emotional labour · having it all · kid stuff · new year new plan · saving my sanity · time crunch

The irony is that a lot of my research is about mothering, actually …

Have you read that Tina Fey essay from the New Yorker, that’s making the rounds as an email attachment? It’s about that elusive work / life balance issue. She writes, compellingly, I think, that “[t]he topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. It is less dangerous to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam […] than it is to speak honestly about this topic.”

(pause to strap on tap shoes)

My life is fantastic! Most days, here’s what happens: we get up, as a family, around 7:20. My hubs goes downstairs to eat breakfast; Daughter and I join him after we have a bed snug, go to the bathroom (like girls, in a group), and I get her dressed. She chats up her dad, or her My Little Ponys, and I make her breakfast. After, she watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse while I make her lunch and pack her bag. I bring her to the bus stop and we play in the snow. I blow her kisses, and sometimes we wave at Dad as he drives past on the way to work.

I go home, make beds, clean up the breakfast messes, have a shower.

I work. I do some laundry. I work. I do some yoga. I go to Starbucks and work. I’m writing / researching about three hours a day. That’s pretty sweet.

I make something from scratch for dinner, and wait for Husband to bring daughter home. We hang out, eat supper, he baths her, I put her to bed. Unless I’m gone to yoga, in which case he does it all.

Sounds balanced and pretty much idyllic, right? Yeah. It’s totally an artificial, once-in-a-century, stars-aligned kind of thing. All this work / life balance is made possible by my ‘pre-tenure course release’–I’m not teaching a damn thing this semester. That’s 40% of my work life, just taken right off my plate.

Basically, that 40% is being used to salvage my family life, a family life that has been buckling under the increasing weight of my tenure application and all the work and stress and heavy expectation that goes along with being a junior faculty member. I have spent the better part of the last 18 months angry and stressed and anxious and insomniac and guilty and heartsore about being torn in twelve directions at once. When I came to grips, in September, with the idea that, unlike at daycare, junior kindergarden required me to pack my girl a lunch from home every day, I cried with frustration: I really didn’t feel I had it in me to make lunches, on top of everything else.

I love my job. Maybe it’s not writing and starring in 30 Rock, but I love it. I love the writing, and the teaching, and sometimes even the meetings (mostly the ones where I get to wield the whiteboard markers …). It’s just that, even with all my freedom and autonomy and benefits and salary and security and short commute, it’s still too much.

It’s too much. At least for now.

And so, when I handed in my grades in December, and contemplated all the free time that comes with not teaching again until September, I snuggled on the couch with my husband and squealed with excitement … about homemade spaghetti sauce, home made by me! About crawling into bed with my girl every morning so she can tell me her dreams while she sticks her bare feet against my belly. About waiting to have the house to myself so I could have the whole thing tidy and organized before 10am, instead of after 10pm. About him maybe getting to work on time more than once a month.

I’m writing a lot, but if I can be perfectly frank, it’s not my number one priority this term. I want to, as we say in yoga, align with my intention. My intention has always been to pursue my career passionately and competently, but within the boundaries of maintaining and nurturing my family, and me within it. It’s so very easy to lose sight of that in the race for tenure, where great is never good enough, and there’s always more you can do, always more you’ll be asked to do. Now that I’m home in my pyjamas scraping peanut butter off the baseboard while I wait for my Writing Coffee to finish brewing, I’m just a lot happier. I’m more patient. Less bitchy. More relaxed. Less … overscheduled.

I like how this feels. I wonder how I can keep this up once that 40% of my job I’m supposed to devote to teaching makes its way back into my life. My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me, and while I want to give some of that back, mostly I just really miss them. I’ve been overwhelmed, and I have overwhelmed them, and I didn’t realize how I was suffocating until the life-giving air of time and simplicity blew back into my life. What happens in September?

7 thoughts on “The irony is that a lot of my research is about mothering, actually …

  1. Amen to that. I was chatting with a fellow mom who is on the tenure-track, while I am not. She is teaching four upper-division philosophy classes which are also new to her, while I am teaching four writing classes that I have done many, many times. She has the expectations of research, I do not. While I find my four courses to be not particularly difficult to balance with my family life (two kids under the age of four), I also don't have very strenuous course preps, nor the pressure to do research (although I do stay very active).

    My husband, who is also on the tenure-track, and I work very hard at trying to strike a balance between his job, my job, my (“non-essential”) professional interests, and our two children. I think that we, in higher education, don't talk enough about how difficult it is to reach that balance. There was a post on IHE talking about how the “Tiger Mom” mentions a nanny and then she disappears. Is this how Tiger Mom achieved tenure at an Ivy League institution?

