It is the end of the spring semester, a time of the academic year marked by celebrations and goodbyes. It is also a time for student evaluations – both the formal ones distributed in class, but also the informal ones that come via beautifully written thank-you cards, sweet treats left in my mailbox, or short but genuine emails to let me know how I made an impact. It is a rare moment when I learn how my students see me.
Recently, I received just such an email from a former student of mine, an alumnus who graduated a year ago with whom I stay in touch. At the end of an email about some other things, she wrote:
“Of all my professors at Yale, you are the one who most keeps it real, and I cannot tell you how much you taught me about healthy approaches to work-life balance in addition to navigating the (sometimes fraught!) world of academic inquiry.”
My first reaction was to be stunned, and then to say out loud, with exasperation, “Well, it’s because I have no choice!” If I am “balanced,” I thought – or, more accurately, if my life appears balanced to the outside eye – it is because there is no one else to pick up my child from daycare so that I can work late, no other partner or grandparent that I can trade duties with. Saying “no” has become an automatic reaction. When 4:45 pm comes around, I stop what I am doing and go pick up my kid; there is no other realistic option. So “balance,” to me, feels like less of a choice than a default reality constrained by supremely difficult circumstances.
On the other hand, though, and if I’m being honest, my former student is right. The upshot of life as a single parent with no co-parent is that my work life is largely confined to the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday (otherwise known as daycare time). Though it can be frustrating, most of the time I actually appreciate that my work schedule has real limits that are non-negotiable. Most evenings and weekends, I am at the park or a museum with P; meeting up with fellow parent-friends for a meal; or cooking, cleaning, and running errands. In winter, those non-work hours crawl by, but in spring and summer (like right now) they fly by way too fast. Recently P has wanted to take “adventure walks” around the neighborhood. This past weekend that adventure turned into a two-hour bicycle ride to look at fish in the nearby lake, followed by a meander through an old cemetery, then meeting some new neighbors, and wrapping up with ice cream cones from the shop down the street. Idyllic, right? The time off is good for my productivity, too: when Monday morning comes, I am refreshed and antsy to get to work. Not once, since becoming a parent, have I suffered writer’s block, and I have produced just as much writing, if not more, than in my pre-parenting days. It is, in fact, a “balanced” life – not in the ways I would have defined it in my pre-parenthood years, to be sure, but rich and full in ways that are just as good, and often better.
After I stopped my knees from jerking, I realized that my initial reaction to my student’s comment derived largely from distaste for the phrase “work-like balance” (much like “self-care”), at least when applied to a parenting or caregiving situation. To me, the idea of “balance” suggests a sense of orderly fulfillment across multiple dimensions of life, when pleasure and leisure are planned and enjoyed alongside meaningful and satisfying work. But many days, my life doesn’t feel that way; it feels a bit chaotic and out of control, as if, in trying to balance work with parenting, I’m doing nothing particularly well (I understand that many working parents feel this way, whether or not they have co-parents or extended families nearby). And just as importantly, the “life” part of the phrase refers to all the stuff that feminists call “reproductive labor” – the laundry, grocery shopping, feeding and bathing of children – that must get done outside of work hours, and that women do disproportionately. In capturing all of this as “life” and setting it in opposition to “work,” we who use the phrase are ignoring that it, too, is work; it is unpaid and undervalued; and it is frequently not voluntary.
And yet those limits and constraints, even when not of our choosing, can be gifts in disguise, particularly in a culture and an industry, like academia in the US, that values and rewards competitiveness, hyper-critique, individualism, and endless work. This is what my student’s evaluation and my recent adventure walks with P (and, truthfully, my entire journey as a single parent) have taught me. When I decided to become pregnant, more than four years ago, I did not know that I would become a single parent, but I did know, at some intuitive level, that having a child would help me (force me) to become more “balanced.” I was, up to that point, a workaholic, a person who worked nights and weekends because I enjoyed it and who considered traveling to academic conferences a vacation. But I also recognized that my lifestyle made for a limited kind of happiness, and there was something vaguely but deeply unsatisfactory about it all. I wanted to spend more time doing the kinds of things my non-academic friends did: family barbeques on Sunday afternoons, regular vacations, bike rides, and ice cream cones. Now I am doing many of those things, and only because there is no other partner around to enable my workaholism. This is one of the truest and sweetest gifts of being a single parent.
Just as importantly, I am sometimes able to use my position to advocate against the endless creep of work into nights and weekends, a situation that affects all academics (negatively, in my view) whether they have children or not. For example, I recently finished serving on an essay prize committee. On Friday afternoon, the chair of the committee (a male senior professor) sent me and the other committee members several essays to read and asked us to submit our top choice by Sunday. I wrote back:
I am a single parent with full custody of my young child, so I am rarely able to work on weekends (also, today is Mother’s Day). As a result, I probably will not be able to finish the essays until Monday. If you need to reach a decision before then, please feel free to deliberate without me.
What I really wanted to say was: “This scheduling is absurd. None of us should have to work on weekends, but I’ll take the hit and be the one who rejects that timeline.” Politically risky, perhaps, since some of these colleagues may eventually review my tenure file, but unavoidable. In response, all of the other committee members wrote back supportively, and one (the senior male professor!) said that he, too, was going out to celebrate Mother’s Day with his wife, and yes, the decision could wait. So it appears that my advocating for myself, because I truly had no other choice, had the effect of creating some tiny semblance of balance for all of us on the committee. Well, for this weekend, at least – next week will bring another round of default “no’s”, figuring out what to make for dinner, and – oh yes, playing in the park with my kid. Balance.