The mythology of "balance"

Here’s a good article from her series Winning Tenure without Losing Your Soul at Inside Higher Ed by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, “Balance is a Myth.”  Some of the commenters are angry or disappointed to hear this, but I think she’s right:

Most tenure-track faculty members I work with seem to believe that they can achieve harmonious balance in their lives during the tenure-track years. To me, this is a problematic expectation because the structure of tenure-track life is one in which there’s far more work to be done than time in any given day. Let’s be clear — if you have a stay-at-home partner who does the vast majority of household labor and child-care, you may be able to achieve balance in your life during your probationary period. But most of you are juggling multiple roles and care-giving responsibilities above and beyond new course preparations, heavy teaching loads, multiple service assignments, and ever-increasing research expectations. And you’re often doing so with little social, financial, technical, and/or professional support in your departments, as well as varying in levels of assistance at home. In this context, the expectation of a balanced life seems just plain unrealistic. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but unfortunately this is often the way things are. And when we operate in the world according to how things should be, we can end up feeling like one of my mentees, who recently confided: “trying to achieve balance is just one more thing I feel like I’ve failed.”

Right on.  “Balance” as a goal in life always seemed too fuzzy and Oprah-esque to me anyway.  So long as you don’t get evicted or do any irreverseable damage to your heath or family life while seeking tenure-track employment or while on the tenure-track, then I’d count that as a “win.”  But, no one can be Superprof, Superresearcher, Supercolleague, Superpartner, Superparent, Superchef, Supersuper all the time.  And the last thing that will enhance your research and writing productivity is large helpings of guilt and inadequacy.

A few years ago at a conference, I fell into a conversation with a senior scholar who is at the top of her field, with three very well-received books out plus three edited collections.  (I just checked–she’s published two more edited collections since then!)  At the time, she was in her mid-40s with two very young children and the Chair of her department, and she was just about to take over the editorship of a major journal.  I asked her how she did it all, and she said that 1) her husband’s career was part-time, and that he followed her career and did the majority of the kid stuff; 2) even then her kids ate a lot of McDonald’s food; and 3) she probably has a higher tolerance for chaos than most people.  She wasn’t pretending to be Martha Stewart or Groovy Earth Mother, on top of all of her professional accomplishments, and I appreciated that a lot.  Most people will be honest with you about the price they and their family members pay or have paid for their professional successes.  It only looks like glossy perfection from the outside.

0 thoughts on “The mythology of "balance"

  1. I’m with you, Historiann. “Balance” sometimes means “compromise” because we can’t prioritize all things at the very highest level.


  2. I only wish my life looked like “glossy perfection” from the outside! Even though I’m post-tenure, juggling work and family is extremely stressful. It drives my husband batty that I work so many nights and weekends, my house hasn’t been cleaned in about a century, and friends? I think I had some once…


  3. As I like to say: this ain’t Lake Woebegone. We can’t all be above average, let alone excel in everything, all of the time. A lot of people think that this is some kind of terrible secret they’re learning after years of devotion to their academic work. But, seriously, who can achieve “balance” without an Oprah-esque income and staff?

    Oprah doesn’t have a husband or kids to worry about, either, and she still struggles publicly with her body and her weight, which I think she should just give up. Martha Stewart spent time in the pokey recently. Alec Baldwin left a notorious voicemail to his daughter. Where do our ideas of perfect lives come from? (I mean aside from George Clooney, and I think he looks better now with grey hair than he did when he colored it.)


