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Work-Life Balance.

14 August 2013

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 August 2013 11:35

    Hey dr24hours, thanks for joining us last night. I think we absolutely agree — no one should be expected to work more than 40ish hours per week in order to maintain a career in science. That way the playing field comes closer to evening out for parents/caregivers with time limitations and everyone gets to enjoy their life-outside-work-hours. And non-parents certainly should be expected to “make up” time not worked by others.

    Honestly, if we could just start by acknowledging that most academic science jobs are really 2-3 people worth of workload, that would be a huge step.

  2. 14 August 2013 14:25

    So I think you are spot on for a certain demographic. I had the gay opportunity to work with many researchers that believed the work day ended at 5 pm. If they were not there, they expected you to NOT be there. I also have worked with individuals that expected you to be there at the crack of dawn and leave midnight-ish.

    What I have learned is this. When I show up at work, work my arse off, have fun doing it, and head home at the end of the day to spend time with my wife; I am productive. Work comes easily and I am energized at work. When my wife and I were living a few states apart while we were in graduate school, I sacrificed on having a personal life, and I suffered. I was still able to get work done, but it took 10 times longer and was a much less fulfilling experience.

    That said, Amen Brother!. Take the time for yourself. Take the time to look good, to feel good, have a personal life, and for heaven’s sake have some fun outside of work. When at work, work. It sound soberly simplistic, but it works. At least it has for me thus far.

  3. Syd permalink
    15 August 2013 07:56

    I suffered a lot of burnout for about 20 years of working 12 hour days and on weekends. I think it was a carry over from graduate school where the long day was just expected. I was productive and got many grants and pubs. But I found out that most people treated it as a 8 to 5 job. My wife and I were busting our asses because we wanted to– and then we crashed. It seemed the emphasis at the lab was on administrative aspects. Science and scientists were treated as problems. The administrators seemed to forget that they would not have a job were it not for the scientists. So we decided that continuing to kill ourselves and not have a life was causing us to be less productive and more cynical. We worked regular hours in the lab but continued with extra work in the field and at meetings. More balance in life was achieved and it felt better. I wish I had kept that enthusiasm though. I miss it. It was a feeling that I was doing such important work.


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