Productivity and balance as a woman scholar: challenges, ideals, and strategies

This post is part of a blog series based on discussions at monthly meetings of the Ronin Institute Women’s Interest Group. An earlier original version of this specific post first appeared in the The Deliberate Owl on 15 November 2022. Forthcoming posts in this series will include a summary of the Women’s group’s discussions in 2022 and thoughts on managing stress.

I sit with my laptop at the big wooden table in my mostly-dark kitchen. The single light over the kitchen sink pushes my shadow over the keyboard. The house is quiet; the kids are asleep. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator, the gentle click-taps of the keys as I pick words, a quiet whir-slosh from the dishwasher, the drone of the occasional car driving past on the road outside. 

Although I much prefer morning work hours when I can nab them, I usually write in the evenings now. I blog. I publish the occasional paper. I do work—sometimes more and sometimes less, and not in the way I may have imagined a decade ago, during my first years in grad school. I’m not a professor or an industry research scientist; I’m as much stay-at-home homeschooling mom as I am writer and scholar.

I yawn. That’s the problem with writing in the evenings: it’s late. Some nights, I wonder whether it’s worth it. Who am I working for? Why am I writing? It’s not like working is necessary; my husband’s flexible work more than covers our expenses. I wonder, especially when tired after a full day of negotiating young childrens’ disputes, driving to parks or the library, making food, cleaning, working on my domestic projects (like gardening, or sewing), reading books aloud, and everything else that goes into a typical day.

Then, as I fall into flow, and half an hour passes in a blink, I remember: I’m writing for me. I work on my projects—like my book—because these are activities I enjoy, that I care about, that I’m doing because pursuing excellence is more right than pursuing success. It’s not about money. Work can be play.

Even so, staying consistently productive can be tricky. (You may ask: Why does consistent productivity matter? It doesn’t, except insofar as I have long-term project goals, and taking consistent, incremental steps toward them is a good way to reach them.) 

Productivity and balance while caring for your family

I’m an independent scholar with the Ronin Institute. The Ronin Institute is an academic community and virtual/remote/distributed organization focused on supporting scholars who don’t necessarily follow the conventional academic path. This year, some of us formed a women’s interest group. Over the past six months, we met monthly to discuss professional development, work/life balance, and other issues we face as independent women scholars.

One meeting focused on how we maintain productivity and balance while caring for our children, parents, or other family members. Most of the women present at the meeting had children. I was surprised—pleasantly surprised—to learn how many of my fellow women Ronin Scholars are following or have followed unconventional educational paths with their children. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; the kind of people who are drawn to the many varieties of homeschooling and education outside of conventional classrooms are also the sort who may be drawn to unconventional forms of academia.

We discussed challenges we are currently facing, what an ideal balance might look like in our lives, and strategies we use to manage our home and work lives.

Challenges in balancing work with caring duties

What challenges do you face in balancing your work life and your home life?

In our discussion, a couple themes arose. First was around the seasons of life. Our responsibilities shift as our children grow. Younger children need more time, attention, and physical support than older children. Even adult children need emotional and mental support, but at least you probably won’t have to make their sandwiches and tie their shoes. The season you’re in can make achieving a balance you’re happy with feel especially difficult.

Time segmentation was common, too. Children interrupt your day—they’re supposed to, and it interferes with having large blocks of time for deep work. Even when your children attend dropoff schools, there’s still the time spent on dropoffs and pickups, and time with them in afternoons and evenings. With homeschooled children, well, they’re around! All the time! As they grow older, they may do more independent work, play, and projects of their own, but they still need attention at unpredictable intervals. Some mothers solve this by doing all their work at night, after everyone else is asleep, but … at some point, you have to sleep, too. Others try to find help, such as a nanny, mother’s helper, or occasional babysitter.

One mother explained how she’s trying to train her family for teamwork and raise her kids to be self-reliant and helpful. I’m on board with that! (She is, incidentally, the mother who recommended the book Hunt, Gather, Parent to me—read my review!) The whole family needs to be involved in ensuring that everyone has the time and energy to do what they need to do. I’m not the maid; we all live here; we all contribute to making our home a place we all want to be.