  4. I’m not sure that “balance” equates with excellence, or even being above average. I agree that balance has become an oppressive “lifestyle” bludgeon in the hands of Oprah et al. (along with “happiness” and “fulfillment”;I’m a heretic who doesn’t believe that the purpose of life is personal happiness!). But for me personally the concept of balance has less to do with perfection, perceived perfection, or excelling at anything, and more to do with finding a rhythm in my life that works for me and for my family. Historiann’s Senior Scholar rocks, and I wish her the best, but I don’t want to be her. I don’t write a couple of articles/books a year, I don’t even write one a year. Part of my rhythm right now is understanding that having small children requires me to slow down – while “slowing down” pre-tenure has its own stresses, I don’t make myself crazy thinking “I have to do X, y, and z to get tenure so I have to spend less time with my children and more time working!” I think, “I’m doing what I’m doing, and I’m meeting their purported standards and if it doesn’t work, then that’s it, then the academic life isn’t going to work for me, because the misery ratio exceeds the gratification ratio.” I love my job, and I view the child-related slowdown as one that will affect me for 4-5 years, after which point I can pick up professional speed. I figure 4 years out of a 30 year career is hardly even a slowdown – everyone will have an “off” year or two for professional or personal reasons. So even though my path is NOT going to lead to historical superstardom, or even more than a modest amount of success (at this point I’m settling for tenure!), I’m mostly happy with the rhythm of my life, and the misery/gratification ratio is in a good place (surprising considering this academic year has been pretty heavy on the misery). For me, that’s balance.


  5. I think that balance has became the new word for ‘having it all’. And, really, we need to realise that we make choices and we priotise and if you want to be successful in academia that means not doing housework and spending less time on hobbies/ family/ life- but at the end of the day, that is our choice. If you don’t like it, then you need to think weigh up your prioties and perhaps rebalance your life, but accept that it may have consequences.

    If you think the system is structually unfair, on the other hand, you might want to become a feminist.


  6. I’ve blogged about wanting balance this year, but I like Perpetua’s definition, above:

    But for me personally the concept of balance has less to do with perfection, perceived perfection, or excelling at anything, and more to do with finding a rhythm in my life that works for me and for my family.

    Yep. And some weeks, that means the satisfaction of working a succession of 15-hour days and really cranking something out. Others, it means taking some really kick-ass pictures and working in time for a yoga class and dinner & a movie with a friend.

    The point in my particular situation is that, as my working conditions steadily deteriorate, I have to reshuffle where I devote my energy. “Balance” is, some days, a nice way of saying “lately, my job just isn’t worth it.”


  7. Feminist Avatar is exactly right: in 2010 we scoff at the quaint thought of “having it all,” but “balance” makes the same demands. I’m trying to think of a Venn diagram: what behavior or omission does Balance tolerate that Having It All would hold against a woman? All I can come up with is theoretical clutter or dirt in one’s home. God forbid anyone ever witness this mess, but it’s okay, if not mandatory, to admit you don’t work too hard on your housekeeping.

    Actually, the age of Balance is in a way tougher on women. Back in the Having It All eighties, which I still remember, demands on mothers of young childen were a little less intense.

    On the plus side, Balance sometimes condones women’s not having children. Partly because Oprah took a pass. When you weave in your spirituality and whatnot, you can claim to have a full life without motherhood: Balance, but not Having It All.


  8. Feminist Avatar is onto something when she writes, “I think that balance has became the new word for ‘having it all’.” Exactly–“balance” doesn’t even mean balance any more, which is why I think Rockquemore was exactly right to call it out.

    However, I don’t think that feminism–as powerful and wonderful as it is–is going to fix the crazzy of pursuing tenure. The craptastic academic job market is in large part what has ratcheted up requirements for tenure everywhere, for men and women alike. Every uni in the country can hire people with publication records and book contracts, so why shouldn’t they? Now, the fact that more men get more help than women on the domestic side isn’t fair, but it seems to me to be a problem better addressed in one’s personal life (as in, if you are a heterosexual woman, don’t marry or partner with a jerk who won’t help you get tenure.) Why reward jerks?

    (My condolences to those of you who may already be married to jerks.)


  9. Now, the fact that more men get more help than women on the domestic side isn’t fair, but it seems to me to be a problem better addressed in one’s personal life (as in, if you are a heterosexual woman, don’t marry or partner with a jerk who won’t help you get tenure.)

