Work/Life Balance: Revisited

I know- you’re reading this title and saying, isn’t this topic old and tired? What more can we say about work/life balance that hasn’t already been said?  Haven’t we been told time and time again that balance is bunk?  I know, I know.  However, a variety of experiences I’ve had over the past few months have sparked my interest in revisiting this topic.  Humor me.  Here goes…

I recently attended a wonderful on-campus session focused on women in leadership. Everyone on campus was invited to attend a lunch and subsequent panel session, which included women who held or had held various leadership positions in higher education.  One panelist was a president emerita; another, a retired assistant vice president for student affairs; two were chief academic affairs officers; and a fifth was a vice chancellor of our state system.  As we asked the panel various questions, the inevitable questions came up about work/life balance.  How do you manage it all?  After the question was asked, the panel grew uncharacteristically silent and looked a bit sheepish.  “Not very well,” admitted the former AVPSA, a rumored workaholic.  The retired president offered up something about a seesaw- sometimes career is up and sometimes personal life is up, depending on the period of life or time of year.  Okay, fair enough. The others sort of hemmed and hawed. What became clear from this panel of very successful women is that balance is hard to achieve and some women (and men) eschew balance in order to achieve success. It didn’t leave me feeling optimistic.

Around this same time, I saw some postings on social media from some newer/middle level student affairs professionals who indicated they had left the field, one of the reasons being burnout/lack of balance. This made me sad for many reasons.  I’m sad that the field lost some good professionals.  I’m sad that we preach wellness and balance to our students, but can’t seem to incorporate this into our own lives, or create conditions for our staff to do so. I’m sad that we work hard to try to retain our students, but don’t work equally hard to retain strong professionals in the field.  Clearly, staff within our field need more support.

One arena where I have found some support is that of social media. As a new mother of a toddler, I recently joined a relatively new Facebook group called S.A.M.S.: Student Affairs Moms, which now has close to 5,000 members.  One thing that has caught my attention within the group is women posting examples of how they integrate work and family.  For example, one woman posted a picture of her child sleeping in a carrier in the back of the room during staff training.  Another member demonstrated how she wore her baby while conducting health and safety checks within the residence hall.  Others have posted pictures of their kids playing in their office on a day when they didn’t have other childcare options.  I really admire these women and their efforts at balance and integration.  I also have fond memories of my former (male) dean of students bringing his children to various campus events, or having them play on his office floor while he worked after hours.

Though I aspire to this level of integration, I have been slow out of the gate. During the first few months of my child’s life I was nervous about bringing him anywhere, as I never knew when he might start crying inconsolably.  It was stressful for me and I never wanted to put others in a position where they would be disrupted or uncomfortable because of my crying child.  We rarely ventured out unless absolutely necessary, which was very lonely for a new single mother.

As my son has grown older, I have slowly attempted to bring him around more to work events and activities (as appropriate), partially inspired by the S.A.M.S. moms and my former supervisor. At first, I just dipped my foot into the water and brought my son to events that were open to the public, such as our homecoming festivities or a student group fundraising carnival.  One weekend I had a student leadership awards ceremony to attend and could not find a sitter.  Given that I did not play a large role in this event, I decided to roll the dice and bring my son along.  Fortunately, one of my babysitters was being honored at the event and we sat at the same table.  When it came time for me to present an award, I handed my son off to his sitter, and then took him back when I was done.  All went very smoothly and my son ended up sleeping for most of the event.

Shortly after that awards ceremony, I was chatting with a faculty member and fellow single mom with whom I’m friendly outside of work. She noted that I had brought my son to various work-related events recently and cautioned me to be careful about this approach.  Her reasoning was that, when men (such as my former boss) integrate family with work they are perceived as heroes; but when women do the same, they are more likely to be perceived negatively (e.g., they just can’t manage it all, they are unprofessional).

