Time of Day Flexibility: Our Blessing and Our Curse

Rachel Connelly is the Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College and currently the chair of the economics department.  She is also the mother of four children, one born before, one born during, and two born after tenure.Her new book written with Kristen Ghodsee, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia, on which this essay is based is full of advice for young women graduate students on how to succeed on the tenure track without having to give up motherhood, and the professor mommies at all levels of academia walking the tightrope of work and family life. Connelly’s academic research is also in the area of work/family issues more specifically on the economics of childcare.  Her book, coauthored with Deborah DeGraff and Rachel Willis, Kids at Work:  The Economics of Employer Sponsored On Site Child Care (W. E. Upjohn Institute Press, 2004), is a case study of employee response to employer sponsored on-site care and her book, coauthored with Jean Kimmel, The Time Use of Mothers in the United States at the Turn of the 21st Century (W. E. Upjohn Institute Press, 2010)  uses time diary data to measure the determinants of time devoted to both child giving and employment. Please note that the views of our guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network.

As occupations go, it would be hard to find one with more time-of-day flexibility than a university professor.  Oh, we do need to show up at class time each week of the term and have the exam written by exam time and all too often there is a committee meeting that we need to attend but other than that our time is our own.  Right?  Of course, right!  But also, oh so wrong! This may be the cruelest trick of all to those of us enticed by our love of schooling into hopes of a job as a university professor.  (And there are a lot of cruel tricks to choose among such as the low starting salaries, the small number of positions relative to applicants, etc.)

As Kristen Ghodsee and I have written about in our book, Professor Mommy:  Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), the ultimate time flexibility of the academic profession lures many an unsuspecting victim away from the path of work/family balance.  There are lessons to be learned here that are true for any job that offers time-of-day flexibility.  We can fail at either end of the spectrum.  The flexibility of the job can cause us to work too much or to not work enough.  For many, there is a tendency to work too much.  The job is so flexible that there is always something else you could (should) be doing—another article to read before we write, another variation of the model to be explored.  Our graduate school professors often model these life choices for us such that we think that it is the only path there is.

New technology only exacerbated the problem.  My laptop is now powerful enough to estimate my complex econometric models and I can access my university library from anywhere in the world.  As much as we enjoy our work, working all the time is not healthy.  We need to leave time for relationships, families, and giving back to our communities.

On the other side of the coin, many parents of young children, particularly mothers, make the mistake of not allocating enough uninterrupted time to the job once the baby is born.  One needs to be very vigilant to not fall into the flexibility trap—the “I’ll pick up the kids after school” trap, the “I will work when the baby is napping” trap.  If your university is paying you to be a full time instructor/researcher then you need to allocate enough time each week to be successful at your task.  Only a small percentage of success in academics, as in any field, comes from brilliance.  Instead, most success comes from what I like to call “fanny power,” that is, the willingness to sit on one’s fanny for a long time and do what needs to be done.  You can’t do this and drive the kids to piano lessons at the same time.

Too many mothers fail to get tenure or opt out of the tenure track all together because they have been the flexible ones at home, the one who stays home when the child is sick, or attends the parent/teacher conference in the middle of the day.  Yes, we do have the flexibility to do that but understand that two hours off in the middle of the day needs to be made up sometime else in the week.  For some of us, this means working when the kids are asleep or working on the weekend when your partner is available.  For me though, I chose to be the least flexible with my time when the kids were young.  When the children were young, I worked very predictable (but finite) hours, literally 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, so that everyone, my husband, my kids and I all knew when it was time for Mom to be at work and when it was time that the kids could expect my attention.  Being structured with my time insured that I worked enough hours, but not too many.  Yes, I always wished I could be home more, but I also wished I could work more.

So yes, flexibility is something we value in a job, but once you get the job, give yourself a fighting chance.  Protect your best time for the most challenging aspects of the job, allocate enough time to do a good job but not so much that you lose the rest of what life is all about:  a life that involves work, family and community.