Advice from Professors: Balancing Work and Family

Meredith Kleykamp, PhD

mkleykampWhen asked to talk about how I balance academic life and family, my first thought is that there is no balance in my life (sorry to disappoint).  To me, balance suggests a state of equilibrium, stasis, calm, harmony. But things are never in an instantaneous state of equilibrium and I don’t expect they ever will be.  My goal is to ensure that over time, not instantaneously, family and work are “balanced”. As a mother I’m expected to “think of my family first” but the truth is I don’t always put my family first.  I have a husband who is more than an equal partner in parenting and house-holding and when I need to put work first, I rely on him to take on the extra load of parenting and partnering. I am unapologetic about that–he’s a wonderful father and we jointly parent, even if not equally on a daily basis.  I do homework with my son every night I’m home, volunteer in his class every week, and participate in a book club with him.  But my husband does a lot more on a daily basis to keep our household running. However, in the past I have sacrificed a great deal with respect to work and career to have a baby and raise him alone, while he was deployed to Iraq for 14 months. There was no balance then either, and the scale tipped toward his work needs.  Our life has never been balanced and probably never will be balanced. It has always been and will continue to be attentive to trade-offs, turn-taking and equality over the long run, but without score-keeping. So how do I make it work?  I’m not sure that I do, frankly.  But to the extent that I make it work, it comes down to having a supportive partner who takes on an extra share of family care when I need it.  After a 20 year Army career, he has also sacrificed his career progress for my turn at it.

I also don’t spend a lot of time fretting over how to balance work and life because as an academic I’ve got it good. An academic career is tough, but it is also much more flexible than most professional careers. I do try to treat my work like any other job. I expect to log between 40-60 hours a week, actually working, not just web-surfing, reading Twitter, etc… If you want to be more productive try the Pomodoro technique for time management.  You can get a lot done when you set out a task and devote a specific amount of time to it. A former colleague used to write for 2 hours a day every day, but no more.  She completed her 3rd book in 6 years. Managing your time well and working consistently and efficiently is a habit you can cultivate now, regardless of your work/family/life balance concerns.

Rashawn Ray, PhD

rrayBalancing work and family can be daunting no matter what the family arrangement. However, there are certain segments of the population (e.g., single mothers and working class families) that have a much more difficult time than professors and graduate students. We have job flexibility and autonomy to set the parameters of our daily schedules. Despite this flexibility, I aim to come and leave the office at the same time each day in order to spend the evenings with my family.
Before leaving the office each day, I set tasks and priorities for the following day as well as how much time I think each priority will take to accomplish. It is then my job to complete those priorities within the allotted time I have scheduled. If I do not finish the priorities,
the penalty is that I have to work once my boys go to sleep (which means cutting into my sleep time). This checks and balances system forces me to use my time wisely, while not sacrificing the importance of quality time at home.

My current book project with Dr. Pam Jackson explores balancing work-family life among Black, White, and Mexican-American families. We argue that the concept of “balancing” does little to express the ways individuals negotiate the constraints of work and family. By using an intersectionality perspective, we show that conceptualizing work-family life as “checkers or chess” games allow for the cognitive process of decision making (e.g., time pressure, mental spillover, role strain, role conflict) to be assessed more efficiently across work-family domains. We find that more socioeconomic status and marriage provide social and economic capital to more easily fulfill role obligations. Individuals with more capital have more choices and are offered a chess board and a variety of pieces to facilitate the goal of creating work-family harmony. Individuals with less capital end up with less job flexibility and play checkers through rigid concrete roles because work decisions are in the hands of their employers instead of their own.

Jeff Lucas, PhD

jlucasI don’t know that I am a good model of “making family and academic life work in tandem,” but I have developed a lot of experience trying to do it. Being an academic is a strange job to balance with having a family. In most respects, it’s terrific. I almost never have to be working, and that results in tremendous flexibility. This morning I stayed home with the kids while my wife went to vote, and I’ll leave work early to vote on my way home. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to do these things, and I take the flexibility for granted. I also don’t have to count vacation or leave days-I just take them when I choose to. I have a nine year-old son with significant disabilities, and my wife and I often wonder how we could have managed the past nine years if I had a regular job. I really don’t know how we could have done it. When he’s hospitalized, for example, I’ll sometimes miss a week of work, only coming in to teach, and no one seems the worse for my absence.

Although the plusses far outweigh the negatives, there is a downside. Although I rarely have to work, there is always work I have to get done. Being an academic is a job that is not often “occurring” in any formal way but also one that never stops. I coach a youth baseball team, and on Sunday we had our final game of the year and end of the year party. During the game, I received a handful of emails from students with questions about a paper due in class on Monday, a request from a co-author on a proposal due Monday for me to send him a current draft of the proposal, and a request from another co-author for feedback on a paper draft. I got these emails on my phone while coaching third base. As I went through the game and subsequent party, lingering in the back of my mind was that I would need to attend to all of these emails when I got home. Yesterday (a Monday), I left work at 3:30 and would say that I spent the rest of the day with my family. But, I just looked at my sent items folder and see that I sent emails, all related to my job, at 4:08, 4:34, 5:13, 5:44, 8:11, 8:12, 9:41, 9:45, 10:49, and 11:51 PM.

Perhaps the worst part of the job never stopping is that I can always convince myself that I don’t have time to do things that I would enjoy, because I could always be working instead of doing whatever those things are. Almost as bad is that it’s hard to convince other people I have to work when there’s nowhere I actually have to be. A couple years ago my mother suggested that I get a job at Home Depot over the winter break. I don’t know if she’ll ever understand that I’m still working even when I’m not teaching classes. It’s even harder to make my kids understand this.

