Academic Parenthood: A Post-Tenure Perspective

May 25, 2015

This is the second installment of a mini-series on academic parenthood, a follow up to the ECF session at the 2015 NASP Convention. In the first installment, Bryn Harris discussed her experiences as a mother and pre-tenure assistant professor. Below, Jessica Hoffman discusses her experiences as a parent and tenured associate professor.

Academic Parenthood: A Post-tenure Perspective
By Jessica Hoffman, PhD, NCSP, Northeastern University

I found myself at my doctor’s office after a series of awful, no good, very bad days.  For the past four months my kids had been sick with all types of things that go around daycares and preschools—particularly when you have a baby in an infant room (fortunately not lice, though).  My doctor was listening to my chest and asked me to sit up straighter so she could hear me breathe.  I realized that it hurt to sit up straight.  I was so tired.  It was two days before the NASP convention and I was secretly hoping she’d declare me too sick to travel, and at the same time hoping I’d be fine to travel so I could get just two days away and maybe, just maybe, a full night’s sleep.

This blog is about academic parenthood, something I’ve become quite familiar with.  I have three kids ages five, two and one.  My first was born a little over a year after I received tenure and promotion to associate professor.  Having children after receiving tenure in some ways would seem much easier than having children at other points in one’s academic career, say, in graduate school or when on the tenure track.  The pressures of tenure have been removed, there is job security, and academic jobs are very flexible.  As my husband (also an academic) says, we can choose the 60 hours of the week that we want to work.  So, when the kids get sick, or there’s a snow day (we had quite a few in Boston this past winter!), or there’s a school vacation, we have much more flexibility compared with parents employed outside the academy.

Since becoming a mom the academic pressures that I’ve been struggling with mostly are the internal ones; the drive to work those long, uninterrupted hours that were a luxury before having kids.  The ability to read, to think, to write productively—these are more of a challenge than ever right now particularly because of the young ages of my kids. Although I mentioned earlier that one advantage of an academic job is the flexibility—we can work pretty much wherever, whenever, the major disadvantage to this flexibility is that work can be very difficult to turn off.  It can seep easily into family time and the boundaries between work and non-work time can become very blurry.  Another of my struggles is turning work off and learning to be OK with projects left hanging at less than ideal points, at unanswered emails that continue to mount, and saying no to interesting, career advancing opportunities because I “just can’t put anything more on my plate right now.” I tell myself that this is OK because my academic career is long and I know that this precious early childhood period will go by in the blink of an eye.

Learning to say no without feeling badly or regretful is a skill I acquired some time ago that has been really important.  Other strategies that are getting me through this crazy, wonderful, exhausting time are:

  • Having clear goals and being flexible to adjust my goals.  Being aware of and realistic about my personal and professional goals (both short term and long term) is really important.  Having personal and professional goals that don’t jive with the reality of what I can reasonably accomplish in the time available is a recipe for stress and distress.  Being in touch with my own values and those of my institution has been important in the goal setting process.  For me, promotion to full professor is important, but it will take longer to accomplish now that I have three young children.
  • Being incredibly organized, careful planning, and excellent time management.  These are my three main survival skills these days.  I find myself continually prioritizing and reprioritizing daily, weekly and monthly tasks at work and at home.  Staying ahead of deadlines is incredibly important because I never know who is going to get sick next and how that will affect my work schedule.  I can’t rely on being able to get things done at the last minute.  Fortunately, many of our deadlines can get extended.  Those timelines that are less flexible are class meetings and grant application due dates.  Often, I feel as if time is a commodity that just evaporates into the ether—I find that most things take longer than expected, and leaving things to the last minute contributes to increased stress.
  • Collaborating with exceptionally talented colleagues and students.  I am so fortunate to have wonderful colleagues and graduate students to collaborate with on research projects.  I strive to always take the lead on at least one study or grant proposal, and I am more productive when I collaborate with teams that produce consistently high quality work.
  • Accepting help.  Accepting help from others is essential.  High quality, reliable child care is very expensive, but is worth every penny.  At this point, I also pay for services that take up time that otherwise can be spent with my family or working.
  • Having a support system of other academic parents.  It’s been really important to me to connect with other parents of young children in the academy, both in school psychology and in other fields.  Surprisingly, a lot of this support has come from friends and colleagues who are at a distance via social networking.  These supportive relationships help me feel less isolated when life gets stressful.  It’s nice to have a group of people who understand the daily struggles of trying to survive and succeed in academia while nurturing a family.

Other things that make life somewhat easier:

  • Cooking on days that I work from home, making double portions and freezing them so healthy meals are ready available—especially when I teach at night.
  • Making lunches at night—getting three kids out of the house in the morning is exhausting enough without the lunches.
  • Shopping in bulk so supplies are readily available
  • Writing at home two days per week.  I tend to be more distracted in the office and I can also avoid time wasted in traffic.
  • Turning off the email notification when I’m writing also helps to lessen distractions.
  • Not even attempting to work in the house when my kids are at home.
  • A steady intake of coffee.

Having an online discussion forum to share ideas about how to survive and succeed in the academy while raising children is important.  What strategies and supports have you found to be helpful?

Jessica Hoffman is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University where she directs the MS/CAGS and PhD programs in school psychology.  She is a licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist.  Her research is in the area of early childhood obesity prevention.  Her work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  She is a member of the Society for the Study of School Psychology.  

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