Thursday, January 25, 2018

Balancing book and family

Every scholar faces a unique blend of personal responsibilities they must balance alongside their research and writing lives. This post will focus on my experience balancing parenthood while on the tenure track and writing my book.  It is my hope that some of the advice that follows will apply beyond my experience, though I can imagine that many of the LHB’s readers might have faced similar challenges.  I also want to add that the difficulties academics encounter in trying to balance work and family life are not much different than any working parent or caregiver.

As a graduate student who hoped to have kids, I often wondered and discussed the best timing. Some of my friends had children at different points during graduate school, while others waited for graduation or for tenure. I chose to wait until after I started my job, but I don’t believe there is any such thing as perfect timing (or that one can always choose the timing!). 

I learned I was pregnant during the first semester of my new job. I was nervous at first to talk to my department chair about it. Auburn had allowed me to defer my position by a year to accept my postdoc, so I figured they might not be thrilled to learn that I would need some time off the next fall (I was due about a week before the fall semester). When I finally approached my chair, he immediately expressed his overwhelming excitement and support. I share this detail—which I’ve told very few people—because I think there is often anxiety about the unknown when adjusting to a new job or professional situation. Department cultures vary, as do university policies for family leave. 

Teaching while pregnant is less than ideal, even in the smoothest of pregnancies, but I had good support from my colleagues and my partner. I was also able to take a semester of parental leave after having both of my summer babies (in 2011 and 2014).  I believe the arrival of your first child is always jarring, but my daughter Olivia’s arrival came with a health scare and twelve days in the NICU.  I had made so many plans for how the first days of parenthood would go; the reality shattered those expectations. I was in the hospital for less than twenty-four hours after giving birth and spent the next two weeks sleeping in a dingy Montgomery hotel when I wasn’t holding vigil next to my daughter’s NICU bed. It was terrifying, but Olivia is now a thriving, healthy 6-year-old. She taught me from day one that with kids, there is often no point to making plans about how things “should” go.

Family leave semesters create an interesting dynamic, even in the best of departments with supportive colleagues like mine. Sometimes colleagues or friends who have not had a family leave semester don’t necessarily understand what they entail.  Sometimes they expect that you might be able to do research or service obligations during those semesters. During my first parental leave, I foolishly tried to make plans to do “a little bit of work” during naptimes or after Olivia went to bed (ha!). Even if your child’s sleep schedule allows for short windows of time, parents are often too busy with other tasks or too tired from the baby’s schedule to get real thinking done. [Side note: I absolutely understand that for many parents, real work has to be done during these months, so it must be possible to function at some level!] As a result of my expectations, I spent much of those few months worried about work—what I should be doing, the writing/reading I should be accomplishing. In my last post, I indicated how one way to balance it all involves forgiveness when you fall short of your own high expectations. I may come back to that point a few times in this post, too. Dwelling on the work I wasn’t doing robbed me of some of the joys and precious moments with my new daughter. It was a hard lesson but one I remembered when I took my second family leave semester after my son’s arrival.

The semester that I returned to teaching after my first family leave was one of my most difficult semesters. I taught three classes, including two new preps that required writing new lectures. I had an infant at home who required near-constant attention (let’s face it, they all do!). Honestly, that time is a blur for me now. I’m not sure how I managed to balance it all. I do remember that I did virtually no writing or research that spring.

At Auburn, the university’s policy is to allow for an extension of the tenure clock after having a baby or any major life event. My chair thought I probably wouldn’t need the extra time, but I figured it was better to be safe than sorry. I applied for and received the extension after both of my family leave semesters.  I would highly recommend that anyone in a similar situation find a trusted senior colleague or someone outside of your department to ask about family leave policies and the possibility of extending the tenure clock. Although I was not able to communicate the absence in research productivity on my c.v., at least my tenure and promotion materials reflected that I had two family leave semesters. I did end up needing one of those two extensions to complete the requirements for tenure on time. It is difficult to predict how the book publication process will go (more on that in the next post), so it is always a good idea to arrange for extra time if you can.  More on my story after the jump break…

