Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Better and Worse Ways of Managing Work and Family?

 Baby G. finds herself in day care starting this week, and I've decided that I'll be heading over there 3 times a day or so to nurse, at least through the summer.  I suspect some of the people at day care and at my work place think I'm crazy, judging by the looks I've gotten.  I appear to be too attached to my kid, perhaps?  Or not attached enough if I'm putting her in day care?  Either way, I appear to lose and maybe, on some accounts, so does Baby G.  But I have to say I myself think I've got a pretty good hybrid situation going on: someone else changes the poopy diapers while I write my book, and I get to take breaks by sitting in a rocking chair and nursing.  At least initially, this arrangement is seeming like a good compromise in the whole thorny work/family balance issue.

I was speaking to graduate students yesterday about this very issue, so I thought I'd post those remarks here and see what conversation ensues.  Is my apparent "balance" the best thing?  Are there other ways to balance this?  Is balance even possible?  One of my colleagues also speaking yesterday mentioned that she thinks there's no such thing as balance - that word implies that there are scales all equally weighted down.  In reality, she says, some days are more work and some days more family needs.  So read and please weigh in!

Men and women both have always had to find ways to juggle work – as in putting food on the table – with family. That’s called real life.  Work and family are simply part of life.In this era when we think of work chiefly as something we do away from home, and raising family as something we do at home - of course I think there are better and worse ways of finding a work/family balance.  I’m an ethicist after all.

 One of the reasons I first started thinking about academia in the first place was because I saw my undergraduate professors being moms and academics and I thought, this looks like a good gig.  My undergraduate adviser, a medieval historian, had two kids and was clearly very involved in their school and activities.  In fact, I remember doing a project for one of her courses that involved developing a medieval history program for her daughter’s class at school.  And, I thought that it must be great to have a job where you have the summers “off” to spend time with your kids.   My undergraduate mindset was a bit naïve, especially regarding summers off, but I’ll get to that a bit more later in my talk.

Later on, while doing doctoral work at Duke University, I came across professors who were waging a protest against what they saw as an established effort to separate work and kids too much.  Duke is an R1 institution – meaning it is highly research oriented – so that faculty always feel pressure to publish, even when they’re not at the office.  I remember one of my professors putting it this way: “I feel like I have to choose between baking chocolate chip cookies with my kids or working on my book.”  I thought that was really sad and so did they – and it helped that this was a theological institution, and so they thought that particularly a place concerned about Christian life and church ought to be more concerned about children and their parents.  So they began to protest a bit – one professor brought her adopted young baby with her when she taught her classes, until the baby was about a year old.  Other professors petitioned for, and got, a paternity leave policy complete with stopping the tenure clock.

So all of these encounters with other people trying to balance work and family in academia helped me figure out how I wanted to try to balance things in my own life.  Following, in no particular order, are some of the things you will probably want to consider as you finish your doctoral work and make it into the wide world of academia:

1.      Consider carefully the kind of school you want to work at.  Most people do doctoral work at research institutions like Duke, and research institutions tend to try to perpetuate their own. Thus it can seem like research, research, research is the best way to go.  That’s just not necessarily so.  If you love research, then go for it – but just know that if part of your goal has also been to live out in the country in a big house, do organic gardening and raise eight kids, you’re probably going to need to hire a lot of help. 

For my own part, initially I thought that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts school, which is where I had my first job.  I looked specifically for jobs that seemed to be good places to raise a family.  My first job was at a lovely liberal arts college, small, and community-centered.  Its faculty frequently entertain each other at their homes and it’s the kind of place where faculty feel free to bring their kids who are on school vacation and their dogs to work. They have one of the best maternity leave policies in the country – a full semester paid, with no teaching or other duties.  When I interviewed there, the committee, as well as many other people, made particular points to bring up their families, where the best schools were, what day care options there were, and the like.  Those were all indications to me that here was a place I wanted to work, because here was a place I could envision having a satisfying life that included both my vocation and my family

