A radio interview I heard yesterday completely derailed the blog theme I’d planned for this week (I’ll have to save the sex topic for next time). Let’s just say I’ve become a little obsessed with obsessiveness since hearing the program. The interview  (from CBC radio’s “The Current”) was titled “Obsessive Work” and featured an ornithologist named Glen Chilton who’s just published a book about his 15 year obsession with tracking down every stuffed specimen of the extinct Labrador duck. Chilton describes himself as obsessive since childhood, a quality he believes is important in a successful scientist since one has to be obsessive to stick with a project through failures, dead-ends, and disappointments. I was intrigued by that statement and at first agreed with it entirely. In fact the same could be said of most academics, who are certainly not in it for the lucrative salaries and easy work schedule.
There may be a time in every academic’s life when we can indulge in our obsessions and become completely absorbed in the research that drives us. I certainly did that in graduate school, and often forgot about meals or paying bills. My husband had a post-doc in another city, so I didn’t have to think about spending time with him either.
But what happens when kids are in the picture? And a spouse or partner? Unfettered obsession is a luxury if one is to take part fully in raising one’s children and participating in family life. I know a number of male scientists of my father’s generation who I think would have fit the stereotype of the obsessed, absent-minded researcher whose work often took precedence over family. And behind each of these men was a supportive, understanding wife who managed household affairs and looked after children so that her husband could be free to focus on his obsession. The successful parent-scientists I see today may still be a bit obsessive about their work, but they have the discipline and ability to manage their time in such a way that they switch back and forth nimbly (or at least appear to) from work to family. Can one still be called obsessive if she can control it when her children need her full attention? I think time management skill is a better predictor of success as both scientist and parent when children are also a concern.
Time management is a big topic at our house these days. My son is in third grade this year and suddenly he has homework to do most nights. Unfortunately for my son’s study habits, he’s a dreamer who could easily spend all day tinkering with new Lego creations. In fact, he’s pretty obsessive when it comes to Lego. When he’s deeply absorbed in his building, it’s very difficult to bring him back to the present and have him start homework. We’ve devised a strict schedule in which he has a snack and begins homework right after school so that there’s no time to become engaged in his own projects. I feel like a terrible taskmaster, and I certainly don’t want to squelch his creativity. I hope that the lessons I’m trying to teach him about getting the work done first will be internalized and useful down the road. But he’s so much like me. None of what my mom tried to teach me sank in, and I certainly gave in to my obsessiveness. I had to learn my own lessons about time management through trial and many errors. With my son, of course I also try to ensure that there’s lots of down time during the week when he can become deeply absorbed in designing paper airplanes or elaborate Lego contraptions. I don’t want to reign in his obsessive tendencies entirely, and I probably couldn’t even if I wanted to.