As an early career psychologist (just over 6 years since Ph.D.), balancing a career with parenthood provides a unique set of challenges. My first child was born in the fall of my 2nd year working as an assistant professor in a tenure-track position. To get to this point my wife and I (we met during graduate school for psychology as we were both in the same program) first had struggled with when was the right time for us. We decided that for us, waiting until after grad school seemed the best choice, as we were worried about how much time we could realistically devote to parenting while both trying to finish our degrees and navigating the two-body problem for positions. It was an exceedingly difficult choice, and while we felt it was right for us, looking back, we likely could have managed starting a family during graduate school had we so chose. Do I regret the decision, not at all; I state this simply to encourage those thinking through this issue similarly that there really is no right or wrong answer and to go with what is best and not have regrets. I now have two young boys; one aged 5 and one aged 3. As such, I will focus on strategies that have helped me feel like I was doing well in both my career and my fatherhood.
First, I will discuss the balancing of work life and home life. For most of us, when we finally finish grad school and start that first job we have been dreaming of, it is exceedingly easy to let that job become priority number one. It takes active engagement to balance work and home life. For example, for our home life we try and map out each week with what days may be longer for one of us so that we are best able to support the other. Some days, such as registration week which requires me to meet with all of my advisees, we know I will need to devote extra time to work. We try and plan ahead ways to make life that week easier at home (preparing meals ahead of time and freezing, scheduling childcare pickup times, etc). Other times, I need to actively remind myself that sometimes it is okay to take an extra day to get a paper submitted or a graded assignment returned, to give extra time to a son who has had a rough day and needs extra attention. Also, one needs to learn how to balance when to try out new things at work and at home. The first semester of having a new baby may not be the best one to try a brand new innovative class prep or apply for your first major grant. It might be, but it might also be less stressful pushing it back a little (or working ahead on things if you know you are trying to start a family, so that a new prep or new research line is more in-place and ready to go when baby is here).
Related to this, and to have success balancing work and home life, it is important to embrace all parts of your life in the moment. If you have been waiting much of your life to have a family, do not let work or worrying about work take away from the amazing moments you will have with your family when you are with them. In return, do the same at work – you have been waiting a long time to get the position you are in, so embrace it fully while there. It is all too easy to be mentally in both worlds at all times, but doing so may result in both aspects of your life suffering from never being fully engaged. Being passionate about work will likely help you succeed and your family will respect you for it. Being passionate about your family life will in turn (likely) be respected and understood by your colleagues.
In regards to respect from colleagues, it is also important to detail to them your needs. Many, in their first career position, may feel nervous to say “no” to opportunities when they are offered, or “no” to meetings that might be optional that come up at times one would not normally be available on campus. What I have learned (and what others have remarked to me in their experiences) is that other colleagues and administrators have likely been in the same position before themselves. Perhaps not always, but generally, they understand and will respect you for having boundaries and will do what they can to accommodate what will be a more limited schedule for a period of time. They also will respect that you are honestly evaluating your needs and time limits. This is not to say that there will never be situations where you might have an opportunity (committee, collaboration, grant etc.) that should not be passed up, or a meeting at a time that is difficult with your child’s schedule, but, those will likely be less of the norm if you are upfront on your needs and limitations.
If you are in an academic position, learning to say “no” should also extend to your students. We likely have all had times when we were a student and we felt that a professor was not as available as we would like, or not fast enough in getting back with us or providing a letter we needed. As such, I think many of us go in to our first academic position vowing to always be there for our students and always be ready to serve their needs. Because of this, I think many of us are likely far too available and do not set enough appropriate boundaries. We should not ignore student needs or be the disengaged faculty member, but we should have reasonable boundaries for when students should expect to see us in our office or how long we need to get back with them. Saying no to a last minute letter request will show that you take the letters your write seriously, and will help the student learn better time management. Responding to an email at midnight vs. office hours in the morning will not likely result in the student getting what they need faster. These boundaries will however help students know they must treat you and your time with respect, and will help you not feel overwhelmed and resentful. You will be a better mentor/teacher because of this and students easily see that and know that you care. Being open with students helps them see you as a real person too, and they respect knowing and seeing that side of you.
It is all too common as well that many of us move to a new area for our first career position. As such, it can exacerbate the stress of starting a family while also starting a new career. We have found it useful to make connections with other faculty that are going through similar stages in their life/careers. When you are away from your network of family and friends, building a new network is key. While you may naturally make friends with other colleagues in the same area/department as you, it is ok to reach out to others and find others at your job/school/city that are in a similar space – they will likely be glad you did as they may be feeling the same disconnect. Having others to turn to for advice and support (and direct assistance when needed) makes balancing work and family much easier.
