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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: What Do I Do All Day?
February 28, 2011 - 9:33pm

My friend and colleague in Children’s Literature, Phil Nel, spent last week in the panopticon. In a series of posts titled “What Do Professors Do All Day?” Phil chronicled his time: in class, preparing for class, working on articles, shoveling snow, talking to colleagues — all of it. Then he summarized the experience at the end of the week.

What did he discover? First, that living in the panopticon is not quite the same as just doing your job. As he says, “knowing that [he was] accountable for every minute inspired increased productivity”; in Phil’s case, he chronicled a 62-hour work week. I get tired just thinking about it!

Or was I tired already because I’m doing it, too? The second thing Phil learned, of course, is that he’s working more than forty-hour weeks pretty routinely. I found the whole experiment both fascinating and, frankly, depressing, and I’m not sure if it’s because I think he works too much, because I fear that I work too little, or because we are both delusional. That is, I never feel as if I spend 11.5 hours on the job in a day — but I come in by 8:30 most mornings, work until 5 or later (including lunch at my desk), and always do some more work in the evening. I tell myself that’s not really a long day because I take an hour for yoga at midday a couple of times a week and occasionally find the time to correspond with my daughter — but, realistically, how much time does that take out of my already-more-than-eight-hour day? And how much more than eight hours is it? I’m honestly not sure I want to know.

Last Tuesday I went to a lunch meeting with the authors of a new book, Helping Faculty find Work-Life Balance: The Path Toward Family-Friendly Institutions. The authors, Maike Philipsen and Timothy Bostic, came to some depressingly familiar conclusions: work-life balance is difficult for faculty because of the “paradox of flexibility” — if you can work any time, you can (which easily bleeds into “should”) always be working. It’s also difficult because, as Phil discovered, our work can be hard to quantify. Checking facebook is obviously not “work” — but if it’s how we keep up with new articles in our field, or find links to material we might use in class, maybe it actually is “work” after all. How can we tell? Many of us are lucky — we like our work, we incorporate it into our lives, and we achieve what balance we can by living on a continuum. For myself, working in children’s literature and raising children who read, this has been the ideal solution. I did some of my research in the early years by reading aloud to my children—though I was careful never to mark up their books, I did manage to expand my repertoire in children’s literature quite substantially with that nightly reading hour. Others draw sharp lines between “work” and “life” and that works for them — they schedule research and writing time, protect it vigorously, and then take weekends off, knowing they’ve put in their allotted hours. But both these practices have their drawbacks—they can lead to excessive guilt on the one hand (am I fully present? Am I working as hard as I could?) and excessive rigidity on the other.

As usual, I have no solutions, only more questions. (I tell my students that’s what characterizes an English course, actually.) I think it’s important to be thinking about these issues, but I’m not quite sure where to take them next. And, right now, rather than continue to mull over the issues, I need to get home and prepare dinner—and then, afterwards, get started on some grading.


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