Labor, Stress, Leisure, and other thoughts

I’ve been thinking about labor for the last couple of days as I’ve tried to settle into a routine where I can get my work done for my course, keep a couple of other balls in the air, take care of a household and children, and still find time for down time.  It feels lazy to say this, but I don’t like working all the time.  I’ve tried in my life to find work that doesn’t feel like work.  I feel completely lucky to have the education and skills to pursue that kind of work as opposed to resorting to manual labor (which may not feel like work to some people, but would to me).  For whatever reason, as I’ve gotten older, the pressure of work, even enjoyable work, leads to major stress.  Twice in the last couple of weeks, I’ve endured massive headaches brought on by stress, exacerbated by my TMJ condition, which was itself brought on by stress.  A vicious cycle, to be sure.  I hate that this happens and as I’ve said before, my energy is just gone when these things come on and I don’t feel like doing anything and then I feel guilty for that which stresses me out and thus we start all over again.

From a financial standpoint, we don’t need for me to have a fulltime paycheck for us to survive.  We’ve made enough cuts now and the little bit of extra income I’ve brought in and that Mr. Geeky has earned through grants and service activities have mitigated much of the gap that existed in our spending and income right after I quit.  But, of course, there are things like remodeling projects, travel, and the looming college education for the kids that have more than once raised the issue of my going back to work.  Not in a desperate, “omg, you have to find a job now kind of way,” but in a “well, if I went back to work . . .” kind of way.

And that brings me to another kind of labor, the labor of keeping up the house and taking care of the kids, a majority of which falls on my shoulders whether or not I’m working.  Added to the general stress of my former job in and of itself was the stress of trying to manage all the kids’ activities, keep up with laundry, keep the house relatively neat, cook meals, buy food for said meals, etc.  And this goes back to the “I don’t want to be working all the time statement.”  I get most stressed when I feel like that’s the case.  So, for example, I leave for work at 8:30, get home at 6:00, prepare a meal, supervise homework, mabye a break for tv or a game or something before having to supervise bedtime.  Yes, even with tweens and teens, we still have to make sure that the kids go to bed in a timely manner.  Because there’s so little time during the week, shopping, laundry and other housework fell to the weekend, meaning that a chunk of it was taken up with work.  And, often, Mr. Geeky does “paid” work–grades papers, does research, performs some kind of service–on the weekend.  I’ve read the academic blogs; I see you out there trying to say you’re not going to work on Saturday or Sunday.  You almost always fail.

All of my self-improvement projects also start to feel like work.  Exercise, decluttering, educational activities.  It’s enough to make you go crazy.   Tim Burke’s post about the declining value/open sourcing of cultural products gets at the heart of some of my dilemma:

If the 1950s-1990s were a highwater mark for the commodification of culture in the United States, it’s partly because they were also a highwater mark for the sequestration of leisure time from labor time. For the last three decades, working Americans have seen that leisure time slowly clawed back for the sake of work or for the sake of a productivist temperment even outside of work, towards a belief that the things we do should somehow always be generating value, towards a classically bourgeois construction of virtuous leisure. . . .

Productivism again reigns as a supreme bourgeois virtue. Time spent just listening or reading or viewing, if you can’t recuperate it as time getting educated or improved in some tangible way, is shameful time, not a shared triumph of the middle-class milieu.

Tim uses these points in a larger argument about why cultural products have lost their value.  In part, it’s because we don’t have time to engage with them.  And in part, it’s because there’s an attitude prevalent now that says if you spend an afternoon reading a book or catching up on The Wire, you’re wasting your time, maybe even “our” collective time.  Tim doesn’t mention this, but there is a kind of “omg, Americans aren’t making anything, aren’t as productive as we used to be; the Chinese are going to eat our lunch” panic out there.  As I recall, though, productivity has actually been on the rise.  Anyway, this is part of my problem.  My decision to work or not work, work part-time or full-time, spend time doing household work or writing that may or not pay off, spend time when most “normal” people are working playing video games or watching tv or reading a book is getting all caught up in this productivism mentality that I have internalized.  I keep thinking not about how I “should” be spending my time based on what’s best for me personally or my family, but thinking about how spending my time looks to the outside world.  (Go ahead, send in the psychoanalysts.) And honestly, my family, even my immediate family, are part of that outside world.  I feel the need to justify what I’ve done all day, detailing the laundry that’s been done, the writing that got done, how many hours I spend prepping for class.  And that’s not coming from them, believe me.  They never look at me weird if they come home and find me in front of the tv or playing WoW.

