I’m at Pedro’s preschool, in a parent education workshop about exploring our childrearing philosophies. I’ve been looking forward to the chance to meet and exchange ideas with other parents, and I’m hoping to come out with a renewed sense of purpose and direction in my own parenting journey. Except it’s not happening. For one thing, the setup is all wrong. The room is long and narrow, like a shoebox, and the chairs are arranged in rows facing one end. From my seat, most of what I can see are the backs of heads.
The facilitator, the school’s psychologist, starts out by having one of the mothers read a poem about how raising a child is like being the captain of a ship. The mother speaks quietly, and it’s hard to hear her. There are no visual aids, and while the facilitator has promised that a copy of the poem will be included in the handouts, those won’t be passed out until the end. When the mother has finished reading aloud, the psychologist asks us, “So, what do you think?” A few people make comments, and then she looks expectantly at the rest of us, perhaps having hoped for a more lively discussion. “What about the rest of you? Do you agree?” We nod. The evening continues in this vein, and as I walk out the door, I am feeling antsy, and vaguely unsettled.
On the way home, I can’t help comparing the session to a parenting workshop I led in the United States when I was working for a teen pregnancy prevention program. Back then, I wasn’t a parent myself yet, but I was determined to present important ideas and facilitate discussion. I had carefully planned the seating arrangement, the icebreaker activity, the visual aids. Energy was high, and when it was over, the moms lingered on, talking and laughing. I was in my element, and the adrenaline rush carried through to the next day. This is what I was meant to do.
Damn, I think now. Why couldn’t that have been me up there tonight?
A feeling I cannot identify bubbles up from inside. Is it frustration, envy, disappointment, longing? I close my eyes and go back to that time, that job. It didn’t pay much, and I had been planning to leave it to get my Masters degree in social work, but in the meantime, I enjoyed every minute. I had a lot of freedom in designing the curriculum and targeting new areas for outreach. I went to interagency meetings. I had an office with a door and a business card with my name and my job title, Program Coordinator. I imagined my future — at the head of an agency like that one. The night I gave that workshop, I didn’t yet know that in just one month I would decide to move to Spain to get married and settle down, leaving behind a pile of blank grad school applications and, with them, a part of myself.
In July 1998, my soon-to-be husband came to visit me in the States. He flew to San Francisco and drove across the country, stopping at national parks and other tourist sites before meeting me in Albany, N.Y., where we spent my paltry one week of vacation time together. Between outings to the county fair and the underground caverns, we hashed out the details of — gulp — our future life in Spain.
“I’d like to stay home when our kids are very young, but after that I need to work,” I had said.
“You’re bilingual. I’m sure you’ll be able to get a job,” he answered. “Hey, maybe you could work for Iberia. You know, at the airport — you could be one of those people who check in the bags.”
I looked at him. “That’s not what I meant.” How to explain? For me, work was more than just a way to earn money. I thought about my job and about the volunteer positions I had held, first doing AIDS education with a local nonprofit in college and then working with at-risk youth and families in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps. Doing those things had made me feel useful, engaged, creative. There had to be a job like that somewhere in Spain, didn’t there?
“Okay. But you probably aren’t going to find a job like the one you have now. The job market’s pretty tough,” he cautioned.
Now, of course, I realize that he was right. Nonprofits are few and funding scarce, and my status as a bilingual native English speaker is nowhere near valuable enough to land me a job with Iberia, even checking in the luggage. But there is always a demand for English teachers, and to everyone else, it doesn’t seem to matter much what I do. Spanish people don’t seem to identify with their jobs as much as Americans do. Work is just how you earn your living, it’s not who you are. If you are lucky enough to have a steady job you don’t hate, that’s good enough.
But can that really be enough for me?
Soon after arriving in Spain, I did a certification course for teaching English to adults. The class was inspiring in its own way; I learned about language acquisition and lesson planning and the latest educational methodologies. The reality of teaching, however, was less satisfying. There was a high turnover rate of students at the academy, and most of the teachers were only there for a year or two. Instead of an office of my own there was a cramped, windowless teacher’s room where my co-workers and I dashed between classes to change books and pick up the tape recorders that never seemed to work properly. Still, it was nice to be at the front of a classroom again, and I was able to develop a rapport with my students. A lot of it was up to me: I could do just the bare minimum, teaching out of the book with little preparation, or I could push myself to come up with more creative lessons and dynamic activities. Like so many other things, I learned, you get out of it what you put in.
I left that job three years ago, right before Pedro was born. Since then, I haven’t been working for pay, but I have done so much else: I’ve seen Pedro through teething and talking and toilet training. Elías was born, and now his first year is drawing to a close, as is my own bumpy, yet mostly successful, transition to “mother-of-two.” I began taking more time for writing again and started this column. I took a class on teaching English to young learners since most of the jobs around here are for teaching kids. I know that I have been lucky to be able to stay home for this stretch of time, and I’m hopeful that when and if I decide to work again, I will be able to do so without much too much trouble.
So I have let go of some of my old dreams and have replaced them with others. If I don’t ultimately find fulfillment in my working life, well, I’ll find it elsewhere — family, volunteer work, writing, who knows what else? Moments like the one at Pedro’s school, while difficult, are also valuable. The old you is still there, they tell me. It’s up to you to find a way to let her out.