Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I am sorry this blog post is late

I am sorry this blog post is late. I meant to post it Monday. Yes, the blog is important! But I think my daughter might have lice and I had to deal with that urgently.

I am sorry I can't accept the invitation to speak at the conference. Yes, I do want the meeting to be a success.  But we have four children and the family simply doesn't do well when I am away.

I am sorry that I can't write a letter in support of the promotion. Yes, the candidate is doing great work, and I feel terrible that I can't add my enthusiastic support to assist this junior person. But I get 25 such requests a year, and my weekends are full with math homework, hockey, and girl scouts.

I am sorry I had to leave your colloquium ten minutes before the end. I hope you didn't think I am a jerk for getting up from the front row just as you were about to show the unpublished work. But our day care closes at 5:30pm and it is across town.

I am sorry I can't join the university committee that meets over breakfast at 8am. Yes, I do think we need to rejuvenate our undergraduate curriculum. But I walk my kids to school at 8am, and it is the best part of my day.

I am sorry I am slow to get you comments on your paper. I feel awful that I am delaying the progress at this critical time in your career. I keep thinking I will get to it in the evening after the kids are asleep, but I also need to make time to talk to my wife.

These are all, more or less, true items for which I have apologized recently. Of course, as many of you with kids can anticipate, when I wrote these apologies I left off the last sentence.

A couple weeks ago, KJ Dell'Antonia ran the post "Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry" on the NYTimes Motherlode blog.  The post was inspired by the book "Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink" by Katrina Alcorn. OK, I haven't read the book (I admit it has been too long since I have read any book), but the post sure summarized a feeling I know all too well: The constant, nagging, awful, soul-sucking guilt that I feel about saying no to new commitments, and then realizing that I am not even going to be able to meet the commitments I did accept. On the other side is the all-consuming question: Am I doing right by my wife and my children?

Around the same time, a video of a stand-up routine "People With No Kids Don't Know" went global. (OK, here my criteria for "went global", is that on the same day my sister emailed the link to me from Toronto and it came up in conversation over a dinner I was having in a tiny hamlet in France.)

The video is comforting because it reminds me that, after all, it is a somewhat insane proposition to have kids and for both me and my wife to work in careers that we love and that are genuinely demanding. The post by Dell'Antonia, on the other hand, reminds us of the real problems imposed upon working parents by our institutions. Looking at academia, in some cases, the solutions are straightforward: Let's start colloquium earlier. Let's not schedule important committees outside of 9-5. Let's actually make remote conference participation work. In other cases (such as the lack of paid parental leave and serious childcare subsidies), I can see the path forward, but we are going to need a real financial commitment from our employers and our government to working families. In yet other cases, the path ahead is not clear. Academic careers are premised on merit-based advancement, as they should be. But if our society (and here I am talking about the local astronomy culture at your institution, not some abstract global concept) truly does value families, how do we reconcile that with a work culture that assumes evenings, weekends, and sick days are all fair game?

At the heart of the video, the Motherlode post, and (I am told) the book is the belief that we really could do it all if only we were more efficient. We end up feeling guilty for what we perceive to be our individual failures as working parents, but in reality the task was always an impossible one.

About a year ago, my groaning inbox finally forced me to a moment of clarity:

There are only so many hours in a day.

I went for a long walk, and I accepted the reality that I wasn't going to get it all done. Despite my best efforts, I was going to say no to a lot of really great opportunities, and even then I was occasionally going to miss deadlines or drop items entirely. I would do my best, but above all I was going to enjoy my marriage and my children and my career, under the (currently?) insane premise upon which a family of six with both parents working in academic research is founded. But I wasn't going to feel guilty about it anymore.

(Oh, I can't lie to you. Of course I still do feel guilty occasionally, and I still do catch myself saying yes too often.  But I am enjoying it all.)