Work-family balance: Attainable reality or unicorn-like fantasy?

How to deal with the challenge of shifting boundaries of work, school and life at each stage of your career.

Recently, a colleague asked for a favor: whether one of us could be back-up for daycare pick-up for her three sons. She and her husband had both been invited to speak at the same conference, requiring them to travel out of state. Their child care plans had fallen through, and they didn’t have family nearby to help. So they had booked flights so that her husband could get kids to school on a Friday morning, and her flight departed Friday after her talk, so that she had just enough time to make it back to get them before daycare closed at 6:30.

But if her flight was delayed, she needed a back-up plan. Luckily everything went smoothly, but this illustrates how precarious we sometimes feel in balancing work demands and the rest of our lives. There are times where it feels like we are one delay away from disaster. The nature of an academic career requires a great amount of flexibility in that constantly strived for, uneasily attained construct known as work-life balance.  As an emerging scholar, one of the main challenges of work-life balance is the shifting boundaries of work, school and life at each stage of our careers.

As an undergrad, distinctions were clearer: work was a paid hourly commitment, school consisted of taking classes and trying to get good grades, and life was everything else – family, friends, romantic relationships, hobbies, etc.  These aspects were probably easily separated.   Grad school marked a major shift in these boundaries in two ways.  1) The lines between work and school became nonexistent.  We took course credit to work on theses, for example. And our research mentors were also assistantship supervisors and professors of our seminars.  2) Work/school intruded more into life, but at the time, there was a clearer distinction between the two because the people we interacted with were not as homogenous as before (i.e., we knew people who weren’t students). In our cases, our significant others weren’t grad students, which is a blessing (because he did housework, cooking, etc. and was a reprieve from grad school stress and worry) and a curse (because he was often second fiddle to the paper/proposal/grading that had to be done and he generally didn’t love that). Another challenge of grad school compared to undergrad was additional scheduling freedom and, although this seems like a good thing in theory, it can be problematic, for instance, when you procrastinate and suddenly have a million things due and you don’t even have time to eat. It was expected that you were being productive without constantly being checked in on.  In some ways this was great because the grocery shopping could get done on Wednesday morning and grading papers could get done at the same time as the laundry.  But then those blurred boundaries can be really stressful when it comes to work-life balance, because now when at home we feel like we should be working. And adding to this, there wasn’t anyone requiring us to be in grad school. This was the choice we made for our lives – which meant that our success at work/school was required for us to have the life we ultimately wanted. And suddenly grad school is this huge uncontrollable, unseen but always present weight that we carry everywhere. Even when we figured out strategies for dealing with the blurred boundaries (like making task lists rather than monitoring how much time we worked in a day, scheduling time for writing where we intentionally did not do anything else, and going to campus even on days where we didn’t have a meeting/class) we still felt a constant weight from our dissertations.

For us, there are three big differences between grad school and postdoc. First, the weight of the dissertation is gone (which is AMAZING!). Second, you realize that work-life balance is something you have to make work in the long term.  Rather than working for the next course deadline, or grad school requirement, there is a running list of things you can always be working on, without a set deadline to finish them. So after grad school, whatever systems you create, whatever habits you develop, they have to work for the long haul. Unlike grad school, with a postdoc there are more expectations to submit grants and publish (along with other activities), in the absence of a timeline.  So how much you get done in a day or week is partly dictated by how you want your career to look. Rather than having the external demands and deadlines dictate what priorities are, we now have the freedom for a synergistic, intertwined work-life demand. The benefit to this is that when life is demanding (like when a child is sick), less of our efforts are dedicated to work. But when work is demanding (like the 6 weeks before a grant is due) we can emphasize work more than other demands (and hope that your child does not get sick in the 6 weeks before a grant is due). With that kind of an approach, neither work nor family has to “suffer” for the sake of the other.  Finally, with a post-doc, there are expectations to put in a certain number of hours per week and specified “paid time off” so, on one hand, it can be a little easier to put in your 40-50 hours and then be finished for the week.  On the other hand, you have to plan for taking days off and can’t just make up the work when you have time.

Of course, family status has a huge impact on work-life balance.  Having a partner and/or kids requires much more time and energy.   It is important to spend quality time with your significant other for your mental health and the sake of the relationship.  This becomes more challenging you have children.  With kids, you have to drop them off and pick them up at certain times so you can’t stay at work as long as you might feel like you need to.  And you can’t plan to do work until after bedtime because you don’t want to miss out on time with the kids.  Our lives have become much more reliant on planning ahead and making lists of deadlines, goals, and even family time. One up-side to having a family is that people understand that you need to leave to do daycare pick-up or that you can’t work late because you need to spend a few hours with your kids before bedtime, but you’re still expected to be productive and this can be harder than it is for folks who are single and/or without children. But the reality is that, whether you have a significant other/children or not, working continuously without a break is unsustainable for anyone. Everyone, regardless of family status, needs a good work-life balance.

The last comment we have on this topic is that there are a lot of great strategies and suggestions out there, but no one strategy is the perfect fit for everyone or every season in life. So being willing to try new approaches for making things work and thinking outside the box is essential. We both have very different approaches to how we tackle these issues (at least in some ways). Sarah fantasizes about having one or two days a week that are dedicated to working at home (her division’s policy is that telecommuting is reserved for sick children, snow days, and home repairs). Jen is able to work from home more often (and in some ways it is a necessity for her current situation) but wishes she could keep home and work a little more separated. Our recommendation is to talk to people and find out what they do that seems to work. We have solicited and heard all sorts of ideas, including a friend of a colleague who schedules one Friday a month where she doesn’t leave work until her task list for that month is finished – her husband and kids know and plan for her not being there that evening, and she might stay in the office until well after midnight. But she doesn’t work any other evenings or weekends, and keeps things more strictly 8-5. Another colleague works for 3 hours every Saturday while her husband and kids sleep in – and as a trade-off she picks her kids up from school every Friday. We also know faculty who have committed to leaving the office at 2 to run or do other personal wellness activities, but they also commit to teaching 8 am courses (and come in even earlier). Some of these strategies would never work for us personally, but might be great for some of you. Try things out, and see what your setting will allow. And post additional strategies you’ve tried – you might have thought of something that would really help a colleague keep things balanced!