Raising children while having a Career

I just had my first baby and am wondering if any of you older women, who have raised children while building successful careers, have any advice to give? Any hints on how you balanced it all?

Kristen Monroe: A supportive support system –husband, friends, parents — helps, also a willingness to spend most of your money on help. I was extremely fortunate. My mother met me at several professional meetings and hung out with the children while I went to meetings. We had a full time housekeeper and hired college girls to work as mother’s helper. (Sometimes they played with the children while I was in the home, working but in the background so I could exercise some supervision. Sometimes they wrapped Christmas or birthday presents, and ran errands for me, leaving me to play with the children. I effectively hired mother’s helpers not babysitters since I preferred to hang out with the kids instead of running errands or wrapping presents.) Lots of people love day care; it didn’t work for me. I’m also told daycare leads to a lot of colds, or other minor illnesses that move from one family member to another so we tried to have people in the home. A luxury, not everyone can afford, I realize.

David Easton taught me to work at home in the morning, where there would be no distractions from research. Boundary lines are important, to keep one job (motherhood, being a professor) from eating up everything else. A friend in computer science (first woman ever to get tenure in computer science at Harvard) says she never even checks emails on the weekends. This is designated her family time. She also alternates evenings so that Monday and Wednesday she has a free evening – work, hit the gym, visit with friends, see a movie — while her husband has quality time with the children; Tuesday and Thursday they shift. Weekends are family time. Elinor Ostrom suggested to always have things you want to do together to relax and keep the marriage going. She and her husband hiked and –I think — made furniture.

I found it really important to find friends who will come and bring pizza and hang out on the floor, playing with you and your child while they talk with you. I essentially quit entertaining, shifted to pot-lucks instead of dinner parties. Dinner parties always seemed a good idea when everything is going well two weeks before, which is when you invite someone but invariably some child got sick the night before and I was so tired I could barely talk, let alone cook. I have friends who somehow manage to do it all, and my hat’s off to them. One senior woman – now in her 90s and married to a former dean – told me she found the big family potlucks I hosted more fun, and was sorry she had always hustled your children off to bed for a dinner at 8 party with only adults. Who knows? But keeping friendships is important.

I found it was very important to remind myself that having children is a gift; it’s not something just to be handled. The same with our jobs. Most of us do them because we love the work. It’s important to keep this in focus. Too often I wasted emotional energy feeling guilty about not doing enough in one area or the other. This is truly stupid and I hope you all avoid making that mistake. It’s important to enjoy both the time doing the work AND the time just relaxing and enjoying the precious hours with your child or children. In fact, our children are not with us all that long, so it’s very important not to feel so pressured by career demands that we forget to enjoy them, and our lives with our friends and family. (I speak as a woman who just returned from the wedding of one of my sons.) Also, ask for help. A lot of us are willing to chip in and help out if you need it. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.

From Angela Lewis: I have found the best way to try to strike a good balance with career and family is to first understand you are not superwoman.  Ask for help.  Have a support system in place.  For me, the most important thing was becoming an 8-5 employee.  For most of us in the academy, we like the flexibility of going to work when we want to.  But, if you make a standard work schedule for yourself during the time the child is being cared for, you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish.  Try not to be burdened with work during family time.  Children grow up.  It’s understandable if you have a paper deadline or project that may need your attention after hours, but try to make sure you protect your family time.

It’s also important not to forget about self-care.  Don’t be so overwhelmed with the career and caring for your family that you are not taking care of yourself.  Make sure you go to the doctor. Schedule time out with friends who are not academics.  Have a spiritual life.  Take vacations.  You will find if you have an appropriate balance, you will be more successful as a mother and an academic.  This is a short answer to a complex problem, but I hope it has given you enough information to get started.  I am a single mom. A professor. And I had my child before tenure. It can be done. Angela Lewis

From Marie Provine: To the new mom:  We tend to think of this “balancing” in terms of the negatives – too little time for everything you did before, energy drain, etc.  But that new baby will insist on another framing that leaves room for the happy seductions of parenthood.  My sons were born while I was in graduate school, and in a time where reduced loads and parental leave were unknown and untried.  I muddled through, but even then the babies were a wonderful diversion and reminder of life’s deeper streams.

