Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Work/Life "Balance"

That's right, I used scare quotes. I've been thinking and reading a lot about the work/life balance in higher education. I think about how many of my female academic role models were childless, never-married, or divorced.  About how unreasonable the expectations are when it comes to the "life of the mind" in academia. (Check out this excellent post on expectations and priorities and this one on the two-headed problem). I usually think that I've done ok with the work/life balance, and I end up feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I have a day like today.

As I have written before, I left a tenure-track position so that my husband could take a better tenure-track job. I now have a full-time instructor position at the same university as my husband, so most days, I'm ok with the sacrifice. But at the end of the day, his job and his career takes priority over mine; I don't have to do anything except teach, so whenever there's a conflict in our professional activities, his take precedent. In other words, my ability to go to conferences is wholly based his schedule because of our two very young children. We live in a small town, far away from family, so childcare is basically one of the two of us. 

And because conferences, regardless of discipline, all seem to fall on the same weekends, I typically have to pass up opportunities in order to take care of our kids. Last semester, I had to teach with my then-almost two-year-old son strapped to my back. Other times, I had to cancel classes because there wasn't anyone to take care of the kids and my husband had something he HAD to do.  Today, he announced to me that he was probably going to apply for a summer fellowship that takes place the same weekend of a conference I am presenting at. We may have agreed that this was a conference I would attend, but if something better comes along for him...

Now, my husband has been incredibly supportive most of the time; he's brought our son to meetings with him because I was teaching, he moved across the country for me when I took my tenure-track job, and he agreed last semester that what was best for our son was for him to stay home with him while I was teaching (my daughter was attending preschool). But when it comes to the more "professional" side of my career (conferences, research trips, professional development), he has trouble. I don't have to do any of these things for my job; but I want to do these things because while I am not on the tenure-track, I haven't stopped being an academic. 

When it comes to work/life, it's not a question of balance, at least not a simple question of balance. Think of it as balancing on a stability ball; it's always moving, shifting, and you are constantly adjusting. I am continually negotiating my work and my life, modifying my perspective and expectations. There are good days and bad days. There are days where I miss the city, miss having a career just so I can have an excuse to do those activities outside of teaching that I want to do, miss being able to call up family and say, you take the kids, please! 

I've consciously avoided writing too much about my life and my kids on this blog. But I realize that I need to start talking about the sacrifices and compromises I make in order to keep things together and keep things working. How wearing my son to teach made me feel like I was being judged as both a poor teacher and poor mother. How I was somehow able to teach five classes while also taking care of my son 65% of the time and publish two papers. How it's not easy, but it isn't impossible either. 

The following appeared as satire in the Times Higher Education:
Targett [fictional administrator at the fictional Poppleton University] also pointed out that female academics were "more likely" than their male colleagues to have a range of outside interests such as cooking and child-minding. He believed that to burden them with further duties might be tantamount to discrimination.
This cut a little to close for comfort for me. Higher education often tells aspiring academics, men and women, that outside "interests" such as family are not acceptable. I think I internalized this attitude and it is manifesting itself in what I choose to write about on this blog. No more. While you won't hear about every snotty nose and cognitive milestone, I will start writing about how my family impacts my work, for better or for worse.


  1. I think it's great you've decided to blog more about this. I know I was worried about mixing physics and parenting in my blog posts but it seems my (paltry) audience can handle it.

    For me a big step several years ago was to commit to family dinner at 5:30 every night. We actually pull it off almost every day! It means bowing out of late meetings and not doing as much socially with my department but I wouldn't go back. My wife and kids are committed to it too and we all make sacrifices to do it.

    Thanks for choosing to do this. "Balance" is great to hear about!

  2. It's never easy to achieve that "balance". Of course, I'm a woman-- I wonder if men even have that conversation. In my situation, my husband has stayed home to do the childcare and work at home while I did the career and graduate work. So we don't have the problems you do, but we have no money. It's always something.