I know that she was not being judgmental of me and truly had my best interest in mind, and I took her comments to heart.  However, I ultimately realized that it is very important for me to continue to integrate my family with my work in a visible way, regardless of how this may be perceived by some.  As a senior level administrator at my institution, I am in a position of relative power and authority.  I also have many staff members who wish to or have recently started a family. If I don’t model for them that you can have a family and a successful career, and methods to accomplish this, then who will? Fortunately, I feel secure in my position and don’t believe that I am jeopardizing it with bringing my son around, but I realize that not all are in this same position.

This perspective was validated by an article I came across recently written by Marney White, a Yale faculty member and mother, called Academia and motherhood: We can have both.  She shares how she sets boundaries with her students by explaining that she won’t be available via email during the evening and weekend, and presents them with a picture of her son (the reason she would be unavailable to them at designated times).  She explained that she was intentional about showing this, despite conventional wisdom in academia to “never discuss family at work,” in order to role model for students that one could have a satisfying career as well as a fulfilling home life.  After reading this, I thought, “Right on, Marney!  Right on!”

Okay, so what are my takeaways from these rambling reflections?

  1. We need to work harder to create student affairs work environments that promote health, wellness, and balance. If we don’t, we’ll continue to have attrition in the field and lose strong professionals.
  2. We need to model and support balance and integration for our students and our staff, and this needs to start at the top.
  3. It’s okay to set boundaries, as the example that Dr. White gave.
  4. We need to be mindful of and deconstruct these lingering double standards, wherein men who are open about family obligations are looked upon favorably, but women are not.

What do you think? I welcome your comments!



2 thoughts on “Work/Life Balance: Revisited

  1. Sara, as a new mother myself, this is a topic that is often on my mind. How can I be the mother I want to be and also be a productive and engaged supervisor and employee? I have a fabulous boss, love my colleagues and really enjoy my work yet I find myself feeling guilty for working and not staying at home with my baby. As our families are hours away, we do not have back-up care when the daycare closes early or on the days the daycare is closed completely for in-service days. In these instances I am torn between what is best; bringing my child to work with me or staying home with her. No matter which I choose, I usually end up feeling that I did not make the right choice. My boss is amazing and has three children and a stay at home wife. While he encourages me to do what I think is best in these situations, I have never seen him bring his children to the office and therefore, am hesitant to do so myself. I am so thankful for you and the example that you are setting.

    As far as never discussing family at work – I respect this perspective but I do not agree with it. I went to college for 13 years, I absolutely love my work and I don’t “clock in” and “clock out”. Many of us are always on call, email from home, read professional journals and the latest books published in the field in our ‘off hours”. For some of us, our home is on campus, literally. I am fortunate to be in a career that I truly love. As a first-generation college student who put myself through my undergrad, masters and doctoral program on loans, pell grants and work study, my passion for helping others to reach educational goals does not start or end at a certain time of the day or week. Between my students loans and my campus parking permit, I spend over $460 a month to come to my job. My finances, my family, my interests, my time, my intellect; all of these things are shared by a common thread, my career. I cannot compartmentalize my identify into hourly shifts of time.I think we need to have boundaries but it certainly sounds like you are operating well within those boundaries. I think it is wonderful for students to see you with your little one. In addition, what a wonderful experience for your son to be exposed to a college campus and educational events starting at a young age.

    Finally, to the comment from your friend and colleague regarding the conflicting perceptions of moms versus dads bringing children to work. This is a double-standard that we need to address within our respective work environments when possible. When I make a hire, I make the culture of our office very clear and I set an example for my staff members. Similar to the example that you gave of Marney White, as leaders and administrators, we have some ability to frame our office culture. I allow and encourage my staff members to go to his/her children’s school performances during work hours, to occasionally leave early on a Friday and to take a long lunch to go to a yoga class or go for a walk. If we want changes to happen in our field, we need to take action to encourage our staff members to take care of themselves. I don’t know that we can truly ever balance all the aspects of our lives but we can certainly take steps to improve our employees well-being.

    1. Nichole- Thank you for your very thoughtful comments and apologies for my belated response (though as I fellow mom, I’m sure you will understand). Your reactions to my post have given me additional food for thought. You are so right that work often blends into our personal life, and so why shouldn’t our personal life blend into work? Please consider contributing to the blog, as you have a valuable perspective to offer.

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