after just having worked an overnight shift at a fast food restaurant and is leaving my class as soon as it ends so he can walk four miles to the store and start his next shift.

I've been angry when a student tries to hand in a handwritten draft instead of submitting a typed document online as instructed, but I've also been humbled when I found out that the reason the paper wasn't typed is because staying on campus to use the computer lab would mean not arriving at the homeless shelter early enough to secure a place to sleep on a sub-zero night.

I've written a slanted "A" with gritted teeth in the attendance box for the fourth consecutive class period before learning that the premature birth of my student's daughter has left her hospitalized and scrambling to find care for her other children.

Are there times that students are simply lazy? Sure. Are there times when they're abusing the financial aid system just to get a check with no intention of completing classes? Frustratingly, yes. Are there students who are immature and disrespectful? You bet.

But even those students might figure it out. Even those students have the potential for it to click into place, and I've seen it happen. It is my job, above all, to believe in that possibility, to fight for it, and to make them aware of it, too.

So I err on the side of belief. That is my job. And if I need to rant, I do it quietly; then I get back to work.

Photo: yusunkwon, Snapshooter46