Keeping life visible: Balancing all we have to do (Mandi Cooklin)

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Researching parenting and working.

Researching, parenting and working.

Different emphases, but the same idea – I am an academic researcher who does research about work and parenting while parenting and working.

While this is my location (‘woman’ ‘parenting’ and ‘working’), most of us who produce academic work have non-work responsibilities (and, hopefully, some fun and downtime in there, too). These all need to find a balance with the demanding nature of academic productivity.

How do we do this, in an sector that doesn’t always recognise or reward the non-linear stuff of life?

This is a saturated topic, but this post shares a few notes from reading, researching and talking about this (still! again!), which may spark next ideas and conversations.

Research tells us a few key things are helpful to attain some grip over things, allowing that different approaches may be valuable at different family, life and career stages.
  • Support is critical, and particularly from managers and mentors who have honed their understanding of work-family pressures and the opportunities and skill sets these provide. Mentors are generally chosen (while supervisors are ‘given’), so if one person cannot be all of this (and most of us can’t), seek out a team of supporters who can each provide different types of support (career, sponsorship, and plain old understanding). It can take some time to find the right people, but it is a good investment in your future. 
  • Find peers. Are there others, in your institution or around, who share your current circumstances a little? Perhaps with similar interests, similar stage in family life, with caring responsibilities or pursuing other goals and demands? Having at least one other person to ‘normalise’ your experience can help you feel less alone. Their wins can show a pathway, and help you feel more optimistic that you will fond one, too; disappointments are ‘depersonalised’.
  • Managing your ‘boundaries’ in ways that work for you – are you an integrator – always ‘on’ for work? Or a segmentor – switching ‘on and off’ firmly from work to family and non-work ‘modes’? Most of us do a little of both, but it's good to reflect on this and think about what works best for you in terms of less chaos and stress. I am pretty firmly a 'segmentor'. I try and be fully at my job weekdays, and fully 'not at my job' nights and weekends. Some spillover (in thoughts, phone calls, worries) is inevitable in both directions but I have learnt that this approach saves me from feeling like I am doing too many things at once, and builds in some recovery time, too.
Research about segmentors versus integrators (still in its early stages) suggests that integrators do very well at work (high satisfaction, engagement) but are at higher risk of exhaustion and burnout on the personal wellbeing front. Academic work can consume up to 24 hrs a day if we let it.

There is always something, and we are rated, ranked and rewarded on our outputs. In this context, it is really important that we don’t trade away time to relax, recover, care, parent, exercise, engage in the world, read and socialise. Another good investment for the future!

Despite our own good practices, the responsibility to maintain some balance cannot fall on individuals, given many of the issues and stresses are structural and industry-wide. What can we advocate for as a collective to make our unpaid work more visible normal and accepted?

This matters for women, who continue to shoulder the burden of unpaid work. This contributes to the fact that they are more likely to be ‘locked out’ of research career pathways. It also matters for men, who may desire more opportunities to be involved in their children, family or non-work lives, but haven’t quite found an acceptable way to negotiate this, or the support to do so.

We are all positioned differently so our potential actions are dependent on ‘who’ we are in our workplace, but a few thoughts about principles which may support some change now, and in the future:
  • Taking ‘career disruption’ seriously – this matters at all stages of career, including during study, graduate research candidature, hiring, promotion and career ‘successes’ in fellowships and grants. While most systems now have a spot where you can describe your career disruption, this can sometimes be a ‘tickbox’ and doesn’t necessarily prompt proper engagement with the whole, diverse person (the applicant). If you are applying, and feel safe to do so, ‘do you’ whenever you can, bring your whole story – all genders – to normalise unpaid work. If you are in a position of power with a say over applications, look hard at this, more than once, and raise this overtly with your panel colleagues to consider relative to opportunity achievements. For example, an applicant who has completed a PhD while raising children or caring will showcase an array of valuable assets that could be central to panel decision-making, alongside more traditional achievements (papers, grants, etc).
  • Those with some voice and power - champions and leaders – can make their unpaid work more visible – where they can and feel supported to do so. Nobody has ‘nothing’ to say in this space - either you are doing some unpaid work, or someone else is doing it for you.
Keeping life visible as part of the conversation ensures that we don’t fall further into the ‘Ideal Worker’ assumption. Ideal Workers, critical theory describes, are tied to their jobs, always available, prioritise work wholly, with none of the stuff of life to attend to (they are stereotypically gendered as male). These norms are old and tired and serve none of us well.

Practicing better balance for ourselves personally, while acting to bring about structural change and challenging norms when we can, breaks down the work-non-work divide. Research is clear that this support is critical for all employees’ wellbeing and benefits. It is also a positive move for workplaces because it boosts both engagement and productivity.

Dr Amanda Cooklin is a social scientist and Tracey Banivanua Mar Senior Research Fellow at the Judith Lumley Centre (for mother, child and family research), leading the Work and Family research program. 

Her interests are in the work-family interface, parent mental health and family relationships. 

She tweets from @amandarcooklin.