The struggle to find work-life balance in academia

By Sarah Rivett

There was a time, not too long ago, when we weren’t allowed to talk about it. Being a serious academic meant an uncompromising attitude toward personal sacrifice. Women have told me that they’ve tried to disguise their third trimester of pregnancy when visiting college campuses for job interviews. When I was a twenty-seven year old graduate student, an advisor told me she was glad I had chosen a career over a family. At the time, this was not a decision I was conscious of, not a worldview that I could wrap my mind around. Her words left an indelible impression, though. The message was that success in academia and family life were incompatible.

For years I felt that there was something fundamentally empowering about the relentless devotion to an intellectual life that simply won’t accept compromise, let alone sacrifice, within its parameters. It is only in recent history that women got to do this at all. Each generation is caught between competing worlds, of what came before and what is becoming. My mom’s generation, for example, felt acutely the weight of precedent. Having learned from their mothers not to question the fate of being a housewife, only the reckless pioneers among them forged careers in a vacuum. The one mother in my childhood neighborhood of the 1980s, who was also a corporate lawyer, was an anomaly rather than a norm. My most vivid memory of her was the community’s perception that her job meant she did not have time to prepare healthy snacks for her child and child’s friends during play dates.

So recent is the history of successful women in the academy that even as a graduate student in the early 21st century, I chose men as my role models. I wanted what they had: institutional power, autonomy, and a reputation for brilliance that did not come at the cost of their sanity. The danger that an academic life can pose to mental health has haunted me since I learned that my undergraduate professor, who was also a mother and my first female academic role model, ended her life in her mid-40s, at the height of a highly successful career. What she had was the epitome of what I wanted. But was the price too high?

The struggle to balance work and life in the academy remains a particular challenge for women. Whether to have a “baby-before-tenure”  is still one of the most pressing career “questions.” This question plays out very differently depending on gender. Men tend to maintain or increase levels of productivity within the first year of a child’s life, whereas women do not. To anyone who has experienced first-hand the litany of challenges plaguing the postpartum body and mind—sleepless nights, leaky and engorged breasts, hemorrhoids, healing episiotomies and vaginal tears, tender and swollen cesarean scars, back pain, and the strange infusion of hormones that apparently alter the neurology of the brain—this is not a surprise. It is hard to imagine an experience that highlights the disparity between sexes more than the physical demands placed on the pregnant or lactating female body and the unchanged male body of a new father.

My answer to the “baby-before tenure” question was always an emphatic no. So devoted was I to my ambition for this career that a competing devotion to another human life was not a risk I felt willing to take given the abysmal statistics. As an assistant professor just out of graduate school, I heard of the “baby penalty” that adversely affects women’s capacity to advance through faculty ranks but that actually advantages men. So too I had heard stories of men turning parental leave into a research sabbatical.

Four months after attaining tenure, I returned to campus following our summer break noticeably pregnant. I became acutely aware of the phenomenon of inhabiting a body that placed new demands on me—fatigue, constant hunger, nausea—that did not support the semester’s relentless work demands.

If pregnancy carved out an entirely unfamiliar embodied world, on giving birth I fell into an abyss where time, the world, and my identity as anything other than a mother ceased to matter. So all-consuming was my devotion to this small eight-pound human I had birthed that for the first time in a decade I forgot about email, obligations, deadlines, and even the one thing at the core of my professional commitment: all the previous pleasures I took in the intellectual life. As if I had been starved of its opposite, I felt wrapped in a cocoon of emotional and bodily existence, watching my son breath while swaddled in his bassinet, waking to nurse before hearing his cry, rocking his sleeping body curled next to mine for hours as if time stood still. I felt present and alive, though exhausted, and decided by month four that in fact this entirely common experience was the hardest thing I had ever done.

Six weeks after giving birth to my first child, at the first thaw of early spring, it was time to go back to work. I needed to remember the self that came before the birth of my son. I struggled into a pair of black, suede boots and walked across the campus of Princeton University to attend a lecture. As I sat and tried to focus my mind on the familiar task of following the argument, I was aware of the fragility of my postpartum body in a crowded public space. My still fresh cesarean scar smarted from the folds of my postpartum belly bearing down on it. My breasts filled with milk to the point of leaking a small pool into the carefully positioned pad. My sinuses were still swollen from pregnancy. There was a dull ache in my back, and palpable waves of separation anxiety from my newborn whom I had left with my mother for an hour.

And thus began the new challenge which would define my life for years to come, of trying to reconcile the competing demands of professor and parent, of an intellectual life that comes face to face with the relentless demands motherhood makes on our bodies—of the nitty-gritty matter of human existence and the full gamut of human striving now within women’s reach.

Sarah Rivett is a teacher and writer living in Princeton New Jersey. She is the mother of two young boys who have taught her how to play and live in the moment.

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