I’m sorry this blog post is late

by Guest on December 4, 2013

This is a guest post by , cross-posted from Women in Astronomy.

I am sorry this blog post is late. I meant to post it Monday. Yes, the blog is important! But I think my daughter might have lice and I had to deal with that urgently.

I am sorry I can’t accept the invitation to speak at the conference. Yes, I do want the meeting to be a success.  But we have four children and the family simply doesn’t do well when I am away.

I am sorry that I can’t write a letter in support of the promotion. Yes, the candidate is doing great work, and I feel terrible that I can’t add my enthusiastic support to assist this junior person. But I get 25 such requests a year, and my weekends are full with math homework, hockey, and girl scouts.

I am sorry I had to leave your colloquium ten minutes before the end. I hope you didn’t think I am a jerk for getting up from the front row just as you were about to show the unpublished work. But our day care closes at 5:30pm and it is across town.

I am sorry I can’t join the university committee that meets over breakfast at 8am. Yes, I do think we need to rejuvenate our undergraduate curriculum. But I walk my kids to school at 8am, and it is the best part of my day.

I am sorry I am slow to get you comments on your paper. I feel awful that I am delaying the progress at this critical time in your career. I keep thinking I will get to it in the evening after the kids are asleep, but I also need to make time to talk to my wife.

These are all, more or less, true items for which I have apologized recently. Of course, as many of you with kids can anticipate, when I wrote these apologies I left off the last sentence.

A couple weeks ago, KJ Dell’Antonia ran the post “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry” on the NYTimes Motherlode blog.  The post was inspired by the book “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink” by Katrina Alcorn. OK, I haven’t read the book (I admit it has been too long since I have read any book), but the post sure summarized a feeling I know all too well: The constant, nagging, awful, soul-sucking guilt that I feel about saying no to new commitments, and then realizing that I am not even going to be able to meet the commitments I did accept. On the other side is the all-consuming question: Am I doing right by my wife and my children?

Around the same time, a video of a stand-up routine “People With No Kids Don’t Know” went global. (OK, here my criteria for “went global”, is that on the same day my sister emailed the link to me from Toronto and it came up in conversation over a dinner I was having in a tiny hamlet in France.)

The video is comforting because it reminds me that, after all, it is a somewhat insane proposition to have kids and for both me and my wife to work in careers that we love and that are genuinely demanding. The post by Dell’Antonia, on the other hand, reminds us of the real problems imposed upon working parents by our institutions. Looking at academia, in some cases, the solutions are straightforward: Let’s start colloquium earlier. Let’s not schedule important committees outside of 9–5. Let’s actually make remote conference participation work. In other cases (such as the lack of paid parental leave and serious childcare subsidies), I can see the path forward, but we are going to need a real financial commitment from our employers and our government to working families. In yet other cases, the path ahead is not clear. Academic careers are premised on merit-based advancement, as they should be. But if our society (and here I am talking about the local astronomy culture at your institution, not some abstract global concept) truly does value families, how do we reconcile that with a work culture that assumes evenings, weekends, and sick days are all fair game?

At the heart of the video, the Motherlode post, and (I am told) the book is the belief that we really could do it all if only we were more efficient. We end up feeling guilty for what we perceive to be our individual failures as working parents, but in reality the task was always an impossible one.

About a year ago, my groaning inbox finally forced me to a moment of clarity:

There are only so many hours in a day.

I went for a long walk, and I accepted the reality that I wasn’t going to get it all done. Despite my best efforts, I was going to say no to a lot of really great opportunities, and even then I was occasionally going to miss deadlines or drop items entirely. I would do my best, but above all I was going to enjoy my marriage and my children and my career, under the (currently?) insane premise upon which a family of six with both parents working in academic research is founded. But I wasn’t going to feel guilty about it anymore.

(Oh, I can’t lie to you. Of course I still do feel guilty occasionally, and I still do catch myself saying yes too often.  But I am enjoying it all.)



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 A December 5, 2013 at 1:22 am

I think many people in our field, and an even higher proportion of the very successful people, are workaholics. It apparently takes kids for them to realize there’s more to life than work. The rest of us already knew that.

I’m not particularly sympathetic to parents who think they’ve discovered the only valid excuse to limit their work hours and commitments. Your particular interesting and time-consuming hobby is kids. Other people have different ones.


2 Alyssa Goodman December 5, 2013 at 11:50 am

Thanks David–that post was *exactly* on-target. But, I still feel guilty way too often! A


3 redsea December 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Loved the post, thanks! … and the link to the video. Both the post and video are spot on and provided a welcome laugh. I’m not sure I understand the apparent hostility of the first commenter, but perhaps the attitude is more common than I realize. My first reaction to the comment about kids being a “hobby” was to scoff; normal hobbies can be postponed during busy periods at work, while the kid’s lice or soccer game or latest major drama cannot be put aside despite it being proposal season (or whatever major deadline is looming).

After a deeper introspection, however, I came realize that my kid is indeed my hobby now – or at least, his hobbies are by default my hobbies. I came to this realization while reading the interviews in the women-in-astronomy blogs. The interviewee is always asked what her hobbies are, presumably to show that she can have a life outside of science. When I asked myself what my hobbies are, I came to realize that I currently have none. I used to play volleyball in every spare moment, go camping frequently, cook extravagant dinners, and, well, go out occasionally just to have fun. Now, when I am not working, I am helping with homework or science projects, driving to/from kid events, keeping stats for various teams or spending painful hours clerking for my son’s swim team. My husband and I are lucky to go out once every month or two now, and instead of vacations in beautiful, scenic locales, we go visit both sets of grandparents each year in really boring locations (with maybe one camping trip per year, dragging the protesting video-game addict son along). Even for bad parents like us, who have let daycare (first) and then Xbox Live (now) raise our son, we seem to have little available spare time for hobbies. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have four kids, David!

After this revelation that I have no hobbies of my own anymore, I wondered whether I felt some kind of resentment or a sense of loss, and I realize that I don’t. It’s not that I find the kid-related activities so rewarding. Many of them aren’t. It’s just that I have so little time for introspection, and I am mostly quite happy with my life. A lot of that is due to my astronomy career, though. I really, really like what I do. If anything, my work is my hobby even more than my kid. I’m fine with that… and with long hours … and with saying “no” more frequently… until the guilt builds up and I overcommit again.


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