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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: What makes a happy woman?
September 30, 2009 - 9:29pm

This week I’m teaching Frankenstein in a lower-level women’s literature course. Among the host of meaty issues, we discuss the ways that Mary Shelley’s novel critiques the male scientist’s obsessive and isolating pursuit of knowledge at the expense of family/romantic/community ties. At the novel’s end, Victor Frankenstein counsels the explorer, Captain Walton, to “seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition.”

I was musing on this as I read Liz Stockwell’s excellent post yesterday in which she discussed the contrast between the obsessiveness of an absent-minded researcher and the time management skills of a successful multi-tasker. As Liz accurately points out, this dichotomy is often gendered: the luxury of obsessing over one topic has traditionally been a male province, and usually required a supportive wife to manage the daily world/kids/household. As more women enter the workforce, there has not been a corresponding increase in househusbands.

As I’ve mentioned before, I just came back to my tenured faculty position after a year-long sabbatical in which I had the luxury of focusing on my research -- although I also spent time with my four year old daughter and took on a larger share of household duties. While on sabbatical, I relished the luxury of being able to focus, almost exclusively, on one project. Now, as I teach four (large) classes, chair a search committee, and attend faculty meetings, I find myself constantly interrupted as soon as I get on a roll. Twice a week I sit down and try to pick up the book I’m writing, but that only works when I can get out of the house. As anyone who has tried to write knows, it takes some time to get reoriented to one’s topic after several days (or weeks) of thinking about other pressing subjects. Although my husband is now working part time, we are still transitioning as he begins to take on more responsibility for the myriad details of house and child. In order to concentrate on my book, I tell him, I need to free some space up from the details of dentist appointments, school lunches, and playdates.

While I’m sure that folks can offer examples of time-management superstars who publish books, raise wonderful children, run marathons and cook gourmet meals, I would argue that distracted multi-tasking produces few masterpieces. In fact, recent studies have shown that multi-tasking is actually less efficient, since it takes most people time to shift gears. In any case, I cannot do it all.

Interestingly, recent reports that women are less happy, find that happier women are often those who “strive for imbalance,” who tilt their lives toward experiences that satisfy/fulfill them. These women privilege the things that they enjoy, things that captivate/energize/enthrall them (be it playing with one’s child, or writing a book), rather than juggling a myriad of “shoulds” or covering all their bases.

Disturbingly, the report states that women begin life happier than men, then become less content as they grow up and age. As a mother of a young daughter, this trend disturbs me. In what ways might my daughter feel pressured to stop pursuing her passions? When will she start to feel that she must cover all her bases, please everyone, juggle lots of balls, in order to feel successful?

I can’t answer these questions. All I can do, I realize, is try to be an example of a woman who doesn’t settle for trying to have it all; instead I will strive to have what I desire most.


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