Looking back, moving forward

Every year, we all reflect on the previous year and look ahead to what the coming year might bring.  I have the benefit of seeing this process here on this blog, so I can see what I hoped for each year.  I tend to tackle the same things year after year: financial stuff, exercise, organization.  I always focus on the things I consider weakest, not on things that are already going well.  That can be frustrating, as most of those things take some serious willpower and/or reorganizing of my routine to begin working on it.  I have had some success over the years, but it definitely feels like one step forward, two steps back.

Earlier this year, I decided to tackle learning something new, playing the guitar.  And slightly later, I decided to relearn some French.  Both tasks fell by the wayside as the year got busy.  I felt like I was treading water just trying to get what had to get done done, much less adding in extra things.  This is just a busy year for me, work wise, and so I think realistically, I can’t add in too much.

That being said, I think part of why I want to add things in or improve things in my personal life is to give shape to my life outside of work.  I’m not content just coming home and lazing in front of the tv.  That is often my default mode when exhaustion sets in.  But I’m also not ambitious enough to have some really involved hobby that takes hours and hours every day or takes the whole weekend.

This year has been a great year for me on a professional front.  I’ve taken the work I’ve done to new levels and continue to feel invigorated and challenged by my work, both at school, and through my work with the CSTA.  That success has meant that I haven’t had as much room as I might have wanted to take on non-work challenges.  In some way, though, I need to find space for those.  I have some ideas, that I will reveal in the coming days.  For those of you with equally busy lives, I’d love to hear your strategies for nourishing different aspects of your life.  And for keeping all the balls in the air.  I’ll be thinking through my own.  And here’s to a relaxing end of the year and an energizing beginning to a new one.

Having it all

DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN09 – Indra Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, PepsiCo, USA, speaks during the session ‘The Values behind Market Capitalism’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009.. . Copyright by World Economic Forum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of people are talking about this interview with Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo.  She’s very blunt about the fact that being a CEO and being a wife and mother are basically incompatible.  I’m not entirely sure what to say.  I think she’s probably right, but I think she shouldn’t be.  Is being a CEO incompatible with being a father and husband? Maybe. It’s hard to know. Most men in high-powered positions, unlike most women, have a stay at home wife at home managing the family.  Both men and women in such positions have nannies and housekeepers and other staff to manage things, making things a bit easier, but still, you’ll miss school events and sports games and conversation over dinner, all things that can’t be done by the help.

I get that being a CEO, or anyone at a high level in a big corporation, has a lot on their plate and probably needs to work lots of hours, but I have this gut feeling that I want to be in a country that places value on both work and family nearly equally.  And yes, for those below the CEO level, that might require so-called “family-friendly” policies, but more importantly, it requires a culture change that unfortunately, I just don’t think is possible.  America is all about work.  Work is what defines you.  Those who don’t work are frowned upon.  Unless you’re a stay at home mom, of course.  Stay at home dads, the unemployed, welfare recipients, all looked down on.

I personally love working.  I find fulfillment in my work and mostly always have.  But I have had times of conflict with family.  Just go back to the archives of this blog and you’ll find them.  Some of them were tortuous for me.  And it wasn’t simple things like housework.  It was not being there for crises, not connecting with my kids during difficult times.  It was the intangible things. Policies can’t solve all of that, but culture can solve some of it.  Limiting work hours, not feeling like you have to put in face time to move ahead, judging you for your work are all things that might help.  If a parent knows that leaving early for a sports game isn’t going to make them look bad, that is going to help.  But at most places, we’re really far away from that.  I’m grateful that I’m in a place where that culture exists.  As I used to say fairly often at my previous workplace, this isn’t NASA, meaning that most of what we do isn’t life or death.  Heading out early when you need to isn’t a life or death situation.

I feel like I’m pretty close to having it all, but I’m not a CEO.  Could I have been? Doubtful.  But I did shy away from a job in higher education because I couldn’t imagine balancing my life with that kind of demanding job.  I don’t regret that choice.  In fact, I wish I’d made it sooner.  I think we all choose what we think is best for us, and figure out where our energy is best spent.   Could those choices be easier? I hope so.  I hope that women will continue to step up to demanding jobs and I hope that those around them and yes, maybe even our government, will work to make the balancing act better.

