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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Balancing the little stuff (or, stopping for slugs)
February 25, 2009 - 4:27am


Last fall I broke my pinkie toe. Already running late, I had rushed back into the house to grab a warm jacket for my daughter when I tripped over the luggage our houseguests had conveniently placed by the door in preparation for their departure. It wasn’t anyone’s fault—our guests weren’t expecting me to come racing back into the house at top speed. But the painful days afterwards (a broken little toe is no little thing, I quickly discovered) were a reminder that sometimes I live a bit too close to the edge—it’s always rush, rush, rush.

Aside from the stress of it all, the problem with having day-to-day things in such a precarious state of balance is that if the routine is thrown off just a little—a suitcase where it wasn’t expected or the cat throwing up just as we’re headed out the door—then chaos ensues. As a former academic mom and now as an at-home mom, I’ve found managing the little stuff equally difficult, although the framework of a teaching schedule and a childcare provider’s hours imposed a certain amount of structure. I was naïve enough to think that once I stopped teaching I’d have more than enough time to keep the necessities of home life in happy order. Maybe it says more about my own personality quirks, but I still dash back into the house to grab things I’ve forgotten, I still scramble to have dinner ready, and I still forget appointments. In part, perhaps I simply allow life’s minutiae to expand to fill my available time. However, I also think that we SAHMs place unreasonable expectations on ourselves. And maybe I need to stay home more often! The biggest difference between my current life and my prior academic life is that I’m more flexible as an SAHM and disturbances to the daily structure are usually mere annoyances. In my academic days a disruption to the tightly balanced schedule (such as a childcare provider failing to show up) was not trivial and could be a disaster.

I’d like to be easy-going, but just when we manage to leave the house on time I suddenly have to run back inside for the grocery list. Do we have time to stop and observe a snail crossing the garden path? No! And I, the biologist, am ashamed to admit that I actually said the following to my kids one morning: “I know you’re very interested in looking at those slugs, but you’re going to be late for school. Let’s go!” How I long to be one of those organized, laid-back moms who plan time for their children to stop and sniff the flowers or rescue the worms from the sidewalk on the way to school (I’m not sure I know any, but I’m sure those mothers exist). I try, but I want to try harder.

Then I learned a little lesson from a woodpecker. On a recent Saturday morning, my children and I raced along a short-cut through the woods near our house to get to the city bus stop. My son had a music class, and we had to catch a bus that comes every half hour on weekends. Just as we dashed out of the woods laughing and making all kinds of noise, we saw a neighbor motioning for us to stop and be quiet. He and his boys were watching a pileated woodpecker, no more than a few feet away from us, as it enlarged a hole in a tree. It was a black and white giant of a bird with a magnificent crimson crest, and we stood with our friends and marveled over it together as our bus went by. My son was a little bit late for his class, but the kids and I agreed that missing the bus for the woodpecker was well worth it. Maybe the slugs and snails are worth it too.



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