Off balance

Since giving birth to Dorothy 5 years ago, I have done every possible combination of staying at home and working. I worked full time for the first year of her life, lost my job unexpectedly and stayed home for the next 7 months, then went back to work part time as an adjunct prof, teaching 2 or 3 classes during fall and winter semesters and staying at home during the summers. I had 6 weeks of paid maternity leave after D was born, I was unemployed when Lucy was born, and we planned Margeaux’s birth for summer so that I wouldn’t have to take fall or winter semester off. I have had very little structural support in the way of maternity leave or formal child care; we rely on friends, family, and a couple trusted baby sitters to care for the girls when T and I are working.

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say that adjunct teaching doesn’t pay particularly well. I value the opportunity to teach regardless of the pay because I love to be in the classroom, writing on the board, talking about books and ideas that transformed me; because I love the moment when a student realizes something about herself and her place in the world for the first time; because teaching gives me a reason to keep reading new books and a community to talk about those books with; because my colleagues are smart and funny and thoughtful and kind; because my students are often all those things too.

In addition to trying to work my way through what seems to be an endless number of essays and reading prep self-evaluation worksheets this week, T and I are also trying to figure out what our fall schedule will look like. This schedule involves full day kindergarten 5 days a week, half day preschool 4 days a week, me working 3-4 days per week, T working 5-6 days per week (but his schedule and days off vary each week because he’s in retail), ballet on Fridays, and Margeaux, who snuggles and plays full time.

The practical choice right now would be for me to stay home, or to only teach night classes so I could cut my on campus hours to the bare minimum and do all the driving to school and ballet. I could possibly SAHM full time, or easily SAHM by day, adjunct by night: keep up with the laundry and dishes, sign the permission slips, cook healthy meals, have a few hours with Margeaux each day while the girls are at school. We would certainly save money in gas and food. The household would run more smoothly. I would have more time with the girls. We would eat better. I could use our moms and babysitters to cover a few hours here and there while I went to the Valentines party or the pumpkin farm or got my hair cut.

Financially, there is very little to gain from teaching days instead of evenings; to any outsider, SAHM by day, adjunct by night probably looks ideal. So why did I sign on for a full schedule for fall, teaching 3 classes? Why bring on the childcare stress, the driving, the frustrated students who email me and don’t understand why I don’t respond immediately when I am at home on my off days, making macaroni and cheese and folding mountains of leggings and Hello, Kitty underpants? Why cobble together a childcare patchwork of grandmothers and babysitters on a week by week basis that will leave me stressed and exhausted as I struggle to keep up with driving and Halloween parties and prepping and grading and maintaining an on campus presence so my colleagues know who I am if the interview for that elusive full time position ever comes around?

One reason is that I am afraid if I opt out of the standard academic work day, if I no longer see my colleagues on a regular basis, I will cease to be thought of as a viable candidate for a full time job, should that job ever exist.  Out of sight, out of mind. The quality of my teaching wouldn’t change, but if a 3 page essay jams in the copy machine and no one is there to replace the toner…. Or something.

I share an office with approximately 8 other part time faculty, which means that outside of my allotted 3 hours per week, I work in a lounge. And while this set up isn’t ideal, I have grown to appreciate certain aspects of the arrangement: I am in the middle of the hall. Want to go to the bathroom? You walk past me. Want to make a photocopy? You walk past me.  My presence in the lounge is a clear and obvious reminder that I work here and I want to continue to do so.

But beyond the desire to maintain a physical presence, I value the interaction I have with my colleagues. One of the hardest things for me about being a SAHM is the isolation, the long hours, the endless housework.  I find myself crawling under the table and picking up the Polly Pocket boots for the 200th time and wishing a trap door would open that would drop me into an alternate universe with money trees and robot housekeepers and an awesome playgroup full of moms who are sassy and spunky and feminist and okay with drinking wine roundabout 4 pm. Coming to work means the opportunity to talk to people I like and respect. I value this community. I like having the opportunity to talk through a new ad I’m thinking about analyzing in class, or find out what new book someone is using in the Life Journey class, or share how I used that theatre of the oppressed power game. Coming to work in the evening, arriving to a mostly empty building, might pay the same amount of dollars. But the entire experience would change for me in a way that I find hard to accept.

Even though it would simplify the laundry and the driving and the cooking. Even though it might mean more time with the girls.