What I’ve been thinking about, then, is what labor and how much of it I really should be doing, not from a perspective of whether or not that labor “looks good” to the outside world, but from a perspective of what makes me feel good–and by good I mean, relaxed yet stimulated.  In other words, though I like my leisure time, I’m not one who enjoys spending all day every day doing nothing but leisure activities.  Even though it’s work, I like writing.  I’ve spent an hour writing this damn blog post and I have no idea where it falls on the work/leisure spectrum.  It feels like work, but it feels like leisure too because it’s not connected to a paying job.  Getting paid to do something alters my relationship to labor, of course.  If I followed my “feel good” argument to its logical conclusion, I wouldn’t evaluate my students’ assignments this afternoon.  Instead, I’d either engage in some other kind of unpaid labor or I’d use some of my leisure time.   And honestly, I get a good feeling about evaluating student work that has nothing to do with getting paid to do it.  It’s almost like a community service.  I feel like I’m helping them improve something about their lives, which will, in this case, pay off for education as a whole when they enter classrooms.

I honestly don’t know what my answer is to this dilemma.  I just know that I need to find something that works for me, and get over my anxiety about whether or not I’m working “enough.”  The funny thing about this whole dilemma is that it comes from my freedom.  If I had a full-time job, there’d be no real issue.  I’d just do the work that was necessary.  As I’ve said a million times, I like where I am, but I’m realizing it’s more challenging in many ways that it seemed at first.

Women and Children First

I was just reading through the comments on this IHE post about having kids or not in graduate school and one commenter says the following:

From my perspective, I find many (not all, not even most) of my female friends and my grad students can’t articulate what they want, what will help them navigate the difficult process of completing a PhD, landing a job and keeping it with a child or children in tow. For these people universities can never do enough, there’s always something more they need that will help more, that will be the magic bullet that makes it “easier” to have a child (never easy) and do their job. What I find among these women is an insufficient appreciation that everyone faces challenges about work/life balance.

She goes on to suggest that we all need to understand and appreciate work/life balance and work to make institutions appreciate that as well. The idea that there’s not enough support for parents is a common one looked upon quite often with resentment by those without children. “Suck it up,” is often the common response to the whining of mothers about how hard it is to juggle both raising a child and going to grad school or working. I’ve seen this so often lately that I’ve been trying to puzzle over why this is so common for women to feel this way or to have this perspective put on them. And I think I have part of an answer.

The default for women is still get married and have children. That’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Decades ago, that would have been it, the pinnacle of your life. Now, it’s still the default but with the added dictum that women can do that *and* pursue a career. Don’t worry, people say, your husband will pitch in, your workplace will be supportive, your colleagues will understand. When those things don’t happen, new mothers are often thrown for a loop. Too often, women don’t pay attention to the way other mothers are treated in the workplace. And that’s often not their fault since many mothers are often made invisible in the workplace. Having an honest conversation with a chair or a dean feels risky since there may then follow a stigma about one’s seriousness toward work. So a lot of moms find themselves with kids, without a plan because what they thought was going to happen didn’t. They’re left saying, “Now what?” and don’t know where to turn. And let’s face it, if we’re talking grad school, some people are young and idealistic and immature. Speaking even for myself, one doesn’t always make the best decisions when you’re young and idealistic.

I had my first child while working a corporate job that I took to fund my husband’s grad school education. We decided to have a child because my job had insurance that would cover much of the cost of having a kid (though it didn’t cover it all), which we didn’t have as grad students. I had my second in grad school, so I completed a master’s and (eventually) a Ph.D. with two kids. In fact, what postponed my Ph.D. was not my kids but my husband, who left his job and dragged me across the country. There was nothing we could have done about the timing of that. But I had some advantages that some people may not:

