When I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child, a senior female colleague gave me some unsolicited advice: I should pump as much as possible so that my husband could feed the baby while I worked at night. I was surprised because it was so intrusive and presumptuous, and because I was a bit overwhelmed with the ever-increasing reality of becoming a mother. Was she kidding? I had no more idea of what kind of baby my son would be than the kind of mother I would be. The idea that I would strategize about feeding him before he was born—to make time for work, no less— was bizarre. Surely there’d be time to figure that out after I met him.
I shrugged off her remark as insensitive, and assumed it was her awkward way of helping me negotiate work and parenthood.
But it’s occurred to me over time that there’s something a bit sinister in the way some women react to other women and their challenges with work-life balance. I’m not sure my observations are unique or new, but we certainly don’t talk about it enough. And we should, for the sake of each other and the academy in general.
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Work-life balance. We talk about it as if it’s a real thing. It’s not.
For a long time, I bought into the image of this balance as a scale. It seemed reasonable enough, especially when successful balancers explained how it was done: just identify required work tasks and requisite timelines, set aside the hours required to accomplish the tasks within the timelines, and do the work. Repeat on the life side. TADA! Balance.
But the analogy of a scale is all wrong. The weights are never even because we begin the balancing with work. There are good reasons for this, not least that work is usually non-negotiable; most of us have to work. Work is also relatively predictable: usually we know what’s expected, when it’s expected, and how to achieve it. And, significantly, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be selective, work is also intrinsically valuable and essential to our self-worth and life satisfaction. It’s not surprising, then, that we focus on work first when trying to figure out some semblance of balance in our lives.
For people in good health and with little if any responsibility for others, the life side of the scale can be predictable too. Even so, once we give work the first cut at our time and energy, there are few resources left for non-work stuff. In academia, work is a gas and it fills the space. We try to make the most of the life things in an attempt to level the scales. And it often seems like balance even though the scale tips (sometimes steeply) towards work.
Still, the imbalanced balance can be great — wonderful, even — in this relatively unencumbered world where the line between work and everything else is a bit porous. We value our work and it gives our life meaning, so we happily sacrifice the other things we might do with our time.
Eventually, though, many of us enthusiastically add a partner and children. We dutifully and even happily add sick and/or aging parents to our daily lives. We unfortunately experience personal health issues. And all hell breaks loose. Every bit of predictability disappears. And it happens—poof!— in what seems like a blink of an eye. Life as we know it changes into something completely unknown … and unknowable. And however joyous some of these life-changing events may be, the result resembles a massive cluster fuck that rests not on a scale but a precarious house-of-cards on the verge of falling to pieces at any moment.
Yet the work does not change. It goes on, it needs to be done. It is not negotiable. And for many of us, we want it to go on. Again, work is part of who we are. We want to work.
For those who have partners or other sources of assistance, stabilizing the house-of-cards is (more) doable because there is someone(s) or something(s) available to complete the life tasks. These ideal workers continue to meet work obligations because they are not responsible for managing the chaos that exists elsewhere in their lives. Historically, these workers were men with wives at home, and this is still largely true. Even as women have entered the workforce — and some men have exited — much of home and childcare tasks remain the responsibility of women.
Some working women seem to be able to do it all, and effortlessly. They are “superwomen,” who appear to seamlessly adapt to the various challenges posed by life changes. They can do — and have — it all.
A closer look, though, often reveals that the ease is a misperception as these women have various sources of help in accomplishing the many life tasks that make it possible to meet—or even surpass— the demands of work. It is not to diminish their intellectual merit and multitasking skills to suggest that luck—in terms of partners, financial resources, proximity to family and friends, severity of health issues, the personalities and needs of their children, and other factors—plays a significant role in their ability to keep their fragile houses relatively stable.
For the many more women with less, and sometimes no, support, the effort to keep the house standing comes with the high price of cutting corners at home, at work, and more often, both. There is a constant pull of one and then the other, with little relief. It is exhausting. And it produces a unique kind of anxiety and guilt, and feeling of incompetence, that is difficult to overcome, especially when there are superwomen—real or perceived—against whom we judge ourselves and are judged by others. In the end, some of us seem to manage it more effectively than others. While part of our ability to cope may be a function of merit and skill, a huge part of it is luck.
The very worst part of it, though, is that the process of becoming a working mother (or other caregiver) is seen by others and ourselves as some kind of rite of passage that gives value and justification to the sacrifices that we make.
We—us women— talk about learning from those who came before us, supporting those who are next to us, and paving the way for those who come later. But that’s not always the way it works. If we have struggled, made sacrifices, taken hits, then that is part of our narrative of success. And it is the way we perceive the appropriate narrative of others. I struggled, so should you. I struggled, it worked for me, it will work for you. If you don’t make the right sacrifices, you will fail. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t make the right sacrifices.
We are the Cans and the Cannots. We get what we deserve. And we deserve what we get.
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My colleague may have meant well. But she was most certainly delivering a warning, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. She and others would be watching my commitment to work as I became a parent.
Hindsight being what it is, I now recognize some of the not-so-subtle signs over the years about expectations for my productivity as a mother. I suspect they are so familiar to so many mothers (and perhaps some fathers too) as to be trite: the off-hand remark about your leaving early from a late afternoon meeting, or not having been able to attend at all; the awkward silence in a discussion about the conference you missed because it involved travel; the knowing look when you turn down an invitation to serve on a(nother) committee; the query about how you’re doing that is as much (if not more) an evaluation of your performance than sincere interest. And, the advice that seems helpful but is a veiled message about the appropriate priorities for success.
If I noticed any of these, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them. In fewer than three years, smack in the middle of my probationary period, I had a baby, my father died, and I had another baby. And those were just the big things. I didn’t have the luxury of fussing about what people in my department or elsewhere may or may not have been saying about my ability to “balance” work and life, or to meet some artificial standards of behavior set by a few women (or men) who thought I had dues to pay for their long-ago sacrifices. I had a shit show (literally and figuratively) going on and every ounce of energy I had was spent keeping my very vulnerable house-of-cards standing.
By every measure—except the tenure one, of course—I did pretty well. Both pre-tenure reviews were positive; if I missed informal cues along the way because I was too exhausted to exercise my mind-reading super powers, I did not miss the formal written evaluations of my work performance. As for the rest of it, I managed to keep my children healthy and happy and I was able to provide some comfort and dignity for my dad in the last weeks of his life. I was (I am) lucky to have an exceptionally supportive spouse and loving family and friends who had my back during the many times when I thought I would surely lose my mind and fall to pieces.
Could I have accomplished more “at the office” during this period? Absolutely. I made a lot of sacrifices in my life to meet my work obligations, but I didn’t cut every corner. I know women who have, and do.
I could provide a list of my so-called choices—the decisions I made about what was important at any given moment—but I won’t because it shouldn’t matter. Every woman (every parent and caregiver) does what they need—what they can—to keep it all afloat. There aren’t “right” or “wrong” sacrifices, there are just difficult and sometimes impossible situations that require us to make hard decisions. Most of them go unseen by others as we struggle privately to do our best. We should be able to count on others not to judge what they don’t know.
I am fortunate to know many remarkable people in the academy—women and men—who see beyond themselves and their own experiences to support others in their pursuit of success, both at work and in life. They know that there’s little distinction between work and the rest of life, and that trajectories are rarely linear. They take the long view in supporting individuals careers and building institutions.
And there are many who don’t.
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Several months ago, a woman posted to the PoliSciRumors blog in response to my tenure denial story and her words have stuck with me.