Thursday, May 10, 2012
Productivity: A Mother's Day Blog Post
In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd write about work-life balance, which is a bit like the Marquis de Sade writing about abstinence. This year my scales have had the elephant of work on one side and the feathers of my life on the other, and still I constantly feel as if I should do more better faster.
My husband has been on my case about this problem, and for good reason. But he finally said something last week that hit home, so to speak. I was complaining that I hadn't been "productive" during the week, and he replied, "That's because you've defined productivity to exclude anything to do with home." His words weren't angry nor were they an attempt to be consoling. He was just stating a fact, which is what made his words so resonant for me. It would be an overstatement to say that I define productivity by my word count, but not by much.
As a wife and mother of three sons, my family is my top priority. But I'm not sure I consistently send them that message, and it can be hard to know what making family your top priority means on a moment-t0-moment or day-to-day basis. I definitely put a high value on time spent in direct interaction with them: I try never to work late nights or weekends, and I've gotten rid of cable television and wi-fi at home to prevent distractions from swamping family life. That said, I don't much value the time I spend making home "a home." I almost completely discount the value of performing the mundane chores that make up this thing called a life. I tend to begrudge every second spent folding the Sisyphean piles of laundry on my dining room table, taking the emotionally withholding cat to the vet, or doing the dishes, treating these chores as obstacles to productivity. I don't even enjoy cooking much anymore because it takes "too much time." I do all these things, but they give me little sense of accomplishment, and I tend to view them as getting in the way of what I "should" be doing.
As I write this, it sounds pretty misguided. The worst part is that I suspect I'm not the only academic who has defined productivity so narrowly that she has trouble setting a satisfying work-life balance as a result. The problem, ultimately, is one of accounting. On the life side of the balance, motherhood has fleeting and fortuitous moments of joy, but one finds few signposts, while guiding children to adulthood, that one is headed in the right direction. Even when one knows certain tasks are necessary, there are few direct measures that tell one whether one is doing them well or poorly. [Is yelling ever warranted to make sure the kids' homework gets done? I sure hope so.] For many of the tasks, indeed, such concepts seem entirely beside the point.
Work, on the other hand, has a strict system of productivity accounting. (Academia's productivity accounting is much too strict, but that's a topic for a different productivity blog post.) One can measure one's productivity by words written, articles published, lectures delivered, students taught, and there are often encouraging signs along the way that one is doing one's tasks well. It is easy, therefore, to let work, with its tangible rewards, overbalance life, with its intangible ones.
My hope for Mother's Day is that I can recalibrate.
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Many years ago, SALT had a panel on overwork, sparked, as I recall, by a decision of the Japanese Supreme Court on employer liability for the suicide of a worker who could not stop working. While the consensus was that overwork was a serious social problem, the panelists, including then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, made strong claims that academics should be excluded from any limitation on time worked. Should we make such a rule, I am not so sure academics should be excluded, given Lyrissa's fine explanation of how capturing academic work can be. Just wait till the nest is empty.
Posted by: Mike Zimmer | May 11, 2012 11:27:34 PM
Why do you feel bad for not feeling engaged in or fulfilled by your Sisyphean piles of laundry? Do they fulfill your husband? I doubt it. Most people resent performing that kind of drudgery. You never mention it, but the timing of your post (Mother's Day) suggests that you too realize the gendered nature of this conflict. When I take a look at my colleagues, the only ones worried about work-life balance are the women. The men seem to have work-life balance down to a science (which is to say that they are pretty engaged in their work, reasonably involved with their families, but very much reliant on wives and partners to deal with the work of running a household). The conflict that you describe is one that resonates with most women--I, like many of my female colleagues, always feel like I could be giving more to both sides of the ledger. But why should this be our lot? I doubt our male colleagues spend much time worrying about whether they should be spending less time working and more time drying dishes.
Posted by: Anon | May 12, 2012 3:55:08 PM
Thanks so much for this post. Sometimes knowing that you're not the only one struggling with this is enough to be a comfort.
Hang in there, you are NOT the only one.
Another Prof (and a guy, for whatever that's worth)
Posted by: Anon | May 13, 2012 5:33:51 PM
And happy mothers day :-)
Posted by: Anon | May 13, 2012 5:43:44 PM
As a mother of three and new law prof, I too really enjoyed this post. Here's to celebrating all our accomplishments, whatever their form.
Posted by: Anon | May 14, 2012 12:29:41 PM
With two now almost-grown kids, I can assure you that you can eventually see some evidence of how well you have done your parenting job. But one of your descriptions sparked a question: Why are you doing the cooking AND washing the dishes AND doing the laundry? Why not divide the first two between you and your husband (one cooks, the other cleans up after) and share the laundry? Or better still, do these things together, and involve the kids if they're old enough, and make it part of family time. We played games while we folded laundry, generally involving hiding stuffed animals under piles of warm laundry. I'm not sure how much folding the kids actually did, but it made it fun rather than a chore.
Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | May 14, 2012 1:47:27 PM
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the struggle and allow me to share a few in response. I once heard an inspirational speaker state something like, "Forget that so-called work-life balance thing. It's ALL Life!" It was catchier and more eye-roll-inducing than that but...his underlying message was rather liberating. For me, it meant no more compartmentalizing "work" and "life" into separate boxes of space, time, etc. Instead, I let them let them blend naturally (or, in consultant-speak, I "integrated" my Work and Life into Just Life.) So, instead of shutting off my work computer before I wanted to and going home early to cook or take my daughter to to dance class with no discussion of anything work-related (and wondering how much of my "word count" I was giving up by doing so), I now may come home with my MacBook and type some thoughts while cooking. Or, I may catch up on emails while watching baseball with my husband. I even take notes in a journal while at the beach. While at work, I integrate life, too, whether it be meeting my husband for lunch (even though I'd be more "productive" by eating at the office) or volunteering some mornings at my daughter's school. Some may just call this multi-tasking versus integration. But if you truly love your work, integrating it into the rest of your life (which you also love) can be wonderful and make both "sides" of life much more enjoyable. And Happy belated Mother's Day!
Posted by: Heidi Anderson | May 15, 2012 9:58:24 AM
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