The issue of balance.

Yesterday DrMrA and I took the girls to a neighboring major city to go see ‘The Nutcracker’, which was lovely. Of course there was a lot of arguing before we left about whether or not it would be appropriate to wear athletic attire (shorts!) into the ballet- BigA pretty much won’t wear anything else.  She’s about to be 11 and oh MAN- she’s doing teenagerdom early. Both kids enjoyed the ballet- LittleA with eyes big as saucers and Julia-Roberts-pretty-woman type enthusiastic clapping after every dance, and BigA playing the big sister role explaining the story in the upcoming sections. Did I mention that I really, REALLY enjoy the time we spend together as a family, all four of us in the same place simultaneously.  These times are frighteningly rare.

During the regular work week, we are barely all together except between the hours of 6-6:30 am, and then again after 8 pm, and even this doesn’t usually hold.  As most of you know we are a two-TT-academic career couple, and the time demands of this are very difficult. How do we make this work? Well, the answer is that we try to get through each day one at a time, and there is a healthy give and take about hours spent working between the two of us adults. We sort of split up the schedule, so that one person leaves very early in the morning and comes home by 6 pm, to let the babysitter (who does the after school care) go home.  The one of us that drops off the children at school- and is the one who gets to work late (that would be by 8 am, because the children have to be at school at 7:40)- also works late into the evening… and this can mean 9-10 pm on a regular basis, and during grant times even later. We tend to rotate days working late- on Sunday we will talk about the schedule and see who has what coming up that might require working evenings- and then we divide up the days from there. Weekends are divided based on who has a grant going on. Now I make it sound like things are evenly split 50/50 all the time.  That’s really not true, there are times when one person has the bulk of the non-8-5 hours.  When DrMrA has a grant deadline coming up- I tend to do the drop-off and pick-up… so I’ve got an 8-5 day every day in those weeks, and vice versa when I’m the one with the grant. I haven’t even mentioned what happens when one of the children is sick.

This schedule is the reason why taking breaks together as a family without any distractions and planning having as normal a family life as possible on a regular basis  is unbelievably important.  To this end we do the following …

1.  In the summer we take a rather lengthy vacation- 3 weeks usually, to a far away place- and LAPTOPS ARE NOT ALLOWED. I warn all my collaborators in advance that I am going away, they know when I’ll be back, and they are threatened within an inch of their lives not to bother me.

2. At the traditional holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas- we try NOT to travel.  I decided shortly after we had children, that those in my family who did not have young children would be the ones who would do the traveling at these times. I want to be in my own home, and establish my own traditions with my kids- so that they will remember something other than packing/unpacking and slogging through crowded airports at the holidays. BigA actually told me this year that one of her favorite things about Thanksgiving was staying at home.

3.  We take short breaks together and travel at other times. This year we didn’t have our lengthy vacation- but we took the children on 4 shorter trips (Mexico, Boston, and California) throughout the year.

4.  We severely limit the number of activities outside of school time that the children do. Last year two simultaneous soccer seasons and music lessons almost killed me. I think it is fine to do this once in a while- but I can’t sustain this semester after semester without help.  So- we will do sports but with breaks- i.e. not every semester… Last year we had 2 practices per week per child plus 1-2 games..which means 4 nights per week eating dinner in the car, and up to 3 soccer games on Saturdays- I’m not even counting how we got to violin and piano.

5.  We hire help.  You probably remember that at the beginning of the summer I decided to hire a college student to watch the children- we did this for the summer, but we also have someone who picks them up from school, takes them home to to homework and music practice- and takes them to music lessons. This means that when one of us gets home, the kids and parent can make dinner together, and can sit down and eat together at a table like normal people. I highly recommend this approach if you can find a reliable, responsible college student to help out- it has worked very well for us.

I think before I started my TT position I thought that work-life balance would be a daily thing.  I have changed my opinion of this drastically- and now see that this work-life balance is something we have to actively promote- and it comes almost unpredictably sometimes 100% in favor of work, and sometimes 100% in favor of play- and the rest of the time spent somewhere in between for both. And when things aren’t working out for some reason, we re-evaluate and make changes…


11 thoughts on “The issue of balance.

  1. I really like the idea of number 2.
    When I was growing up, we always celebrated New Year (big thing in my culture) like you do, at home, mainly because we were living overseas and our big holiday was the summer (when we go travelling back to the homeland and visit grandparents etc.).
    We did all the tradional things (preparation takes a good few days) and looking back on it now, I didn’t miss out on anything. But we had the TIME to do all the traditional things, because we weren’t travelling (and my parents weren’t stressed!)!

    I totally agree with establishing your own traditions – it’s nice to have your own family tradition, especially if both parents are working.

