Archive for the '[LifeTrajectories]' category

Is having it all impossible?

One of the things I'm liking a lot about this new community at Scientopia is the fact that it has helped me find some cool new blogs that I might not have found in the vastness of the blogosphere. (It's not the blogosphere's fault -- it's just that there's so much out there, and there are all these other things people keep wanting me to do besides just reading blogs.)

For example, check out Sanitized for Your Protection, a blog about "academic life and all the adventures that accompany it" by Rebecca Montague. In a post today, On being Superwoman, she writes about the challenges of the work-life balance thing, and notes that some of the advice one gets from eminent scientists is just not that encouraging. Specifically, an essay by Lynn Margulis struck her as more of a kick in the pants than a helping hand. Rebecca writes:

In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:

At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all–husband, children, and professional career–are wrong.


I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can “do it all”—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? ... But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.

While I don't want to pretend that balance is brutally hard, I can't help but wonder if part of our problem is setting the definition of "success" too high. The thing that's done the most to reduce my parenting-partnering-work stress is to become comfortable with the idea that "good enough" (rather than perfect) really is good enough for most contexts. Sure, this means Casa Free-Ride has more dust bunnies than it might otherwise, but I'm comfortable letting that go if I can spend more time with my kids and my better half, and if I can get papers graded without staying up until 3 AM.

At the same time, I don't think the burden of lowering standards ought to rest solely on the people trying to combine career, partner, family, and whatever else. It's really hard to assert, "This is sufficiently good parenting/housekeeping/devotion to my relationships," in the face of a whole society that sets the bar several notches higher (or in the face of a differing view of what would be sufficient, for example, from the people with whom you are in those relationships). It's even harder to confidently assert, "This is sufficiently good teaching/research productivity/service," when your retention-tenure-promotions committees have the final say on what's sufficient (and where they may care not a whit that you are concerned to have a life outside of work).

Sometimes having multiple facets to our lives becomes impossible because we insist on trying to live up to unrealistic standards for each of those facets. Sometimes it becomes impossible because other people, or organizations, or societal structures, impose those unrealistic standards upon us. Working on the problem from both ends seems to me like the only hope if we want to make progress here.

Although judicious use of chocolate might help, too.

Anyway, go say hi to Rebecca and jump into the conversation on her blog.

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