    Well, there’s also the issue of those of us who aren’t partnered with anybody to help us. Friends provide the emotional support, but if you want groceries at the fridge at the end of that 8-8 stretch at the office, you’d damn well better get to the grocery store yourself, and perhaps you should live on things that don’t need to be cooked except on weekends…

    Having tenure should make this better, but by the time we get to tenure, many of us have totally internalized this work panic.


  10. @ Perpetua: oh dear gods, yes. I have a friend, a single female about my age who had a child a couple years ago — one who turned out to have severe medical issues for his first year of life. She gets by because she’s been financially savvy enough to, at this point, have just enough spare cash to hire part-time childcare and someone to clean her house — in other words, to do all the things that women have been expected to do for free.

    But if I were her, and someone started talking to me about “balance,” I’d probably start screaming obscenities.


  11. Notorious, I can’t say I speak from personal experience, but I think it’s much easier to keep house for oneself rather than doing housework for two or more and resenting it. (Or, waiting for a partner to pitch in and resenting the fact that someone isn’t pitching in, even to “help.”)

    I still say that not marrying or partnering with a jerk is the greatest thing one can do to ensure happiness. To rip the opening line from Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single person in possession of a good fortune (or not) should avoid marrying a jerk.”


  12. Historiann, you have a point: when you’re actually with a person, there tend to be expectations of a certain level of partnership, and a jerk for a partner can actually make things harder, rather than easier. At least in my case, when the fridge is empty, I know why, and can just choose to order a pizza and read a book. Mejor sola que mal acompañada.


  13. Yes, a thousand times yes! Balance is a Bunch of Baloney. It is the new version of “having it all.” The question is, what will put a break on unreasonable expectations in the workplace?

    All I can see is more of the same. The rest of the economy has seen an increased squeeze on worker productivity in all sectors. My wife is a part-time employee who inherited the work previously done by two full-time employees. When the economy turns around, I seriously doubt they will be hiring anything but part-time workers.

    Similarly, budget cuts in Higher Ed will lead to even more “Excellence with No Money!” and other kinds of magical thinking. The supply of PhDs remains constant. So there will always be fresh souls to replace those crushed on the productivity treadmill.


  14. “The supply of PhDs remains constant. So there will always be fresh souls to replace those crushed on the productivity treadmill.” Yes. And the crushed ones will be blamed for their crushitude because they didn’t achieve the correct balance in their lives!

    This is why I think Rockquemore is right: there’s no balance in tenure-track life. Research, teaching, and service are all important, but we all know that in most unis these days, research is “more equal” than the others. Her advice is to suss out an institution’s priorities wail away on those, and do your best with the time you have left over on the non-priorities.


  15. In some ways you get good practice at dealing with the crushing force of pressure/expectations in grad school. Some people very quickly start working around the clock, devoting themselves completely to trying to meet eternally expanding expectations; others decide “I’m done!” and go for drinks with friends. Most of us do a mix I guess. All I mean to say is that resisting the pressure isn’t impossible, and neither is having a life on the t-t. Being efficient and well-organized helps, and knowing how to draw boundaries and say no (in as much as an untenured person can) also helps. You do NOT have to go to all of those talks! Even if a senior colleague says pointedly, “I missed you at X talk last week.”

    How crushed one is, or might become, in academe on the tenure track or no, is also partly a function of the job itself. While high-powered jobs might be more intense in terms of work with graduate students or expectations for research, this (IMO) is offset by the lighter teaching loads and smaller classes/ TA availability. Whereas as middle or lower tier schools (if you’ll pardon the description), publishing expectations still exist, plus more courses and students and service and some grad students in most places, etc etc. It’s far easier for me on a 2-2 to be casual about “balance” than my friends on a 4-4, or a 3-3-3.