As you can see, I haven’t found a perfect balance. However, I feel incredibly lucky to have a job that gives me the kind of flexibility that my job does, to say nothing about how much I enjoy the work when I’m doing it. My advice falls into the do as I say, not as I do category. I really need to get email off my phone, or at least turn off the ding that signals every arriving email. I think the best strategy is to check email once or twice a day and otherwise ignore it. Something I do manage well-always reply promptly to emails. I tell my students that every email they receive should get a reply, and get one within 24 hours, even if it’s just to acknowledge receiving it. I am in my 9th year at Maryland, and I think in that time I have only once ignored an email directly addressed to me. Also, don’t use your inbox for holding emails that need attention. I think that doing that allows your inbox to take over your life. Attend to things when you get them or put what you have to do on your to-do list and move the messages somewhere else.

The biggest challenge to balancing work and family for me is carving out the right kinds of time for really dedicated work that requires periods of intense concentration. One way I do this is by coming to the office on many Sunday evenings when few other people are around; I spend the day with my family and then come to work when my kids start moving toward bed. I sometimes think I get more done in those 6 or 7 hours in the office than in the entire rest of my week at work. You should find times that you are productive and make use of those times for writing. If you can find an hour a day to write (I mean writing, not searching literature, summarizing articles, etc.) with everything else (e.g., email, Internet, etc.) turned off, you should have a productive career. That said, something it took me more than half of graduate school to learn was the significant advantages of working a standard work day. It requires adjustments for most graduate students, but there are a lot of benefits to working on the schedule the rest of the world is working on. For one thing, it usually helps a whole bunch for managing the work/family balance.  And, in terms of that hour a day for writing, I think the best time for this for most people is the first hour of the work day in the morning. I wrote my dissertation in about ten weeks by getting to the office early and spending the first two or three hours of the day writing before other graduate students started showing up.

I was asked to “contribute a few words” on the work/family balance, and I have to be getting close to 1000. It’s something I struggle with every day and that requires constant compromises. I hope that learning about my experiences with the balance, if not providing a blueprint for doing things the right way, has shed some light on the issues that sometimes come up in managing work and family in an academic job.

mmilkieMelissa Milkie, PhD

Some researchers in the GWF area do not like the term “balancing” much (though I’ve used it myself in publications); essentially, what most people are doing is trying to prevent work from interfering with family life.  And “balancing” in most other countries is easier because of systematic family leave policies and more sane work schedules and cultures.  Given we are in the States, being an academic can be a privileged and flexible space to be able to create a fabulous work and family dynamic.  A down side of this career, however, is that geographic mobility is highly restricted, which can be very difficult for two-career partnerships or for couples who want to live near the grandparents. And the tenure window is narrow and miserably timed for most who want to be parents.

I am quite a deviant, having three kids and a pretty intensive academic career (this is especially unusual for women).  This combination is not for the faint of heart, but if you go the multiple kids route, the best way to effectively “balance” work and family is to set yourself up with many resources on the family front and to clearly ask for what you need on the work front. I’ve had a very involved partner who works from home some of the week, and does cooking, dishes, packing lunches, school pickups, etc. Also, I have been able to obtain high quality child care, flexibility in scheduling courses, and more.  It helps to have very clear values and for me, I privilege my kids over work. Choices are fairly easy when push comes to shove, and I don’t agonize too much about what I give up career-wise for them. To balance, you also need to let go. With tons of time and effort given to both kids and work, most of the short shift goes to the home being as orderly as you want, to sleep, to leisure and to partner time. For us, couple time can be with laptops, working together at 5. a.m. so we can be available for kids later in the day. Not terrible, but not your typical romantic date either! I read about one novel a year, when I’d love to read more fiction. I have watched virtually no TV or movies for years and years. And there is the exercise I rarely get to. And then there is the …………………..sorry, I was nodding off.

There are definitely tradeoffs in the juggle, such as, will you give every talk you are invited to give or go to every conference when you have a young child? Probably not, and that is OK.  Will you be sleep deprived, frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted, and feeling like everything you do is good enough but not perfect?  At times, yes.  Can you live with these things, knowing the big picture that both the kid and career are most likely going to be fine, long term? That acceptance is a big part of it.

In terms of timing, especially for women academics who have narrow windows of tenure clock and fertility that overlap in a bad way, my advice is to really front load the career, i.e., get many things going very early on in grad school, work especially hard at stacking the deck favorably, so when the inevitable temporary slowdown comes with a baby, your CV is strong and publications still keep coming out through the critical points of being on the job market and/or during the asst. professor years.  If you examine my record, you probably could not guess which years my kids were born (2 pre-tenure), because it looks very steady in terms of output. Co-authors help.  I found it was hard to start a new solo project with a baby, but finishing ongoing ones or working with co-authors was easier.

In the end, you must ask yourself, what will I absolutely *not* give up? living with a partner in the same city? having a child by age 35? having a certain number of kids?  having a certain type of academic job? etc.  Once you know this answer, you will be prepared to prioritize in specific ways.  And if you have kids, it’s good to remember the big picture—that your career is 40 plus years long, parenthood even longer. That is a lot of time to get things right even when, at any given stage you will be dropping the ball on the family end or the work end regularly.

I decided to integrate work and family by conducting some research into how I am doing at the work-family balancing act. First, with the 8-year-old son: Melissa: how would you rate me on a scale of 1-10, as a mom? Son: is there a zero? Melissa: … Son: just curious.  Moving to the 10-year old-daughter: Melissa: how would you rate me on a scale of 1-10, as a mom? Daughter: mom, stop being weird. You don’t rate people.  Melissa: … Daughter: I’m just saying. And the 14-year-old son: Melissa: (after a day I taught class and arrived home relatively late) did you miss me today? Son: you were gone?

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