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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Just Busy Enough
August 6, 2012 - 2:52pm

When I was in college I learned a lesson that I seem to have to keep learning, which is that I'm not really happy unless I'm at least somewhat busy. I came to think of it like riding a bicycle -- too slow, and you won't keep your balance and will fall right over; too fast, and the slightest bump in the road becomes a major problem. The problem is finding out what "somewhat busy"--or, just fast enough--means in any given situation. In college, it meant that taking the lightest course load I could and dropping one of my extra-curricular activities at the same time, did not actually translate either into higher productivity in the remaining classes nor into more happiness. I simply had more time to wallow in my own procrastinatory techniques, more time to worry about why I wasn't finishing my thesis RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. My happiest year in college I took a full course load, sang in two different choirs, and worked at least 10 hours a week. Keeping busy meant I also had to stay organized and efficient, and when I had free time it was really free and I could enjoy it. When I reduced my course load and dropped one of the choirs, I also became less efficient--and less happy.

I learned the lesson again during my first sabbatical. Owing to a fortunate combination of events, I was able to take a full year sabbatical. Everyone said to do it, that I'd regret it if I didn't, that the freedom would be wonderful. But after one completely unscheduled semester, I signed up for a non-credit class simply to give structure to my days. I still didn't get half the work done that I meant to (this may have as much to do with the kinds of plans I had made, of course, as with the time I had to fulfill them), and I found myself getting to the end of more than one day with little sense of accomplishment. I began to wallow a bit in my own inability to get work done--which, of course, made it even harder to get work done.

Lesson learned, right? Keep busy--or at least somewhat busy--and I'll be more productive and happier. And yet I did it again on a second sabbatical when, again, I had too little structured time and therefore got less done than I'd hoped--and less happily.

My dad, who has been "retired" for almost twenty years, is a good role model here. When he and my mother moved to Connecticut the year after I started my job he was technically retired, but he almost immediately found new ways to structure his days--with part-time work, gardening, and writing. The paid work and the gardening, of course, have their own timetables and an externally-imposed structure that writing lacks, and that seem--at least in his case--to increase his writing productivity. (It's embarrassing to admit how many books he's written since he retired, so I'll just say it's plenty.) Productivity is not his problem, and I've more than once heard him say he sees no reason to quit working since he enjoys it so much--and to all outward appearances, he's telling the truth. I only hope I have as much energy, and as much pleasure in my work, when I'm his age.

This summer I finally seemed to hit a sweet spot of structure and flexibility myself. Though I don't have a garden or a part-time job, I did have some externally-imposed structure with two conferences, my son's camp schedule, and just enough meetings to remind me that I do in fact enjoy spending time with my colleagues. I also, for the first time, was able to develop a little bit of a writing routine, both through a two-week writing challenge and through ( a website I discovered through the comments on a previous blog post). Knowing that I had some accountability for my writing every day really did motivate me to work on it, and I have managed to make progress on a variety of writing projects throughout the summer. In fact, I'm writing this blog post on, and knowing that I have now written at least 750 words for 20 days in a row is ridiculously satisfying.

I'm spending a few days right now at my parents' house, nominally on vacation. Though I brought "work" books to read, they are also pleasure reading--and, at that, I've spent more time on my knitting than on the reading. There's no structure at all to my time right now other than the very flexible timetable of meals and naps. Productivity is not really at issue, though--a brief vacation is nothing like a sabbatical. A few days completely "off"--even the two glorious weeks that I had last summer--can be energizing rather than paralyzing, the lack of structure just enough to remind me of how pleasant the structure will be when it returns.

And return it will, soon enough. I'm all too aware of the approaching end of summer and the externally-imposed structure of the academic day--class time, meetings, grading, and prep--that will be my lot soon enough. The trick will be to maintain this writing rhythm when that happens--to make sure I'm just busy enough to stay upright.



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