  2. Dr. J & Mrs. H.- Thanks but actually I had another word for it… INSANE. And as for the no laptop vacation- DrMrA would ask me for a divorce if I dared to take my laptop on vacation. That said- I don’t want to carry it either, and nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait…

    Lou- My daughters are very much into the holiday traditions. They are learning the cooking for Thanksgiving, and they love to have friends over for that day. We also have Christmas and New Years traditions as well.

    Academic- I do A LOT of thinking about priorities. Especially since I have a tendency to try to do everything in Martha Stewart style- I find that now that I’m busier – it doesn’t really matter so much that things get done the Martha Stewart way- but rather it matters that they get done by some acceptable standard, and more importantly that everyone is happy and healthy. As long as those last two are satisified, I can deal with just about everything else.

  3. I would suggest that an important thing is to assess when crunch time is necessary (say, zero lab funding)and when it is not. I find it easy to get caught up in always-eleventy and it helps to delineate when enough is enough (temporarily of course)

  4. bikemonkey-

    That’s a great suggestion. Unfortunately for us, it seems like crunch time has been going on forever- with the demands of two TT positions that are staggered in timing, and with the difficulty in getting federal funding these days. I worry about our ability to keep up this pace- and what damage is being done while it is going on.

  5. HI DrdrA,
    This is a very thoughtprovoking post. I too have 3 children, and my partner and I have two busy careers (I’m a postdoc, he is a different kind of professional). We have found it very tricky to balance family and work time, in part because as you describe there is always something at work which needs “urgent” attention. I like bikemonkeys suggestion, as this is a difficult one to manage, and immeasurably adds to the stress in our household.

    As well where I live there is a far higher expectation of daily time spent with family – so for example, one of us drops the kids off at 8.30/8.45, and they walk home/get picked up at 3.30 pm. In fact, to spend the kind of weekly hours you describe with your kids would be frowned upon by many people, which adds yet more pressure of course. Do you have this kind of guilt, or are you comfortable with how things have worked out in this way? I can totally relate to the difficulty of afterschool activity routines associated with sports, music etc. -and love your description of family time holidays.

    thanks for a great post.

  6. Anon-

    On a daily basis one of us is with the children from 6:30 am- 7:40 am, then again from 6 pm onwards. School is out for the younger one at 3 pm- but it is difficult for us to get home for that- so we have a babysitter. My older one isn’t off the bus until 4:30 pm- so that’s a little easier.

    Do I have guilt? Hell yes. Do I wonder why I devote so many hours to a career that is sometimes thankless- instead of being with my kids? Yes, sometimes, sure. Do I feel pressure from society to be a certain way- only when I can’t make the PTA meeting that’s held during normal working hours, and when the stay at home mom’s make it clear that they don’t understand my choices. Do I feel it is important to show my daughters that they can have a dream and really follow it- yes absolutely.

    But I try to do the best I can with everything- that doesn’t mean that I do it all perfectly- but I do the best I can…

  7. I don’t see guilt coming into it — if the guilt is coming from others: “Do I feel pressure from society to be a certain way- only when I can’t make the PTA meeting that’s held during normal working hours, and when the stay at home mom’s make it clear that they don’t understand my choice.”

    I think the guilt comes from thinking about whether your life is the way you want it to be. There’s a lot about the academic career that encouraged delayed gratification — finish the degree, finish the post doc, find the real job, publish the papers, get the grant, get tenure . . . . You always get to rest tomorrow, not today. If you’re joyful about what you are doing (FSP talks a lot about this, how coming into the lab, thinking about a tricky problem is something that gives her real joy), then, it’s not as much of a problem. But, if you’re unhappy with what you’re doing every day, if you’d really rather be at home at dinner, or at the soccer game, it’s much much harder.

    The children themselves are resilient (except when they’re not, but I think parents are a pretty good judge of that, and make changes if their kids need them).

  8. Neurolover-

    I do get joy from my job- for sure- otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. And I’ve learned to live with the PTA thing- and I might add that where my kids go to school a very large proportion of the moms are stay at home. I am an anomaly, for sure- and I do not fit into this group. On the other hand- at my work, only a very small number of the small number of women have children- so I somehow don’t fit into that group well either. Both of these groups have preconceived ideas of how work life balance should be- that I (and my family) just don’t fit into. I might also add that my kids are old enough to have expectations about how our family life is as well – and they are very vocal about what it is that they want and what it is that they need.

    But this is turning into a whole different post…

  9. Thanks for your comments DrdrA. Actually, I especially love your comment on showing your daughters that they can have a dream and follow it. How true, and how important. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of that one, especially when the people who criticise our choices do not necessarily see the great gift we are giving our children through our actions.

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