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Far From Home
February 12, 2012 - 9:22pm

I read Itir Toksöz’s post on the merits of scholarly travel in August of last year, just as I was finalizing the details for my most recent trip to Brazil. Toksöz recognizes that traveling too frequently may be costly in terms of neglected “school” work, but argues persuasively in favor of traveling to conferences, in particular, as necessary for academic exchange and networking. I agree; however, scholars who are also parents need to consider the impact their work-related travel can have on their families.

Fall quarter instruction doesn’t begin on my campus until the very end of September, so my stint in Brazil earlier that month did not measurably affect my ability to fulfill my scholarly obligations. Rather, it destabilized my household in a way that took me entirely by surprise then, and continues to temper my decisions concerning travel for research and networking.

I was initiated into the ranks of Americans who must travel for their jobs before I was even employed. I attended a workshop on climate change in San Diego, CA – roughly two hours from where I was studying in Los Angeles, CA – just after passing my written Ph.D. exams; a year later, I presented the first substantive chapter of my dissertation at a conference on the political economy of climate change – in Chantilly, France. My spouse swears that I spent more time abroad than at home between that trip and the birth of our first child three years later.

Motherhood initially clipped my wings, confining my scholarly rambling – mostly – to short trips within the “lower 48” United states; however, I began accepting longer engagements and acquiring passport stamps at a steady clip once my youngest child was weaned. In the twelve months preceding my trip to Brazil last September, I was away from home up to a third of every month, including trips to Latin America, and West Africa.

My spouse uses his relatively generous vacation time throughout the year to play single parent while I’m away. This arrangement has worked really well. “Perhaps too well,” I’ve thought at times. My spouse works two counties away, meaning that I juggle the kids’ school schedules and athletic practices and other commitments, in addition to my own teaching schedule and other scholarly responsibilities, almost single-handedly on weekdays. In contrast, while I’m away, they’re treated to an überpresent  “Mr. Mom,” and appear to thrive in his care.

No wonder I was taken aback by the familial breakdown I faced during the week just prior to my departure for Rio de Janeiro. First, my very capable spouse started a “heated debate” by questioning my going so far away, considering our children had just started their fall school term. Then my 10-year-old came down with some variation on the common cold, and uncharacteristically demanded my ministrations. His veritable physical collapse was followed by my 14-year-old daughter’s retreat to bed with what she claimed was the same bug, but which turned out to be menstrual cramps. Finally, my youngest, then six-year-old Olivia, initiated her ongoing preoccupation with death. My eldest alone remained “normal” and unperturbed by my impending absence.

By the time I boarded the plane, I was emotionally exhausted and deeply torn – at once nearly ecstatic to be leaving the asylum, and downright guilty for abandoning my unprecedentedly needy family.

Their collectively odd behavior naturally prompted me to reconsider my tendency to embrace opportunities to travel – to conduct research as well as to attend workshops, meetings, and academic conferences. I know that my penchant for travelling is not unusual. According to the U.S. Travel Association, an advocate for travel in the United States, a fifth of working Americans have jobs that require travel. A recent Trip Advisor survey indicates that a majority of them consider such travel a perk.

Could there be a travel tipping point with respect to the contemporary work-life balance? The blogosphere appears to support scholarly research on this issue: it depends. At least, tenured professors like myself arguably belong to the fortunate few professionals who possess job security, work they enjoy, and a flexible schedule that permits optimal work-life balances.

So what gives?

I eventually discovered the roots of Olivia’s reaction. I left on September 12, just a day after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I hazard to guess that the oft televised collapse of the twin towers had a indelible, frightening affect on her fragile psyche. My spouse routinely rehearses what he’ll tell our children if my plane goes down, this was the first time that Olivia associated mom’s airplane flight with disaster and death. Fantastic! Why couldn’t she adopt her siblings’ usual eagerness for me to go away, if only so I can return with carefully selected gifts for each of them?

Other than that insight, I can only say that we are clearly missed when we’re away. Whatever the reason for our scholarly travel, it creates a hole in our homes that is simply more difficult to fill than any corresponding rift in the fabric of our campus communities. Yeah, I’m feeling just a little stupid that it’s taken me this long to realize that.

Juliann Emmons Allison is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Riverside. Her research and teaching interests include environmental politics, gender and politics, international relations, and political economy.



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