privilege, choices, constraints

This post is a response primarily to the young academics and other young professionals or graduate students who wrote that my story inspired them to think about their priorities or to have hope that they, too, could achieve success despite the stresses of the work-home conflict. Many wrote that it reminded them of their own priorities, and that was my main point. But some people seemed to be trying to “do it all” and viewing me as a model of success. I am fearful that you will think that I was some kind of superwoman. Because I was not superwoman and you will draw the wrong lesson if you think I was. My last post was written from the perspective of privilege and this one will be, too. This is not because I do not know I have privilege. To the contrary. I still remember the young woman in my Lamaze class who was going back to work full time four weeks after her child’s birth. She and her husband were both low wage service sector workers and staying home longer was just not an option for her. She wasn’t complaining about it, that was just the way it was, and she had some pride in herself as a worker. I have known poor single mothers who have watched their older children get involved with gangs and crime because they were left unsupervised while they were away all day at work due to the “workfare” requirements. I know many people who have struggled with mental illness or addiction or major physical disability. There is a lot that needs to be said and written about the choices people make under high levels of constraint. And it is also helpful for privileged people facing our own constraints to reflect daily on the constraints facing other people. But this post is about choices under conditions of privilege.

As many of you noticed, my crisis came after I had tenure. I was in no danger of being fired, and this structural fact shaped the choices that I made at that time. I would have had to make different choices if I were still untenured. So it seems helpful to back up to prior choices and tell you how I made them. To cut to the major point, I did not “do it all” prior to tenure, nor did I try to pretend that having a child had no impact on my work. I actually took a lot of leave, and that leave time was central in my having the time to do the writing and publishing that let me earn tenure. A crucial point in my decision-making came when I told a senior male colleague that I was pregnant. I said I intended to keep working except for the time right around childbirth. He urged me to consider whether I could take leave. He said: “I know you can do work and have a baby. But you cannot do as much work with a baby. What do you want to be doing? Teaching or research?” I ended up taking a full year of leave (roughly 75% unpaid), but under circumstances that permitted me to write close to half time. In short, in exchange for not being paid, I focused on the part of my job that mattered for my professional future. Because of the timing of my due date mid-semester, I actually had a couple of months with no teaching before the baby was born. Also, at that time, there was no policy permitting a stopped tenure clock unless you were on leave, and the extra year on the clock happened at a time in my professional development that made the difference in my ultimate success.

What made this choice possible? What kinds of privilege did I have? First, the core of my particular research involved thinking and writing. I did not need a lab, I did not need to be in the field. I could work when the baby slept or played quietly. Not everyone has that kind of job. Second, I had the baby fairly late in the probationary period, so there were only a few years involved. Third, my department “let me do it.” This is not as obvious as it seems, and I’ll discuss that more, below. Fourth, of course, I could afford it. This also is not as obvious as it seems. We had no savings because of our past choices, when we had spent everything we earned. My spouse did not have a regular job, and was in school. But we still had some privilege. Although my university had no paid maternity leave, I was able to use accumulated sick leave that paid 42% of my salary for one semester, and kept me on health insurance for the other semester. The other semester of leave, and the summer between, were entirely unpaid. My spouse had been doing some consulting for his former employer, and (in consultation with friends who were experienced mothers about what would be least disruptive for a baby) we arranged to relocate for six weeks to where he could work on a consulting basis for high hourly pay. I took care of the baby all day in a one bedroom apartment in the middle of a terrible heat wave while my spouse worked long hours and earned money. Apart from that six week period, both of us had very flexible schedules and were able easily to move back and forth between shared child care and work. After the first six months, we hired half-time child care, freeing up even more time. I also borrowed a lot of money from my mother. My mother is not wealthy, but her own frugal habits had led her to accumulate savings for her retirement. She could not afford to give me the money, but she could afford to lend it at an interest rate higher than the bank would pay her. Part of the reason I could not take time off after tenure for my second baby was that I was still paying off the debt to my mother, along with the credit card balances we’d run up. When the loan from the “bank of mom” ran out after this rather idyllic year, my spouse had to quit school and take a full-time job he did not particularly like. Life got harder with me teaching and him working full time, and there was a rough year before I got tenure, but the time off had been enough to make the career difference for me. I figured we’d made it. That’s the set up for the story I already told.