What is considered standard in your department and college or university?  If you feel that you can work within those parameters, then the issue becomes how to organize child care to protect your prime teaching and working hours.  Your teaching hours may be a given, but it’s important to think also about when you are most productive academically.  For me, it’s morning and late afternoon, for example.  Once you have that in mind, try to set up what works for you and remind yourself that this is not being “selfish.”  It’s doing what you need to be successful in the long process of building a career in academia.  Your family and your budget will adapt.  And the adaptation will change every year, or more often, as your baby develops new capacities and the child-care options change.  Marie Provine (ASU)

Comment. A man – from the period when one had what were considered “traditional” marriages during the 1950s — adds that, based on his experience and watching his younger colleagues over the years has led him to suggest the value of having well-understood rules about the division of labor re child rearing and household management. This involves repetitive behavior, which contributes to efficiency, and avoids day to day dithering about who should do what, which saves time.

Kristen adds: I just completed an intellectual autobiography with Kenneth Arrow (On Ethics and Economics: Conversations with Kenneth Arrow. Taylor and Francis 2016) and Arrow told me that even during the traditional 1950s, he often arranged to be home during the afternoons to help watch the children, so his wife could attend classes for an advanced degree and then practice as a psychotherapist. So the need to work full time doesn’t seem to have hindered at least one successful academic man – and the youngest Nobelist in Economics — in the 1950s!

From Michele L. Swers. Congratulations on the wonderful new addition to your family.  There are some tips that one can get through consultation but every situation and every baby is an individual and may not adapt the way we would like so flexibility and learning not to compare yourself or your child to others is key.  That said, finding a child care situation that works for you makes all the difference.  Depending on your budget and where you live there are a variety of options at a range of costs.  Family is always best if they are available and interested but as most of us academics do not have family in town there are a variety of options. If you know others who you trust that can recommend child care options you should consult them.  With my first child I put him in a daycare center followed by a nanny share and then his own nanny. I received a recommendation for the nanny to use from a colleague who had used her so I felt I could trust the source more.  There are services that vet nannies and au pair’s but it is always a concern.  Day care centers are regulated but don’t always give the level of personal attention you want and Kristen is correct that they will get sick more frequently.  Also day care centers generally work by establishing a structured routine so if your child is one that does not adapt well to a structured routine (my son would not nap) or has special needs then these providers likely won’t work for you. There are also in home providers which are less pricey than daycare and nannies and give you a smaller ratio of kids depending on the regulations of your state. However, these types of situations are largely unregulated and I would not use one unless I know someone who has used the person and was happy with them.  Once you have your day care settled be prepared for it to change multiple times before your child goes to preschool or kindergarten.  It is also worth looking into whether your university offers child care.  Often the wait lists are long and you need to get on early. At my university you needed to call as soon as you got the birth date if you wanted a chance to get a spot when the child was old enough to attend which was 18 months.

Kristen adds: Michele is correct and I second her good advice. Situations change. When our daughter was born we must have interviewed 50 people for a full time nanny position and found none of them to our liking. We then went to the mother’s helper option. We used UCI’s student employment center – most universities have something like this, I imagine – and found a fabulous pool of great undergraduate students who were willing to work in irregular 4 hour blocks. (We paid above the minimum wage, which meant we got great people.) We pieced together hours each term, depending on their class schedule and my teaching schedule. This meant we usually had no help during the break – when the girls were gone — but that was OK with me since I cherished the time with my daughter. (The boys were old enough they weren’t so keen on spending time with Mom anymore. L) It can be a bit hectic but the girls were fabulous with Chloe. I shifted to working at home so I could be back up and I did use the babysitters more as mother’s helper, as I suggested earlier, running errands for me, doing little tasks that were onerous – such as wrapping Christmas presents – and so on. But the young girls were fresh, close to Chloe in age and could enter into her little games. All of this meant I got time with my daughter and the students were fabulous. (Chloe got interested in languages and learned to count in Hindi, Chinese, and Korean in addition to the French, Spanish and Greek that her parents had taught her. She invented Basket language and Flower language and failed her first exam for admittance to a pre-school cause when they asked her to count she did it in Basket language.) So be flexible and go with what is available and best for your family situation.