Thursday, September 17, 2009

School year blues

Every fall it always hits me by surprise. How much busier it is with school in session! I'm lucky to have my summers free from teaching and focused on research. It's a busy time with more full time people in the lab. But then the freshmen arrive full of excitement and the new graduate students are all out pounding the pavement to find fall rotations. There are qualifying exams committees to participate in and all the orientaiton activities, all the meetings that were put off until everyone is back in town and those things that were supposed to be finished by the end of summer that I'm frantically trying to complete. This year was even busier due to a personal trip taken right before orientation started, and a toddler who managed to get sick twice in the first two weeks of classes resulting in 5 days of missed daycare and 1 trip to the ER for weekend care. Things are starting to settle into the fall routine (still crazy but the initial flurry has past). I'm going to try to post a little more often now and also hit some points from comments.

I'll just say that balancing a family and working is always a delicate act that is always near a tipping point. The 5 days of missed daycare in 2 weeks nearly sent me over the edge, even with a suportive spouse who splits the days with me. I think this is a challenge for women in academia and in the professional world in general. In academia, we move around more than many professions and often end up far from family support networks, which is fine when we are young, but more challenging when we have families with small children. Without backup care we are alway hit hard by sick kids. I'm very thankful that although I have a large amount of work to do, much of it can be done on my schedule (at home or at work) during the day or the night. Other than class and a few essential meetings, I can reschedule meetings or say no (something I'm trying to practice). I don't have a waiting room full of patients or court date that can't be changed. I can move things around if needed. Now, I won't kid you, when I'm home with a sick toddler I get little to no work done except during nap time but I can usually make up some of this at night after bedtime and it always helps me realize what absolutely has to be done. I've also learned that if you have a deadline that you are working on right until the last minute, someone will get sick, so plan ahead and try to leave yourself a little room for error. Always bring some work home with you (even if you have no intention of working), bring whatever you really need to get done tomorrow in case you don't make it in to work. And finally, have the number of a good baby sitting service that does emergency sick child backup care. It may be outrageously expensive, but if you have a PhD student defending or a grant deadline looming, it may be worth the cost to your pocket book to preserve your sanity. Just say to yourself, "this too shall pass" and the kiddos will get sick less frequently as they get older, less orally fixated and develop a stronger immune system.

I used to feel bad about canceling meetings for sick kids, but now I've realized it's just part of life. And rather than hide it (and the fact that I'm a mother in engineering) I've decided that being more open helps others have more realistic ideas of the challenges working moms face. I still get the important stuff done and it can be good sensitivity training for those who have stay-at-home spouses to take care of all those details.

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