    What “dirty little secret” do we all have about how we try to achieve and maintain balance in our lives? Mine is that I'm not that disappointed anymore that I'm not on the tenure-track.


  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Lee.

    I feel I should mention that my husband, a staff member in a management position at the uni, BUSTS HIS ASS for us, and for me. My list looks like I”m doing all the home-work, but he does a ton of it. There's just too much work for both of us to do, still. If anyone gets sick, or someone (okay, me) has to travel, it all goes right to hell.


  3. Aimée: thank you so much for posting this. I agree with you that we don't talk enough about work/life balance as academics with young kids, where the career expectation is that you work around the clock (ditto for those taking care of sick/elderly friends and relatives).

    Like you I am lucky to be in “salvage mode” because I am on a postdoc, with limited teaching. Needless to say, having this postdoc has enabled me to do a lot of the child-care/domestic work that my tenure-track partner can't do because so much of his time is taken up with teaching, graduate students, committees, work commitments, etc. And, let's not even talk about research demands. (NB about the domestic work: we can't really afford a cleaner — daycare is expensive enough). When my partner comes home circa 7, he takes the boy and then I am able to do my work — usually till 10:30 or so. We take turns on the weekends to work, though we try and spend at least one full afternoon together as a family. I think this might be an implicit response to Heather's question about what other academics do over the course of a week.

    We are both exhausted and yet, we realize we have it a lot better than other t-t academic couples with small children. We have a great daycare, for a start, and I have relatively lots of time (between 8:30 and 4 on most days, except when I teach). And yet it's never enough time to do the things 'expected' of me: the research, publications and other things that will help me secure a job. There are definitely points where I've said to myself, I can't manage this life, even though I love the thrill of research, teaching, giving talks, organizing conference seminars, etc. What do I do when the postdoc runs out? Do I even want a t-t job? How could the two of us cope with so much work and what would the effect be on our child? It's a pretty bleak outlook. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we need academia to stand in the service of life, and not the other way around.


  4. Thank you for this post. I remember having the same feeling when my son started kindergarten and I had to pack snack and lunch in the morning. I had no idea how I was going to get it all done. I had been so spoiled by daycare. I now have tenure but it doesn't seem to get any easier – sorry to tell you.

    I, too, am enjoying a term with no teaching. I paid for it last year teaching overloads and extra sections and summer teaching but having this term with the extra 40% is indeed a gift.

    I have taken a couple of quilting classes and have found that I am liking writing again – simply because I have the time to focus and think about it.


  5. Thanks for this post. I've always wondered about how this part of things would work – and now at least I can go into it with my eyes open, assuming I ever manage to wrangle a t-t job…


  6. Great post, Aimee.

    I recently accepted an admin job at the University and they've been great – letting me start p/t because I have a 5 month old at home – I'm set to go f/t in the summer. While I'm p/t, my mother is visiting (I'm in Calgary and she lives in Montreal), to cover child care – and my mother-in-law (who is in Edmonton) is taking over when my mother leaves. This child care situation provides me with comfort when I'm at work, time to go to the pool, and time to continue writing my dissertation the mornings I'm at home. It also means my partner (who is an MD/PhD and busting his butt right now with an upcoming defence and cardio-resp courses) gets to spend time with our daughter during his lunch hour because she's at home.

    I try not to think about what will happen when I go f/t this summer – goodbye luxury morning thesis time – and unless we're fortunate to find an affordable nanny, our daughter will go to daycare. Although daycare doesn't involve making a lunch, it will require waking her up in the morning, rather than letting her snooze – getting her dressed and ready – and making sure her milk is prepared. Little things I don't have to worry about right now.

    Lastly: “the working mom” subject – definitely dangerous territory, which I continue to find unfortunate.


  7. Terri, your schedule sounds a lot like ours does — including the trying to keep one afternoon each weekend when we are all together, doing stuff that's not work. I wonder how many of us struggle and worry and come up with this pretty much exact configuration of care and attention? What if we all just talked about it so we wouldn't all have to sort it out so hard on our own?

    Jennifer, I really admire the discipline you must have brought to bear on your life in order to buy yourself this time. Wow. And quilting! Good for the soul — me, I like to knit, and to renovate by hand. Something creative, right?

    Megan, you're welcome … forewarned is forearmed, I say!

    RamFam, your workload sounds crazy busy. And I know how wrong it feels to wake a baby up to bring her somewhere. The whole soul rebels. How wonderful, though, that you have such great family support. A real blessing!


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