Guest blogger, Louise Lewis (@MissLLewis) is an Assistant Head of Science and Research Lead, and single parent to her daughter. Here, she shares her experience of parenting and teaching, and her top tips for colleagues and schools keen to support their single parent staff.
I entered motherhood a little later than most, at 38, and not in the picture-perfect way I had imagined. I have been a single parent from the outset, quite literally going it alone. And 15 months in, I really wouldn’t want it any other way. I often wonder if the phrase ‘twice the work but twice the love’ is really accurate, I have nothing to compare it to, but when I see my little girl after the end of a long day, her arms outstretched, a beaming smile on her face and I hear ‘Mama’ then I can say with confidence, I feel all the love.
But, it would be remiss of me to paint this idyllic picture, single parenting is hard! Not in an impossible way, of course it is possible, there are so many of us doing it day in day it, but in a hugely steep learning curve, rollercoaster, let’s juggle a few plates kind of way!
I took five and half months maternity leave, financially this was my limit, and shared parental leave wasn’t accessible to me, given my situation, so I had to return to work. The prospect of this filled me with dread, envy of others with better maternity leave or partners who could support them, and guilt, so much guilt. My poor baby wasn’t going to get all of the experiences the other babies in our group were going to get. I was letting her down from the outset. So needless to say, there were tears, mostly mine! But, with lots of support, advice and trial and error, I found there are ways to make it work, and work well. There are clichés in this, but they are clichés for a reason. I’m also a fan of a quote, I make no apologies for this!
You are not alone
You are likely surrounded by lots of parents in your school, some maybe in a similar situation, others may be wildly different. But, we all have one thing in common, we have to leave our babies to go to work. Talk to them, what made things easier for them? The best piece of advice I had from a colleague, when I was in the depths of guilt and tears ‘Look at the amazing role model you are, showing your little girl what you can achieve with hard work, she will be so proud of you’. So, whenever I am having a wobble, I think of that and feel that instead of letting her down, I am showing her that hard work pays off.
I have found that surrounding myself with the right people, where lifting one another up is a reciprocal process, has been transformative in the way I approach and feel about work. Additionally, there are lots of organisations who offer amazing communities of support. Obviously, we have the wonderful MTPT, but organisations such as Gingerbread (https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/ ) have proven to be so useful for navigating the logistics of single parenting, and feeling part of a community.
Organisation is key
Time will be in short supply, there is no getting away from this fact, so having a clear routine has really helped me to stay afloat. But, luckily, you are used to managing workload in a time poor environment, as is the world of teaching, just, as a single parent, you really get to flex those skills! PPA is always a precious commodity, but I find it even more so now, so I use every last minute to the maximum. I have a clear plan of what I want to achieve in a set period of time. I may make a note of this my diary, and the writing of the task and deadline is a form of commitment for me.
The same goes for home life. Making lunches, cleaning the bathroom, doing the laundry, they have slots in the day or week to be completed. But, the best laid plans, etc…. a crying baby, a refusal to sleep or a bit of fussiness can throw this out of the window! When this happens, I let go and look for quick wins: Did I butter the bread for the sandwich? Have I managed to wipe the shelf in the bathroom? Did I sort the laundry into piles? Something is better than nothing, and these little wins all add up eventually.
This is not unique to single parenthood but may be more of a priority when you are solely responsible for your child: Where possible, get your childcare sorted out as early as possible. Whether it is a nursery, a childminder or family and friends, organise this with time to spare. In my experience, the most sought-after nurseries and childminders are booked up, sometimes years (yes years!) in advance. People are adding their foetus’ to waiting lists! So, if you are still pregnant, look around, read the reviews, talk to friends to decide which type of childcare is right for you, and which setting you would like your little one to attend. If your little one has already arrived and you haven’t decided on your childcare, make that a priority today.
Finding the right childcare for you is paramount. Visit lots of settings to get a feel for them. Take your little one too and see how they interact. I was so lucky to find my childminder, she is warm, loving and treats the children like they are her own. I work full time, so this was massively important to me. My daughter gets a home from home, goes to all of the baby and toddler groups, visits the park, goes for walks, has trips to the aquarium, all of the things I would do with her if I didn’t work. I cannot tell you the comfort I find in dropping my daughter off each day, seeing her fling her arms open to give the childminder a cuddle.
I would also recommend having a plan B. There are days when your little one will be ill, or your childcare is not available for one reason or another. In most schools you will have some dependency leave, but typically this is limited to one day per incidence and a maximum of 5 days per year (of course this may vary from school to school), therefore having someone who can breech the gap is hugely helpful. Trade childcare with friends and family, ask for childcare instead of baby gifts or just call-in favours!
Good enough is good enough
It all comes down to this for me, good enough is good enough! This has been a tough lesson for me to learn. When I first returned to work, I tried doubly hard to prove that motherhood wasn’t going to change who I am at work, but the reality is, it has changed me, and trying to prove that it didn’t pushed me close to burn out. I spent time talking to my line manager and explaining how I felt. It was then I realised that good enough is good enough. I didn’t need to prove my worth to anyone, especially myself!
This was also true at home. I almost broke myself trying to keep the house perfect, however, this just wasn’t sustainable. ‘You have a child, it is ok if it looks like one lives in your house!’ Perfection is the enemy of progress, so, if I make some progress, I’m happy with that.
Single parenting and teaching can sometimes feel like oil and water, but with the right tribe, a good plan and a willingness to let the plan go to pot, it can become the perfect emulsion!