Academic Parenthood: When I Figure it Out, I’ll Let You Know

September 28, 2015

This is the third installment of a mini-series on academic parenthood, a follow up to the ECF session at the 2015 NASP Convention. In the first two installment, Bryn Harris and Jessica Hoffman discussed their perspectives as mothers pre- and post-tenure. In this installment, Sterett Mercer provides a father’s perspective on academic parenthood.

By Sterett Mercer, The University of British Columbia

Upon receiving the invitation to write this column, I was stuck with a general sense that I didn’t have any useful advice or profound perspective to provide…this is very much a work in progress. That said, I am a father of two girls (ages 5 and 7), in my first year post-tenure, and part of a dual-academic family; and that does at least make for some interesting stories.

Our first daughter was born while I was working as a research associate for a company that developed and evaluated social-emotional interventions for children. At that point, I hadn’t published much (and probably didn’t write all that well, to be honest), but I was determined to keep writing and get some work under review. During the first month after my daughter was born, I did manage to get most of an introduction to an article down on paper before having to move on to a major period of data collection and other projects. There were probably some times of waking up with keyboard prints on my forehead, but fortunately sleep deprivation seems to impair memory formation. A few months later (in a slightly better-rested state), I returned to the draft, read it twice, and deleted the file. I can only describe that draft as lacking what I would now refer to as ‘lexical cohesion’—at the time, I described it as word salad.

  • Lesson Learned:It is important to match tasks with current capabilities. For me at least, it is generally a waste of time to write first drafts when sleep-deprived, sick, upset, etc. Of course, we don’t have full control of these factors, but I try to fill those non-optimal hours and days (sometimes weeks, occasionally months…) with less involved tasks like answering email, course planning, editing, reviewing manuscripts, and other service-related tasks so that I can take the time to write when in the right state of mind.

Four or so years later, I was in my first year of employment as an assistant professor at my second academic institution.  My wife was completing a post-doc in another country, and I was the primary caretaker for our girls (then ages 2 and 4). While teaching a new course (and really struggling to stay afloat in general), I had the bright idea to submit a proposal for a modest federal grant. At the time, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to learn the format for Canadian grants and get some feedback on the proposal, but the only way to get the grant completed by the deadline was to work on it during nights in a cycle of heavy childcare disruption due to child illnesses (and eventually me being sick too) in that critical period before the deadline. The grant ended up being submitted, and amazingly enough it was funded. Success, right? Not really. The idea wasn’t all that great, and the project was a very poor contextual fit for the local schools. Recruitment and data collection (which I also didn’t really have time for) were a nightmare, and overall, I would describe this project as one of my least successful to date.

  • Lesson Learned: (See the prior lesson that I obviously did not learn the first time around.) Clearly there are some times when it is best to work on other things and prioritize other areas. Planning and initiating a major project at a low point during academic parenthood may not be the best use of time.

In the first year post-tenure, I am increasingly aware that academic careers are marathons, not sprints, and managing burnout will most likely be the key to successfully navigating the 30+ years to go in my academic career. Although some academics can maintain a consistent schedule of work and writing on evenings and weekends, it’s typically a waste of time for me if it extends beyond the (very) short term. I drop off and pick up our kids from daycare/school most days of the week, so I typically have 7.5 to 8 hours of potential work time on campus, and I do my best to optimize that time. When I don’t use that time well, then work drifts back into evenings and weekends, I get annoyed and burnout increases, and then my overall productivity drops even though I end up working more hours. Eventually I start to think that leaving academia to pursue [insert half-baked career idea of the moment] is a great idea, but if I start brewing beer as a job, what would I do as a hobby?

  • Lesson Learned: I try to be aware of the cycles of the work week and academic year. Some times of year those daytime hours tend to be full of meetings and course times, but Friday afternoons, times between academic terms, and summers tend to be less heavily scheduled; thus, those are the times that I need to read, plan, and write so that research productivity stays on track.

I would stress that you have to decide what kind of academic you want to be. Even without kids as part of the equation, you have to decide which aspects of research, teaching, and service you are going to do well, which ones you are going to ‘just do,’ and which ones you are going to avoid at all costs. Ideally, the parts you decide to do well will correspond to parts of the job that you enjoy and that are also valued in terms of merit and promotion at your university…for me, I enjoy the feeling of being immersed in a research problem, fitting complex statistical models (including hours of code debugging), uninterrupted writing time, teaching courses closely related to my research interests, and student research mentoring. In academia, we have quite a bit of control over our schedule, so I do my best to make sure I maintain a healthy diet of these activities in the work day to fight off burnout. When I’m in the midst of times that don’t allow those activities due to overscheduling of meetings or other tasks, I look ahead in the calendar and think about what I will do when the schedule opens up again. The need to protect time for these activities is even more important with kids in the equation and the compression of the work day that school and childcare schedules create.

You also have to decide what sort of parent you will be. Just like you can’t successfully be awesome at all aspects of the academic job, I don’t think it’s possible to be awesome at all aspects of parenthood. Compared to the families with a stay-at-home or part-time working parent, my wife and I are probably not going to win any awards for school involvement any time soon. Our kids’ school projects are completed solely by them (for the most part), we routinely miss a few food groups in the school lunches we pack, our kids’ wardrobes get pretty rough some times of the year, homework doesn’t always get done as well as it should, the house is pretty much a perpetual mess, and we don’t push the kids to do tons of extra-curricular activities (and actively try to limit them to some extent). I do, however, do my best to keep work out of weekday and weekend family times, and the kids seem to be happy and reasonably well-adjusted. They are also aware that mom and dad both have productive careers working at universities while having some time to play, and I think that’s pretty awesome.

  • Lesson Learned: Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”[1]…protect time for writing and parenting, and hopefully we’ll all stay in the game over the next 30+ years.

[1]Quote from Charlie Papazian (1984). The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. New York: Avon Books.

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