Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 52 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

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.


  1. Pingback: Don’t get to the point where it doesn’t feel good anymoreReflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

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