Melissa Terras is tired of being called superwoman because she has three young children and a job. Here she takes apart the myth and says there’s no such thing as ‘work-life balance’
It’s been almost a year now since I returned from maternity leave to my full time job as an academic at UCL. At the time, I had three children aged three and under (‘The Boy’, and ‘The Boys’ – fraternal twins) and since then, hardly a week goes by without someone commenting on the fact that I am Superwoman.
So I thought I would explain how I balance having a fairly large family of small people and academia; partly to show that it can be done and partly to show that I am not superwoman but incredibly lucky.
I’m not superwoman … I have a supportive partner. The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone contemplating having a career and a family is choose the right person to do it with. It takes two to tango, and the raising of a family should not just be the responsibility of the mother. Neither should looking after the household be. Feminism begins at home, folks: share chores and childcare equally. To boot, my husband works from home which means he is on hand to do nursery drop off and pick up.
I’m not superwoman … I have flexible working hours. Long academic working hours are legendary. But so are their flexibility. After The Boy, I looked after him at home one day during the working week, and no-one batted an eyelid as I made up the hours in evenings. I regularly work in the evenings so I can spend more time with all my boys through the week (though I think missing bedtime about once a week, to go to work events, is acceptable). I never work weekends, though, unless I am at a conference.
I’m not superwoman … I don’t work in a lab-based discipline. One or two days a week I work from home which means I keep on top of email and working documents, plus can power through the laundry backlog in lunch and coffee breaks. I’m not sure how I would cope with having to be in a lab from 9am to 5pm every day. All academic jobs are not created equal, but the ones which are flexible … man, are they flexible.
I’m not superwoman … I can afford help around the home. Despite our best efforts, we have a cleaner come in for two hours a week to deep clean the bathrooms, scrub all the floors, and hoover throughout the house. But this subject brings up an issue I also don’t understand: guilt about paying for extra help. There shouldn’t be any, as long as you pay decent rates, pay for holidays, and don’t treat your cleaner like … dirt.
I’m not superwoman … I take as many shortcuts as possible. I haven’t ironed anything since 2003. I’m not spending hours of my time making things flat just so that they can get crumpled again when worn. No-one has noticed yet (have you?). Make as many short cuts around housework and your home as you can. I think efficiency, rather than show-home.
I’m not superwoman … I use all the technology I can to make this easy. The postman hates us with all the parcels off eBay; we use lots of shared calendars online to plan everything and keep track of the movements and needs of two adults, three small people, and a cat; I tweet, shop, and email when I’m waiting on trains. When I’m away with work I speak to the boys on video chat as often as I can. Make technology your friend.
I’m not superwoman … I travel a lot with work. This may sound like an oxymoron, but not only do I get a couple of good nights sleep, I tend to work like a demon. Room service, and work till midnight. I get loads done in hotel rooms.
I’m not superwoman … I live near family and friends. My mother-in-law moved to be closer to us shortly after the twins arrived. This is wonderful for the boys – getting to see their grandmother often – but also extremely helpful when illness strikes. The Boys got chicken pox the week I was giving a plenary in Paris. Mother-in-law stepped in to be the other pair of hands while I was away. It comes with some drawbacks but on balance, having family nearby makes caring for children, and dealing with the chaos that that often brings, much easier.
I’m not superwoman … I work incredibly hard. I do work long hours, but I’ve found that, if anything, motherhood has made me much more focused, and I take my career much more seriously: if I’m going away from the family then every minute is generally filled up with tasks.
So there you have it. You’ll spot that I haven’t mentioned ‘work-life balance’. I don’t believe in it. There are only 24 hours in a day, and it’s all my life. My work is my life, my home is my life, my family is my life and my addiction to mid-century Belgian ceramics on eBay is also my life. A confluence of luck, good choices, hard work, and support have meant that – whisper it – it’s not terribly stressful to be an academic working mother, for me at least.
It would be much, much harder work to stay at home looking after three small boys day in, day out. Believe me, I’ve done it.
Melissa Terras is the reader in electronic communication in the department of information studies at University College London, and co-director of the recently founded UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. A longer version of this post was originally published on her blog