2.      Now I was lucky.  I had a few job offers on my first go-round in the job market, so for me, I had a choice, and I made my decision on the basis of family friendly policies.  But I recognize that academics don’t always have choices about the schools they’ll work for.  Which brings me to my second recommendation: when you land a job, negotiate a contract that is family friendly.  Check out a school’s website and see if you can find their maternity policy.  If you can’t, learn to ask veiled questions about “leaves” when you get to your on campus interview to see if can learn more.  If the maternity leave policy is non-existent (which is the case at a surprising number of schools, even though the lack of a maternity leave policy is illegal) – or if the maternity leave policy is meager at best, negotiate for a full semester off from teaching.  It’s healthier for both you and your baby.  For men, negotiate paternity leave, especially if your wife is planning to go back to work.  Negotiate a reduced course load even if you can’t get a full semester off. 

And always, always, negotiate for stopping the tenure clock. Having leave is not enough: taking care of a baby full time means you really don’t have time to do research or service, both of which count in getting tenure.  By stopping the tenure clock, you push back getting tenure by another semester or a year, but that’s often (though not always) to your advantage.

One of the things I negotiated too, was my husband’s job.  We had decided we’d go wherever one of us got a job, and try to negotiate for the other one.  It’s key in trying to maintain family balance when you’ve got young children– because we didn’t want a situation where we were working on opposite sides of the country. 

3.      And the final tip I’ll share here is: academia is always a pressure cooker.  You’ve got to take your own breaks and not apologize for them. This is how my undergraduate self was naïve about summer vacation – the dirty secret is that faculty aren’t really “off” in the summer.  They’re catching up on the review essay they promised a publisher, or teaching a class to try to earn a bit more money, or working on the book or articles so they can get tenure, and so on.  The pressure to keep going and going never quits, even at a teaching school.  At my first school, there was some pressure to apply for faculty research grants in the summer because having good faculty who do premier research is one of the ways a small school keeps its name known. 

One thing I discovered pretty quickly,though, was that I truly enjoy doing research and so I made a move to work at a bit more of a research-oriented institution with a master’s and doctoral program.  It’s not as high-powered as Duke, which is good.  I realized early on that I don’t want to work at a Duke or a Harvard or a Notre Dame.  So I moved here – and I immediately became even busier, what with master’s and doctoral committee work, and MORE research requests from publishers, in addition to the pressure to give our doctoral program a good name by being a good researcher and teacher myself.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in that, and sometimes I get caught up too much I think.  But here’s what I aim to do – I aim to leave my work at the office, or at least not touch my computer or work till the kids are in bed, once I am at home.  I take my kids to my academic conferences and I bring them to my office when I’ve got to.  I keep my weekends as free as possible for hanging out with my family.  I don’t go to as many evening functions as I would if I did not have a family.  I miss out sometimes on meeting some great people – and it may, in some corners, also mean I don’t get to “advance” in my field as quickly.  But I think that’s part of life.  So to go back to what I said at the beginning: I don’t think I ‘have it all.’  I’ve made some choices over others and that affects both the job I seek and the family life I can have.  My priority is finding a way to make this academic work that I am called to do – being a theologian – go along with the other work I am called to do – be a wife and mother.  It’s not like one of those is more part of who I am than the other. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Clearly, the fact that maternity leave is over has impacted my ability to post on this blog.  Well, that, and the fact that I am assistant editor to the new catholicmoraltheology.com blog.  (Check us out - 15 or so North American theologians comment on news, liturgy and other reading...)

But today in the communion line, I was definitely confronted with one of those issues that confound both the mom and the theologian in me.  As I was herding my children in the communion line, I looked down to discover that my three-year-old had her hands held together in the typical Eucharist-receiving gesture.  It was clear she wanted some - and equally clear, as the Eucharistic minister leaned down to say (I am quoting) "Hello there, little girl!" - that she was not going to get anything in the communion line.

