Tuesday, December 04, 2007

When Work/Life Doesn't Always Work

A sensitive, insightful post by "Olderwoman" at Scatterplot on balancing the priorities of childcare and your academic career called "Choices, Consequences, Constraints." I only hope that I am as aware and able to juggle all this when I have my own children and try to balance family with career.

I am excerpting large parts (but still leaving out a lot!) to make that sure you read it. But click on the link and read the entire post, especially for the postscript responses to the discussion at Crooked Timber:

“While they are young, the children come first.” Last week, cleaning out old files, I found a stack of priority worksheets I’d written in 1989, in one of my bursts of self-improvement. (Ironically, my taste for self-improvement books and schemes is one of the things my children find embarrassing and annoying.) So I was already reflecting on choices and their consequences when Jeremy posted “someday” andShamus posted “how do you say no?” With a little luck, those of us born to relative affluence don’t face any really hard choices when we are young. Before I had children, I liked my life a lot: I had a good relationship, a good job, plenty of time to write, plenty of exercise, and a significant level of political involvement.

In retrospect, I probably should have used more paid child care and household help, as the children would probably have been better off with a saner mother, but I did not want to concede defeat to the constraints in my life. I preferred feeling angry to adjusting.I said no to a lot of things in those years. Politics was, of course, out of the question. What hurt more was the constraint on my professional ambitions. I turned down invitations to international conferences and even domestic talks. Every time I planned a trip, I got prior approval from my husband’s boss for the dates, but neither my husband nor his boss could actually control his travel schedule, and my travel was always a crisis. We even had to have an overnight babysitter one time because we ended up both being gone at the same time. So I just gave it up. I also said no to a lot of committees, not only the annoying ones but also the ones that would have been good for my career. I said no to conference and book chapters – anything that would have a deadline. My teaching was not all that good then, either. My stress and negative affect implicitly said “no” to a lot of student requests before they even asked...

I remember once talking to a dad at a school outing. He was telling me about all the travel he did, and said that his wife did not want him to travel so much, but she should be happy about it because of all the extra money he earned. I told him what I did and that I was turning down trips. He said, “That must be hard.” I said, “Yeah, it is. But you have to know your priorities. You know what is number one, what is number two, what is number three, and then it is easy.” Partly I was trying to goad him on behalf of his wife. But I was also reminding myself why I was doing it....

Because I have never regretted putting my children first in those years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly regretted some of the ways I handled the situation, and I can feel as jealous and resentful as the next person when I compare my professional status with that of the men who “passed” me while I was on the mommy track. But not the core decision to put the children first. That decision had negative consequences for my career, but it had positive consequences, too. As they say, few people in the cancer wards say, “Boy, I wish I’d spent more time working.” Spending time with my children was, in fact, its own intrinsic reward, and my relationship with them now that they are adults continues to be rewarding....

After about ten years on the mommy track, it was time for another shift in priorities.... The children still stayed at the top of the list, but their ranking relative to work went down. It was time to ramp up my career. I signed up for four conferences in one year to give myself deadlines to get writing done. It was stressful, but it accomplished the goal. I published several major articles. I was still making choices with consequences for other people. I worked at home, so I was there in the background, but I ignored my children more. This both hurt their feelings and impacted their lives.... overheard my son once telling a friend that he had the world’s most inattentive mother. I pointed out to them that their father also ignored them when he worked, but they did not see him do it because he did it away from home. This did not change their perceptions.

Choices. Each choice that I make has consequences, some that I like, some that I don’t like. Not all my choices are constructive. I don’t think I get much
value out of the time I’ve spent playing free cell or doing crossword puzzles. I don’t know whether taking the time to work on this essay is worth the time I’m spending on it. But I know I’m making those choices all the time.

In my freshman dorm in college, an extremely obnoxious guy said to me something that has proved to be a central truth of my life: “You become what you do.” You become what you do. Every day in every way we make choices that have consequences for ourselves and other people. Every time we say yes to some things we say no to countless other things. We make dozens of choices every day that are consequential for ourselves and others. We live embedded in opportunities and constraints created by other people’s choices, and we in our turn create constraints and opportunities for ourselves and others. This is a law of nature, this is how our finite and interdependent universe works. When we contemplate this reality, it can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. So we either deny the reality, or adopt simplifying rules for coping with it, attending to some connections and not others. We often act and theorize as if only one person at a time is real, and everyone else is just environment, not also choice-making consequence-bearing people. We think that if our choices are consequential that we must be able to control the outcomes of our choices. That is, we make the fundamental attribution error in social psychology, attributing outcomes to individual choices rather than systems. But even “system” is an attribution error, as we tend to treat it as if it were a single other individual not, itself, a product of uncountable choices by other people.

There is a great deal of sociology to be done in the social construction of choice and constraint, in the social patterning of denying and simplifying interdependence and consequence. (This leads us into relational sociology and other work I know too little about.) We perceive only some of our choices. We perceive only some of the constraints on our choices. We perceive only some of the ways our actions impact other people. We vary in how much we consider the impacts of our choices on other people. Feminists often note that only women and not men are perceived as making choices about work-home tradeoffs, and that better social systems could make it easier for everyone to balance work and child care. Affluent people often do not perceive that their comfortable lives are built on the low-wage labor of others. Privileged people do not perceive that their choices and opportunities are products of the luck of their birth. We often resent and complain about the very fact that we have to make choices, that we cannot have everything that we want, that other people’s actions impact our lives, or that we cannot do what some people want without hurting or disappointing others. Perhaps we can both make better choices for ourselves and do better sociology if we take the complex interdependency of our system as a starting point, and then attend specifically to the ways that we go about simplifying or schematizing our understanding of it.


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