  • Income. Mr. Geeky had a real job that paid for the majority of our needs, including full-time daycare for both kids. I don’t recommend having a kid when you’re *both* in grad school unless you’ve got family or something that can substitute for what may be costly daycare.
  • Flexible schedules. Both Mr. Geeky and I had flexible schedules. If a kid got sick or their school was closed, we could usually manage juggling. We made this even more flexible by making sure that our class schedules did not conflict. If I got a MWF class, Mr. Geeky made sure his were on TTh.
  • Other mothers in the department. I shared an office with a women who had a preschooler. She had breastfed as well, so she was very supportive of my doing so and gave me plenty of advice, both about parenting and about jugging life as a grad student.
  • Supportive faculty. Everyone just assumed I would continue working as I had before. No one thought I was less serious than before I had my second child. In part, I think this was because they knew I had another kid at home that hadn’t slowed me down.
  • Less intense program. I think it’s fair to say that the program I was in, while good in its own way, was not in the top 10 programs in the country. I knew this going in, and I didn’t choose it for that reason, but it was definitely helpful to not be in the kind of program that was a hothouse of competition.
  • Affordable daycare. My kids only overlapped daycare for one year, so that was the most expensive year and even that year only cost us about $700/month. After that, we paid around $400/month.

Things really got tough for me after we moved here when the cost of daycare skyrocketed to $1000/month for one kid. I needed to work part time to cover those costs, often with a 1/2 hour to 45 minute commute, which cut into my time to work on my dissertation (as did the grading and class prep). Had our daycare costs been cheaper or non-existent, I might have been able to forgo the jobs and finish sooner. I’m actually glad in a way that that didn’t happen as I liked the dissertation I ended up with better than the one I started on. (I switched topics and advisers).

I think there are so many unknowns both in grad school and when having children that it’s very easy to find yourself in the weeds quite quickly. I think women should assess their own situations and do what’s necessary to make the balance work. I dropped a class in the fall after my daughter was born. I worked very intensely from 9-5, trying my best not to have anything to do in the evenings, which were often unpredictable in the early months. That year is certainly a blur to me in many ways and I remember when I got my first full night of sleep six months after my daughter was born, I was amazed that I’d been able to function at all. I felt so amazingly good after that, I couldn’t believe what a walking zombie I’d been before that.

In many ways, I did “suck it up,” but I was able to, in part, because of the support I felt surrounded by. No one said that I seemed like a zombie all those months. And most grad students are surviving on little sleep anyway. I never tried to make my own lack of sleep a special case, never asked for extensions, trying to plan papers well in advance. But had I really needed one, I knew I could ask for one without any repercussions. And that’s where I think institutions can do something. Because it’s often the attitudes, not the policies that get in the way. So parents can try to anticipate what parenting is going to be like and put support networks in place beforehand, but institutions can try to make sure some of those are there as well. Faculty and student parent groups might be helpful. Childcare benefits are good. But fostering a general attitude that parents are perfectly capable of graduate work can go even further than many official policies.

On Schedules and Projects

Last week, Laura at 11D had a minor identity breakdown. Vast stretches of time lay before her with no clear path of what she was supposed to fill them with. I can totally relate.

So, I have a business and I do want that to possibly be successful. Just this morning, I came up with a potential project that might work well for it. For a while there, I was spending time on something to do with the business every day. Now, though, it’s gone to the back burner. With this new idea, it might move back up again.

In addition to the business, however, I’m also working on a book project, something I started years ago, but which I’m hauling back out again. I’ve pretty much thrown out what I started with except the core of an idea and have been working away at it every day for the last two weeks. I’ve spent at least an hour every day on it and sometimes two. I was feeling bad about this lack of productivity. Shouldn’t I work for 4 hours, 6 hours? So I Googled for information about the writing habits of famous authors. It’s all over the map. Some authors go for a word count, some work in a certain amount of time (anywhere from just minutes to all day, with the average probably 2-3 hours). It kind of gave me the idea to go with my gut, and my gut says I’m doing okay, though I should probably aim for at least three hours. And yes, you can laugh at me for trying to compare my work habits to people like Stephen King and Dan Brown. Dan Brown writes all the time, even on holidays. If my book gets made into a movie, maybe I’ll do that too, but for now, no way.

And then there’s the walking piece. I’m up to walking 3 miles a day, which takes about 1.5 hours. I’m walking mid-afternoon, which is a good time, both for my schedule, and for the weather, as it’s usually quite warm and pleasant by then. I have to be back by 4 since that’s when child number one gets home.

