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Balance

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Warning:  This is a super long post. I’ve put a lot of thought into it and although I realize it isn’t directly debt-related, I think its highly relevant, as it discusses the importance of finding balance between work and the rest of life, broadly defined. Time is finite, so extending hours in one area necessarily means cutting back in another. This has a big impact on income, finances, and budgeting. So grab a snack and prepare for a monster post. If you only want super debt-related posts, check back this afternoon and I promise to have something more relevant for your interests. Thank you!

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The work-family-friends-personal time-life balance is such an elusive thing. Over the years I’ve read lots of articles about how to “have it all,” so to speak. And the main thing I think I’ve taken from the things I’ve read is that “having it all” is a total myth. You simply can’t have it all. No one can.

Former-BAD-blogger, Adam, pointed me toward this article that goes into more depth about the choices we have to make between work and family, and the sacrifices that are inherent in those choices.

When I graduated with my Ph.D. I had a mentor (who happened to be a female, late 30s, no children) who highly recommend that I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I checked it out from the library and was excited to dive in. The book had won all kinds of awards and the author has quite a successful business career (current COO of Facebook, former VP of online sales and operations at Google, former chief of staff for the US Secretary of Treasury). I thought the book would be empowering – motivating me to launch my career and be the strong academic professional I’d always dreamed of being. It didn’t. In fact, it did the opposite.

Let’s back up. You don’t know this about me, but I was a bit of a rock star in academia in my early graduate schooling years (*insert mental image of me brushing my shoulders off*). I routinely worked long hours and was proud of the fact that I was often the first one in, last one to leave nearly every day. I practically lived at the office. I’d keep a gym bag and take an hour break in the evening to have dinner, work out, and return to work. I decorated my office with pictures and plants and flowers and made it a lovely work environment. During this time I also killed it professionally speaking. I attended all the conferences, organized symposia, met all the big wigs in the field, and even forged many professional friendships over drinks. I published a lot. My first first-author publication was accepted in my first year of my doctoral program (nearly unheard of). I published often. I was a work-horse. And all this time I pushed myself because I wanted to buy myself options. I wanted to be the best so that, when I was done with graduate school, I would be competitive enough to land a job and slow down to a more realistic and sustainable pace.

Of course, that’s not how things went. In the second semester of my third year of my Ph.D. program (out of 4 years total), I got pregnant. Maybe it was the hormones. Maybe it was just a big wake-up call. But I looked around and all I saw was misery. Looking at the faculty, I noticed that only the males had children. Any females who had children had come to academia much later in life (they were not in academia when they had their kids). Most of the women in my department didn’t even have children and had no desire to have any. They slaved away day and night. Though I was physically at the office the longest they, too, were always working. I could send an email at 10pm or 6am and always get near-instant replies. This. This was their life.

A mentor invited me to a party he was throwing to celebrate he and his wife’s 25th wedding anniversary. It was a beautiful party. Toward the end, there were toasts. His son, 17, stood and took the microphone. He toasted his Dad, saying that his father was the smartest man he knew. His father (my mentor), beamed with pride.

I felt sick.

Is this seriously the best thing your son can think of to say about you? That you are brilliant? Do I want my kids to grow up and commend me on my intellect? Is that the end-goal in life???

Not for me.

I want to side-note to say that we are all free to make our choices and I do not look down on or condemn anyone for making the choice to throw yourselves into work with all your passion. That’s your right, and someone has to do it. I don’t want to vilify anyone for their choices or the sacrifices they must make along the way to achieve their goals. Also, one commenter pointed out that working long hours is not always a choice at all, but rather an economic necessity. Let’s be sensitive to others’ views. It is not my intent to degrade anyone by this post. I’m talking only about myself.

Back to the book Lean In.

One of Sandberg’s main messages in the books is that many women, upon getting pregnant, start leaning out of their job. She calls it “leaving before you leave” (as in, maternity leave). She argues that by leaning out, women are crippling their careers. If they would just lean in, then they’ll be in a better position to come back to work and hit the ground running once their maternity leave is over. Of course, Sandberg also talked about how she was working even from the hospital room immediately after having her kids. Although she didn’t jump right back full-time, she’d go to the occasional meeting and was working throughout her maternity “leave.”

That’s not what I wanted for myself.

