by Kate Sawyer @Dorastar1
With age comes wisdom someone probably old and wise once said, and yes supposedly it does. What they forgot to mention was everything else that comes with age. As someone who has the shadow of a 50th birthday rapidly approaching (it’s not till early next year so I can ignore it for now) I am more and more aware of the added pressures that age brings.
For women in any career there are peaks and troughs, in teaching the excitement and pressure of being and NQT, developing your skills as a young teacher, making decisions about life, relationships career directions and then, after many years we come to now, the age of the sandwich generation.
This generation refers to women in their 30s-50s who are taking care of their children and also meeting the needs of their parents, employers and friends. Obviously, this comes with the caveat that women are at many different ages and stages but this ‘crunch’ time is one which doesn’t get much press.
For many women this is also a time of personal challenges health wise as they set out on the glorious roller coaster of between 10-12 years of perimenopause, followed by the actual menopause itself. Thankfully we are starting to hear more about this in mainstream media and in the workplace and not just in womens’ magazines, but it is still not a widely discussed topic. This can be a time where women find their hormones fluctuate moods such as to swing mildly amusing to absolutely horrific. Forgetting why you are in a room might be ok, wanting to kill every other road user slightly less so. I appreciate that many women may also sail through this time with no apparent ill effects – if that is you don’t tell the rest of us, as we’re not sure we’re responsible for all our actions!
Add to this the range of responsibilities women hold (I am not going to enter into a big discussion on equality as that would require a book rather than a blog). Looking after children is difficult, whatever their age. Their needs change dramatically and family life has to evolve too. Teenagers present a whole new realm of undiscovered territory and whilst mine are good thus far it seems mainly down to the luck of the parenting Gods. Older children also face exams and big life changing decisions about their futures, relationships and friendships and finding their own way in the world. Many women still hold ‘control’ of the family unit in terms of remembering everything that needs to be done and getting it organised. I’ve done a brief straw poll of ladies on a FB page I use, many of whom are high flyers in their own careers and overwhelmingly it is still the women who are carrying this ‘head stuff’ whether they should or not. Increasingly, supporting or even caring for older parents is becoming necessary too and that is another thing women often take on. Hospital appointments are always in school time and sometimes there is no-one else who can go along and really listen to what is being said. Organising care with different agencies can be like herding kittens at the best of times and the school day is not filled with opportunities to sit on hold while you wait for an answer.
I have described this as a perfect storm. A woman looking after children, running the home, supporting older parents and holding down a busy full-time job. This is not unique to teaching in any way but there are other issues at play in the realms of education that bear consideration. We are all aware of the cuts to school budgets and experienced teachers cost money. Where schools are struggling financially and cuts are to be made there is a temptation to look at experienced staff as pound signs, if one goes to be replaced by an NQT or early careers teacher then there are definite savings to be made, I have been a headteacher in that finance meeting and felt that pressure. Similarly, experienced teachers may get sick more often with their own health needs or need time to manage their family responsibilities. Experienced teachers increasingly out-age the SLT and Headteacher which can mean there is an unspoken difficulty, and yes, sometimes experienced teachers are belligerent old bu**ers.
Where fluctuating hormones at this time also affect memory and the ability to make decisions this is difficult in a classroom where those two aspects are crucial to every day success. Where once I could remember upcoming meetings I now live by my diary and still the odd meeting surprises me and I feel less prepared than I want to be. Work can sometimes take longer as the thought processes are not necessarily slower, but there is other stuff vying for attention and sometimes it wins. Health wise these times can bring new challenges of bodies that quite frankly don’t know what they’re doing, sweats, flushes, nausea, migraines, fatigue not to mention any other number of very personal changes. Some of these can be debilitating and cause illness that need medical support and time off to resolve, some can be helped by understanding and many can’t be solved by giving us a fan in our rooms and telling us to open the windows.
I am not saying for one minute that we are unstable, sweaty, screaming banshees unable to hold down a normal life or job. What I am saying is that there is a list of things that might be going on with us that we are contending with every single day. We probably aren’t talking about them because we’re just getting on with it. We probably don’t mention it on wellbeing forms because there isn’t a tick box for “often feel like I’m going mad but gin is really helping (not in school though)”. We probably have a good group of friends who we can moan to outside of school who are at a similar point in life and we just see it as one of those things we go through. As a school leader or governor you might not see it, but it’s there.
Personally, I have a teen sitting A levels and ready to fly the nest next year and a younger one starting with teenage angst and hormones. I have a husband who does a very stressful job in a caring profession but who currently faces a major health challenge. I also have two sets of not elderly but aging parents. In the last 3 years they, and we, have ‘survived’ three cancers and 4 major surgeries with a grand total of 24 hospital weeks (one over Christmas) and 2 sets of radiotherapy. This, I know, is little compared to what some families go through but we have also been called to say our goodbyes twice, thankfully they are all still with us so the goodbyes are on hold.
A few years ago, I crashed spectacularly out of headship and it was only through the support of friends, a brilliant counsellor and some lovely medication I realised that the combination of all of these things was just too much, and that while on the outside everything appeared fine internally it was broken. At the time I can recall describing myself as a husk of wheat and everyone else as hens continually pecking at me, that there was literally nothing left. I was looking after everyone else, but not me.
In my circumstances there was probably little others could have done, it was too far gone. I am now happily back in teaching and enjoying my job in a supportive school with a great mix of youth and experience. But for other women I urge schools to think about this perfect storm and give us a little thought and support as we sail these tricky waters.