By Tina Tormey, Assistant Director of the Sophomore Year Experience at The College of New Jersey
Just about a year ago, I returned to work after taking 10 weeks maternity leave with my first child. I knew juggling parenthood with a live-in mid-manager position would be challenging (especially since my partner works evenings in an ER with a highly inflexible schedule), but I hadn’t fully conceptualized what the experience would be like. Since then, I’ve been reflecting and hibernating as I figure out what it means to juggle parenting with career.
My type-A, super gold, organized self who typically has a plan A, B and C felt fully prepared, but a little trepidacious, when my first post-baby August training arrived. We were down 30% of our live-in professional staff, but my late night schedule miraculously worked around my partner’s nights off, except for a couple days that had totally baby-friendly evening events.
And then my kid got sick. A fever that nearly resulted in a 2am trip to the ER when it crested 105.3 and a level of misery that we later learned was the result of coxsackie disease (a painful, highly contagious virus that just required a steady dose of Advil or Tylenol and a level of patience I found myself lacking).
I found myself feeling resentful. My plan was messed up. I wasn’t sure if I was resentful of my sick child or a job that required so many evening commitments or my inability to juggle it all. I felt like I was failing my family, my job and myself.
And, then, in the midst of cuddling a miserable kid, I picked up the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly which had a cover story called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (link) As a girl, I didn’t daydream of frilly weddings and a future as a princess but I envisioned a future where I’d be a super fabulous redheaded version of Carrie Bradshaw living in an amazing loft in Manhattan but coming home to a doting husband and kids (2, of course) every evening. I pictured this perfectly schedule 9-5 work day with out of work hours totally committed to my family. A fabulous life. So that article spoke to me. It was about me.
Essentially, the author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, said it’s not possible to have a family and still maintain the same career trajectory of our male counterparts—at least not with the way the modern workplace functions. She challenges us to create family-friendly work places that re-evaluate the need to be physically present in the office, values family commitments, re-imagines the traditional career arc, is open to creative solutions to the work-life balance problem and enlists men in developing solutions.
It was such a freeing thought. Until I read that article, I was internalizing my failure to DO it all (or at least do it the way the pre-momma me would have done) as my personal inability to keep it together. I was thinking that I was failing because I wasn’t trying hard enough, I wasn’t committed enough or wasn’t organized enough. But that wasn’t it at all. The reason why this didn’t all FEEL right is because I WAS getting pulled into different directions. And it was impossible to be all to everyone. But the overachiever, goal-oriented person in me is still struggling to figure out where my place is as a working mom. And although I write about my experiences as a mother, I recognize that there are many dads in the field of student affairs who take on a very active caretaking role and who feel similarly.
I still find myself questioning what is on my personal and professional bucket lists. Moreso, I wonder whether those two buckets can merge into one or whether it’s just oil and water: separate and with one always on top. Or I wonder if now that I chose to be a working mom, I’m even supposed to have a bucket list.
I’m still contemplating and testing the waters, but here’s what I’ve determined so far:
1. Balance doesn’t exist in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have both a rewarding career and an amazing family/personal life. Our access and reliance on technology in this high-touch, high tech world means that we need to be conscientious about creating that balance for ourselves, since it doesn’t come naturally. For me, it means that on the nights or weekends that my partner has off, I do my best to avoid work commitments. During my son’s dinner/bathtime routine, I create a work-free zone. More recently, I’ve tried to create a tech-free zone as well by leaving my iPhone in my work bag (unless, of course, I need it to film a super adorable kid). I also am starting to recognize that balance may not be a daily thing but a weekly or monthly thing thanks to Kelly’s blog post. So, for example, work monopolizes my life in August–nights and weekends included. But this year, my September and October has included two long weekends traveling to see friends and family, apple picking, pumpkin picking and a couple afternoons off to sneak away to a matinee with my partner.