When I was pregnant, I started looking around me and realized how unhappy and miserable basically everyone was. There was no “break” that came after landing a position. Then you work like crazy to get promotions, then tenure, and then grants, and so on (keep in mind, I attended a Research-1 university, so experiences are very different from a teaching-oriented university or even a smaller, lower tier research school).

One thing I learned about academia:  The only thing between you and success? Time investment.

My peers and I were taught to invest heavily.

Want to know why I went into academia? I wanted to be a professor. I love to teach and I love the college-age, so I thought teaching them (instead of primary or secondary schools), would be the best! I also thought the hours seemed pretty incredible. In my own undergraduate experience it seemed as though professors traipsed into campus to teach their classes, hang out a bit for office hours, and then went home. They worked, what, like 5 hours a day? And summers off! A dream job for a Mom (which I always knew I wanted to be one day). Oh, how naïve and uninformed that undergraduate-version-of-myself was!

So when I got pregnant, I leaned out. Way, way out. This was when the honey badger videos were everywhere. My new motto: Honey badger don’t care! I cut back to a bare minimum of work just to get by. Even that work was typically done sub-par. I skated by on the fact that I knew I could. People knew I was a hard worker and was having kids. They’d cut me some slack. And they did.

And now here I am.

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So what does “balance” look like for me?

I loved this article I read about a year or so ago (I googled my heart out and, for the life of me, cannot find it and do not recall the author – if you find it, please leave a comment so I can link to give credit!) Instead of the same, depressing message that you can’t have it all, the author took a different perspective. Of course you can have it all…just not all at once. There are different seasons in life. Four years ago my season was butt-kicking in academia and being an avid runner. I was competing in races and killing it professionally.

Fast forward four years and today I’m focused on debt-reduction. I’m also making time to bake again (something I once loved to do and forgot all about during my graduate school years), and spending time with my babiestoddlers. I put a lot of effort into enriching my girls’ lives, be it through attending story time at the local library, making homemade experiments at home, or simply burning off energy playing at the local park. I’m also trying to balance as much work as I possibly can and make money so I can pay down our debt as quickly as possible. This is my reality today.

Where will I be four years from now? I suppose only time will tell. But I can give you a guess.

My hope is to be working full-time again. My ideal would be to work at a teaching-based university (so I can still have a strong focus on my family, but would be working a full-time position – a nice balance to the two). Even if I never land that coveted professor position I could still teach at a community college and keep increasing my online teaching portfolio for extra income. I want to own a home. Preferably back in Austin by family. I want to have a garden where I learn to grow beautiful flowers and fresh fruits and vegetables. I will still strive to be the best Mom I can be, but I’ll have more flexibility, as my girls will be older. They can work beside me in the garden and I can teach them the things I have learned. I won’t feel guilty for working outside the home because they’ll be in school during the day anyway. It’s a win-win.

Hopefully four years from now we’ll be nearly debt-free (aside from the house I hope to have purchased). A week ago I mentioned that if we kept our nose-to-the-grind we’d be debt free in 2-3 years. So why don’t I say that we’ll 100% for sure be debt free 4 years from now?

It’s a new season, my friends.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. Even in my very first introductory post, I mentioned how I long to own a home. It’s something hubs and I have talked a lot about.

So, although there’s no telling what the future may hold, I’m thinking we will slow down our debt-reduction goals within the next year. Right now my plan is to continue throwing 100% of extra income toward the car debt, and then possibly to keep on until the license fees and highest APR student loans are gone. But at some point, we’re going to let up. Instead of putting all our extra money toward student loans, we’ll be splitting the cause between student loan repayment and savings for a house. I don’t know when that will be. I don’t even know what my job will look like this time next year (remember, I’m still on the job market and could miraculously land a position at any time which may or may not cause us to move). But this is my balance. Today = full steam ahead on debt reduction. At some point next year…..half and half between debt-reduction and saving for a down payment for a home.

I wanted to be open, honest, and transparent in my hopes, dreams and goals. They may affect the future of me blogging, or stopping blogging, depending on the “season” of life.

But right now I’m living in the moment, and at this moment in time I’m on a race to 20K. So buckle, up this train is going full steam ahead. Choo Choooooo!!!!!

 

Ashley

Texan at heart; Arizonan on paper. Lover of running, cheese, camping, and family (fur-family included!). Blogger, motivated to get out of debt YESTERDAY! Follow along with my journey!