In theory I could put in another hour of work of some kind after that, but that would put me, believe it or not, over an 8-hour day.

If the business picks up, what will likely go is housework, which has got to be the most boring thing ever invented, but at the same time seems more pressing than anything else and its neglect gets noticed more than anything else.

So I’ve settled into a routine that gives my days a shape and a purpose that I’m happy with for now. The nice thing is that it can shift as necessary, though I must admit, that as it does, I can feel the identity shifting with it. Funny how that works.

Why we get defensive

I was going to post something fun here today, but nothing floated to the top as worth it, and after I read Historiann and Dr. Crazy this morning, I found myself with a lot of thoughts to put down. Dr. Crazy’s post on speaking out as a non-parent on parent-related issues is excellent as are the many comments which dig into the topic further. What she and Historiann both marvel at is the defensiveness with which many of their parent commenters express in their responses. I feel that defensiveness pretty keenly these days in all kinds of different situations. It feels to me that no matter what choices I’ve made–to be a parent or not, to work or not, to mother a certain way or not–I’m criticized for them. I think many parents–mostly mothers, imho–feel they’re in a basically lose-lose situation. And I think Histioriann’s discussion of patriarchy is right on the money as to why this happens. Here are some of my humble thoughts, mostly based on my own experience, so, as they used to say in the old days of the Internet: ymmv.

1. Women in the workforce have a difficult time. They are still often perceived, even in places that are “family-friendly” as the primary caregivers. This leads to assumptions about how dedicated they are to their work and whether they’re going to up and quit because of a child. Unfortunately, many women do quit to manage family matters because they find they can’t once they realize there’s no (affordable) child-care, no (affordable) afterschool programs and their workplace isn’t flexible enough to provide time to juggle child-care and work. Even if their partner can take on part of this, they both need the flexibility to manage this and workplaces are often even less friendly to men who want that kind of flexibility to do their part as parents. And all this is systemic, having nothing to do with individuals as individuals who just react and make choices that make sense within that system.

2. On the flip side, when mothers who work find themselves among mothers who don’t, they’re often treated as if they’re not being good mothers. They’re leaving the kids with less than ideal care (ideal being a parent). Also part of the system.

3. Mothers who don’t work feel awkward among mothers who do because again, they feel they’re being judged. As one commenter noted, and as I myself have experienced, some women will expound on the “anti-feminism” of the sahm. I’ll admit to having had those thoughts, but would never say them out loud. And now, I think that some people are sahm’s because they are persuaded or caught up in certain social norms that stem from patriarchy, mostly having to do with appropriate gender roles. And some are sahms because they get forced out of the workplace, which as I said in #1 functions under these same social norms.

So, here’s the thing. This was my first week at home after school started. The kids aren’t here from 8-3. For the first time in 13 years, I am making absolutely. no. money. It feels very, very weird. I feel all at turns useful and completely useless. And yes, sometimes defensive. When I was working at my polling place a couple of years ago, my across the street neighbor came in and one of our other neighbors, a man in his 50s, started talking to her, and she explained that she’d quit her job to stay at home (her kids are older than mine–oldest is a senior, youngest is in middle school). He said, “Good for you. As it should be.” That has stuck with me, and just the other day, when I was standing at the bus stop, a neighbor said to me, “Hey, don’t you teach too?” And I stumbled a bit, and said, “Not anymore. I quit my job last fall.” And he said, “Good for you.” And I heard “As it should be” in my head. And that does not feel good–at least not to me.

There are subtle messages that we get as parents about how we’re expected to behave. Those messages are often different for fathers than for mothers. One would think the easy path would be to meet those expectations, but most of the time, we end up trying to overcome those expectations. A working parent often has to prove to her workplace that she’s not a slacker and prove to the mothers at the soccer game that she’s a good parent. I’m getting a nagging feeling all the time that I should be working, but then I realize how much work it would be to manage the house and kids and I cringe, thinking about putting in a 40-hour week plus god knows how many hours juggling the home front. And I don’t feel comfortable at all running around with the PTO crowd, some of whom have literally said they put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m not even doing that now, as a sahm. I quit work for myself, for my own mental and physical health and to give myself some time to work on some projects that may or may not make any money, but I feel like I can’t say that.

