I was in a late afternoon meeting last Friday with a group of the kind of folks who are likely to be in a late afternoon meeting on a Friday. I think we had a dean and three department chairs there as well as at least two program coordinators—folks, in other words, who do a good bit of service, or who have put in so much time doing service in the past that they are now doing it full-time as administrators. Everyone was breathing that kind of sigh that one does at the end of a long week, and I said, “well, at least it’s Friday.” At which at least three people said, “so?” There were field trips to take students on and talks to give and for a moment it seemed as if no one was going to get a weekend out of it.
And I felt guilty.
Now, realistically, I have nothing to feel guilty about. I worked hard all week, and I was in fact bringing my laptop home to do more work. As it happened, I forgot my power cord…and had to borrow my son’s to keep up with my work. I would like to tell you that I only worked as long as I had power left in the laptop battery, but in fact I charged it up and ran it out at least twice, and switched over to my iPad last night because I didn’t want to disturb him again by barging into his room late at night to borrow the cord one more time.
So why did I feel guilty? Maybe it’s an occupational hazard — after all, academics are in a career where there is always something else you could be doing, or (even worse) could have done. Some of my friends think that this kind of academic guilt is compounded by gender, or parental status, and certainly I’m not stranger to maternal guilt as well. Maybe it’s a twist of my own personality — my parents say I was a fretful child, and maybe I’ve channeled that into a career that rewards a certain amount of fretting.
Whatever the reason, there it was. As I went through my weekend, though, I can’t say that I gave it a lot more thought. Rather than guilt, I felt relief — relief that I had the time to get the house a little cleaner than it had been, that I did not have to go in to work for a couple hours, as I’d done the previous Saturday, that I had some time to chat with my daughter (by phone) and my son (in person) and find out a little more about how classes were going for both of them.
Because if I hadn’t done that, I would really have felt guilty.
So I can’t win, obviously, and I imagine many of my readers can’t, either — we do, after all, share certain personality traits as academics. But here’s what helped me: one of the best things I have done for myself in the last few years is develop a relationship with an “accountability buddy.” This is a friend of mine who does not work or live near me, with whom I email regularly, just to check in on tasks accomplished, goals set, etc. Both of us are parents, and we share a number of common interests, but our lives are very different. Still, the best thing we can do for each other is a little ritual absolution—she tells me, and I tell her, that it’s ok. You don’t have to feel guilty. You’re doing a lot. We can also tell each other when we’re slacking off — or I assume we can. The thing is, that hasn’t happened yet.