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22 Comments

  • Reply Wren |

    This is more of a housekeeping comment, but did you mean for the posting date to be August 1, 2014? I have a feeling that was a minor error, so I hope you can change the date, so that everyone will read it. 😀

  • Reply Kili |

    Hi Ashley,
    thanks for the honest & well written post.
    i think that topic is definitly worth adressing & I hope you’ll find fullfilment in all seasons…

  • Reply Jackie |

    Your post was right on target. When I was in my 20’s I worked my butt off going above and beyond. Honestly there was no balance and I missed out a lot family wise. This Thursday I’ll be turning 40 and while we don’t make much money and often struggle we are so happy. It’s funny we know so many people who make way more money than us but are miserable. I always have time for family–it’s our #1 priority. There are many seasons and so many plan things way out in advance and then life throws some curve balls. No one knows what life will bring.

  • Reply bethany |

    My husband is an academic and is seeking a teaching position (as an instructor, not a professor so no research/grant writing duties) and the job market is tough out there. We move for his career every year, taking short term contracts and that has wreaked havoc on my career (not to mention I immigrated to another country to be with him, so yeah…) I feel for your struggle here. We don’t have children and don’t plan to, and the only debt we have is my student loans, which should be paid off within the year. But still, it is very stressful!

    The “you can have it all, but not all at once” may have come from Gail Vaz-Oxlade who does the show ‘Til Debt Do Us Part’ (among other things) here in Canada. She blogs on that topic often!

  • Reply Financial Fan |

    I waited quite a few years to teach (elementary level). We felt we really needed someone to keep the home fires burning (four children), and we are very frugal. Almost all the married teachers, male and female, have children in the school in which I now teach. We are busy for sure, but I don’t think that anyone feels his/her life is terribly out of balance. They really are a pretty cheerful group of people, but we don’t have the pressures of college academia. The school is very understanding about having children who are ill and about maternity AND paternity leaves. Plus being on the same yearly schedule as your kids is a real plus.

    Ashley, it seems that you discovered that life and priorities change completely when we have children! As long as you have a plan and are working toward that end, I’m sure you and your family will be fine.

    • Reply Ashley |

      My husband’s mother and grandmother are/were both teachers. The schedule is hugely appealing. I think I’d rather stick with the college route, but I have given thought to possibly teaching at the high school level if nothing else works our for me. I really do love to teach, and (once I got a teaching certificate), I’d be qualified to teach advanced level AP courses : )

  • Reply adam |

    you’ve been doing a lot of thinking. everyone has to make their own decisions on this front. i’m encouraged that more people in our generation seem to be choosing a well-balanced, family-friendly approach.

    • Reply hannah |

      I agree with Adam here. I am personally sick of women being beat over the head with the idea that they have to work, they must build a flourishing career, and that it is somehow demeaning or uncounted if they choose to focus on their kids and spouse.
      Women are designed to nurture their families and build strong relationships, and I’m glad you see this. If you choose to put your work a bit more on the back burner, that’s ok. People are more important than money.
      As you said, life has seasons, and boy do they pass quickly! Before you know it your kids will be in school and you’ll have found a full time job somewhere that works well. 🙂

      • Reply Wren |

        I’m only going to disagree with this slightly, Hannah, to say that women are designed to do whatever the heck they choose, be it career, family, or a balance of both. I am surely not designed to nurture a family (other than my husband and cat), but I’m pretty good at relationships and career, so I go with it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people (women or men) choosing to be home with the kids while their partner works, or choosing career over family, or making both of them work in their own unique way. It truly does come down to whatever works for you, as an individual, and in your family, however it is made up. 🙂

    • Reply Ashley |

      I agree! If our generation chooses to make this the “norm” then companies will have to change their structure to be more accommodating (which I feel like I’ve already started to see in some places)

      • Reply Jen From Boston |

        Yes!!!

        I’ve read that starting with Gen X younger workers want more of a balance as opposed to the more workaholic Baby Boomers. My guess is it’s from growing up as latchkey kids, and then watching our parents or our friends’ parents get laid off after giving a company decades of service. Why do all that just to get hosed and miss out on your family?

