Buy the Pie

Frantic? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Rena Seltzer recommends five ways that women in academe can avoid being pulled in too many directions.

September 25, 2015

Pulled in too many directions? Conflicting roles may be holding you back.

Leslie, a researcher and endocrinologist, was frustrated after losing a weekend morning to painting furniture at her kids’ school. Leslie sighed and told me, as part of my academic career-coaching work, “We really shouldn’t have taken this on. We thought it was something we could all do together, but the kids couldn’t help much, and they ended up playing in the next room while Jeff and I worked. I’m disappointed because we didn’t have much time with the kids this weekend, and with school starting, things will get even more hectic.”

The Siren Song of the PTA

To understand why it is hard for someone like Leslie to say no to volunteering, one needs to consider role conflict. Leslie’s gender socialization told her that as a caring mom, she should be actively involved at her children’s school, but the demands of her academic career left her with limited time. The school’s culture of volunteering created external pressure, but there was internal pressure as well. In the end Leslie realized that although she could not take on big projects or weekly commitments, she could occasionally take off a couple of hours to volunteer in the classroom or watch a performance. This middle ground fulfilled her desire for involvement without causing undo stress.


The academic women I coach frequently feel pulled in opposite directions by their dual roles of professor and caregiver. Sally, an assistant professor with young children, felt her stress level rise when she realized how much an upcoming visit from her in-laws would interfere with her research schedule. I asked if Sally could work and leave the in-laws on duty with her kids for some of the visit. Sally found her in-laws to be challenging, so she feared that taking time away might hurt their feelings. However, she decided to give it a try.

When we spoke afterward, Sally told me that the grandparents took her kids on excursions to the park and the zoo and hung out with them at home while Sally worked. Having some time away every day allowed her to be more patient with her in-laws, and they not only were not hurt that Sally was less available but they enjoyed the time alone with the kids. In fact, at the end of the visit, her in-laws declared, “This was the best visit we ever had!”

Perpetual Filial Piety

Nicole was raised in a working-class household by parents who both punched time clocks. Despite valuing education and being proud of their daughter, her parents inadvertently add to Nicole’s stress. Unlike their middle- and upper-class counterparts, Nicole’s parents expect regular, hands-on assistance from their adult children. Nicole would be glad to hire paid helpers, but her parents won’t accept that. And so even with young children at home and the pressure to write and publish, Nicole makes the four-hour drive to visit her parents every month to help them with household tasks.

In spite of this, Nicole’s parents sometimes complain that she does not do enough for them. As in Nicole’s white, working-class family, emphasis on respecting and supporting elders is also more pronounced in Asian, Latino and African-American cultures than in white middle- and upper-class America. These cultural values (as well as language, economic and cultural barriers) play out in caregiving, with Asian-Americans, Latinos/as, and African-Americans all being more likely to provide hands-on care for their older relatives than European Americans. Over time Nicole has come to accept that there might always be a gap between what she can offer and her parents’ ideal of how she should relate to them.

If I Want It Done Right …

Another challenge for many women is that their spouse “won’t do it as well as I do.” At a Conference for Women Physicians, Dr. Linda Hotchkiss told the group about how she became fed up with being the parent who woke up with her son on both weekend mornings:

When I brought it up with my husband, I was all pumped up with indignation and ready to do battle. His immediate response was, “You’re absolutely right, I’ll take over Sunday mornings. That seems more than fair.” And there I had been all ready for an argument, and his prompt agreement took the air right out of me.

And when Sunday came, he jumped right up when our son woke up, just as he had agreed to do.

But I couldn’t help listening to the sounds from downstairs, and I heard breakfast noises, but they weren’t my breakfast noises, so I just had to go down to see what was happening. As I started into the kitchen, I realized my son had barbecue sauce all over his face! My husband and son were at the breakfast table eating the leftover ribs from the takeout we had for dinner the night before. Now armed with the incontrovertible evidence that only I could ensure our son would eat truly nutritional meals, my hands went up on my hips, my eyebrows went down, and I was about to start lecturing my husband about how ribs are not a balanced breakfast. Before I began to breathe fire, my husband looked me dead in eye and said, “Go back to bed. Either I am going to do this my way, or you can do it. Your choice.”

There was a very, very long pause. And I came to my senses—and mulled over the reality that maybe it wouldn’t kill my son to occasionally have ribs for breakfast. In fact, the trade-off of a less than “ideal” morning meal was worth my chance to catch up on rest once a week. So I quietly turned around and went back up to bed.

Five Solutions for Greater Balance

If some or all of these stories resonate with you, try these five strategies:

  • Rewrite your job description. Women carry unconscious schemas of what it means to be a caring mom. If your schema includes leading the PTA and dropping all work activities to play hostess to out-of-town guests, it may be time to write a new job description.
  • Be aware of how cultural prescriptions add to the challenge of navigating dual roles. If you have extensive obligations to your extended family, you will need to be even more protective of the time that remains. It also helps to have a confidant or two who understand the challenges of balancing the cultural expectations of your family of origin and the demands of an academic job.
  • If you are hesitant to delegate to your spouse, ask yourself, “So what? So what if our child is wearing clashing colors? So what if we don’t give the perfect wedding gift?” If you can live with the “so what,” go ahead and delegate the task.
  • Buy the pie. A busy academic I work with enjoys living in close proximity to her extended family and takes part in frequent family gatherings. Whether she is hosting or visiting, she can manage her own work and the social obligations only by limiting the time spent on food preparation. Her slogan is “Buy the pie!”
  • If it’s not a “hell, yes” it needs to be a “hell, no!” Whether it's a volunteer job at your kid’s school or a service task for your department, limit your involvement to tasks that fill your heart and clearly align with your goals. If there are not important career considerations in the decision, and you are wavering, take that as your cue to (politely) say, “Hell, no!”


Rena Seltzer is president of Leader Academic, a national coaching and training business based in Ann Arbor, Mich. This essay is adapted from her new book, The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life (Stylus).


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