Researchers explored the experiences and challenges facing teacher-mothers who perform the roles of educator in the classroom and parent at home, while also typically carrying out more household labor than their partners.
Balancing a teaching career and motherhood seems to be becoming more difficult.
Technology that blurs the lines between work and home, inadequate parental leave policies, and low teacher pay can all exacerbate these responsibilities, says Julie Gorlewski, chair of the learning and instruction department in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo.
“Balancing a teaching career and motherhood seems to be becoming more difficult. Both roles carry an expectation of selfless nurturing and can result in physical and emotional exhaustion,” says Gorlewski, coauthor of the study in Educational Studies.
“The implications of this work are particularly relevant today, where the roles of motherhood and teacher are intensified by the shift to online learning as a result of the pandemic. Through a greater understanding of the lived experiences of teacher-mothers, this study can inform policy and practice to better support an integral segment of the education workforce.”
Expectations can be exhausting
The researchers surveyed 12 teacher-mothers across the nation working in elementary, middle, and high school settings. During the interviews, several themes emerged around work-life balance, problematic cultural norms, and financial difficulties.
The participants shared the benefits of both roles, including how being a mother allowed them to better relate to the parents of their students, and how their work as a teacher provided them with greater awareness of their children’s development. However, they also experienced frequent exhaustion from perpetual caregiving, says Gorlewski.
Technology and the transition to remote learning have raised expectations for teachers, who are expected to maintain contact with parents throughout the day and with their students at all hours. These demands build on the additional work teachers perform after school hours on grading and lesson planning.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents became responsible for homeschooling their children after many schools closed. For teachers who have children, this responsibility in the household often fell on them as the parent better trained to provide instruction, says Gorlewski.
Societal norms compound these pressures for mothers, who face elevated expectations at home, says Gorlewski. The research found that teacher-mothers reported performing more second-shift activities (household labor such as cooking, cleaning, and child care) than their partners. Even when partners contributed more equally toward household labor, mothers typically engaged in significantly more mental labor planning and managing tasks, she says.
Homemaking standards are also magnified by portrayals of the perfect home on social media, and women are more likely to face judgement if their households don’t match these heightened expectations, says Gorlewski.
Teacher-moms need support
The researchers advocate for numerous policy changes to reduce the challenges faced by teacher-mothers, including improved parental leave and teacher pay.
Most participants reported that they had to use sick and personal days to earn pay while on maternity leave, leaving them with little to no time off after their child’s birth to attend follow-up doctor’s appointments. Teachers in their early career are particularly disadvantaged, says Gorlewski, as they have less accrued time off.
Due to the small amount of paid maternity leave and pressure to breastfeed from doctors, nurses, and friends, some teacher-mothers reported having to pump at work between classes or while preparing the next day’s lesson.
In addition to the second shift, many teacher-mothers also work a second job. One in every six teachers work a second job, and teachers are three times more likely than other professions to have multiple jobs, says Gorlewski.
The researchers encourage schools to enact mentoring programs for new mothers as well, as many participants appreciated being able to ask colleagues for advice on parenting and managing multiple roles.
‘Invisible’ work of teacher moms
The pandemic presents the opportunity for the nation to rethink the norms in education and family systems, and for teacher-mothers to renegotiate policies in the classroom and expectations in the household, says Gorlewski.
She calls on partners to take equal responsibility for second-shift labor, and suggests teacher-mothers abandon perfectionistic standards of child care and household maintenance on social media in favor of portrayals that show the messiness of authentic parenthood.
“This unanticipated and challenging global event has the potential to reveal some of the invisible work of mothers and educators,” says Gorlewski. “Advocates can use these results to promote better norms and policies to support teachers and all working mothers.”
Future research will compare the experiences of teacher-mothers with teacher-fathers and teachers who are not parents.
Additional coauthors are from Virginia Commonwealth University, Capital University, Palm Beach Atlantic University, and the University at Buffalo.
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