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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Balancing with young children
May 12, 2010 - 11:48am

In surfing around the web I came upon this old thread, started in January last year on the Chronicle's “Balancing work and life” forum, and then picked up again in June. A young tenure-track faculty member at a research-intensive university with two under-two year olds started the thread with the post: “I’m thinking of leaving academia” (for the reasons that she has become overwhelmed with balancing the job and family. “The hours and increasing expectations [of her job] are killing me,” she says, and she questions her interest in much of what an academic job entails. There is little give at home: her husband also has a consuming and more lucrative career, leaving little possibility for him to take up more child-related duties). Even though there is no longer current activity on this thread the topic is still, of course, extremely relevant and the interaction is fascinating to read. I read through the posts with great interest and found myself thinking about several recurring themes.

1. First, just generally: Technology has changed so much the opportunities for getting advice on situations like this since when I was in grad school (which really doesn’t seem like it was that long ago!). This important conversation went on for months, and has been read a total of 13,184 times. Not only helpful for Momprof, the individual who initiated the discussion around her situation, but this conversation provides much needed food for thought for many others in similar situations (several of whom chimed in), and advice came from a wide range of informed, experienced perspectives and opinions.

2. This series of posts made me cogitate on the prestige of tenure-track positions. How is it that people will continue to cling to a tenure-track job as it pulls them into depression, makes them commute away hours of their day, their marriage deteriorates, they spend far less time with their children than they desire. Even as Momprof reveals more and more that she is “in agony” in her position and worried about the number of hours it takes to be successful, she still gets much advice to hang in there, hire more care, lower your standards, or perhaps to try shifting to a lower-tier university (although the consensus is that this would probably not decrease her workload, just shift the emphasis from research to teaching). The idea that leaving academia is almost guaranteed to be an irreversible move has tremendous sway, and I’m sure provides a huge incentive for people to stay, even if they desperately want to leave their position. So why does a desirable job in academia need to be so all or nothing? Why can’t there be more, acceptable in-betweens? And why is leaving academia such a one-way street?

3. In this forum, many times the advice refrain to Momprof was: don’t make this decision now, while you are run down with such young children. Hold out through the oh-so-hard couple of years more that the kids are young and needy and nobody is sleeping well. It does get easier to balance when the kids get older, but it is very hard to see anything when you are low and sleep deprived. One contributor said: I have “watched women leave the career-track, very happy and relieved for a few years…they start crashing when the kids started school”. To me this screams out for reform. Can we not either (a) make the process of having a career job something that a mother can accomplish, and build into something bigger over time or (b) rather than seeing these women who leave their careers as failing, can we not help them get back into their career track again once it’s “easier”?

We’ve come a long way with the technology to discuss these problems and agonize over limited choices, now we need more action to continue to fix the problems.


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