When I got pregnant with my son, I knew I did not want to spend another family leave with the stress of my manuscript hanging over me. I buried myself in my writing, desperate to complete the draft of my manuscript before his June birth. As a result, I rushed the end of my manuscript writing and skipped many of the revisions I might otherwise have done prior to my initial submission. I turned my book manuscript in exactly two weeks before Alex’s arrival in June 2014.  Doing so allowed me to spend the first few months of leave focused solely on my new baby, and I now realize how lucky I was to be able to do that. I strongly urge anyone who can to savor those first days and weeks with your little one.  I allowed myself to enjoy those precious months, and I have no guilt about the fact that I did not research or writing during that fall. I knew that readers’ reports and responsibilities would still be there when I got back—and they were.

Returning to full-time work with two small children presents its own challenges. Finding time to write, complete research, and think through the revision process while teaching, facing an increasing service load, and caring for little ones is no easy task. I have not figured it all out. I still stumble more days than not. But I will close this post with a couple of tips I have employed to varying levels of success.

First, as mentioned already, forgiveness is key. Learning to move on when you have a bad writing day is vital to the ability to push forward with a long-term research project. Some days the kids are sick, you get snowed in (even in Alabama!), or a thousand other things derail your plans.  Success is built in small, manageable chunks.

Second, don’t forget to recognize the small accomplishments along the way and look for new ways to motivate yourself to get writing done. A new introduction, a finished chapter, or a stellar paragraph are all cause for celebration. I do this by setting long-term and short-term goals. The software I used to draft my manuscript (Scrivener) has a feature to track word goals for writing projects. I now use a daily app on my phone (Strides) to track all types of goals, including my research and writing time.  These visual reminders help me see the way small, daily contributions stack up. I also like to experiment with new motivating tools. In the past, I’ve used the Pomodoro technique (set a timer and work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break). I am a big fan of social media as a motivator (the #Grafton line group on facebook was a great way to check in and stay accountable during my final revisions). Writing retreats (get a group together, set goals and a timer, and write) are also great for putting in the tough hours and getting writing done.

When children are very young, staying productive with research and writing can sometimes mean adjusting your schedule to some odd hours. My partner works evenings, so I often have to either get up early or be willing to work after the kids go to bed (bedtime is sacred!). I work most weekends, though not always. When my partner has a day off, I put in extra hours to catch up. I realize that this schedule might be unique and not work for others. One of the perks of academia is the flexibility to make your schedule work for you. I like my schedule despite its late nights and weekends because from 3:30-8, I’m in full-fledged parent mode. I get to spend most evenings with my kids, and I love that. When a particularly tough work week or writing deadline is approaching, I lose some of that precious time with them. But in the long run I believe those days even out. The occasional movie night so you can put in another hour or so on a project is sometimes worth it. Parents can be very judgmental with each other and hard on themselves. The longer I am one, the more I recognize the importance of letting it all go sometimes and doing what you need to do to function.

Sometimes what writers (and parents) need to do to function is engage in self care. I became an avid runner while writing my book to stay in shape and blow off stress. One of my weaknesses is sugary foods, so I reward myself for my late nights in the office with whatever candy I’m currently loving. I’d hate to know what the jelly beans-to-pages-written ratio for this book might be.  Part of self care also involves knowing your limits. For example, I know I can usually stretch 3-4 nights without a lot of sleep before I become a walking zombie who must sleep 7-8 hours a night to function again.

In the end, there is no perfect equation for balancing children or family responsibilities with the enormous demands of research and writing a book. But I would love to hear about others’ experiences or questions in the comments.

My next post will focus on the final revisions stage and the push for tenure and promotion. Because of my rush to turn in the manuscript before my son arrived, and because my readers’ reports continued to make suggestions, I completed two major rounds of revision before publication. I’ll close my time as a guest blogger by walking through some of the changes I made—and the ones I chose not to make—as I finalized the manuscript for publication.