Here’s the thing: I am good at my job, and I find it fulfilling and challenging, and I don’t want to give it up, or do it on lesser terms, even if doing so would simplify my kids’ routines and commutes.  Is that selfish?

But also: I am a good mom, and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So why am I so certain that being a SAHM is the wrong choice for me, when practically it’s so obviously the right choice?

And for the record: although I don’t find it fulfilling, T and I have learned to manage the housework with enough success that we don’t usually run out of clean underwear or spoons or milk.

So shouldn’t all that add up to something pretty close to domestic bliss, the perfect balance? Work 3 days a week, home 4 days, clean spoons and chocolate milk for everyone? Why is it such a struggle? Is it the identity push pull, the sense that I really should choose one or the other and immerse myself? Is it fear that I must be selling someone short—my kids, my students, my professional identity? If the goal is work/life balance, I have that. I don’t have Friedan’s problem with no name; I have some weird new hybrid problem. It probably has 3 names, or a hyphenated name, or it goes by some nickname unrelated to its given name. Whatever you want to call it, today I feel like it’s got me beat.

10 responses to “Off balance

  1. It does feel like there’s some new problem with no name emerging, doesn’t it? Seems like those in the middle are getting lost somehow, neither pulled fully towards work nor fully towards the home.

  2. There are no easy answers, but you have written a great description of the struggle. It’s rarely a matter of balancing two things (work/home), life balance is far more complex than that:

  3. Yes, yes- I love your image of balance as a wheel rather than an axis! And I particularly love the way it connects to ideas of fluidity, and mobility: when the balance is right, we should roll smoothly. But I feel like I’m bumping along.

  4. I struggled with the same issues for years. I was the “bread winner” in our family and I worked in retail. So, not only did I break my back working 60 hours a week, but I had no set schedule. My nights, weekends, and holidays were all about work. My family always played second chair to my job. Chris stayed home with Jack for the first 7 months of his life. My first child and I had to leave him at 6 weeks and go back to work while his dad stayed home.As happy as I was that they had that great bonding time, I was jealous and angry and very resentful that it wasn’t me. I had the option to keep working after I became a single mom, and I did for awhile. I worked my 60+ hours a week plus I commuted 2 hours everyday, I never saw my boys. After Chris died I realized just how short life is and decided to take stock of what was important in my life. I realized that these beautiful little boys in my life were strangers to me. I then made the choice to be a full time stay at home mom and student. I would have never been able to make that choice a few years ago. I miss my job and the friends I had there, because they had become my family. I also miss being what I considered a valuable member of society. It’s a very personal decision Jen. You have to decide what ultimately makes you happy and works for your family, which is easier said than done I know.

  5. I have been thinking about this intensely the past few days. It seems to come down to this question (at least for me): After you have established that your kids are happy and healthy, is it really ok to make decisions based on what makes YOU happy? Of course it is, and yet, letting yourself off the hook is so hard.

    • I think it’s tricky because sometimes what would make us happiest seems to be in direct conflict with what would be best for our kids (e.g., Jen’s dilemma about working evenings, which would be “better” for her kids, but worse for her in terms of job satisfaction). It seems like, so often, the two are incompatible. Or there are few “in between” options.

      • I didn’t mean that you had to make sure your kids were as happy as they could possibly be, just that they were happy. I guess my point is that its not fair to expect that you are obligated to put your own happiness last. I know this may make me sound like a cold parent, but I don’t want to be last….at least not all the time, and I have to believe that’s a reasonable thing to want.

      • I agree, and I don’t think it’s healthy to model that to kids, either.

  6. Happiness feels very elusive. Mostly I seem to think about logistics. Which is why I think I’m so stressed so often: I am always trying to figure out who will drive this kid to that location and do we have enough Yo Baby to last the weekend because I don’t want to go to the store with all three girls and how many essays can I grade in 1 hour before class and and and… The prospect of putting together an evening schedule was a rare moment where I actually thought about what makes me happy about my job. And when I second guess my decision, it’s not because I think I would be happier as a SAHM, it’s that I wonder if the relief of having less logistical stress would balance the loss of the fulfillment of the job. I don’t want to put my happiness last, and I agree that I shouldn’t have to. But its frustrating that choosing job happiness also means choosing logistical stress, you know?

  7. Puja Master Turner

    Jen, I totally get the logistical nightmare! I know to someone without kids or someone with the perfect life with kids (yeah, right), that this does not seem like a big deal. BUT, it so is! It can be stressful, frustrating, and consume every waking thought.

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