Distraction and breaks

I’ve basically done nothing this Thanksgiving break.  Oh, I made Thanksgiving dinner, attempted to rescue the house from the clutter build up from weeks of a busy life, and even got a Christmas tree.  But that Arduino project I brought home? The reading I was going to do? Lost to TV, iPad games and board games with my family.  Whenever, I find myself lost in a silly game, I usually recognize two things.  One, I’m in need of a break from work, and two, there are better things I could do with my time.  I’ve often discussed on this blog the strange combination of Puritan work ethic and Catholic guilt that seems to permeate my thought processes.  And school breaks bring that two-pronged pitchfork down on my conscience fairly swiftly.  I have time, I think, to do some course planning, to work on a project, to read that book I’ve been wanting to read!  I’ll get back to my exercise routine!  But then I squander it, and then, on the last day, apparently, I blog about it.

I’m often lamenting the way my students cram too much into their day, and our faculty generally advocate for balanced lives for our students, and yet, I feel guilty if I pursue my own balanced life.  I think a break often tips me toward the relaxed end of the work-life balance spectrum and that prods me into feeling guilty.  It’s also true that I’ve been conditioned by the ebb and flow of the school schedule.  It is very much a work, work, work, work, long-ish break, work, work, work, even longer-ish break.  So rather than take smaller breaks each day, I cram all my relaxing into a long weekend, winter, or summer break.  Maybe the answer is a more steady work-relaxation pattern.  I’m not sure that’s achievable.   I’m staring down a week until CS Ed Week where I’m hosting a public event that includes a Rube Goldberg machine.  Robotics season is coming up and our robots are no where near finished.  And there are exams to make and grade as well as long-term planning for next year and for an in-service day and a new course second semester.  That’s in addition to the daily grind.

Usually, we make resolutions at the new year, but I find it useful to try to set good habits when it’s hardest to do so, amidst a very busy schedule.  So here are some things I’d like to stop and start doing:


  • Playing goofy games for hours
  • Watching random tv (meaning just sitting on the couch and flipping through the channels)


  • Exercising again
  • Reading more (in place of games and tv)
  • Putting things away
  • Spending time with family

We’ll see how this goes.  I’m aware that it takes time to change old habits, but I’m feeling the need to shift my actions, not dramatically, but slightly.

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Leaning out

The Internet is abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book and initiative Lean In. Critics are saying that her approach is unrealistic and supporters are saying that she’s right, women do need to step up more. I wonder if Sandberg has ever taken a Gender Studies class. If she has, then she would understand that all the leaning in in the world sometimes doesn’t get you to the top. And since when is the top the only goal. As someone in my last job once said, there aren’t enough of those spots to go around. If everyone in the organization wants to move up within the organization, then there’s going to be a lot of disappointment. That’s true more broadly. There’s a pyramid structure that exists in the work world. As far as I know, Sandberg hasn’t acknowledged that.

In the comments to a post by Penelope Trunk, someone called Sandberg’s book and books like it, career porn for women. I read The Feminist Mistake, and I’ll probably read this one just because I don’t like arguing against things I haven’t read. Many of the women I read on the Internet started out as career women. Some still are. Many, including myself, have shifted careers in order to balance their lives better. One thing I know in middle age that I didn’t know as a young woman is that neither the workplace nor the family structure have shifted enough to make an intense career plus family a real possibility for women. Nannies are often only possible after you’ve made it. Before that, you either take out a loan to pay for childcare or hope your partner can pick up the slack. If he’s in an intense career, that’s a nonstarter.

The workplace needs to shift before the family can. It needs to measure output not facetime, so that a parent can leave to manage a doctor’s appointment. It needs to allow that for men and women, so that women can ask their husbands to share the burden, knowing that it won’t harm his career (or hers, when it’s her turn). We need subsidized childcare so that women in their early careers, before the paycheck matches the hours worked, can put in the hours needed.

Alternatively, we need to place less value on work. I’m notorious for asking, “What do you do? ” to anyone I’ve just met. And despite having all kinds of anxiety of this question when I was in various states of transition over the years, I still ask it and still there’s at least some judgement. I’ll admit to being disappointed with friends who’ve stepped back from a career when I know we’ll that sometimes the sacrifices aren’t worth the paycheck. Part of me wants them to push for what they need to stay, but I know that often the organization will never give them anything because there’s someone without kids or with a stay at home parent standing behind them ready to take their job.

So maybe women need to work on some skills that will allow them to move up or take on more responsibilities (as if they don’t already have a lot) but we also need to examine our practices and prejudices to make things better for all of us in the workplace.

