This coming week I will be two-thirds of the way through a medical leave – a paid medical leave that I almost didn’t take because I somehow felt it wasn’t warranted. My reluctance to take advantage of a benefit – offered by my university, supported by my colleagues, and recommended by a doctor who knows more about physiology and recovery than I do – is a problem.
Without a doubt, part of this hesitation is just me and my personality.* However, it was also the product of more widespread issues that I wanted to highlight here. I also wanted to share the wisdom of others that finally gave me the courage to take the leave in hopes that someone else will do the same.
It is a problem rooted in distorted (and perhaps gendered) ideas about what a leave means and how it might affect others’ perceptions of us.
As scatterplot reader Erin Kelly and others have shown, the availability of family-friendly policies and the use of them are two very different things. We know that family-friendly policies are underutilized, particularly in careers centered around an “ideal worker” norm, where taking time for non-work might be interpreted as a sign that someone isn’t ambitious or motivated. What would happen if the dean or the provost learned I wasn’t operating at 100% (a requirement for an FMLA leave at my institution), would they always assume I was not up to par? I was afraid that it would make them think I was somehow less competent, that I would be perceived as a drag on the university and department even after I recovered, that I would suffer enduring professional consequences. I was just as worried that if I was well before the leave ended, I’d be judged as someone who milked the system or who used the time off to get ahead (something research suggests men might be more comfortable with).
It is a problem rooted in a tendency to be tougher on ourselves than we are on others.
I would gladly switch courses, cover advising, do whatever was necessary to help a colleague take a semester off teaching to deal with a health or family crisis without batting an eye, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask for something similar for myself. I was on the committee that crafted Notre Dame’s graduate student parental leave policy and worked hard over the years to ensure that students realized that the time it offered was important and worth taking, but wasn’t taking my own advice. As one of my former students said, why can’t we hold ourselves to the same expectations (or give ourselves the same leeway) we gladly give to others?
It is a problem rooted in a perception that any snapshot of the distribution of energy devoted to work vs. non-work is an enduring measure.
It is important to remember that our obligations and issues in life are not constant. Children are born, parents get sick, partners leave. But at other times, children become self-sufficient, parents are eager to help, new partners become part of our lives. The weight of life and the volume of support we experience ebbs and flows, yet this is seldom built until our understanding of the relationship between work and life or the elusive balance.** When I start to feel sick, I take a day off to try to ward off weeks of being sick if I power through. Why should larger issues be any different? It was important for me to realize that to take three months of one year to tend to my health does not mean that I only gave 3/4 effort to my entire career. To have a CV with nothing to show for this year – and perhaps next year – does not discount what I’ve done up until now or suggest that my future is grim.
In academia, we can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For many academics, this brings a sense of flexibility and autonomy, but it also fosters the idea what we need to be “on” and available nearly constantly. We don’t. And, with the way life intervenes, it can be impossible to. To take time to deal with life outside of work does not mean we are giving up.
The above are all things that I realized after I decided to take the leave. It was the wisdom and experience that friends and colleagues generously offered me that helped me find the courage to take this leave in the first place – insight I’d like to pass on.
People opened up about their own health scares and the leaves they didn’t take. They shared the unexpected difficulties, whether emotional or with the assumptions that people made in the absence of information, convincing me that the consequences of not taking the leave or not telling people could be worse that the fallout from doing so. My chair thanked me for all my hard work over the years and graciously told me it would be good for me to learn that the department could run without me. Women in my support group swore that I would recover better in the long run if I took time to heal in the short run. Graduate students suggested that it was time to practice what I preach and consider how my actions might influence how students and junior colleagues would handle similar situations. Coauthors and editors offered more time than I ever would have asked for – or ever thought I needed – to put work aside, making it easier for me to accept it.
The most influential advice, however, that opened up many of the conversations above, came from a relative stranger. A prominent scholar who I had never met had heard that my partner’s absence from a series of work obligations earlier this year was related to my health. Although uncertain about the appropriateness of reaching out, this person decided to send me an email, excerpted below:
…We all have life challenges of different sorts and kinds. It is hard to get through a career without them…But when the challenges arrive, usually out the blue, they are still difficult and scary.
My advice centers on the degree to which one radically cuts back or tries to soldier on during these crises. While each situation is unique, I believe in taking the time you need – and more time than you think that you will ever need – to manage these predictably/unpredictable life events. I also believe in not worrying about transforming our work lives while we take the time we need to manage such issues. There is so much pressure on academics to race around and do this and that; it can be really hard to slow down the pace for a while. Sometimes people raise eyebrows or give you grief. But, for myself, I have found it to be super important to shed work.
I know many people who have hit a life challenge at some point in their careers, and the ones who didn’t try to slow down and shed all possible work obligations often had a harder time. And after it was all over, they also seemed more depleted and exhausted. Thus, my [advice] is to feel comfortable declining, withdrawing, and renegotiating all of these demands which seem to fill up our lives…
This person’s recommendation – meant for both me and and my partner (who was my primary caregiver) – was incredibly persuasive. Looking at their career, I would never have guessed that they had faced the challenges brought up in the email or that they had let work take a backseat as they concentrated on other aspects of life. Their candor was not only appreciated, but potent. It felt as if I was being granted permission to focus on me, my family, and my health. As much as I have benefited from the insight and advice or mentors or senior colleagues over the years (appropriate for another post, perhaps), this gesture was one of the most significant and I will be forever grateful for the email that came out of the blue.
I hope that being open about my own experience – like this person and others were with me – and highlighting some of the forces we encounter external to ourselves can help someone else who is hesitant to take what they need. I know that it is easier for me – as part of a dual-career couple, with tenure and benefits – but I also know plenty of people who are in similar situations who doubt whether they can or should take time off of work. If I convince even just one person to take a leave – a parental leave, a sick leave, an FMLA leave to care for someone else, a day off from class to care for yourself or another – it is well worth the time it took to write this post. However, I also hope research continues on how to ensure that individuals are not only able, but willing, to take advantage of any benefits offered (both formal and informal) to help them flourish at work and elsewhere.
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* In one of my first posts on this blog, I discussed my unwillingness to use motherhood as an excuse to shirk my obligations as a grad student and new faculty member. I want to take a moment to sincerely apologize if I ever made someone feel as if I expected them to do the same or fostered the perception that an academic life required such an approach.
** An exception is an initiative at Stanford that takes into account the dynamic nature of people’s personal and professional lives. The policy, that I heard at a Work and Family Researchers Network conference in NYC, encourages faculty to consider when they can be all in and when it’s time to step back a bit, acknowledging that we cannot work at the same pace throughout our careers if we want to flourish (and in some cases survive) both personally and professionally.