My story is so very particular that it is clear that it offers no specific guidance to anybody else. But as I reflect on the choices I made, why I was able to make them, and what that implies about other people’s choices, I do see some points that are worth highlighting.

First, the senior colleagues in my department were not sure how to evaluate my leave of absence. There were no clear policies at that time and they argued about it. Deciding how to think about my case put them on the path toward having a relative consensus around a more family-friendly ethos. It helped that there were already tenured women in the department and that some of the men were politically sympathetic to feminism.  After I had tenure and was going through the bad time, I talked pretty often to my male colleagues about how hard it was. Partly I was venting, and I’m sure they got tired of hearing about it. But I told myself that I was helping future generations of women by making it clear that this was not easy. Just as prejudice against gays is reduced if people know they know gays, prejudice against people struggling with family issues cannot be reduced if we keep them in the closet. This is why I think it is a good thing when men also make a point of being public about their family struggles. (The guys who can be annoying when they talk about having to do child care are the ones whose wives are, in fact, covering the home front most of the time, but I think even their voices are helpful to the ethos of the culture.) I encourage our graduate students who are facing family or other stresses to be honest with their advisors and other faculty about them. In most programs, it is possible to slow down or speed up the pace of graduate school training depending on what else you have to do, and if your time is limited, you certainly need to think seriously about priorities and factor time constraints into key decisions such as your research topic.

Second, we are all in different situations and have different personalities and different values. We build our lives out of the pieces we have available and in deep interaction with the people around us. If you are single or in an unstable relationship or partnered with someone who does not respect the value of your work, you are in a different situation than I was. My mother’s life of frugality and her concern for me and her grandchild were central to my story. My spouse’s irregular work history created the space for my more linear career. My older male colleagues reworked their ideas and made a space for my choices. I benefitted from the blunt non-romantic view of motherhood of the feminist-influenced 1970s when women admitted they did not always like taking care of children at the same time they recognized the value of the activity. I knew one woman (not an academic) who quit her job when she had a baby, intending to be a stay-at-home mother. She lasted four weeks, during which she cleaned everything and realized she was going crazy. She called and asked for her job back, found a stay-at-home neighbor to watch her daughter full time, and never looked back, ending up as a high-level business executive. She appreciated and valued the woman who cared for her daughter, and they created an extended family network around that relation. I felt culturally and politically supported in identifying myself as a woman who valued both work and children. The stay-at-home moms who helped me out when my husband traveled were very supportive of me, as I was of them and their choices.

Our jobs are different, too. Sometimes the job is simply incompatible with child care. Not all jobs can be done with children around. The hardest work-home choices are jobs that require a lot of travel. You can work all day while your child is in care and still have a relationship with the child nights and weekends. But when you have to travel or live out of town for your job, even your non-work time is also non-family time. That is the hardest. It is hard even if the other parent stays at home full time. But sometimes it has to be done, not because hypothetically you had no other choice, but because if you are going to be on that work path at all, you have to do that travel. If that is what you have to deal with, you have to figure out what resources you have. I know parents who have taken their children with them into the field. And I know parents who have had to deal with the pain of being apart from their children for long times. As well as parents of both sexes who have had to fill in on the other end of the travel, as I did.

Third, there really is choice how to balance work and home issues, and I think we need to value our own choices and be less resentful of others. As a personality, I am about as competitive as it is possible to be, and tend naturally to a negative outlook, so I understand such feelings very well. But, really, if someone is choosing to be a workaholic and gets more done, why shouldn’t s/he advance further in the field? Why should I be complaining about it? I have the benefit of a richer life built around relationships. Why should I expect to have all those relationships plus the rewards of workaholism? Plus, there are a lot of people who have been unhappy in relationships or who cannot have children who shift to work because of their losses in other areas. On the other end of the spectrum, stay-at-home mothers are making choices, too, to give up on their own ambitions or desires for fulfilling intellectual work. Why should I complain because their lives are less stressful? Especially when I know they have their own stresses. (This is the point BlueMonster also made.)