Weekly Update 3: Housework edition

There have been many, many discussions around the interwebs about housework and being, specifically, a scientist.  Mostly, the discussion has centered around the idea that women more than men worry about balancing work and life, about an equal distribution of labor in the house, and therefore they write about it a lot and articles about work-life balance are often directed at them rather than men.  Janet, aka Dr. Free-Ride, has a nice collection of links as well as a write-up of her own.

I think about work-life balance a lot.  I think about housework way more than I should.  When I think about them, I recognize the cultural norms I’ve internalized that make me care about that stuff more than Mr. Geeky does. And while I’ve become more comfortable about bucking those norms, they’re still there nonetheless.  The shift to my being mostly in charge of the house, whether I actually do all the actual work or not, has been somewhat gradual, but is also an effect of two main things: 1) upbringing (both mine and Mr. Geeky’s) and 2) the job market.

In the area of upbringing, both of us have similar experiences.  Our mothers were responsible for keeping house and taking care of children.  In my upbringing, a couple of things happened that shifted my experience away from the typical gender labor distribution.  First, when I was born, my father was in law school and it was my mother who went off to work to support the family.  My father stayed home with me when I wasn’t being cared for by paid help or friends and relatives, which during the summers, was almost all day.  Though I couldn’t bring any of the details of that time to life now, almost 40 years later, it certainly had an impact on me.  Second, my mother hated housework so that, even once she quit her job (when I was about 7), she outsourced the housework immediately.  I have very few memories of her cleaning.  She did do all the cooking and grocery shopping, but she mostly enjoyed those jobs.  And my dad, in addition to the standard yard work and taking the garbage out, would often roam around the house cleaning up clutter.  In Mr. Geeky’s house, his dad didn’t do anything (as far as I know from what Mr. Geeky has told me) outside of the standard male chores: garbage, yard work, home repair.  He did spend plenty of time with the kids as did my dad, though my dad changed quite a few diapers while Mr. Geeky’s dad never did.

So Mr. Geeky, while being a feminist, had as his learned experience within a household, the idea that the woman does the housework and the man goes to work and takes out the garbage.  Intellectually, he knew this was not always a fair arrangement, but from a practical standpoint, his muscle memory doesn’t automatically move him to do the dishes or laundry.  That said, when we were a young couple without kids, we did almost everything together–cooked, cleaned up afterwards, laundry, cleaning when friends came over.  It was only when kids got added to the equation that the work load got redistributed, and that’s where the job market comes in.

Everyone knows the humanities job market sucks and that was the market I found myself entering about a year or so before we decided to have kids.  Almost before I could plan a career, my career died.  There were no jobs for me.   And while, as I’ve said many times before and it’s the story of many an academic woman, I could have gone off to another place to pursue a different career, I opted to maintain my relationship with Mr. Geeky, take “just a job” and play it by ear from there.  Partly, too, because my career fizzled out, I was sort of adrift trying to figure out what to do.  I didn’t have enough information about my future to make any good judgements.  Many of the conversations I see that say, well, you (woman) should have put your career first or on equal footing with your spouse’s.  Well, if you don’t have any idea what career you want to pursue, that’s kind of hard.  Like economics, many of the judgements people make about careers and relationships and work-life balance assume completely rational behavior.  I’m only now becoming slightly more rational.

Individual couples make all kinds of different arrangements to make dual income situations work.  It’s true that sometimes those arrangements place more burden on the women than the men.  In our house, I stress way more about the housework than Mr. Geeky does.  I’m certain that some of that is internalized norms about judging a woman by the state of her house.  It is what it is and we just have to figure out a way to manage that.  Currently, this whole FlyLady thing is really working.  It requires no more than an hour of my day.  Because things are more organized, it’s very easy for me to delegate work when I need to.  It seems corny, but it’s true.  When I started doing this, I told my family, but didn’t expect them to do much of anything to contribute unless I asked them.  Here’s what’s really helping:

