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. 


  1. Thoughtful post! I find the word "rhythm" to be more useful than "balance," because yes, balance seems so static and elusive (you never really achieve it). But I can easily and creatively seek out a good rhythm between times of work and times of rest and times of family.

  2. I also have had trouble with the term "balance," as if everything should feel just right all the time - that is a world in which I'm afraid none of us will succeed. A colleague (at Duke, naturally) encouraged me to think of it like a pendulum swinging between different calls/areas of life - and that feels a little more natural to me. Some days are definitely slower-moving, and I spend more time on one thing than another (more family or more work); and others seem to be a mish-mash of everything I do all at the same time, like when I am coloring with my toddler during a finance committee meeting.

    I think it's brilliant that you can walk over to daycare and nurse Baby G - how wonderful for both of you. And I agree that the biggest step in finding this "balance" or whatever you want to call it is simply making choices and living with them. We have to set our own boundaries - no one will do this for us! Sounds like you are doing a great job, and helping others to be thoughtful about their family lives, as well.