        Technology can help here (as well as make the problem worse). Where I work we can work from home, either as part of a formal arrangement, e.g., working remotely X days a week, or informally, e.g., “I have to work from home today because my kid is sick” or “The furniture delivery people are coming between 1 and 5.”

        • Reply adam |

          For the record, (and I’ll probably get knocked around for this) I don’t think this concept is limited to women. The choices and balance may become more immediate, urgent, and consequences more severe, and earlier in life due to pregnancy and young children. But, many of the “successful” MEN I’ve known, at least in the tech field, also make huge family sacrifices to climb the ladder at work. It may become apparent later in life (when kids are teenagers) because that’s when they reach the top-level positions. But men are sacrificing their spousal relationships and their bonds with their kids if they are focused too heavily on career. I’ve never met an executive-level man whom I thought had a good family balance.

        • Reply Ashley |

          I totally agree! Thankfully my own family has never dealt with unemployment (well, my sister and brother both have….but not our parents), but I’ve seen many of my friends’ parents go through this – working for a company for decades and then being laid off right as their children are grown and they’re trying to enter into the biggest money-making decade of their life. It’s so sad for all involved!

  • Reply debtor |

    I think you are already ahead of the curve beacue you have a vision for your life. Even if the end goal changes now and then, having that mapped out so clearly in your head will lead to success. You are right, you can’t have it all at once, there is not enough time in the day. You have to pick and choose.

    Life is not a dress rehearsal for some big day, so people should also remember that the sacrifices will not always lead to the big payoff. Sometimes, you don’t last till the payoff so all you experienced was the sacrifice (sorry to be morbid but it’s true). So just make sure you take time to enjoy and find pleasure in life while you sacrifice.

    This is why i don’t necessarily subscribe to the gazelle, i-only-patch-my-clothes-i-don’t-buy-new-ones-ever mentality. You can’t put life on pause, because then you might never get to hit play.

    • Reply hannah |

      This is really true. The balance between living and enjoying life, and paying off debt is something that is hard to figure out. But, there has to be some fun and laughter in there somewhere.

  • Reply Cecilia@thesingledollar |

    Academia is kind of ridiculous. And it thrives on extracting labor from the young and starry-eyed. It’s really infuriating.

    I will say I know a lot of academics (women and men) who are happily married and have children. I don’t happen to be one of them, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I do think, however, that you have to make the decision to back off of work enough to be happy, whatever that ends up meaning for your career. And honestly, it’s not that hard a decision to make these days, since lots of people work like crazy and still don’t “make it” in academia.

    My own decision: I keep it to a reasonable number of hours during the week, adjusting depending on what deadlines I have upcoming; I won’t take a job for pitiful amounts of money (by my standards, anyway, people with normal jobs probably think it’s all pitiful); I won’t take a job that’s in a place I really really do not want to live. And I make sure that I have a life outside of work: friends, church, volunteer stuff, hobbies, community. If I can’t make a TT job work within those parameters…then I won’t make it work at all.

  • Reply Jen From Boston |

    Good for you!!! I’m really glad you got a glilmpse behind the curtain early enough to step off the crazy train!

    And the Susan Sandberg book? I haven’t read it, but I had a sneaking suspicion it would annoy the daylights out of me. After reading your take on it I’m glad I didn’t check it out of the library – I probably would have thrown it across the room at some point. In contrast, you might want to check out Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive, in which she argues we need to slow down and build a life that includes important relationships. (I haven’t read it yet, but I went to a book signing where she talked about it.)

    Finally, a college friend teaches at a community college and he loves it! He gets real satisfaction from helping students better their lives because many students at the CCs are unable to take the traditional route to college, or they may be older students returning to school.

    • Reply Ashley |

      I haven’t read Thrive, but I’ll have to check it out of the library! I currently have a stack of about 6 I need to get to first (clearly I’ve been over-ambitious at the library lately)!
      I loved community college, too! It’s smaller classes and I really feel like I get to “connect” with the students! I’m not currently teaching at a CC because, honestly, the pay doesn’t justify the costs of childcare. I make significantly more teaching online for significantly fewer hours worked (crazy, I know). I would love to one day, but don’t think it will happen until my kids are school-aged and I have full M-F availability.

    • Reply Ashley |

      No, in my googling I came across this article but it’s not the one I was thinking about/referring to in this post.

So, what do you think ?