  • I keep the sink shiny, which means no dishes in it.  And when your sink is shiny, you feel like the counters need to be, too.  It just happens.  Mr. Geeky and the kids do kitchen cleanup after I cook and I’ve noticed a real difference in the quality.  When it starts out nice, no one wants to mess it up.
  • Unload the dishwasher every morning.  I do this while waiting for my coffee to brew.  It takes five minutes.  It means that I can stick dishes that accumulate throughout the day in (so they’re not on the counters).  If I’m not around, it means the dishwasher is empty and awaiting dishes from dinner, cutting down the work the kids and Mr. Geeky have to do.
  • Put in a load of laundry every day.  I do this after I’ve showered, which I now do shortly after Geeky Boy does or when he leaves at 7.  I put the clothes in while my second cup of coffee brews.  So far, there’s only been one day out of 14 where I haven’t had a full load of laundry to put in.  That should tell you something about the amount of laundry we generate.  I’m also able to easily ask someone else to throw a load in.  It’s great not to be doing six loads on the weekend and feeling like a martyr.
  • Fold and put away a load of laundry every day.  I do this as I’m getting ready for bed or have one of the kids do it.  Again, not having to fold and put away 6 loads or more over the span of a day or two makes it seem much less burdensome.

While I’m doing most of these things myself right now, it’s not burdensome, and it’s easy to delegate.  Things I’d like to delegate in the future include grocery shopping and cooking.  From my past experience working full time, I know that there are some nights that I just don’t feel like cooking and though I don’t mind grocery shopping, it would be nice to alternate.  So my hope is that we can come up with a plan so that at least a couple of nights a week, someone else is cooking and that Mr. Geeky makes every other grocery trip.  Aside from that, I really feel like the housework is manageable.  I took this on because it’s me that suffers most when things are not in order.  It was something I wanted to do for myself and it’s spread to the rest of the family and I will keep spreading it until I feel like things are equitable.  Philosophically, everyone is way on board with all of this.  Do I wish that Mr. Geeky was as passionate about making sure the house runs smoothly as I am? Sometimes, but I’m happy that he doesn’t work ridiculous hours, spends a lot of time with me and the kids, and does a reasonable amount of work around the house.  Nothing is perfect.  We do the best we can and when things feel out of whack, we renegotiate–and I am usually the one who has to initiate that since it affects me more.

As several people mentioned in the posts around the blog world, attitudes surrounding parental leave and household chores really need to change before there will be real equity.  Society still looks at housework and childcare as women’s work and that makes men reluctant to take it up wholeheartedly, even men who are in many respects, feminists.  Those societal pressures are bigger than all of us.  Equal pay for women would go a long way to make it possible for people to outsource housework and childcare.  Flexible work schedules, too, without repercussions, would be helpful as well.  And those are things that can be done politically, both at the national and local level.  And if men don’t want to blog about these issues, they can certainly vote and serve on committees and generally advocate for change.

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The To-Stop List

Design Mind magazine’s latest issue is dedicated to work-life balance.  I haven’t read all the articles yet, but so far my favorite is Matthew May’s “Elegance and the Art of Less.”  Besides espousing my own theory that working more does not necessarily make one more productive (backed up by research in this article), it appeals to the artsy side of me by suggesting that paintings, novels, etc. are all better because of what those artists left out.  In fact, when I teach writing, the hardest thing to get students to do is to cut things.  I encourage them to cut entire paragraphs.  They shudder at the thought.  But I know it’s often for the best.  In my own writing, I’m a pretty ruthless cutter, even though I could always cut more.

So back to May’s less is more work-life balance theory.  He illustrates this idea with an assignment given by a professor to an overworked and stressed student:

Imagine that you’ve just inherited $20 million free and clear, but you only have 10 years to live. What would you do differently? Specifically, what would you stop doing?

So what would you stop doing? I think I’ve already stopped most things, though I would add some minor volunteer things to the list that have added to my stress rather than being fulfilling.  One thing I’d definitely add: stop feeling guilty!

One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the things that the comments on my last post made clear–as should reading anything about parenting and work–is that no one work situation works for everyone.  Some people thrive working at home.  Others need the activity and external motivation of an office setting.  Some need a combination of both.  Some people would be happy working part-time.  Others want a strict full time schedule of exactly 40 hours.  Others are willing to work much more.  And all of those people have different preferences for the specific hours they’d like to work.  And yet, most work places and certainly the general culture still wants to squeeze everyone into the 9-5, M-F box.

In one of the many conversations I’ve read on this topic lately, I recall someone saying that the reason jobs like teaching and nursing are primarily female is that their schedules are more flexible and conducive to a family schedule where children are in school.  And of course, many people try to wrangle a flexible schedule no matter what field they’re in.  Some are successful, but many more are not and are often not just unable to get the schedule they want but see their careers suffer just for having asked.  We need to get past this.  We’re a country that supposedly prides itself on some concept of individualism and yet, we continue to punish people who seek to be individuals.

