In this post, I want to describe a conversation our group had with Elizabeth Remick, an Associate Professor of Political Science and a co-chair of the Committee on Faculty Work/Life at Tufts University. We met with Elizabeth to learn more about the illusive work-life balance and to find out how to achieve it.
Our conversation turned out to be incredibly interesting, in large part due to Elizabeth's inspiring and powerful story, but also due to the diversity of our group's backgrounds: we have a mom scientist, a pregnant scientist, a female scientist with no plans for children, and a male scientist with plans for children. All four of us are seeking to have balanced lives. And so began our first question for Elizabeth: is work-life narrowly defined as support for parents, or is there something for each of us to gain from the Work/Life Committee efforts?
Here are the ideas from our long conversation that jumped out at me:
If you feel like your academic job is eating up your life, well, that's how it is designed to be. The tenure clock and the childbearing years overlap almost perfectly. Tenure track jobs were established around a model of male scholars with a stay-at-home spouse who handles the home-front. There is a lack of female scholars in high academic ranks because the academic life style requires big sacrifices. So there is clearly a need to support women who want to work in the academia and have children.
But what about men? Male professors who want to be present at home may be viewed as insufficiently devoted to their careers. When a couple gets pregnant, it's the mother who ends up taking the maternity leave. She's the one who negotiates flexible hours so she could take her kid to the doctor. This creates a situation where the child is used to needing mom more than dad, where dad gets much less time with the baby, and where mom ends up doing much more house work because, well, she negotiated to have flexible hours. The only way for men to have work-life balance (and to be more involved fathers) is to have work-life policies that are gender-blind.
But what about women? Must work-life balance always involve a baby? Are women who choose not to have children not entitled to self-care? Must mothers who are committed to their career have to justify their choice to outsource child care? The only way to affect all employees is to reframe the work-life conversation as a conversation about self-care. We need to make sure that people without dependents have some flexibility as well, by implementing "reason-blind" leaves and flexible work schedules. Here I am especially sympathetic to Meghann Foye who suggests that women who choose not to have children deserve a paid time off to attend to the parts of their lives outside of work (Meghnann came under a lot of fire for writing a book about a woman who faked a pregnancy to enjoy some paid me-time).
Elizabeth's concluding point to our fascinating conversation ultimately took us back to where we started: so is the work-life concept narrowly defined as support for those with dependents? Elizabeth's brilliant response, which I quote below, was simultaneously a "yes" and a "no". Yes, it is about those with dependents. No, if by dependents we mean a very narrow group of people. She said:
I think that the largest part of the work-life conversation does have to be about other care, because taking care of children, elders, and others who need us is crucial to our families and to our society as a whole. Most of us will have to take care of someone at some point in our lives. We all need to be understanding of those who currently are caregivers, because all of us are only one cancer diagnosis, or one car accident, etc., away from being caregivers ourselves. As our society ages and there's a larger contingent of childless people, we will need to think even more expansively about who we're allowed time to take care of. Right now it's restricted to family, very narrowly construed, most of the time. But many people have "chosen" families and give care to people who aren't kin, and we need to recognize they have these legitimate caregiving needs as well.