I read a piece in the Chronicle recently about learning to use unstructured time productively. Or, that’s what I thought it was about. As I read further, however, it seemed more to be about convincing people (and yourself) that you’re working when it doesn’t look like you are. That’s, of course, a very different animal, and one that academic mothers in particular may have trouble with.
Last week I went to another in a series of lunches being held on my campus to talk about women and the tenure process. At this one, several academic mothers spoke about how they had managed their process — all, I might add, with grace and success. One in particular stands out for me; she mentioned that while she and her husband had not taken on conventional gender roles in their marriage before kids, she was now the one to do all the kid-related stuff, the pediatrician’s appointments and the school pickups and the sick days. She said it had worked out that way because his job required fixed hours, while hers were flexible.
And of course they are, as are mine, as are those of all academics, parents or not. But we sometimes shortchange ourselves — and our work — if we allow that flexibility to turn into “free time” or “errand time” or any number of other time-consuming things. Because, really, that flexible time is still time we could be spending on our research, our teaching, or even our innumerable service commitments. We’ll still have to find that time, and if it’s not between 8:00 am and 6:00 pm then it will be early in the morning, or late at night, or on the weekend.
Or, as for me today, on a snow day. (I’m spending part of mine in the office, though that’s as much because there’s heat here — and not at home — as because I have additional work to catch up on.) Or on sabbatical, as I found last year when I took on a volunteer job at my daughter’s school “because I had the time.” That time came from somewhere. Actually, it came from any number of places, from research and dinner prep and late nights that could have been spent watching movies, to name just a few.
Flexible hours are great, don’t get me wrong. But my biggest issue with them is not, as it seems to be for the Chronicle writer, making them look productive. Rather, it’s finding the time to be productive when my work bleeds into everything else and then doesn’t look like anything at all. I’m not spending my flexible hours driving to the coast, after all. I’m spending them right here in the thick of things. I’m writing this blog post in my office, it’s true, but just as often I write (or grade, or answer student e-mails) while sitting on the couch at home. I look as if I might be playing on Facebook, so I’m interruptible — and, believe me, I get interrupted. But if I sequester myself in the study, I miss out on some of the parts of family life I want to witness.
As is so often the case, I don’t really have a solution here. I’m reminded of the story that’s often told of Jane Austen, writing away in the drawing room, covering her manuscript when guests entered. Learning to produce in the midst of chaos has been good for me, I think, but there are days — many of them! — when I long for some order as well.