  16. Historiann, this seems a bit glib:

    Now, the fact that more men get more help than women on the domestic side isn’t fair, but it seems to me to be a problem better addressed in one’s personal life (as in, if you are a heterosexual woman, don’t marry or partner with a jerk who won’t help you get tenure.)

    Sigh. I know you don’t mean to say “Just cope with the injustice ad hoc and it’s YOUR job to cope.” Mejor sola que mal acompañada is certainly true, but it sucks to have to choose between the two, compared to what one’s male competitors enjoy: domestic labors and emotional support. Wives tend to root for their husband’s success at work; a much larger fraction of husbands are saboteurs. And for women, rejecting the partnered life causes not only the empty refrigerator that Notorious mentions, but the risk of a serious gap in household income. They are still underpaid.

    Having dumped the jerk whose idea of helping me get tenure consisted of tolerating my writing (as a means to the end of job security) while making it clear that this writing business had better not continue post-t, I AM better off … but not as well off as my married male colleagues. Several have wives who cheer them on, do most of the housework, put themselves second, and bring in wage income.


  17. LadyProf: I was being glib. It’s not fair that more wives make their husbands’ lives easier than husbands make their wives’ lives easier. But, our workplaces can’t possibly address that inequality.

    (Unless you want to invest your Dean or Department Chair with the authority to bust up people’s marriages because they’re too happy or their spouses are too encouraging. There are other inequalities of faculty life, too–what about the colleague who is independently wealthy and can fund his own research trips, or the one who has a cleaner and a nanny? Should they have to write an extra article per year, or present extra publications for tenure?)

    Unfortunately, most of us can’t decide whether or not we’ll be rich, but we all have free will as to whether we marry or enter into a partnership, and I’m just suggesting that women especially should choose wisely given the cultural burdens and expectations put on wives vs. those put on husbands. (The bumpersticker version of this is, “don’t marry a jerk.”)

    BTW, I’m sorry to hear about your breakup. Even when they’re completely necessary, they’re really, really difficult to endure.


  18. Historiann, it didn’t seem that glib to me — but then I tell myself that all the time because I *do* have one breakup that happened sooner because of my job, and one that might not have happened had I been either better paid or more mobile. Reminding myself that those sorts of things are far more common than not for women helps keep me from feeling too sorry for myself when looking at the empty fridge or thinking about having to go out and get my own damned ginger ale if I’m sick. (tbh, I have many friends who would go pick up ginger ale for me, but it’s not the same)


  19. Ouch. I wish research was “more equal” at my uni, or even slightly less equal, rather than equal to nothing. I sat at a table today at which some folks who hadn’t published as much as their home numbers in the Verizon directory tried to figure out how to deny tenure to someone with a book out next September and a number of other pubs. Something like balance prevailed on the second ballot, but then the 40% faction spent the next ten minutes barking at the 60% faction, like Republicans wondering why a win in Massachusetts doesn’t let them run the whole country. Something to do with teaching a class instead of attending a luncheon, and in the process almost blowing “National History Day” this year. Or something like that there, damned if I could figure it out.


  20. Historiann, thanks! You’re right, the breakup was kinda hard to endure. This fellow and I weren’t married but we had heavy parental investment on both sides plus friends of mine who didn’t understand how I could resent a partner who was so “supportive” about my need to get tenure (after which attainment I could turn to what mattered: him). But he and I both had options and privilege.

    I do have a point here. One of my friends used to serve on the zoning appeals board of her ritzy suburb. People would come to this board seeking a “hardship” exemption to some rule: they wanted to build all the way out to the property line, preserve an old kitchen that their architect’s plans wouldn’t accommodate, etc. She had two words for them: “Google Darfur.” That’s now my motto every time I want to dwell on some personal mistreatment!


