It’s the Least You Can Do: Managing Your Career and Family

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve been reading a lot about leaving the academy, the time crunch we’re all under, and mental health issues. One of the main ways I think that being an academic and being a parent intersect is through the feeling of things never being done, more is always being asked of you, and never feeling that what you’ve done is good enough.

There are institutional reasons for these feelings, on the levels of both the family and the university. At work, we have the restructuring of universities into more businesslike models. Just one example of this is the trend towards jacking up enrollments: we have bigger class sizes with increasingly unprepared students. Many institutions are experiencing mission drift: we’re being asked to publish more, and earlier (hello tenure file!) with fewer resources such as professional development budgets and sabbaticals. On the parenting end, there has been a trend since WWII towards thinking of kids as products that their parents, especially their mothers, produce. There is more and more pressure to get kids tutoring, to shape and “grow” kids with an eye towards their achievements and college acceptance letters, as if they were a start up company and not small humans.

Even with these structural issues, there are aspects of our parenting and work that we can control. Below are my eight suggestions on how to do that.

 1) It’s the least you can do.

You’re probably an overachiever. If you’re reading this you probably have an advanced degree or are working towards one. Can I give you permission to stop? I find it very useful to sit down and think about what is the minimum I need to do in the short term and in the long term. The minimum might not sound like much, so you could also think of it as the baseline for your professional and workplace goals.

If you need to finish your dissertation in the next 12 months, are the activities you’re engaging in helping or hurting that goal? What is the minimum you need to do to get tenure? What is the minimum you need to do to this semester to meet your goals? How about over the next couple of years? What kind of attention, home cooked meals, and activities do your children and your partner (if you have one) need from you in the next six months? What is the bedrock of exercise, sleep and social life you need to be happy? Give yourself an hour and write this down. If you’re not sure about expectations in your department or from your chair or advisor request a meeting. Then make sure you can keep these minimum commitments before you take on anything else.

 2) What’s already on your plate?

Over and over I’ve seen academics talk about an upcoming stressful event either at home or work while simultaneously planning something that is just going to be a giant time suck. Listen, there is only so much of you to go around. The semester you’re asked to teach an overload is not the semester to sign up to be room parent. Keep asking yourself, what is the minimum you need to get done? Will this happen if you take on X? If the answer is no, then try to get out of it.

3) Tell the mean voices in your head to shut up.

 Get rid of fear and imagined social/work obligations. Honestly, other parents or people at work don’t spend that much time thinking about you. A big mistake I see other academics making is not thinking critically about who is evaluating you. If many senior faculty think they need to be on campus 5 days a week, but your chair and the personnel committee are part of the get it done it doesn’t matter from where generation, then don’t get sucked into a norm that has no relevance to you (unless you want to).

 4) Desire vs. Obligation

A great gift in my life was reading Daphne de Marneffe’s Maternal Desire. Maternal desire is about what we want from our relationship to our children in distinction to what we’re told to do or what “good mothers” do. It made me realize how often women couch what they want in terms of what is best for other people. Discussions of day care are a great example of this. Many times women say that they are stay at home mothers because they didn’t want to put their kids in day care. While it might be true that the child care they could afford or was available was crappy (a whole other post!), usually what they mean is that they wanted to spend most of their time with their child. Fine. This creates a whole different conversation and avoids Mommy War overtones about the evils of daycare when the real issue is maternal desire. So: Own your desires. This means figure out what you want from your teaching, your research, and your family.  Your classes don’t “have” to be taught in any specific way, you don’t “have” to sew Halloween costumes, etc. I love discussion and structuring my classes as seminars. This is far more time consuming than lecturing, but because this is my main reason for wanting to be a college professor I feel fine about investing a lot of time and energy into this. In order to do this, though, I have to manage my time well.

 5) Say yes, but then say no.

Despite pressure to be at every single elementary school event, I usually pick one big event at each child’s school and volunteer for that. I usually attend the holiday parties. I don’t get roped into volunteering for everything and try to avoid fundraising like the plague. I was the room parent for my daughter when she was in 4th grade because the older grades are easier, and was the room parent for my son when he was in kindergarten when I was on sabbatical. When my son was in first grade I was asked to take on additional volunteer responsibilities at his school. However, I consider my duties around room parenting discharged. At the same time at my university I was asked to be on a committee and said yes but refused to chair it. In both cases it was slightly awkward to sit on my hands while being asked to step up to the plate and help. Not chairing the committee had no impact on my tenure case. The time away from my teaching and publishing would have. In both cases, I survived by realizing that I can’t do everything. It is ok to set limits. As many people have said before me, no is a complete sentence and everything you say yes to is saying no to something else. As someone who has had a very long commute to work, I’ve found it to be really effective to say “I’m not on campus that day.” Even if you live 5 minutes from work you might try that.

6) Emotional Labor: how do you know what everyone else is doing?

During my second year on the tenure track, I went to workshop given by a tenured professor about work-life balance. She talked about how women faculty have incredibly high expectations of themselves, like that they should know the name of every student in their class. Wow, I thought. It’s ok not to know all their names? Since then I’ve realized that when you teach 100+ students a semester, you might not know all of their names and that’s ok. What kinds of pressure are you putting on yourself that might not a) help you meet your baseline goals and b) not even be realistic? How much of these goals center around emotional labor? That’s the term for the kinds of work that women are often expected to do, like being a “mom” like to their students or to listen to their problems. Expectations around emotional labor can be even higher for faculty of color or LGBT faculty to mentor students “like” them. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson talks about the “feminized and marketized practices of the contemporary academy” that have women of color faculty acting as unpaid maternal figures to their students, in ways that are both healthy but can also be exploitative. Although it can feel great to be needed, I think it is fine to be thinking about how to meet students’ needs without losing sight of your own.

7) Get a mentor or a coach.

For those who are job seekers or on the tenure track, it is always a really good idea to check in with your mentor, or a job coach if you think some new obligation is going to “look good” on the job market or in your tenure file. As a broad example, taking on additional service work probably doesn’t carry the same weight as a peer reviewed article, even if it is something exciting like organizing a conference. So ask. Go check out “Don’t get Your Career at Costco” at The Professor is In for a great post about not just taking every opportunity that comes your way.

8) Watch this site.

I’ll be posting more in April about an online conference for mentoring and community building to take place this summer. It will be chock full of tips, advice, and stories from women who are mothering in the academy.


2 thoughts on “It’s the Least You Can Do: Managing Your Career and Family

    • Thanks Sue! I’ve heard that feedback from others as well, that what I’m writing about is also helpful to people who aren’t academics. I certainly didn’t expect that, but I’m so happy it was true for you.


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