Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 52 seconds

Academic overwork, passion, adrenaline and parenting…

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 52 seconds

I read a post this morning by Kate Bowles in which she discusses the issue of the culture of academic overwork and it got me thinking…

But let me start by my morning. Funny morning. I was carrying my toddler to daycare, and just as we were about to enter, she looked at me quizzically, “fein el shoes?” (Translates: where are my shoes). Ha! I had forgotten to put on her shoes! She’s perfectly capable of putting them on for herself, but also perfectly capable of taking them off after I put them on for her. I am embarrassed to say that today was not one of the days she took them off. I simply forgot to put them on in the first place! Thankfully, the daycare is right across the street from home, so we solved that problem pretty quickly. The weird thing about this is that I was not late for work (though I often am, as my toddler sometimes gets into a battle of wills of what to wear, whether to eat, etc.)

Then on my way to work i read Kate’s post. I started out agreeing completely with the part about why some athletes (e.g. Cyclists, in her blog) go to such extremes to succeed, to the extent of risking and sometimes even losing their lives… This always baffled me. And it baffles me why others (whether peers in the sport or beyond) view it as heroic.

But then when she made this amazing connection between that, and academic overwork, how academia (well those of us in academia are all complicit, if not worse, right?) expects the successful academic to work 24/7 doing a million things, and those who do work themselves that hard are praised and rewarded… To the detriment of their family life and wellbeing.

My post now should be more self-critical. I am one of those academics who probably overworks and I want to understand why I do it, what of it is a hegemony I do not recognized, a self-imposed harm, definitely affecting my family life… And I will try to do so possibly in another post, or this one will get too long.

But first, I wanted to build on something else I said to Kate in a comment on her blog: parenting is also guilty of “overwork” syndrome, and “work” (outside the home) is often what some moms do for their own well being! [the talk of work taking away from family has two assumptions: that family life is or should be more valuable and that it will always make us happier short and long-term to focus on family rather than work; i don’t agree with the latter]

Parenting nowadays (has it always been like this?) places high burdens of expectations, esp. on women. The expectation that you will sacrifice everything for your child, without a thought, and enjoy it, is a huuuge burden. I love my child, I do, and I would do, have done a lot for her. I breastfed her for two years, took two years maternity leave from work and one year off my PhD. I won’t go into sordid details here. Children deserve this and more. It’s not like she owes me. I brought her into this world, I am responsible for loving her unconditionally and i do.

But here is the thing. When she sleeps, when she is at daycare, that’s “me” time. And “me” time is often not “spa” time or “TV” time and it’s often too late to call a friend and I cannot go out because “what if she wakes up?” (She only started sleeping thru the night after i weaned her, but there’s still teething and nightmares and whatnot; my husband is a surgeon and has strange unpredictable hours and can get called on emergencies any time, so is never a “backup” person).

And so in my “me” time, I catch up with some work that I did not have time to finish earlier during work hours (e.g. On days the daycare called me to pick her up early, or days she was sick so i was with her all day, or … U get the picture). Preparing my teaching or grading students, that’s also “me” time that I enjoy.

But lots of my “me” time is spent on social media, MOOCing or tweeting or blogging or reading blogs. It’s mostly related to my field in some way (education) but it’s not “work”, if you know what I mean?

There was one tumultuous day at home that I was able to stay sane through because while it was all happening, i was tweeting with a journal editor about an article of mine that was about to get published. That adrenaline rush kept me calm through a really really tough day. The pleasure of teaching helps me through some really tough weeks – to know that I can make a difference and inspire others. Doing the #rhizo14 MOOC during a time of political unrest in Egypt helped keep my mind off of the ugliness happening around me.

It’s not because I am overworking myself to some external person’s expectations. It’s because I am passionate about and enjoy what I do, so much so that lots of my “extracurricular” reading and activity relates to work, but I am not working. Sure, working on my PhD part-time while working full-time was work. I had to force myself to do it and finish it, and mostly it was stressful, not fun, and not good for my family. But the other stuff? That’s what keeps me sane. It stems from intellectual love 🙂 for my field and the people I interact with who are in it.

I worked at Procter and Gamble’s IT department for two years before getting fed up with the corporate world and shifting to an education career and doing grad studies. I remember when i first started working in faculty development, a friend called and asked me what I was doing. I told her about a book on faculty development that I was reading. Her response, “so you’re working!” And I was like, “er, no, I am reading this for leisure”. Her reaction, “Maha, that’s still working”. Not sure I agree! In fact, I am sure I do NOT agree.

I think it stems from this: am I doing something for intrinsic or extrinsic reward? Am I reading something because I have to, to use it for work? Or for pleasure? (Some things are admittedly both). I am non-tenure track but I publish. I don’t have to. I teach, but I don’t have to. I guess I am really lucky, then, that I can. I am so grateful that I can. And so grateful for social media that allows me to find people on the other side of the world awake and willing to talk when it’s… 4:30 am here…

I’ll be back to talk more seriously about academic overwork, though… Because that still deserves a longer discussion and I want to reflect on my university’s context.

8 thoughts on “Academic overwork, passion, adrenaline and parenting…

  1. Hi Maha

    Thanks for the link, and this lovely post. I am constantly finding myself at the shops with my daughters not actually wearing shoes, and certainly before I was a parent I thought Home Alone was a comedy, but now I know better: it’s a documentary.

    I just wanted to pick up one of the issues you’ve raised here, about differentiating between what we do that’s good for us, and what we do that’s harmful, and then trying to see this beyond ourselves. This is important for me at the moment. I’ve been on sick leave from my overworking academic job for six months, and one of the things I had to figure out what was to do about staying in touch with the world outside cancer, while genuinely taking leave.

