14 March 2008

Between Work and Family

"[M]otherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not."
- William Faulkner,
As I Lay Dying

In a recent Chronicle essay, the author writes that what academics really need is to have a passion outside of academia and their research--throwing pottery, writing novels, photography. In the same essay, though, he writes,

"Accept that you will not be there for everything for everyone. Certainly, a reasonable administrator will accommodate an assistant professor who, for example, cannot schedule classes on Tuesday afternoons because that's when he helps his elderly mother shop. But on the other side -- and trust me on this -- your kids will not grow up to hate you if you don't attend every soccer game and ballet recital."

My first impulse upon reading this was utter disgust. Of course he can say these things. I'm sure that his children didn't hate him for missing an occasional soccer game or ballet recital, but that's not the point. Not really.

It's not about whether your children hate you or whether they're irreparably damaged by your devotion to work. It's really about what you miss. This, for me at least, is one of the things I constantly wrestle with- how much is enough? Of work? Of family? How much do I miss when I drop Little Man off at daycare during spring break? On days when I'm not uber-productive, and just really need a break myself? How much am I willing to give up?

Because here's the thing- in the grand scheme of things, what I do professionally is not really important. No one will die if I only publish 2 articles instead of 3 one year. The world will not really be any worse off if my monograph on the way the culture of books effected the formation of a modernist canon doesn't get published next year--or ever. I am not a doctor curing diseases and healing ills; I am not a scientist working for the greater good; I am not even a lawyer protecting my clients from whatever they need protecting. No. I study literature. I love what I do--I love the rare books room and the archive; I love that I get to read for a living; I even love writing. But what I do professionally does not really change the world.

I was talking to J yesterday over lunch about this essay in the Chronicle and how frustrating it is. But it is also extraordinarily freeing. As I get closer to finishing, and as I prepare myself to be "on the market" (like a slab of beef), it's becoming more and more clear what I am willing to do.

I am willing to put everything I can into my work and produce the best work I can produce, but I am not willing to give up those 3 or 4 hours in the evening that are work-free, that are just to be with my husband and child.

I am willing to put everything I can into the job market, to make a real effort to get a tenure-track position, but I am not willing to make a second try.

I am not willing to work as an adjunct or a community college. It's not that I think those positions are beneath me, but I know that they are not me at all. At heart, I'm a researcher, a writer, an editor even, but at heart, I am not-at the very core of my being-a teacher. I like teaching. I admire my students and want the best for them. But, without the possibility to research and then incorporate that research into my teaching, without the possibility to have an upper-division course or to even supervise graduate students, teaching would eventually eat away at my soul. I'd rather work retail--seriously. PhD or not, I would take retail over adjuncting.

I am also not willing to work 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks. I refuse to give up my family life for an extra article or two that ten years from now--nay, three years from now--no one will read, no one will remember. I am willing to work hard, to be an active member of my discipline, but I am not willing to miss soccer games or ballet recitals. I have forever to get tenure; I get less than 18 years of my son's childhood. I will not give up witnessing that. Besides, no university will pay me enough to work regularly 80 hour weeks. When they start paying English profs 6 figures, I'll gladly put in my time. There's a reason I didn't go to law school.

I am willing to be open about my future. I can just as easily see myself working in publishing as I can being an assistant professor. Not getting a job next year will destroy me only a little. Then I'll pick myself up and go for plan B--maybe another baby, maybe freelance writing, maybe getting into publishing. I'm willing to accept that I don't have what it takes to be a professor at least somewhat gracefully.

Because the bottom line is that I do have other interests outside of my research. I am interested in building a life with my husband for many years to come. I am interested in raising a child who will make the world a better place through his very being in it. Those are the places where I can have an impact. My family is my primary passion. And I have hobbies besides.

The thing is, I can imagine a world where I am not an academic- where I'm not even using one of my many degrees. I cannot, however, imagine living in a world where I am not J's wife or Little Man's mother. Nor should I have to.


jeffersonian said...


On the morning commute on the metro, I saw a billboard that commanded, "Work as if your children are watching."

That billboard invites us to ponder what we WOULD want our children to learn from our work. I can't imagine that most of us will look back on our lives as we approach death and think, "I wish I'd been a better cog. I want my daughter to know I was a good cog."

Quality of life beyond consumption is something that is largely ignored and dismissed in our society. We're supposed to work hard, buy without restraint, and never question the values imposed on us.

I commend you for drawing the line where you see fit.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog because it is exacly how i feel about my current job but, i can not escape. I hate not having i life out side of the marriott, not have some in my life to live like you love j. And the worst part is i can see all of what i want but i am stuck in this position becuse some company offered me a chance to move to a new place in the world, and for that i had to sell my soul for a year. But on the up side i got an interview in vegas coming up it is at Company American Bistro. I am pretty exsited i am going to go trail for a day and we will see what happens

Mad Grad Mom said...

Word, LD. Skeet and SuperDad are way more important than busting my a$$ hunched over my computer keyboard an extra 15-25 hours a week.

I, too, feel strongly that from 4 or 5pm on is strictly family time. Okay, sometimes I grade while I watch SVU or type up lecture notes while Skeet plays with his train, but that time is for us.

Unlike you, though, I am so much happier teaching. Can I see myself in a research institution? Yeah, but if I never had to write another conference paper again, I'd be happy.