Yesterday I participated in the last 45 minutes or so of the discussion of the challenges facing scientist moms, over at Pub-Style Science. By the time I got there, I think they’d solved most of the major issues and all that was left for me to do was cheer them on and admit that I had nothing to add to the discussion. Because I’m barely a scientist, not a woman, not a parent, and not on the traditional academic track, around which the discussion focused. My contribution was limited to suggesting that people without kids also value their free time, and making a fool of myself by challenging an assertion about which I actually know nothing at all.
So, let me stipulate right up front that I freely admit that women face greater challenges in science than men, for the most part. And that parents face greater challenges than non-parents. And that single mothers face the greatest of all. Finding a way to succeed in science as a single mother has got to be astonishingly difficult, requiring reserves of energy I cannot fathom, much less muster. And I know people currently doing it, or who have done it, and who are succeeding or have succeeded. Their stories are inspiring and instructive.
I was raised by a single mother, for several years. From the time I was six until I was ten, and then again while I was in high school, my mother was a single mom who worked very hard at her own practice (she was a pediatric psychologist and yes that does explain at least a tiny bit of why I’m so messed up.). While she was a practitioner and not an academic, she worked easily as hard as any academic does. Most weeks she put in at least sixty hours, often eighty. She would travel to lectures a great deal. She served as an expert witness in trials. There were times she took me to court with her because I was sick, couldn’t go to school, and she had no other options. I remember plenty of days lying down, admonished to be silent, on courtroom benches while my mom testified. She worked like hell and had very little life of her own during those years. But she was very successful.
And she did all that while in constant physical pain from a bad hip-replacement. And her toil has made my life easier. Her efforts (and those of her father) allowed me to be one of the most privileged human beings on planet earth. Not only did I complete college and graduate school without debt, but I was able to drink myself near to oblivion, go to a fancy rehab, and get into recovery. The two years I was unemployed did not leave me destitute, or unemployable, or ruin my credit. As a result – and I don’t mean to minimize my own contributions, I’ve worked hard too – I landed squarely on my feet after confronting an addiction which has slain better persons than me.
I have seen alcoholics and drug addicts from much less privileged backgrounds go on to higher pinnacles than I have. But they are the exceptions, of course. Any alcoholic who recovers is already an exception. And there is absolutely no denying that my privilege and the incredible efforts of previous generations of my family have made my road far, far easier.
So, where is my work-life balance? Well, as I said in the video, I’m not crazy about the whole concept. I don’t think of my “life” as what I do when I’m not at “work”. I don’t think of my “work” as what I do while I’m not “living”. My career is part of my life. A part that I could be far more dedicated to than I am. I work about 40 hours a week. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. I take vacations and I enjoy them. I work hard enough to finish the things that are expected of me. I don’t do all of my work at work. I find myself thinking through things and puzzling out problems at other times. Sometimes I enjoy that. Sometimes I do it because my head won’t stop.
But my non-working time matters to me. It is just as important to me as anyone’s time with their children is to them. The idea that childless scientists should have to work harder to make up for missed time by those with children, as is the case in some labs, is absurd. But I have no personal experiences like that, so I can’t really comment. I only know this: I will never expect the childless to work harder than those with children. One day, maybe, I’ll have an R01, and I’ll hire a few post-docs. And if I do, they’ll be expected to work about 40 hours a week, but not necessarily on a fixed schedule. And they’ll get vacations. And it won’t matter whether they have kids or not. The rules will be the same for everyone.
Because life happens, and work is part of life, and kids are part of life. Working means you have to spend a lot of time away from your kids. Humans have been doing that for about as long as we’ve had specialization of labor. But having life other than work also means you have to spend time away from work. Sometimes during working hours. And that’s ok. We should expect reasonable things from people, and we should remunerate them according to the expectations and how well they fulfill them.
But, as I said, I really don’t have anything to contribute. I’m a single, childless, white man, who employs, currently, two undergraduate interns for a total of 10 weeks. They are paid well for what they are expected to accomplish. And that’s the sum of my experience. It’s essentially nonexistent. As such, my opinions should be accordingly valueless.