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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Time Management
April 6, 2009 - 10:13pm


My sixth-grade son Nick recently had to write a “reflection” piece after finishing a sixth-grade math project. It began with a sentence something like this: “I basically just scraped by at the last minute on this one.” This was the occasion for a teachable moment at home — how aware is he of his audience? What is the purpose of the reflection piece? What, in other words, did he learn?

Eventually he came up with something a little different, but he still did insist on including his reflections on time management: “I learned that I need to get started before the last minute,” he wrote.

Ah, don’t we all?

I used to know a woman who, in her position as (among other things) a volunteer coordinator, used to hear “I don’t have the time” quite a bit. Her response was always, “you have the same 24 hours in the day that I do.” While this was and is undeniably true, it wasn’t very helpful. I finally said to her, yes, I do, but my hours are already committed in a variety of ways that yours aren’t, and if you acknowledge that I’ll be more likely to want to find an hour or two for you. Her paid job, after all, was with the organization for which she was recruiting volunteers. Mine, of course, was not.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time management in the last couple of weeks, since going to and returning from my conference. I’ve been playing catch-up since I went away, “just scraping by” some days. I may be savvy enough not to admit it (well, I just blew that one, didn’t I?), but I still feel it.

At a lunch for women faculty recently I heard three of my colleagues talk about time management. Each proffered a variant on the same basic advice: compartmentalize. Segregate your research from your teaching, your service from both, and make sure your family life and your work are well separated, too.

Sounds good, but that’s not the way my life works. My family has always been a part of my job, or my job part of my family, ever since I married a fellow graduate student. And, to my great relief, my teaching and research do actually feed each other: I teach books when I want to write about them, shamelessly drawing on classroom discussion in my analyses of texts. My major service commitment right now involves our first-year curriculum, and since I have spent a good bit of my career working with first-year students, I feel that my teaching is feeding this work as well. The fact that my daughter is herself about to be a first-year student may also be significant in this regard. I bring my work home, and I talk about it at the dinner table, and if I didn’t, I can’t imagine I’d get it done at all. So I’m not really managing my time well, I suppose, but I am finding it rich and meaningful nonetheless.

I’m reminded of the tea-party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is bewildered by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare’s attitudes towards time.


“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.

“Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”

“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied; “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”

“Ah! That accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.” (ch. VII)


Alas, I am apparently not on such good terms with Time as the Hatter, so I can’t stop time long enough to have tea three times in a row (though imagine the possibilities!). But I’ll try to remember that it’s not about me beating Time OR Time beating me; we need to coexist. For me, that means compartmentalized management is less likely than something that looks a little more chaotic, but so far it’s still working, so I’m not giving in yet.


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