So what am I saying? I guess I’m just saying that it’s complicated, but I’m very glad that the conversation is happening. And I think we should all be observant of the ways in which we might be participating in a system that reinforces stereotypes, one of which might be that parents need extra “perks” as Dr. Crazy suggests is the norm at her school, but another of which might be that non-parents have all the time in the world, which is equally untrue. Those stereotypes are damaging to us all, put us all on the defensive and make it so we can’t work together toward viable solutions, which might be local, but which might also be part of a larger policy goal related to working conditions.

The Casualties are Female

Dr. Crazy has a really great post and follow up, to which Historiann has responded about how things tend to turn out for women in academia. That is, women can’t have it all–career, family, life–if they choose academia as a career. Men, both she and Historiann argue, never have to make the kinds of decisions women do about privileging family over career or vice versa. Maybe men should, but they don’t and people don’t ask them whether they’re going to quit or slow down when they have kids nor do they ask men who haven’t married or had kids whether they’re going to. It’s just assumed that whatever men are doing is fine and dandy.

While Dr. Crazy (and some of her commenters) lament the holes that not having a partner/family have left in their lives (while acknowledging that they feel pretty satisfied), I find myself at 41 lamenting the career hole. I wonder if what I’ve done career-wise will add up to anything. I wonder if I will ever be in a full-time career again. I wonder if I want to be. Which makes me wonder if there isn’t something in our culture that makes us think we *should* have it all. I’m a firm believer in moderation and balance and I think most work of any kind is short on moderation. The more intellectual the work, the less moderate it is. I think I’d be going crazy right now if I didn’t have some work. But I think, at this moment, I’d be equally crazy if I didn’t have my family life. But that’s only two things. There are others, as this quote from a recent David Sederis story, points out:

Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

I think I’ve got the family one on and the work on. Friends? Not sure. Health? Working on it. Can you have them on low? I’m not sure. And I feel like it shifts quite a bit. For a while, I was focused on work and friends. Then, friends and health. Maybe I’m kidding myself.

One thing I do know is that I sometimes feel overwhelmed trying to juggle them all. Maybe women are striving for this balance more than men. Anecdotally, how many men do you know who manage to have even two of these burners going? Most men I know, including Mr. Geeky, focus mostly on work, with family a close second. Friends? Health? Only a handful.

I commented on the second post about negotiating the juggling act with Mr. Geeky and how I don’t always do such a good job of delegating non-work stuff to him. I’ll admit that it infuriates me sometimes the ease with which he can simply ignore what’s going on outside of work. I have never been able to do that. The few times I have, I’ve been bitten in the ass. And I think it’s because I didn’t concretely say to him, “Hey, I’ve got to focus on work for the next x days. You need to deal with this and this.” Certain things are easy to manage, like scheduling kid pickups. But making sure the laundry gets done, remember permission slips, preparing meals? Mr. Geeky is more inclined to let those slide until I’m back to taking care of it. Unless I specifically tell him not to let it slide. In other words, I’m the default house person and the default position is difficult to change. Part of that is me and part of that is him. I would hope that the default would change if it needed to.

Settling Into Who I am Now


Laura Blankenship, originally uploaded by Gardo.

The picture here is from a little over a year ago at Faculty Academy 2008. It’s one of my favorites despite the fact that my hair is askew (it’s always askew it seems) because I think it captures a certain image I have of myself. There’s the ever-present computer, the look of concern/passion (captured in several photos of me), and the fact that I’m obviously mid-sentence.

Just a few months ago, I was at Faculty Academy 2009, my third FA, and I was delighted to be there, but I was feeling a little unsettled. I’d just finished teaching and was looking ahead to being “just a consultant” instead of a part-time teacher and a part-time consultant. It felt a little daunting. I felt unidentifiable. The only other time I’ve felt this unsettled was right after we moved to Arkansas and I was a stay at home mom. I attended my 10 year high school reunion and I wasn’t sure how to identify myself and what I did. It felt really odd to say I was staying at home because it didn’t jibe with my image of myself as a career woman. Now, I have no hesitation saying that part of what I’m doing is managing the home front.

