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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: the sabbatical ends
August 20, 2009 - 7:30am

Well, I can’t live in denial any longer: the end of my sabbatical is fast approaching.

In two weeks I begin teaching four courses, five days a week, chairing a search committee, attending numerous meetings, and re-immersing myself in campus politics.

This has been my first sabbatical after teaching for almost 20 years and it has been a revelation to exist outside of the rhythms of the academic calendar, to get away from the energy of the university, and to focus entirely on research and writing. I’ve also been able to spend more time with my daughter before she heads off to kindergarten. I am palpably less stressed, healthier, more social, and more aware of the world around me. Of course, the real trick will be to keep this level of calm happiness as I reenter the school year. Is it even possible?

As I sit down to write my sabbatical report, I think of two versions: the official and the unofficial one. Officially, I have accomplished a nice bit, and even though I’m not yet done with the main work I proposed, I’m happily re-engaged in that project and see the end in sight. Unofficially, though, this year been even more productive: in addition to being healthier and happier, I’ve connected with long-lost friends, cemented current friendships, and read for pleasure. Maybe more than anything, I have been able to gain some distance from the academic world that has so consumed me. Last fall was one of the only times I experienced an autumn without being in class. I realize that there is a larger world out there.

Since I stayed in town for most of my sabbatical, I would occasionally venture to campus from time to time (usually for ILL books). From a distance, the university did not seem a stressful place to work. I teach literature, after all, and the material itself is pleasurable and my colleagues mostly intelligent and decent. When I ran into former students, they seemed so sweet, enthusiastic, and good-hearted; I realized I missed them when I started a conversation with a young woman in a café who was reading Jane Eyre. “How far along are you in the book?” I asked feverishly, “Are you enjoying it?” Perhaps it was my overly-friendly smile, but she picked up her book and ran away. After spending a lot of time with a willful 5 year old, I miss 20 year old students, most of whom never covered their ears and yelled when I tried to talk to them.

So why do my colleagues look so harried — the way I’m sure I looked a year ago? For me at least, academic work is stressful because of the evaluation and competition attending every task. It’s hard enough to engage a large room full of strangers without knowing you will be evaluated mercilessly (and anonymously) by each and every one. And I feel expected to wow, dazzle, and edify. Likewise with scholarship: writing itself is not painful, I realize, it is the attendant self-doubt. I know that competition is considered by many to be a great stimulus; however, I find it distracting and enervating. But worse is the stress I seem to absorb from those around me. Even before the current economic crisis, it seemed most encounters on campus were permeated by discontent, anxiety, and stress. Why is that?

So, I’m going to try my best to maintain my sabbatical glow during the upcoming year. I welcome any and all advice.


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