  21. Despite the fact that a professor told me that I should have no opinions before I got tenure (I’m on the job market now and a soon-to-be PhD), I wanted to add my two cents here. I agree that balance is yet another thing to get stressed about (reminds me of when a friend’s pastor told her that stress was a sin). I doubt that any of us could really achieve that blissful state. I feel constantly overworked and under-appreciated, and right now underpaid (since I’m not working except to finish writing my dissertation). Yet, I also know that I can only do my best. I chose this profession. I could go into a better paid, less time consuming job, but I love this career. Sometimes I wish that my husband would do more household chores, but then I remind myself that he works long hours to pay the bills so I can pursue my dream. I could resent my male colleagues whose wife does all the household chores, but then again I’m sure he has his own trials and tribulations of which I know nothing. Certainly my grandmother was right: “Any fool can get married, it takes a smart girl to marry the right one.” To me the right one isn’t always perfect, but your life is at least better for them being in it. It isn’t always fair, but our lives are we can make of them. And I apologize for being corny.


  22. In the 2.5 years since I started my (4/4 with heavy research and service expectation) tenure-track job I’ve gained about 30 pounds. It’s amazing how guilty I feel about that.


  23. Deborah–you’re not alone. A former colleague of mine, once she was tenured, said, “and now, I’m going to get my body back!” 4-4 with heavy research and service is too much–of course, something has to give. Some people turn to drink and/or drugs, so IMHO, food and/or skipping workouts is a pretty tame “sin.” (But I totally hear you on the guilt.)

    On “Google Darfur”–good story. Back in the 1990s, I worked with a man who had a couple of teenagers at home. They were really good kids, but b!tched sometimes, as all teenagers do. His response to them was, “gee, those kids in Bosnia got nuthin’ on you two!”


  24. And p.s. to LadyProf: I’m sorry about the breakup, but congratulations on NOT marrying the jerk. If you had been married, the breakup would have been much more difficult and legally fraught. (The emotional and family stuff is hard enough without all of the rest, as you suggested.)

    Why do some grown men think they’re entitled to being babied by women? It seems like the sign of an underdeveloped inner life.


  25. As someone that really, really didn’t marry a jerk, but did marry an academic (hey! we met in undegrad! at least he’s in a better-paying, more-hiring, non-humanities field), there is also the guilt of “I’m such a screw up, I should do more around the house so at least one of us can get tenure.”

    My therapist keeps on telling me I value balance, when I really, really don’t. Other than not doing fast food (yet) and not letting my toddler watch TV (yet), I’m a lazy, lazy parent that should read less blogs and write more chapters.


  26. Why do some grown me think they’re entitled to being babied? Isn’t that the whole point of patriarchal disequilibrium? Men feel entitled to the “free” labor of women, to have dinner on the table and “their” children cared for and a home full of peace and harmony after the hardships of their long and important days at work. Preferably with a wife who fetches a drink and rubs their feet. And while few households function that way, the structure of our society is set up to model it as an ideal, spoken or unspoken. Even men who partially “get it” are caught up in these subconscious assumptions about work (ie they genuinely do not notice how much they expect their partners to do for them, or how deep their own entitlement runs). And of course the other side of patriarchal male entitlement is the story women in the patriarchy tell themselves to somehow make it ok: men are silly, foolish babies INCAPABLE of taking care of themselves! Where would they be without us! He can’t even make his own dinner! (Eye rolling and hand-wringing ensues.)

    I try to keep myself from self-pity because generally my situation is privileged, even by academic standards (2-2), but I have to say I’m often shocked by the anger and jealousy I feel when male untenured colleagues have babies and I start to think about the total lack of impact this will have on their careers. (Well, not *always* total lack of impact – my partner just got a very hard time at one of his reviews for not participating fully in dept life, which he wasn’t doing because his wife was terribly ill and also he had a small child to take care of.)


  27. Coming to this party late, but I laughed last night and thought of this post when I saw a promo for Michelle Obama’s appearance on the Today show. The snippet from her interview that they quoted as a teaser? “Like most working parents, I strive for balance.” (Or roughly that.)


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