Lastly, it is important too to take perspective and really reflect on the time you are at in your life. It can be easy to forget how much fun both your career and your family can be when one or both is stressful. It can be easy to lose sight of how long you may have dreamed about having the job you are in, and the family you now have. Remembering and reflecting on the reasons why you chose your career path can help make difficult times at work much more manageable and help you still feel the passion for your work that motivated you go into the field. Reflecting on your family and embracing the crazy moments will help you take a step back and remember that the times your child is young and needing extra attention are short. Each phase and stage is short-lived and we need to embrace and hold on to these moments and good times dearly. Most importantly, one needs to remember that by staying happy, doing good for yourself, and not losing sight of the reasons you got to where you are today (be that family or career or both), you will be a better, more effective parent and psychologist.
Families in Psychology Project
Research suggests that the current generation of students and early career professionals value work/life balance more than the generations before them (Lewis et al., 2002). The idea of “work/life balance” is a hot topic. It has to do, in part, with a negotiation of roles—for example, how to be happy both as a parent and as a student or employee. This is not easy to accomplish and, unfortunately, most people don’t feel like they’ve struck the balance (Sturges & Guest, 2004). According to Ward and Wolf-Wendel (2004), this isn’t surprising because both work and parenthood are “greedy” in terms of time and energy.
David, who is on an academic career path, shares some of the underlying pressures thwarting his attempts for work-life balance. He wrote, “I need to actively remind myself that sometimes it is okay to take an extra day to get a paper submitted…” (emphases added). Many graduate students and early career professionals feel pressure to perform (to be productive in scholarship, to make all deadlines, to be actively involved in committees, etc.) as a means to compensate for the fact that they are junior in the field. David may have felt this way. He had to remind himself that it was okay to step back from work. This is perhaps especially true in academia, where the culture (e.g., tenure) begs for an individual’s time and devotion (Wood & Wilson, 1982).
David reminds us that negotiating roles at home and work can be overcome through setting boundaries. For example, not responding to emails late at night and not agreeing to write students letters or recommendation when they only give you a day or two’s notice. Hard to do, but, as he sees it, worth it. I’ve heard of others who simply do not work at home or do not answer e-mails at home or set aside 30 minutes per evening for e-mails and so on.
We tend to get the most out of setting boundaries when those boundaries are based on our values. This requires some self-reflection—getting to know who we are, what we care about, what we are willing to give up, and what we are absolutely not willing to give up. Indeed, Showalter (2010) wrote about care providers, “honest self-reflection may be the greatest gift one can give one’s self” (p. 241). If you value time outdoors, you might set aside 30 minutes for a walk in the middle of your workday. If it’s important to you to make it to every one of your kid’s soccer games, you might negotiate a schedule with your employer to get those times off during the season – even if it means making up work at other times. And, as a bonus, others recognize when we are driven by our values. As David wrote, “They understand and will respect you for having boundaries…They also will respect that you are honestly evaluating your needs and time limits.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, David reminds us to embrace the moments…all of the moments. The ones at work. The ones at home. The ones in-between. The physical and mental benefits of present-moment awareness (commonly referred to as “mindfulness”) are well-known. Any efforts we make toward living a balance life are moot if we cannot first be present in the moments of our life, enjoying and embracing our times as a parent, as a student, and as a professional.
Families in Psychology Project
Lewis, S., Smithson, J., & Kugelberg, C. (2002). Into work: job insecurity and changing psychological contracts, in J. Brannen, S. Lewis, A. Nilsen and J. Smithson (Eds.), Young Europeans, Work and Family. London: Routledge.
Showalter, S. E. (2010). Compassion fatigue: What is it? Why does it matter? Recognizing the symptoms, acknowledging the impact, developing the tools to prevent compassion fatigue, and strengthen the professional already suffering from the effects. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, 27(4), 239-242.
Sturges, J., & Guest, D. (2004). Working to live or living to work? Work/life balance early in the career. Human Resource Management Journal, 14(4), 5-20.
Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2004). Academic motherhood: Managing complex roles in research universities. The Review of Higher Education, 27(2), 233-257.
Wood, D. J., & Wilson, J. A. (1982). Some threats to academic mental health. The Irish Journal of Education, 16(2), 141-159.