I haven’t written much here lately because the words just can’t come fast enough to keep up with every executive order rewriting our lives. So here’s something I stumbled across, a little thing I wrote several years ago when tenure felt like the biggest mountain in my path. My how things have changed. Anyway…enjoy the diversion.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
I glance around, hunting for the source of the noise. There in the darkness is the outline of the clock on the wall. Squinting, my eyes focus on the hands. The little one appears to be resting on the 4; the big one is resting on something I don’t care to make out. Looking down into my arms I see the face of my new infant who is looking back at me with very large, very awake eyes.
She doesn’t seem to get the idea that it’s 4 in the morning – not 4 in the afternoon, a respectable time when playing and giggling is welcome, but 4 in the morning, a time when my brain doesn’t want to think about much of anything. In fact, my brain would rather be engaged in wonderful lazy dreams requiring no effort at all. However, my daughter has other ideas. She finds this to be the best time in the world to eat, pee, and most of all, be wide-spanking awake. While she smiles in infant glee at being alive, I perform a Homer Simpson drooling impersonation as my head rolls onto the back of my chair.
The oddity that crosses my mind is that during this Kodak mother-child bonding moment, I find myself thinking about my job. Now a proud parent of two children, I wonder if my ability to attend to my work will get easier or harder. At 4 in the morning, I wonder not about diapers, toys, or Baby Einstein, but about Tenure. That 6-year hurdle has been looming in the distance now suddenly seems larger, taller, and more like a rocky, jagged mountain than a simple wooden trellis.
Parenthood and tenure – are the two compatible or do they mix like oil and water? This is the question I’ve wrestled with since landing my tenure-track position two years ago. The dream of every doctoral candidate finally realized, I settled into my new job with visions of scholarly productivity dancing in my head.
Ok, not really, but it did not seem to be an incalculable equation of research, teaching, and service that I was expected to figure. Learning how to balance output is a task of all green professors, a chore we take on like awkward fraternity pledges seeking handouts of approval from our tenured brothers and sisters. What appeared simple on paper became much more complex when put into practice – and when my children came into the picture.
Even putting the gender and higher education success debate aside, the balance between work and family life seems to be increasingly elusive. Each area demands the same things; time, energy, and attention. Both also appear to be predictable in their expectations, yet reality steps in and cracks all attempts at creating structure. For example, my 2-year old getting chicken pox results in a 10-day eruption of chaos. Forget writing time, forget meeting time, forget prep time – I am at home trying to explain what “quarantine” means to my cabin-fevered toddler. I relate to his exasperated running in circles around the coffee table as I feel like that is all I’m capable of doing myself. All I can see is valuable writing time drizzling away with every lap.
It seems so much the case that one area must overcome the other. When consulting colleagues, the good-natured response tends to be, “find time away to write.” When consulting with friends and family, the well-intentioned suggestions are, “stay at home, work less.” Must it be that family and tenure are mutually exclusive conditions? I look around me to find others who have had to learn the same lessons. Unfortunately, I find very few who seemed to keep both family and tenure in sight as I have either colleagues without kids, or friends with families who dropped out of academics.
Trying to have both, I find myself rocking my daughter to sleep while ruminating over my research agenda. It seems this self-generated schizophrenia is to be the norm if I am to achieve a successful career while having a family life. And yet it seems the very attempt to make both occur simultaneously is also what prevents each from coming to fruition. Having both means I also have neither as my attention is always divided.
At times like this the Buddhist ideas of bending like the reed in the wind come to mind. From that philosophy, my misguided desire to be attached to “success” fuels my suffering. I want to be like the reed, letting myself go with the flow.
But will that get me tenure?
Tick tock. The hand hits the 5. A light snoring comes from my arms as my little girl has wandered off to sleep. A peaceful grin crosses her face. It occurs to me that trying to force balance and predictability may be exacerbating the problem. Rather than divide myself, I could approach each situation whole. I watch my daughter snoozing, and take the moment to absorb how quiet and settling it is.
I don’t know if my present course will end in tenure. Perhaps it won’t. Maybe it will. I hope to absorb as many quiet moments as I can along the way, even if those moments mean sitting sleeplessly in the half-dark.