Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Child-friendly Sabbaticals?

I'm the kind of gal who likes to plan for the long haul. This is part of why being a postdoc was so wearing, because I could never plan more than a couple of years in advance.
Now that I have a tenure track position, I can daydream about things like getting tenure, sending my kids off to college, retiring someday... Okay, maybe not retirement quite yet.

Anyway, it occurred to me the other day, that someday I might want to go on sabbatical somewhere. But how would that work, given my family situation? Just as others have discussed both here on this blog (see also this post) and elsewhere, there are real challenges inherent in academic life that those of us with families have to face. Going on sabbatical is one of them.

Traditionally, a professor would decide to go on sabbatical some place, and he'd tell his wife to pack up the kids and the household and the family would move someplace exotic for a year, and it would be a grand adventure. Even if the wife had a job, presumably she only had it for a little extra cash anyway, and it would be no big loss to the family finances. The professor could go off and do professorly things while the wife took care of everything at home. It would be great for the professor's career, and so what if it inconvenienced the rest of the family a bit?

In my situation, both my husband and I share childcare and household duties. I can't just say to him, "Honey, we're going to California for a year!" and expect him to happily pick up and go. I'd have to do my own share of packing up the house and kids, too. Not that my kids would be particularly happy about it either -- they'd probably be in high school by then, and changing schools for a year would be really disruptive.

And even if I waited until the youngest was in college, it would mean either living apart from my husband for a year, or finding him a new job in a new city, neither of which is a terribly good option. My husband is the primary breadwinner of the family and has a great career of his own, so it would be a big deal to ask him to switch jobs for a year, and there would not necessarily be a guarantee that he'd get his job back.

Now, I know several people who have gone on sabbatical within commuting distance. I distinctly recall telling at least one of them how lame that was. However, that might end up being the right option for me should it become available. I don't know that there's a good solution to fixing the logistical problems involved with sabbaticals for professors with families, but it's yet another insitution of academic life that works best for men in traditional households and not so great for the rest of us with families and working spouses.


Stephanie said...

My father was a professor with a working spouse and two kids. For him, sabbatical meant 6 months off from teaching so he could focus on his research, but he still went to work in his office as usual (or retreated to his study at home if he didn't want to be bothered by anyone in his department). I always thought the main purpose of sabbaticals was focused research time, not a requirement for an exotic location. (More like an excuse to go to an exotic location for people whose family situations made that feasible.)

Collaborating with people in a different department could be very useful, but maybe you could get some of the benefit of that by going by yourself for a couple of weeks. If your kids are older they won't miss you *that* much (and you can keep in touch via skype), presumably your husband can manage without you for a couple of weeks, and you get some time to yourself to focus on work. Or your husband can bank up some vacation time, and you can all go somewhere for a month in the summer when the kids are out of school.

Anonymous said...

I am a mid career US astronomer and the only parent to my two middle schoolers. I recently went on a mini-sabaddical to an institution in England which I have been working closly with for years. I took my children with me since I had no other option. I found a boarding school which took them as day students for the summer. It was a wonderful experience for everyone. We were able to find a kind soul who gave us a free room in their home, but I'll be paying off their transport and schooling for some time to come!

Anonymous said...

But what sort of possible and plausible solutions exist if you WANT to go on sabbatical somewhere?

One of the perks I fully enjoy about astronomy is the ability and opportunity to go to different and interesting places; what if I would like to take a sabbatical someplace different and exciting for a semester or a year?

This isn't a current, pressing issue for me, but I could foresee it being one in the future...

Eliza said...

I would like to continue this discussion. I have also found myself suddenly in the enviable position of being able to start thinking about my future sabbaticals. My wish professionally would be to travel to another institution, so I can work in-person with my collaborators. However, with a small child and a husband with a job that does not afford this kind of flexibility, I have no idea how I would pull off such a thing. I'm curious to hear from others about how they have handled this situation.

Orsola De Marco said...

I share all these concerns... I work in Australia and have 2 kids (6 and 8 years). I cannot leave my husband for more than a week without serious disruption to his work. So this was my solution. I went back home to my parents taking my kids with me. The town, Bologna has a huge astro group where I easily found a person with whom I wanted to work (I planned this 2 years ahead of time). I lived in my parents apartment (and rented a smaller one for the two of them for the period). They helped with everything, primarily with the kids. My husband managed after some heavy negotiations to take 2.5 months in Italy working remotely. The following 2 months he spent back in Australia by himself and the last 1.5 months he took leave without pay. I just came back. It has been a great sabbatical for me. However my husband did make some sacrifices as did my parents. The project that I pursued was also somewhat a compromise, not the best for my career as a whole. But having tenure I do not worry too much about this. On the whole things worked out and I benefited from the peace and quiet away from my usual office.