I still consider myself a teacher in addition to my roles as a consultant and a mother. I hope to always have a foot in the classroom by teaching a class at least once a year, but I also see the role I play as a consultant as being primarily about teaching, about helping people learn something new, learn to navigate an ever-changing technology landscape. I think it’s just in my blood.

I feel a certain sense now of knowing what I’m doing without knowing everything about what I’m doing and being okay with that. Consultant work has slowed down a bit, but I feel confident it will pick up with the school year, the economy, and continued effort on my part. I still keep an eye out for interesting teaching possibilities or jobs in the education technology sector. In the ed tech world, most of what I’ve seen is about tech support, not teaching, which is, I think, the direction many of the jobs, outside of directorships, are going. In part, I think this is because there are more faculty using technology in interesting and pedagogically sound ways and they are taking the role of sharing that knowledge with colleagues, a role formerly played by Instructional Technologists. And this is a good thing overall. But it means that that kind of job is a job that doesn’t quite offer someone like me the combination of skills and opportunities that’s appealing. So I’ve created that for myself. And while I felt tentative about it at first, it feels more right every day.

Relying on the childless

Back to schoolImage by lorda via Flickr

Dr. Crazy had an interesting post the other day on how she’s finally decided to put her foot down and not take the crappy time slots just because she doesn’t have kids. I’ve been sitting on that post since I read it and then Wendy at Outside Providence responded and that prompted me to open it up again. My initial thoughts on reading Dr. Crazy’s post were about all the times that I never said anything about needing to make accommodations for my kids even when a meeting was scheduled inconveniently. Like someone in the comments said, I felt it was inappropriate to even mention my kids. I needed to fit the “ideal worker” mold, suck it up and just figure things out. Of course, I was in a 9-5 job where I was expected to be present during all regular work hours, unlike a faculty member. So when the kids were little, we put them in full-time daycare, and when they got to school, we signed them up for after-school programs. I eventually quit sucking it up so much and asked for a flexible schedule where a couple of days a week, I came home at 3:00. Of course that meant I showed up at 7 a.m. So, a different kind of sacrifice.

Daycare, full time or otherwise, is expensive. Faculty salaries are not so great. And I’m sure that what goes through a faculty member’s mind is somewhat about trying to save some money by doing part-time daycare or handling after school on their own. I’ve seen a lot of faculty do this, in fact, though I don’t know if the reasons are financial. So, one solution might be to help faculty financially or logistically with the daycare situation. Have a drop-off service or have a list of students available for babysitting.

In general, I like the idea that Wendy raises of creating a culture that’s more cooperative. One of the commenters at Dr. Crazy’s mentions the whole “you chose to have kids, so suck it up argument” which always bothers me. Yes, I chose to have kids, but no, I had no clue how much time and money would be required to deal with raising them. And many parents didn’t choose to have kids with disabilities or health problems or mental problems. And shit happens. Your kids get sick, get depressed, have accidents, etc. I agree that people who seem to be clueless about the fact that taking a kid to gymnastics is not really a good reason to be accommodated should be reined in. But shit’s going to happen to childless folks too. A friend or parent will get ill, will want you to help them move, will get depressed, will have an accident, etc. Or you might be the one that gets depressed or ill or has an accident. And you might need to adjust your schedule. Or, on the more positive side, you might choose to volunteer somewhere or take up a hobby that means you can’t make a 7 p.m. or 8 a.m. meeting. And, in my opinion, that should be accommodated just as much as needed to drop off a child somewhere.

Largely, I think it’s up to a department chair or dean to create a situation where accommodations are equal. Faculty parents can start by assuming their jobs are 9-5 and making arrangements for their kids during those times. Yes, I know one of the greatest benefits of a faculty job is the flexible schedule, but if your colleague is having to teach the 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. class every semester because you refuse to find a babysitter, you’re probably creating some resentment. If you don’t want to invest in full-time daycare, then at least make arrangements for scheduled meetings. And, to help out, chairs, deans and colleagues should provide plenty of notice for those meetings. Course schedules could generally be done through a combination of requests and random assignments. In many departments, these kinds of things are the norms.

One commenter said that the key is to simply say what you want. I think honesty is a great thing here. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone understood where everyone is coming from?