  3. Thanks for posting this. As a new mom and a PhD candidate trying to finish up (and living far away from the physical support of friends and family, much like yourself), my mind is always racing with all the balls I have in the air: mom, girlfriend, lover, academic, teacher, intellectual, dissertator, friend. I feel guilty when I drop one, and I get angry when I fall short of the ridiculous expectations I've set up for myself. I recently decided my mental sanity and my family dynamic are worth much more to me than fulfilling those expectations that I set up for myself because I had the same role models as you. They were not infallible, but they seemed like it; that's why your decision to blog more about this delicate balance is a good one.

    Sometimes we gotta cut ourselves some slack, even if we don't know where to start.

  4. I'm a new prof with a toddler and stay-at-home-turned-part-time-student husband. I don't know how we'd do it without him being home. We just put our daughter in daycare for 3d/wk so he could study but he's still responsible for getting her there and picking her up. That's how we do it. He's an incredible dad and enjoys it so I lucked out. I'm starting to think there isn't room for 2 stars in a marriage so somethings gotta give. Hopefully the person who gives the most does so willingly. Otherwise it's not fair.

  5. Thanks for the kind words and support. My husband did stay home while I worked full-time after our son was born (and with our daughter before that), so he has done his fair share of child-care and child-rearing. Because of our shared values in that regard, my kids have never gone to daycare (they are now in preschool; a fine distinction, I know, but sometimes you have to play rhetorical tricks with ourselves).

    Like I said, most days, things work really well. And then there are days where it's one forced compromise too many.

  6. @Accidental Pharmacist : I've completely given up on "fair" (as I tell my children over and over again, sometimes life isn't fair). It's how much unfairness we are willing to live with. Life as an academic is a lot of things, but one thing it isn't is "fair". In an academic couple, multiply that by two.

  7. Good for you. Nothing is going to change until people start talking about all the different ways they make this work.

    I get particularly incensed when people talk about this kind of thing as "unprofessional" or "women's issues". Work is PART of your life. For everyone. And figuring out how work fits with the rest of it is important. For everyone.

    And I had some good advice once regarding the juggling thing literarychica brings up: If you are juggling 6 balls and you drop one from time to time, it doesn't make you a bad juggler. In fact, it's kind of inevitable.

    We need cut ourselves some slack. And also recognize that some of the models of good mothering are as flawed as those models of professionalism that assume nothing but your work counts.

  8. I like your comment that you've given up on fair -- I think that's one of the toughest life lessons to learn, but to find solutions you can't start from ideals that don't exist.

    That said, it still makes me nuts seeing how easily men can prioritize their work, leaving thoughts of family behind without too much guilt, while every woman I know feels incredibly guilty when attempting to prioritize her work time. It's not even a matter of personal failings, it the result of lifelong socialization, and that's the larger issue behind the myth of work/life balance -- it's not just about the time, it's about the social expectations put on people of both genders.

    But yes, academia would generally prefer that you not have a family at all, the better to engage in machine-like production of Great Thoughts.

  9. I'd agree with everything that profkrauss has said.


  10. Unfortunately the balancing act doesn't just stop when the kids are old enough to sit in your office or even when they are old enough to watch themselves at home. A co-presenter at MLA wrote about her experience trying to help pay for a sick father and terminal brother. She didn't mention taking her granddaughter to school so her daughter could go to work.


    It is hard to say that a lecturer position has the same level of commitments as a tenure-track position. However, if you ever hope to get a tt, then you actually need to do as much (and perhaps more) than your husband.

  11. Thank you, Dr. Davis, for that link. I just tweeted it, so if traffic suddenly spikes for that post, you'll know why! I think that you are right, that all of this fits into what we "expect" faculty to look like versus who we are and what we do.

    As for being an instructor, it's an interesting case of reverse expectations: I am not expected to look like a normal faculty member with an active research agenda. In fact, especially because I am the trailing spouse, I am supposed to look more like a mother who happens to teach rather than a professor with kids. I might not have the official title of assistant professor, but I love my research and I keep doing it for myself, even if it isn't what is expected of me. It goes back again to that idea of deriving our identity based on what the institution expects of us.

    I'm still on the fence if I ever want to have a tenure-track job, but that's not why I keep researching and publishing; I do so because I love what I research, read, and write about.

    And, no, the balancing never ends. Just when you think you've got it down, something always changes, for better or for worse: your kids, your parents, your job, your circumstances. Balance is upset and you start all over again.


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