Blending work and family life

I had a conference call this morning with a colleague in Greece as well as a couple colleagues here in the States. It’s 4 pm for him and 9 am for us, both times well within the accepted definition of the “work day”. As some of our readers know, I have a 3 month old baby (birth story eventually coming, I promise). My husband has been staying home with him while I go back to work on campus, but today he needed some extra help, so I stayed home and connected to the conference call from my couch. Baby happily babbling and playing next to me.

I kept the microphone on mute, worried people would hear him and think it unprofessional for me to be on a conference call about an upcoming research project with a cooing baby in the background. I was careful not to look off screen too much or pay too much attention to my baby (even though he’s amazingly adorable).

Some of you may remember a video that went viral about a year ago. The video was of political science professor doing an interview with the BBC about impeachment of the South Korean president. After the interview had started you see a baby in the background starting to play with a toy. The expert continues, trying hard to pay attention to the interview until finally a toddler runs in the room, stealing the show. A horrified mother runs in and grabs the babies, shuffling them out of the room. Opinions on this whole situation were widely varied (as always) but what it does show is that professionals are, out of necessity and out of desire, blending their work and personal lives.

After about half an hour into the conference call, the colleague in Greece waves and smiles to someone off screen. I assumed this was a faculty or staff member until a little girl runs over and sits on his lap. I then turned my laptop towards my baby, showing him off, and our babies cooed at each other from different time zones.

This experience got me thinking about how we, as professionals, students, teachers, across the globe are blending our work life and family life. Maybe these lives aren’t even separate for some. Many academic couples work at the same university or even in the same department, blurring those lines completely.

Some of this is out of necessity. Sixty years ago it was within the realm of possibility (normalcy even) for one partner (usually the man) to work one job and support a family on a single income. This is no longer true for the vast majority of Americans. It is simply not an option to comfortably support a family on one income, even if that income comes after a decade of hard work and a prestigious title. Most families require two parents who work outside the home, whether full time or part time. Sometimes this work is inside the home in the form of a stay-at-home mom or dad. And I can tell you from my 12 weeks of maternity leave, this is not a task anyone takes on lightly. Staying at home with my baby, no matter how much I love him, was harder for me than my assistant professorship. That may not be true for everyone, but it is for me.

Some of this blending is out of a desire to do so. I will say that it was nice having that little girl run up to her dad on the call. For one, it lowered my anxiety about also being at home with my baby, trying to work at the same time. It also gave us an instant connection as parents and another way to relate to one another which, I think, makes collaborations easier and more successful. Being at home with my baby is fun sometimes and it’s nice to have the option to bring my work home. It’s also fun to bring my family to conferences and have colleagues get to know the most important people in my life.

Integrating families into work life, especially in academia, has become much more common. Just two years ago, a woman at the national conference I attend held her sleeping baby while she gave her presentation. It normalizes having a family and normalizes the struggles that come with having a family in academia. This is inherently harder for women because, even with all the strides and progress, we still end up doing most of the emotional labor as wives and parents. Men are, however, putting more time in at home and this can also lead to situations like the one in the video. Sometimes this isn’t possible, though. I am taking both my husband and baby to conferences this first year because I’m breastfeeding. That’s simply not a task my husband can take on, no matter how awesome it would be if he could help out in that arena. There are just certain things that having a family in academia brings up and having representation as a parent trying to keep everything together relieves a lot of anxiety.

This integration could bring about some negatives as well. Perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world to leave work at work and home at home. It’s hard enough for academics to turn the email off and designate time for self care and family time. Blending these worlds together could make that even more difficult. And I’d be lying if I said I got as much work done at home as I do in my office. When I stay home to help out my husband, I can never really get fully into a project because I’m constantly distracted.

What are some other pros and cons you see in this trend of blending family and work lives together? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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