I have been reading a lot of things by life coach Martha Beck lately, and I found this blog post of hers from a few years ago – Balancing Act: The Dance of an Unbalanced Life – deeply illuminating. She basically comes out and says what very few will: that doing everything that our culture expects of women is impossible. Not difficult. Impossible.
“In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced.”
Beck writes that women should abandon the effort to reconcile impossible expectations:
“Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together.”
Instead, she urges us to embrace unbalance:
“If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out.”
In other words, she asks us to think about living authentically, from our own internal values, not those of others (for example, oh I don’t know, your dissertation committee):
“If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us.”
What will this look like? I can’t actually you. Unlike the proper outline of a tenure track job application cover letter, there is no formula. No formula at all. Absolutely none.
It comes from your own sense of motivation, belief, commitment.
I know that for my part, The Professor Is In arose when I finally admitted defeat–I could not make the academic career work and still protect my kids. I “failed,” I gave up, I gave in. And then… I manifested a vision that became a livelihood, which in turn has exceeded anything I accomplished as a professor.
As Martha writes, “Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life.”
This has been true for me.
I don’t have answers in this unbalanced quest, answers like the kind I have spent the past 4 years providing for the tenure track job search and academic career. What I have are some good questions, along with instinct, gut feeling, my bedrock contrarianism, and the conviction of my own experience. Which tell me that it’s time to tell you: It’s ok to try something different.
Karen Cardozo says
From one Martha Beck fan to another, all I can say is, AMEN! And, we Alt/Post-Ac coaches are here should any of your readers decide that academe is no longer to be part of the im/balancing act!
Thank you for this post!
I’ve been following The Professor Is In over the past year as I grapple with pursuing my PhD dream or not. A chief deterrent in committing to graduate school for English literature has been the issue of raising children, a process I’ve looked forward to since the days of my own childhood.
With the appearance of this article, I pose my question to you: Is it ridiculous to believe I will be able to simultaneously pursue a PhD and have and raise children?
I am a guy, but I raised a child by myself while in a program – with the help of daycare. It’s difficult, but not impossible to do both. It’s not fun and you lose a lot of time with your child. I’m not sure it’s worth it (def. not in the short run), but I’m more long-term oriented.
Rachel, I would also suggest that if you apply to grad school that you look for schools where graduate students are unionized. Having been in both situations, grad students are far better off when they have the ability for serious lobbying for their needs (healthcare, sick leave, day care, etc…). I did not have kids while I was in grad school, but I was always in strong support of any initiatives that proposed resources for students who were parents.
Taylor, I’m not sure where you went to school, but most grad students are part-time and their schedules are largely flexible. I had and cared for a child in grad school. For the life of me, I have no idea why you would limit yourself to schools with a grad student union. Most grad students are part-time employed (not sure how you could complete with a full-time job), have health care through university plans, don’t need sick time being part-time (usually flex schedules), and day care is free through the university – at least that was my experience.
postdoc parent says
Day care is free through the university???? Did you go to school in Europe?
I am a postdoc with a kid, and that’s definitely the time to do it. You will fuck up at work if you want to get any sleep at all, but get some research done in the year before the kid is born (so it can be published during or right after your fuck-up time) and remember that the people who see you at your worst will not be, later on, voting on your tenure case.