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Gaining or Losing Balance

There’s been a lot of talk around the blogosphere about Jack Welch’s recent comment saying that there is no work-life balance. As Laura at 11D points out, evidence certainly suggests that the government and businesses are not interested in providing policies that help people achieve balance. She directs us to a great quote from Conor Friedersdorf, blogging at The Daily Dish. He suggests that maybe we should stop aiming for the top of the corporate ladder and count our blessings.

Amen! I’ve come to feel that this work-life balance thing could be about making good policies, but it’s more about cultural expectations. While I think it’s unlikely that people at the top of the corporate ladder are going to spend significant time with family, I don’t think that means the rest of us need to work like CEO’s, putting in 60-80 hours (or more!) a week. But that’s what the culture dictates. In the tech industry, this culture is pervasive. Programming, system administration, etc. can all take place any time of the day and the work is never finished. The people who have the time and want to take the time often put in ungodly amounts of work, creating a culture where everyone else feels the need to do so as well. This has been especially hard on women, as they are often primary caregivers, and can’t put in those hours.

I feel as though this concept of success=number of hours worked per week is pervasive, not limited to certain fields. Neighbors tout about how many hours they work no matter what their field. Now, does more work actually get accomplished? I’m sure in some cases, that’s true. But in some cases, I suspect there’s a law of diminishing returns, that after a certain number of hours in a day, productivity levels off or declines. So I wish, as a society, we could quit judging people for whether they work, how much they work, etc., and think of them as whole people.

The other day in the car, I had a moment where I realized that my past self would be very unhappy with my current self. I used to judge and criticize women who stepped off the career track. In my mind, success was about working full time, with or without family obligations. And maybe it’s true that from a purely financial standpoint, women who step out of careers are giving up a bit of success. But there’s more to life than financial and career success. That’s what I’m coming to now. That moment in the car made me first, have some doubts about what I’m currently doing, and then second, laugh at my past self. Perfect balance may indeed be elusive, but I think no one should dismiss those that are trying to find it.

What about me?

As someone who stepped off the full-time career track recently, I’m naturally drawn to articles about women who choose to stay home or who want part-time options or who are struggling to manage a full-time career. Via a comment to this Motherlode post about a women who recently quit her job (after attempting to create a part-time one) to raise her daughter, I found this post about Jack Welch’s recent speech where he suggests that women can’t have a family and an upper level management position. Maybe they can’t, but it has nothing to do with women and everything to do with societal and workplace norms.

Anyway, what has struck me about the rhetoric of many women who choose to leave is that they often say they don’t want to miss out on the milestones of their children’s lives. It’s not really about the kids, per se, but about the mothers’ experience of the kids. Occasionally, usually in situations where the kids do need extra attention for health or other reasons, the mothers will mention how their kids need them. The other rhetoric surrounding these decisions is that the mothers feel their families are suffering, as the latter post quotes from Womenomics “the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great.”

I’m going to ignore for now that one rarely sees the conversation about men revolve around these issues. Even if fathers do want to witness their childrens’ milestones or feel their families are suffering because of their long work hours, there isn’t a lot of ink, digital or otherwise, spilled over it.

What intrigues me is the sliding that occurs between the mothers’ personal desires to be present and the families’ needs for said presence. It seems that when weighing whether to work or stay at home, the personal (and potentially selfish, but not in a negative sense) desire to be with one’s child must be refigured as the family’s (not the mother’s) need for a maternal presence. Even the original post by the mother referenced in the Motherlode post makes this slide. On returning to work, Anna feels like she’s missing out–a personal desire. Then, she says she wants to do what’s right for her daughter.

I find this interesting not because I think mothers are bad for wanting to spend time with their children, but that after an initial expression of this desire, they feel the need to frame their argument as something that’s better for their children or for their family as a whole. They seem to find it difficult to say, I want this for myself. I can see why they would have trouble saying this. It reframes the whole working vs. sahm debate very differently and plays into all the worst stereotypes of sahms. I don’t really quite consider myself a full-blown sahm. I’d say I’m working very part-time at the moment, but I can say that I made this move mostly for me and secondarily for my kids. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I can definitely say that I experienced a lot of personal stress and unpleasantness as a result of trying to juggle a career (not just a job) and a family. I had very little support from either the workplace or the home front. I was also watching my son suffer in school. Whether I played a role in that or not, I knew or felt that if I could be more present, I might alleviate that suffering. I might have suffered through the personal stress to get to my career goals if my family was cruising along fine (as it did for years), but because things seemed to be falling apart (and I was suffering as a result of this as well), I needed to change something. It was a complicated decision to make and I think reducing it to my own desire to be with my kids or my kids/family’s need for me is too easy.