    I’ve maintained my own blog and Twitter, and I’ve been pretty selective about work related email. I’ve done the odd professional thing here and there that I was asked to do that felt within my capacity, and additionally felt like it was good for me to do it. But I had to spend a lot of time explaining this to friends who are also colleagues, as they wanted to block all mention of work from me (cancer is a weird forcefield this way), which meant I had to keep pointing out that sitting at home thinking about cancer instead wasn’t such a great outcome. On reflection, I feel like I’ve managed this all in a way that worked for me.

    But yesterday when I questioned a senior colleague who had announced that she was going on personal leave but would of course be available to us all on email, she pointed out that I had done more or less the same thing. And this is where my thinking is stuck a bit: I think we have to recognise that our personal choices are also political, and also part of the way that we’re collectively creating work practices that benefit institutions while increasing the pressure on those around us. So today I’m thinking about how creating boundaries around work isn’t just about what works for me, but about the signals I send to others.

    This is a real dilemma. I don’t yet know how to resolve it, and I’d really welcome your thoughts.


    1. Hey Kate, yes, I have been thinking about the point you made about those decision also being political. I am not 100% sure what you mean by that, (but I loved the comment on your blog about how all of “us” are creating these cultures of pressure on each other) but i can see how institutions exploit workaholic-ness and that our choices set standards or examples for others and become a culture that then make those choices less personal, in some ways. I.e. Robs others of the choice to “be” otherwise. I have that problem at work. I am the person who’s been at our center the longest and this work is my passion so I approach it a certain way that my boss got used to. Everyone else is “other” by default…
      But i mean, back to your own situation: would you go back and do things differently, possibly making yourself unhappy while on leave, in order to not exert pressure on others? Isn’t that the same problem in reverse? Like you have to behave a certain way? Shouldn’t we maybe be arguing for “contextualization” of work practices, such that people can choose to balance their lives however they see fit at different stages of their lives? Like it is perfectly acceptable to me not to seek tenure while my child is young but i may want to shift later? Or that it’s perfectly acceptable to put one’s child in daycare a bit earlier than culturally acceptable because someone has a career opportunity they cannot miss? Academia especially can afford that flexibility because of the many roles academics play, the problem is in the inequality of pay, treatment, prestige of the different options between adjuncts and tenure.

      I might be missing the point or oversimplifying it (probably), but I will think about it some more, follow the links from your blog, and it also for some reason ties in with something different on Rees’s blog. Will try to make those connections in another blogpost. Thanks for your insightful blogging and commenting, as usual.

  2. Born in 1949, I grew up in the suburbs with a working Mom. According to Television this is a faulty version of the 50’s and 60’s where Moms stayed home. Only one woman didn’t “work” in the whole neighborhood and she ran the Catholic Woman’s Club full time from her house. Across the street the childless couple were contract authors and home sometimes. Next to them the lesbian couple worked all day at one of the university libraries.

    As an experiment, my Mother stayed home for a few years (9 and 10 for me I think) and I was enrolled in kids activities. Other than going to the library with me she was bored, poorly behaved and a nuisance for a kid to have around. So she went back to work, was happier and we did family things in the evening–including art projects I loved to fool around with.

    My Mother was an incomplete and mostly sad person when she didn’t work. No fun at all. I was lucky that my Grandmother lived downstairs but she too worked managing an oil-well service company by phone from home and was not always “available when needed” (women talk for feeling guilty about their own interests).

    For years, my Mom was Director of Alumni Relations at a small art college. She was often asked to work weekends and evenings at fund-raising events for no extra pay. None of the young males in her office were asked because they had young kids at home that “needed them” and this was a joke at our house because it was fun to work with crazy art school alumni and not so much fun being the boss of “family men.”

    My Mother was an interesting person, other kids had “regular” Moms. Too bad for them:-)

    1. Love that story, Scott! And i, too, am an “incomplete and mostly sad person” when not working for a long time (have had to do it a few times but luckily always had my PhD thesis as intellectual stimulation in the background). I imagine if o ever had to stay home again that social media would keep me intellectually and socially engaged, but it’s still not the same as getting out of the house on a regular basis and being productive

  3. Assigning people roles and expecting them to fit is a poor system–particularly when they aren’t allowed to fill the role as it naturally suits them. Sure, we have to do stuff we don’t like, but to be someone you aren’t doesn’t make sense.

    I’m sure my Sister and me were entertaining, and were certainly loved and cared for, but we had lives to figure out too. Kids can’t be instructed all the time, like adults they need time to themselves. It might be that a lot of the over-work people do is a form of time to themselves with their job? Anyway people are complex, constantly evolving and hard, if not impossible to manage.

    Both our Daughters were in a cooperative day care where I did maintenance some days as part of our fees. After the parents left in the morning it became a small country for kids to interact and learn to be humans. Their attention moved from missing parents to regarding each other socially very quickly.

  4. I can relate a lot to this Maha with 4 kids unpaid play-academicish activity unwarranted classroom adventure etc.

    None of this is planned, I just make it up as I go along.

    I never really understood work or how important other people thought others to be.

    Money, rat-races, business, getting one over, I just find boring.

    I have only ever done adventure, messing around. I had to use social media to find like-minded play-mates that enabled me to not get deadly bored.

    Over-play is also tiring. Too many friends is demanding. I suppose I am finding time again not for me but for silence.

    I just remembered my parents talked of having time for “quiet time” and now I can sort of understand.

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