“At risk of being too honest, I’m just going to say it: teachers who don’t have their own kids can’t fully understand what it’s like.” It’s lunch, mid-conference. I’m sitting at a ballroom table, surrounded by empty coffee cups and stickie notes with promotional textbook logos. I’m lazily hanging my spoon over a piece of mostly-eaten Tiramisu, trying to decide if I should eat another one.
I’ve been inconsistently eavesdropping on two teachers I don’t know for about twelve minutes, a conversation that comes to me in waves like a poorly tuned radio station. Teachers who don’t have their own kids… I straiten my posture and stare ambiguously forward, tuning in. “I mean, sure, she’s taught for thirty years, but she’s never woken in the night to a crying baby; she’s never had to ground a teenager. There’s just no way she truly understands what it’s like to love a child.” I can feel my heart peddle in my chest with a fury I can neither express nor explain. This woman I have never met, have never spoken to, has viscerally insulted me.
Teaching is a very part of my DNA. Fertility, unfortunately, is not. It’s an irony that assures me God either has an incredible sense of humor or a precise sense of employee placement. Do you know how absurd it is to come home and cry in front of the fireplace because I have so many kids and I don’t have any kids?
To teach with infertility is a literal labor of love. It is a maternal instinct. It is a decision to love unconditionally, to act intentionally. If, by some happenstance, you too are a member of this strange club, you know that mindfulness is essential to endurance. You know that conversations often start with: “Do you have kids?” You’ve endured awkward, well-intentioned sex advice from strangers. You’ve heard the phrase, “it’ll happen, just stop trying” so many times it sounds as emotionless as: “thank you, please drive through.”
For those of you who aren’t members of this strange club, here are some things you can’t understand:
You don’t know what it’s like to love a child as they are, without the baggage of who they used to be or who they should become. You don’t know what it’s like to see a parent who has done this for fourteen years and is over it. To have had students for a year or two or three and yet their parents have never even met you. To stay up late worried about a child who is not yours; to stay up late worried about parents who are not yours.
You don’t know what it’s like to feel angry with a colleague who doesn’t understand why a kid needs a break. To give your favorite student an F because she earned it. To homeschool a pregnant freshman who didn’t get the congratulatory hug from her mother. To emanate with pride when you help a kid make tremendous gains as a writer; to wilt when you read the parent’s portfolio feedback that says: “this just proves he should have been getting A’s since August”.
You don’t know what it’s like to monitor and adjust simple habits: e.g., cut coffee because studies suggest… (see also: wine, peas, peanut butter, sugar, dairy, soy, sliced lunch meat, tap water, etc.). To teach while you are taking fertility drugs, which incidentally, feels eerily similar to hormonal adolescence. To have a teenager start a rumor that you are pregnant. To read journal entries from an adopted student who doesn’t feel loved. To have a student accidently call you mom. To cry in the staff parking lot when oh-my-gosh-it’s-April and the end of the year is only four weeks away.
You don’t know what it’s like to finally tell loved ones you’re starting the foster/adoption process—a surrogate kind of pregnancy that inspires strange politics rather than congratulations: “What kind of baby are you getting? Think you’ll have a mixed family? What if the kid is messed up?” To read discussion boards that refer to adoptive mothers as vultures. To feel (embarrassedly) ambivalent about the woman who kidnapped a baby and raised it as her own.
I may have done something here: I may have scared you. You have a cute kid or a cute pregnant belly and you’re going to avoid eye-contact next time you see me. Please, don’t do that. I’m not judging you. This is not a passive-aggressive rant; it is not a pity party. It is strangely, a kind of philosophy of education. It is a declaration of my devotion to kids, of my decision to love and teach intentionally and unconditionally—regardless of race, ability, or messedupness—regardless of how or how long I have known a child.
I may not have changed diapers, but I have had to deal with a lot of poop to become the teacher I am. My point is this: despite all of the progress our profession has made in the last fifty years, despite the attempts to standardize and objectivize the role of a teacher, there still exists Horace Mann’s expectation that we are somehow an extension of the family’s morality and values. And in that, the antiquated belief that our personal lives should align with child-rearing.
So here’s a non-sequitor conclusion: this ideology is flawed. The maternal instinct I have makes me an incredible teacher, but it’s not what makes all teachers incredible. I know several life-changing teachers who don’t have the dream to become parents. And they don’t have to because what they do have is more important: they have the ability to accept a child as they are, without the baggage of who they used to be or who they should become. They have the instinct to encourage, guide, instruct, empathize, inspire. They have the gift to be a villager for both the child who has parents and the child who doesn’t.
And that, my friend, is all the grounding experience you need.
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