When people love what they do and/or can achieve a good balance between their work life and their family life, they tend to continue to work. I found that I’d quite loving my particular position, though I loved the field in general and I found I’d lost any sense of balance. When I think about my previous work life, I see many signs that I was personally suffering. My mental and physical health declined. I felt pretty despondent about going to work. It’s pretty clear I needed to take a break for myself. As parents go through the process of raising kids, of dealing with their particular kids and their particular employment circumstances, they make different decisions at different points. Our careers peaked at about the same time, leaving us both with little time to focus on family issues. Ideally, we each could have picked up the slack for the other, but it didn’t work that way. I often advise new mothers, especially, that parenting actually gets more challenging as the kids get older, and to consider cutting back at that point rather than when the kids are infants and toddlers. But some people have challenging infants and toddlers. They get sick or they have special needs of some kind or they just take more energy.

I guess this is a long and rambly way of saying, sometimes it is about you and your ability to manage, physically and mentally, the challenges that life throws at you. And I think we, as a society, need to quit judging each other for decisions we might make as a result. It would be even better if we could go to employers and say, “you know what, here’s what’s going on in my personal/family life and I need you to accommodate me in this way” and know that we won’t get fired. I have that now, as my own employer, and any future employer is going to have a hard time competing with the flexibility I provide myself.

Living with risk

Both Mr. Geeky and I had trouble sleeping. I stayed up playing WoW, which was fun, but as usual, I was a bit wound up afterward. Mr. Geeky was stressing a bit over a workshop he was having to lead today on writing abstracts. I started laughing because I used to run that very workshop. Lucky for him, I kept all my materials on Google docs. It made me think of all the little ways my presence might be missed at the college. They still have not replaced me, and I doubt they will for a very long time. I don’t really miss it.

In my attempt to get to sleep last night, I started reading Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake. That probably made things worse. In reading the preface, I began to realize that her position comes largely out of her own experience of hearing about her grandmother’s desitute situation caused by her grandfather leaving and her grandmother refusing to either work or remarry (a refusal caused in part by the mores of the day, but also, it seems, by some stubbornness). Unlike her grandmother, her mother worked her whole life, but took time out here and there to deal with family issues. So, she argues that her mother lost out on much-needed income by doing that.

Her other stories of friends whose husbands left them don’t sound at all like the women I know. After all, Bennetts lives in either Manhatten or a tony New York suburb, where it takes a significant income to maintain even a modest lifestyle, and the women she describes are not living a modest lifestyle. So, yes, I might even say it’s not too smart to rely on a single income to maintain an extravagant lifestyle, but most of the women I know who’ve left the job market have done so by cutting back on many expenses and deliberately living within their means. They clip coupons and shop around for the best prices. Vacations are trips to visit family. They drive inexpensive cars that they drive into the ground. Their clothes come from Old Navy and Target, not J. Crew or Ann Taylor. While they may have their kids in music lessons or put them into summer camp, they do so through careful budgeting.

In my adventures of volunteering and trying to create more community-based connections, I’ve run into not one, but two women who have Ph.D.’s and who are not employed in their fields. Both were scientists and one is now an academic staff member, the other a SAHM. SAHM’s around here are actually a rare breed. Most of the women I have run into are nurses or work part-time in some way to allow for flexibility. I know a few men who have flexible jobs. Although I may end up a SAHM, I am hoping that the consulting works out or I find a flexible job in the future. And it irks me a bit that Bennetts would assume I’m not being smart. I know the risk I’m taking. I hope Mr. Geeky doesn’t run off with a sexy computer scientist and leave me to care for the kids. If he does, then I’ll figure it out, probably move to an area with a lower cost of living, and find a job doing pretty much anything just to pay the bills. Yeah, I’ve thought about it, mostly in those moments when Mr. Geeky is running late from a meeting and I immediately think he’s dead on the side of the road. I may be optimistic, but unlike the women Bennetts describes, I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve considered the worst cast scenario and have decided I can live with it.