That makes my heart hurt.  That is not to say that my experience here should govern what we do theologically - while I think that experience has some kind of place in theological questions, I get concerned when experience becomes a driving force for theological thinking.  That said, in this particular case of Eucharistic communion, I don't really get why, in the Roman Rite, children younger than seven can't receive.  I actually tend to "get" arguments about closed communion because of theological disagreements between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox much more than I get refusing communion to young children.

I know that one of the standard arguments is the "Age of Reason."  Numerous people have made jokes about how strange it seems to proclaim an "age of reason" for Eucharistic communion when one of the things we believe about the Eucharist is that it is mysterious - that the Paschal Mystery itself is bound up in our theology of the Eucharist.  Mystery, here, means something that is not plumbable by human rational standards, though of course we can think about the Eucharist (and we do).  But it isn't clear, ultimately, what an "age of reason" is supposed to confer in this case.

Perhaps we could say it is analogous to driving cars or drinking - both of these have age requirements for our children because we know that certain levels of mechanical skill, experience, practical wisdom, and  mental acuity are required, in varying degrees, for these activities.  But the Eucharist, to me, seems much more analogous to a fine dining experience than to driving cars.  Yes, we want to take care with the fine china and the tablecloth - and there are specific gestures and rituals that go along with fine dining that we wouldn't encounter in the drive-thru.  And maybe that IS the working analogy here, for I know that many families do not use their fine china with their younger children.  Babysitters are called for when some people invite others over for fancy dinner parties; young children are excluded.

That is arbitrary, though.  It is not a given that young children cannot learn to use fine china and cannot care for special table linens. Paul says not to take the Eucharist unworthily - can children equally be taught to respect the Eucharistic table without necessarily understanding it (which is a lifelong process in any case).  I think here of the work I do in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)- a Montessori-based religious ed program for kids from ages 3 to 12.  In the early years, it is clear that everything the children learn is moving toward Eucharist though it may not seem so at first.

An entering three year old in my Atrium (the name for CGS classroom space) will spend the first few weeks doing what we call "practical life" - lessons in rolling and unrolling mats, walking slowly and carefully, and pouring - first pouring dry beans from one pitcher to another; then pouring liquid.  If they spill, they learn to sweep up or sponge up the mess.  What they are learning is how to control their bodies so they can do the things they want to do (just as in potty training, around the same age) - but more than that, they are helping to create an environment with other children that allows for prayer.

After those first few weeks, then the children learn about the altar table and see, touch and name the objects that are on an altar table - like the chalice and the paten.  A bit later in the year (early in Lent in my Atrium) my three year olds will begin learning some of the mass gestures, with the hope that they become more engaged with the mass they attend.  One of these lessons is called "Preparation of the Chalice".  Here, their pouring exercises come in handy, for now they are pouring wine and just a tiny little bit of water into a chalice.  (When they are four or maybe five, they'll continue to meditate on this mass gesture by learning the words the priest says and thinking about what these mean.) 

This past year, I asked a group of children about the chalice.  "Why is there so much wine but only a little tiny bit of water in the chalice?"  Hmmmm, the children thought.  A couple of them knew that the wine would become Jesus' blood, so they talked about the wine being God.  Ah, I said.  "But what about the water?"  "Maybe the water is us," a shy girl said.  "Yeah, and maybe there's more wine because God is THIS big [his arms stretched as far as they could go] but we're only this big," shouted a boy. 

Indeed.  And they were three and four years old.  (Now I know that some theologians among my readers will take issue with the idea of the bigness of God, as though God could be adequately described in human terms - but I hope you'll at least give my preschoolers the benefit of the doubt - after all, Augustine, for a while, spent time thinking about God as a big man, and he was far older than these kids....)

So isn't some kind of "age of reason" rather arbitrary? 

But more than that, if we believe that the sacrament is about God's grace - and is more about God than us - then it isn't clear to me that the Eucharist requires some kind of "reasoning" about it, nor a minimum age. 

Philosophy PhD Husband and I have thought about this before.  At one time, we considered attending a Byzantine Rite Catholic Mass, which does commune anyone who is baptized, including babies.  For a variety of reasons we have not done that - but seeing my daughter's open hands at mass today made me want to think about it all again.