One scholar shared her struggle with her identity as a mother. In our present culture, which favors career accomplishments over home and family, it’s not uncommon for women to feel like they don’t fit the roles they have to fill.

Another issue that arose was how to split time among different work projects, such as paid work versus unpaid work. To which projects ought you dedicate your precious time? How do you decide which projects are most worthwhile?

What would balance look like?

What does the ideal balance look like for you? We all will have a different balance of activities that fulfills us. How far off are you from a balance you’d be happy with?

In our discussion, finding time was a common challenge: getting larger contiguous time blocks for work; getting more morning time. When choosing how to use your time, ask yourself what family legacy do you want to leave behind? How can you live now so you have no regrets?

For me, I want time with my family. I want time for projects, academic and otherwise. Balance involves being home, being present, pursuing my interests flexibly, integrating what I do as a scholar and writer with what I do as mother and wife.

Picture this common scenario: You wake up early, collect a quick breakfast in your kitchen, and head to your garage. You commute by car to an office or lab. Work there all day. Return home, perhaps make your own dinner or pick up takeout on the way, watch some shows, go to bed in your master bedroom with its trey ceiling and oversized bathroom, and repeat. As a variant, add a typical life with kids: packing lunches, school bus or dropoff, extra activities and homework help in the evenings—activities that make the day more hectic, and just as much absent from the home.

“From what I heard from the other Ronin Institute women present…The people who are attracted to an alternate scholarly institution are also frequently attracted to unconventional and flexible work-home-life arrangements.”

That’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. In fact, from what I heard from the other Ronin Institute women present, it’s not what most of us are aiming for. The people who are attracted to an alternate scholarly institution are also frequently attracted to unconventional and flexible work-home-life arrangements.

My home is where I live; it’s not simply a building where I sleep. Living is working; working is playing; living is playing. Living is all the stuff that we do on a daily basis. My husband has a home office where he works most days. (And also a downtown office that he shares with a colleague, but he doesn’t work there every day.) I work on all my projects from home. Our kids know what work looks like; they know what life looks like. They’re involved in all aspects of it.

When women discuss work-life balance, someone inevitably, perhaps longingly, wishes she could “have it all.” But “having it all” is a myth, because time is finite. No matter what you choose to focus on—family, work, career, hobbies, etc—you are choosing to spend time on some activities in lieu of others. There is no “all”. Everyone who works all day out of the house while someone else manages their children is sacrificing an awful lot of time with their family. Anyone who spends the majority of their time at home with their children won’t get as far on a conventional career path.

Being conventional is overrated.

What strategies do you use to manage time and stay on top of everything?

Strategies varied, of course—some people are organizers and managers; some go with the flow and squeeze work in however they can. One scholar shared that she often stays up all night to get research done (that would never work for me!). Many had systems of shared family calendars and to do lists. Others used bullet journals.

One theme that arose was the reliance we had on other people—frequently husbands and other family members. For instance, I do my work when my husband has the kids, during naptimes, or after everyone’s asleep. While I’d like more frequent blocks of morning time for writing, that’s not realistically going to happen until the kids are older or until I find a consistent mother’s helper or babysitter. One study I read a while back reported that women will often use grant funding to hire a cleaner, so they can spend more of their time with their children and on their work, and less on chores. Seems reasonable to me!

Another theme was that we found we needed to let go of the ideal to deal with what is actually present in our lives. Whether that reality relates to housework, meal schedules, education for children, work schedules—you are living now. Some things will matter more than others, and that’s okay. Some things will slide. That’s okay. Often, the balance won’t be right—make small changes. Evaluate. Iterate. You’ll get closer to a balance, then your life season will change, and you’ll have to iterate all over again.

That’s normal. Let go of the ideal and be present with what you have.

+ more Ronin Institute blog posts

Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund is a scholar, writer, and artist. She has a multidisciplinary background with expertise in cognitive science, computer science, education, psychology, ethics, and robotics. Her specialty is being able to talk and work across disciplines—she builds bridges. She is the author of a forthcoming book from Columbia University Press on thriving in graduate school while keeping a healthy personal life. She holds a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and BA from Vassar College.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

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