Please note that saying that we need to get a grip and remember our own priorities and values and blessings is different from questioning the structures that make these choices so hard. Professional occupations often have some variant of the “up or out” decision that makes the early career of academics so stressful. It seems worth trying to rework the “rules of the game” and the structure of early careers to create more paths to success. And we would all benefit from doing our part to shift the cultural ethos away from competition and materialism and toward a more humane set of social policies. But we cannot reasonably expect to work less and get the same rewards as the people who work more. And a brutal fact about any intellectual field is that jealousy is an occupational disease and some people get more acclaim than others for reasons that are only sometimes related to the quality of the work.

Let me also name the materialist component of choice. We have more choices if we are willing to spend below our means and save, and we have more choices if we maintain a standard of living that does not cost so much. The median family income in this country is about $45,000 a year, and a lot of people are raising families on less than $30,000 a year. It is quite possible to live and raise a family on much less money than academics or other professionals earn. Policies and work structures that make it more possible to lighten workloads in exchange for being paid less can create more choices for people in the high-paid professions. Of course, this does nothing to help the stresses on low income people, and we should not forget that.

Which takes us back to privilege. The lives of the affluent are built on the backs of the lower wage work of others. Wage structures have become more unequal, and a broad ethos of competitive individualism has dulled the sense of compassion and interconnection among different groups of people. When we privileged folks locate our own tensions and struggles in the broader context of human interconnection and struggle, it is a lot easier to get a sense of perspective about the choices we have to make, even the difficult ones. And easier to remember to support the political struggles of others.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

5 thoughts on “privilege, choices, constraints”

  1. Once again, a lot to chew on here, olderwoman. I have two not-quite-formed thoughts on this. The first is about your concession that workaholics should get more rewards than people doing a reasonable amount of work. I would agree, if a reasonable amount of were also a normal amount of work, and if then this normal amount of work were sufficient to have a decent career. It is not at all clear to me that these conditions are in place. It seems from my standpoint that a workaholic amount of work is both normal and necessary.

    The second is another point of privilege that you hadn’t mentioned: networks. I don’t mean to imply that you should have included everything, but one of the reasons I have felt so pressured to work so much at a time when I also had big family responsibilities (not that I was so successful at either, mind you) was that, because I was not embedded in rich intellectual communities in my workplace, I had to put a bunch of work into developing networks through producing papers, traveling to conferences, the usual stuff you do to meet people and get them interested and engaged with your work. This is a lot more work when you are more distant from the cores of these networks, both as you go down the status ladder in sociology and as you are geographically removed from intellectual communities. If I took time off, I don’t know that I’d have enough time to build the communities that have helped me build the work in order to (hopefully) get tenure.

    I don’t mean to be a whiner, but the opening up of minds and departments that you describe does not seem to be what is happening where I have been. While people may be supportive, my sense is that departments are less so, especially as the tenure requirements keep rising, offsetting the good intentions of colleagues. Or maybe, like someone points out, we internalize the worst stories and ignore the good ones.

  2. So true, Tina. I had a lot of support from other people, in various ways. That’s why I was trying to say that these were privileges. The loss of connections through conferences was part of what hurt when I had my wings clipped, but it would have been worse if I had not already had some reputation or was in a bad department. And about making a space for careers that don’t need 80 hours a week, I can only agree.

    Tenure requirements have not been rising at the R1 school I’m at, but they probably are rising at the lower tier schools that also give less support for research. (They were rising in the 1970s where I had my first job.) That would be a pattern to be worth investigating, as the majority of academics work at non-R1 places.

  3. In the 1970s, schools were moving from teaching-only tenure to research tenure. That was the case where I was. Schools “on the make” try to raise their standing in the ranking on the backs of their assistant professors. So yes, I do know of cases where the standards are rising, or have risen. But what the average trend is today, I don’t know.

  4. Yes, the Carnegie surveys of faculty and the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty show that there was a considerable rise in both initial appointment and then tenuring requirements, especially in the eighties and nineties. The change is most noticeable in increased publications requirements (initially numbers but increasingly in terms of quality) at the lower level institutions: 2nd tier research universities and then in comprehensive colleges and universities.

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