2.1 Juggle, Drop, Retrieve, Repeat
In the fall of 2008, the year I began my full time PhD coursework, I was teaching four courses on three different campuses. It was the year my daughter was born and my son turned three. In the following years, I would increase my teaching load to five or sometimes six courses a semester. Over those years I traveled to seven conferences and conventions related to my research to deliver papers and presentations. I published three academic articles, and began writing regularly for Tor.com, in addition to 187 posts at my research blog, Steampunk Scholar. Some colleagues have jokingly referred to me as “Superman” for my ability to balance work and home life. People often ask with some incredulity, “How do you juggle an active academic life with a family?”
My wife and I deliberately chose to have one of us home to raise our kids. We don’t have a problem with other people choosing child care, but we wanted to be there for our children through their very formative years. While friends and family praised our decision, it proved nigh untenable in combination with a career transition involving graduate studies. A scholarship during my MA permitted me a year at home with my son, writing and reading at nights and on weekends. This became impossible during my PhD work.
Family and academia do not mix naturally. For starters, it’s financial suicide. Scholarships do not come with a little check box asking if you have kids to explain why your GPA isn’t as high as your colleagues’. Even if you’re fortunate enough to get a scholarship, the amounts are often intended for someone without dependents. In some cases, you are forbidden to augment your scholarship by working more than twelve hours a week. To live on a scholarship alone with dependents is effectively to live on the edge of the poverty line.
This is why I started teaching. Once I had my foot in the door, I could make more money teaching one extra course than my wife could by working part time evenings: it just meant staying up late to prepare lectures or marking on the weekends.
Further, while there were some exceptions, reading Seuss to my children rather than close reading a theoretical text book garnered little praise in the academic world. The idea that family comes first is paid lip service but little else. Skipping out on a conference, a volunteer “opportunity,” or refusing to apply for a scholarship with great merit but lackluster funding because you didn’t have the time was often met with the response, “oh, but it won’t be-that-much-work/take-that-long.” Recently, I asked my son if I was as mean as Rudolph the Reindeer’s dad in the Rankin Bass special, to which he replied, “Oh no. You just say, ‘Tomorrow, buddy,’ or ‘in a few hours.’” He’s six years old now, and I have the sense I missed out on many moments in the past three years. The dark irony is I left my previous career to have more time with my family.
The point is, while it might look like I can juggle academia and family, I’ve dropped a lot of balls along the way. I dropped the quality of my term papers during my coursework year to make sure I wasn’t working from the time I came home until my kids were asleep. That year, I fell asleep with my son; an hour later, my wife would wake me up and I’d return to work. That same year I dropped my health, replacing sleep with calories: I gained twenty pounds and consumed far too much caffeine and carbohydrates. I dropped time with friends: one year, my Facebook status became, “I’m not ignoring you: I’m focusing on my studies and my family.” I dropped getting student grades in on time, or giving adequate feedback. I dropped an entire Christmas vacation in Texas to finish term papers. I dropped deadlines and family events; I dropped opportunities and promises, and somewhere along the way, I got comfortable with the occasional dropped ball.
Better yet, I’ve learned how to strategically drop balls that won’t matter in the long run. I’ve stopped dropping the ball of spending time with my kids. Some days have required that I eschew efficiency in order to have my kids accompany me to the library or, on occasion, academic obligations. Nevertheless, I refuse to drop the ball of health or home in favour of an academic accolade or opportunity to make my CV look shiny.
I’ve also learned how to juggle in tandem with my wife. This won’t work for everyone, but it’s essential to answering the question of how I juggle academia and family. While I may be jokingly referred to as “Superman,” the truth of the matter is that I’m married to Wonder Woman. She has picked up many of the balls I’ve dropped. As a parent, when I was missing, she was present, texting me updates about the kids, ensuring photos or video got taken, and making sure the kids understood that my absence didn’t mean a lack of love. She carried the bulk of domestic duties while I worked long hours, and while she voiced missing our time together, it never sounded like a complaint. She bought me the iPod that allowed me to “read” audiobooks while shovelling snow, mowing the lawn or riding the bus. She let me read textbooks to her at night. There was always a sense of being a team, of working together to a common goal. I can’t imagine having succeeded in getting this far without her.
I suppose some readers might be disappointed by my highly subjective reflections. Wouldn’t it be better to give you five easy tips for juggling academia and family? The trouble is, some of my colleagues are juggling other things: working in a second or third language, being half-way around the globe from family and friends, struggling with anxiety or depression, fighting with an advisor, or changing their thesis for the third time. Instead of juggling balls, some of you are juggling flaming swords.
Get comfortable with dropping things. Pick them back up and start over again. I had already accrued eight years of post-secondary education before I entered graduate studies. I’d studied music, religion and digital design before settling into Comparative Literature. As I was reminded while watching Megamind with my kids a few weeks ago, “There’s a benefit to losing: You get to learn from your mistakes.”
Mike Perschon is currently studying steampunk literature for his PhD dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, in the Great White North of Canada. He has been an independent musician, a freelance writer, itinerant speaker, and jean salesman but is perfectly content to have ended up as an instructor of English at Grant MacEwan University. Mike keeps a number of blogs, including steampunkscholar.com.