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Working from Home

On Motherlode today, Lisa Belkin raises the question of whether working from home really allows parents to spend more time with their kids.  I often tell people that I “work from home,” though that’s a bit misleading since none of the work I’m currently doing am I getting paid to do.  And, unfortunately, that means I let household chores and childcare take precedence over doing things that might actually earn me money.  But that’s been my choice and I’ve been keenly aware of it.  And sometimes, I do manage to crack down and do a lot of work.  The last two weeks have been like that for the most part.  Back when I worked full time, I often brought work home with me.  In theory, because I was staff and not faculty, I could shut down at 5 or 5:30 and not think about work again until 8:30 the next day.  After all, there were no classes to prep or grading to do.  Even before I added teaching to the mix, there always seemed to be things to catch up on. I would check email because I hadn’t been able to all day or I’d tweak a web site or check on a Blackboard account.  And that made me miserable.  At first I did those things because I was still interested, fascinated by my work and so I’d continue doing it when I got home.  But I think doing it eventually led me to burnout, and people started expecting me to be available 24/7.  And when I was available to them, I wasn’t available to my family.  It sucked all the way around.  I eventually instituted a no-checking email at home rule, to the point of even having to email people the next day and say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t respond/take care of your issue, but I don’t check email from home.”

Working at home is only the answer if you can draw the line between work time and family time.  And that’s hard to do for many people.  So what do you think?  Can we gain work-life balance by working more from home? Or are we kidding ourselves?

Work vs. Family

Laura at 11D points to a slate article about the “mommy-track,” which suggests that it’s not as stigmatized as it once was and that, in fact, it’s not always just moms or even just parents that seek flexible work.  The discussion at Laura’s centers around how much of choice the mommy track really is and about the financial stability of the family and the non-working parent.  I titled this work “vs.” family because I think that’s really what happens most of the time.  They’re in competition with each other for time and attention.  And work almost always wins, for a lot of reasons.  We need money to live off of.  In this economic climate, many people fear that taking time for family is a red flag that will get them fired.  And work, not family, is generally what’s valued by society.  So we’re drawn to more time into work for its financial and cultural rewards and out of fear of losing financial stability.

But the family needs time, too.  And it needs time in lots of different ways.  I laughed at one commenter who mentioned a woman taking off during the early years of her children’s lives and finding herself with not much to do once they’re in school, especially middle and high school.  Every new mom I talk to, I tell to work through those early years when there are more public services for kids–good daycare, afterschool programs, even care for the times when school randomly closes for in-service days.  In middle school all that ends, and the bigger fears begin: drugs, sex, the kinds of things that aren’t just worrisome but could literally ruin a kid’s life. Someone needs to be there to not only make sure kids avoid those things, but to help them navigate the broader social sphere of middle and high school, sometimes to just be a positive force in their lives.  I don’t think I’m being a helicopter parent here, just acknowledging that kids need guidance during these years and sometimes the best guidance comes from a parent.

And then there’s the other things that can happen.  A parent or other family member can get ill or die.   Family members might need other kinds of help–financial or emotional support, for example.  It’s just a good thing to be able to be there for a family member in need without having to worry about your job being taken away. In my own case, I’m the only child of divorced, aging parents.  And though I think it will be many years before I’m having to worry seriously about their health, anything could happen.

Mr. Geeky wants me to return to work within the next year or so to shore up our financial situation for the kids’ college education.  And I do want to work, but I need work to be flexible and it makes it hard to consider certain types of jobs.  Geeky Girl hits middle school next year and we’re headed into some major parts of high school life–driving and dating are soon to be a regular part of our lives.  We both need to be able to juggle the needs of our family and our work lives.  Mr. Geeky tries, but he has, as one commenter called it, a job that is a calling.  Literally, the work almost never ends for him.  Before I quit, I was on a similar track, but it was impossible for both of us to have our heads that much in our work and have our kids not suffering.  Maybe certain families can make that work, but we couldn’t.

There are certain careers I’d pursue–teaching in either high school or college, continuing technology consulting work, writing–that I think would be fun and interesting careers and could potentially offer me the flexibility I need, without, in most cases, my needing to even ask for it.  When I return, I plan to get more serious about generating an income.  But I need to find a way to do it without pitting work against family.