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Teaching, Well at Work, Well-being

Like Being Pecked to Death by a Chicken

Teacher moms and caregiving professionals don’t need work-life “balance” – they need equilibrium

This blog post is part of a two-part series on teacher moms.
Missed out on part 1? Turn back here

If you’ve ever written a major academic paper like a thesis or dissertation, you’ll know how painstaking it can be to summarize years of your life’s work into a snappy elevator pitch when all you have is mere minutes to convince people why you’re worth their time. But my PhD dissertation was a completely different story. When I think about the numerous women I’ve met over the course of my research – women who are juggling the demands of being both a mom at home and a teacher in the classroom – it’s pretty simple to sum up my 400-page dissertation in just eight words. Being a teacher mom is, quite frankly, “like being pecked to death by a chicken.”

Dr. Shirley Giroux in Winnipeg presenting her PhD research at the 31st Annual Canadian Student Health Research Forum

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE PECKED TO DEATH BY A CHICKEN

A peck or two from a chicken is annoying but it won’t kill you. Similarly, teachers and other caregiving professionals are typically able to manage a few demands on their time and energy without losing their cool. But when demands pile up and begin shooting from left-right-and-centre, teacher moms are likely to burnout – just like how getting pecked by a chicken a thousand times over will likely leave you dead. 

Teachers regularly work with children who are experiencing stress and trauma at home. Emotional pain and distress have no boundaries, and teachers – out of necessity and out of their heart for children – inevitably serve as emotional caregivers on top of the usual demands of schooling, like instruction and lesson planning. When students express their social and emotional needs through disruptive behaviour, an entire lesson – if not an entire day – can get derailed. Although teachers play a crucial role in the lives of students experiencing trauma, they’re also at high risk themselves of second-hand traumatic stress where working alongside and listening to the experiences of distressed students can actually damage their own mental health and well-being. 

TEACHERS AND CAREGIVERS AGREE – WE ARE BEING PECKED TO DEATH BY CHICKENS

Let’s not forget that teachers are also held to standards of practice that dictate how they’re expected to express their emotions. While in the classroom, it’s frequently expected that teachers suppress how they truly feel – either by hiding behind a “workplace appropriate” façade, or by literally attempting to change their emotions altogether by, for instance, filtering their frustrations into acts of kindness as they work alongside a struggling student. Given the energy required to control how they feel, combined with other demands including meeting tight deadlines, strained interpersonal relationships, and other pressures from outside the workplace, it’s no wonder that teachers often feel overwhelmed and depleted. 

It’s also no wonder that the metaphor “a death by a thousand pecks” resonates so strongly with teacher moms and other caregiving professionals, many of whom have told me point-blank that caring for other people often leaves them drained and irritated long after they’ve left the workplace and rejoined their families. I’ve also heard stories from brilliant scientists about how they, too, return home after long days at the lab only to find that they’d much rather be left alone in solitude. Simply put, caregivers know what it’s like to be continuously pecked – and sometimes obliterated – by a chicken. 

Even parents who aren’t typically considered “caregiving professionals” are required to tend to other people’s well-being while at work, where they’re expected to be cautiously considerate of other people’s feelings in their communications. Caring is almost always about “the other” – another person or even an idea – that we view as having some sort of potential or possibility for growth and development. This means that we are all caregivers in some way regardless of the job or role we may find ourselves in. Conversely, this also means that “caring” should be valued in the workplace and viewed as a demand worthy of professional development, support, and additional resources just as any other demand.    

‘WORK-LIFE BALANCE’ ISN’T ENOUGH TO SUPPORT TEACHER MOMS AND OTHER CAREGIVING PROFESSIONALS

We often talk about maintaining “balance” between home and work, but I believe there’s a more appropriate term that truly encapsulates what it’s like to successfully manage our personal and professional responsibilities – and that’s “equilibrium.” 

Work-life balance is like tinkering with a weighing scale where our personal life is on one side and our work life is on the other. We’re constantly striving to adjust and readjust how much weight we’re putting on either side so that one part of our lives doesn’t tip over and crash. “Balance” also implies that the different parts of our lives can be separated like different drawers of a wardrobe. The reality is that how we feel in our personal lives can impact how we feel in our professional lives, and vice-versa. For caregivers especially, we can’t expect teachers to “shut off” the care they have for their students just because they’ve left the schoolgrounds. In other words, there is no perfect balance. 

Equilibrium, on the other hand, allows for some flexibility where new demands and additional stress create mere shifts in our lives rather than a total collapse. It means accepting, for example, that the amount of time, energy, and focus we dedicate to certain aspects of our lives will constantly change depending on what our priorities are or where our attention is most needed at a given point in time. In other words, teacher moms can prioritize caring for their own children without ceasing to care deeply for their students who are suffering from difficult personal circumstances – they may just accept that they can’t do it all, that they can’t do it alone, and that not every challenge or problem requires their fixing.  

In brief, teacher moms and caregiving professionals who set boundaries, accept their limitations, and build up their resilience are able to absorb stress rather than take it on completely. As care is so inherent to being a teacher, schools can better support teacher moms by investing in the caring aspects of the profession and encouraging resilience training on the job. 


This blog post is part of a two-part series on teacher moms. 
Missed out on part 1? Turn back here

 

Dr. Shirley Giroux’s Ph.D. dissertation is entitled, “Like Being Pecked to Death by a Chicken: Resilience and Work-Family Equilibrium in Teacher/Mothers.”  Check out a recap on her research here.

Author note: All of the teachers who participated in my research self-identified as cisgender female. Except for limiting my sample to female teachers, this lack of diversity was not intentional.

 Photos: Adobe Stock 

 

 

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Dr. Shirley Giroux

School counsellor

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