2. Higher education and, in particular, student affairs, needs to make huge advances in rethinking effective work strategies. One of Slaughter’s criticisms were inflexible work environments that require long hours at the office. She says employers need to recognize the value and need to allow employees to work at home or off site. In higher ed, we pride ourselves on flexible work environments. I certainly felt that earlier in my career. Rough duty night? Come in late the next morning. Lots of evening programs one week? Take off early on Friday. I no longer feel I have those opportunities. A solid 3.5 days of my work week are in meetings. And as we work to create more collaborative work environments, that meeting schedule gets more intense. The field needs to rely more on working meetings not simply update or planning meetings. We need to consider non-meeting opportunities to the group work that we value for it’s ability to provide enriching experiences for students. I cannot be an effective employee if I spend my day in meetings and spend my night doing the work that was created in those meetings, yet on some weeks, that is my life. I’m still figuring out how to best follow my own advice on this one. Some practices I currently employ: trying to provide staff with discussion/brainstorming items in advance so those that need time to reflect and research can be ready to discuss ideas immediately and I also initiated a 15 minute Monday morning check in meeting where staff are encouraged to let others know what they’re working on this week, reminds the group of information they need from others to complete those tasks and inform us of important events and share deadlines that impact the group. It’s a standing meeting. And it never lasts more than 20 minutes but it saves several e-mails and phone calls.
3. Have a personal mission statement. Follow it. On days or weeks when there is too much to fit into the hours you have, having this mission statement will help you cull through and remove the low-priority items from an overwhelming task list. You will find that there are things we regularly add to our task list that don’t really need to get done. Or they can be delegated to staff who are itching to have opportunities that will help them prepare for and better understand your position.
4. Employ good time management practices. Stay on top of technology that can help you be more efficient, but know when the old-fashioned way works best. I use Twitter to curate news (general and higher ed) that I want or need to stay up on the profession and identify new trends. I am still a fan of keeping my to do list in a notebook (the act of writing it down helps me remember and being able to quickly color code my list with things complete and things in progress helps me get a better sense of what really needs to get done), but I love shared online schedules. I’m still figuring out the right balance of phone versus e-mail communication–many times, a phone call will take much less time, but phone call or in person interruptions can be a disruption to someone else’s productivity, so I try to tread carefully and plan those interruptions early in the day or right before or after lunch. These tends to be times my colleagues are getting reorganized and settled.
5. Find your time. I am too tired and unfocused to do more than basic data processing or a review and update of my task list after 8pm but I LOVE the solitude of getting some work done in my pajamas with a hot cup of coffee at 5am. Yes, I said 5am. This is MY time, reserved to catch up on work, pursue personal research interests, read or simply catch up on the latest episode of Parenthood or Grey’s Anatomy. When do you think I wrote this post?
6. Find your family time. As I wrote earlier, evenings are totally committed to my nighttime routine with my son. I leave work on time and I don’t think about work as we play, have dinner, do bathtime (my FAVORITE) and read books before bed. Afterwards, I might cruise Pinterest looking for craft ideas for us to do on the weekend. Or I’ll troll Amazon indulging in my love of children’s books (book buying seems to be the one way I spoil my kid!). I also recognize that my work and family life are not totally separate. So when it’s appropriate, Charlie is joining me for some of those evening or weekend commitments. He’s facilitated me meeting students who live in our complex (we now have a neighbor who is trying to learn a few children’s songs to add to his repertoire when he plays guitar outside our apartment). He joined me in making sure our Behind Closed Doors training experience moved along in August. Since some of my staff have used him as a marketing ploy for their Halloween program (“Charlie would love to see Halloween decorations on all of your doors this year…”), he will co-judge a door decorating community development experience with me. And he loved attending his first baseball game during a professional staff social this summer. As a result, I have the benefit of having a kid who has naturally learned to be flexible, social and friendly. As difficult as it is to balance both work and parenting and as much as I think there’s work we need to do to create more family-friendly work practices, this ability to let work and family merge at times is clearly a benefit to working in student affairs versus some other fields that lack that flexibility.
Most importantly, I try to find balance in my expectations. And I find that I am using Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker’s response as a mantra of sorts:
For much of my life I believed that “having it all” was the goal. But I guess now, I’ve come to realize that so much of what brings me joy, satisfaction and peace with the life I live is my unbridled desire to ”be it all” — to offer up my biggest, fullest, greatest self in each and every situation that comes my way.
What advice do you have for working parents feeling pulled in two (or more!) different directions? What can student affairs do to create workplaces that lend to being family friendly and encouraging all staff to create balance?
Atlantic Monthly Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/