Friday, May 19, 2017

Work/Life Balance as an Academic Mama of Teens: Seven Strategies to Keep You Sane

When I started writing Get a Life, PhD, my twins were eight years old and my youngest was five. Thus, much of my blog has been from the perspective of an academic mother with elementary school children. Today, seven years after I first began blogging, my twins are finishing up the tenth grade and my youngest is about to finish the seventh grade.

Yep - three teenagers!
So, what is it like to be an academic mom of teens? If you are a long-time reader of my blog, you may know that my children have had an unconventional childhood, having lived in several cities, spent a year traveling to four countries with me to do research, and spending every summer traveling. My worldly teenagers, nevertheless, have the same set of needs as do most teenagers, and I have had to learn to balance out their needs with mine.
While the children have grown up, my career has also progressed and my work now requires me to be on campus a lot more for committee meetings than when I was an Assistant Professor. Moreover, my career involves a significant amount of travel, especially short trips to lecture about my most recent book on deportations. This spring semester, for example, I have visited twelve campuses, gone to two multi-day out-of-town academic meetings, and three single-day out-of-town academic meetings.
All this travel certainly takes away from family time, and teenagers need quality time with their parents for healthy emotional development. My teens, like all teens, have had their ups and downs and have at times sought out a close relationship and other time avoided me. My goal has been to make it clear that I am available when they need me and that I care about them. So, how do I keep my career moving forward and still maintain a close relationship with my teenage children?
Strategy 1: Find small pockets of time during the week
It is hard to have lots of time together during the week not only due to my work schedule, but also because my kids are busy too. The twins leave the house early in the morning for school, and don’t come home until 7:00pm after swim practice. The seventh grader has gymnastics practice three days a week and doesn’t get home until around 8:00pm on those days. Most days, nevertheless, we do eat dinner together, and have a no-electronics rule at the table, which leaves room for conversation. And, about once a week the kids are finished with their homework early enough for us to squeeze in an episode of a television show we are watching together. I let the kids pick the shows we watch and our current favorite show is Jane the Virgin. Watching TV together may not be the best bonding activity ever, but it provides a basis for conversation both during the show and at other times.
Strategy 2: Limit working on weekends
I try very hard to not work on weekends. Sometimes I will spend Saturday mornings cleaning out my email inbox but I try to get that done Friday afternoons to leave ample time to spend with my family on weekends. Often we use this weekend time to get chores done and hang out together. Sometimes we will take a short trip or go shopping. If I am traveling, I try to return home in time to be home for at least one full day over the weekend so I have time to spend with my family.
Strategy 3: Travel with the teens
If I am traveling somewhere for work that is within driving distance, I try to find ways to bring the family with me. For example, I recently was invited to give a talk at a liberal arts college in Southern California, which is within driving distance from my home. I brought the family with me, and the kids took a campus tour while I was giving my talk. And, we used the honorarium money to treat ourselves to tickets to Universal Studios the next day. That trip was an ideal example of work/life balance, and we had lots of bonding time together. Next year, when the twins are juniors, I hope to take them on a few more trips as they will be thinking more seriously about college. I also always take the whole family when I go on extended research trips.

Selfie with my teen daughter at Universal Studios

Strategy 4: Take advantage of the summers
The summertime is when we get some serious family time together. I have already written about summer hours - - where I describe writing and doing research four hours a day during the summer, leaving the afternoons to spend time with my children. In addition, since I earned tenure, we have been taking four full weeks off during the summer, where I am not working at all. This year, we are traveling around Southeast Asia and I will not even have my laptop with me. As we are getting close to the age where the kids will go off to college, these summers together feel more important than ever.
Strategy 5: Use public or shared resources to relieve some of the burden
One of main challenges with raising teens is feeling like a taxi driver – as public transportation is not always available to shuttle children around. I grew up in Washington, DC, and my father was a bus driver, so I was on the city bus to and from school and after-school activities starting at age 7. Alas, the small town we live in now does not have a great public transportation network like many cities do. So, we end up having to drive the kids around. But, we also work to minimize that. My youngest daughter has gymnastics three days a week but we rely on a car pool, and thus only have to drive her (and her two friends) across town once a week. Her school is also one mile away, so she can walk most days. The twins’ school is 1.5 miles away so they can walk sometimes too. But, what helps a lot with them is that they take advantage of in-school programming, which greatly limits the amount of chauffeuring we need to do. They have in-school afterschool tutors that help with homework and they are on the high school swim team, which means that they don’t need rides to practice.
Some parents may feel compelled to help kids with homework, but I have found that doing so just brings added stress and tension into the household. Having the kids use the in-school tutors to help them with math problems that I don’t know how to do anyway is not only more effective – it also teaches them to be more independent and to seek out the help they need.
Strategy 6: One-on-one time
Hanging out with all three of my girls can be tons of fun, and I love to watch them interact together. They can be quite a riot. However, it is important to also have some one-on-one time. This can vary from taking a short walk with one of my girls, to going to a coffee shop, to taking a day-trip together. A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter and I took the Amtrak to San Francisco and had a great time bonding, eating, and searching for the perfect souvenir.
Strategy 7: Keep work trips as short as possible
I am the first to admit that my travel schedule is out of control. (I do have a plan in place to limit my travel, so hopefully this will get better soon.) In the meantime, I have figured out that I can do a lot to limit my work trips. I don’t always have to stay for the full duration of a conference like I used to. I don’t need to agree to spend three days on campus when one day will do. I can set limits around my availability so that I am home in time to see my family. In October, for example, I was invited to give a keynote in Guatemala. It was a great opportunity for me and an exciting challenge to deliver a keynote in Spanish. I took a close look at my calendar and figured out I could leave on Sunday, spend a full day at the conference on Monday, and be back by Tuesday evening. Thus, I agreed to the invitation on those conditions. And, I even enjoyed the short trip and got tons of work done on the plane! When I only had one or two trips a semester, I often extended them out a bit. But, now that I have several, I keep them as short as possible to get home and see my family.
What strategies do you use to balance work and life when you have teenagers at home? What challenges do you face? I look forward to learning from you in the comments.


  1. Thank you for this post. My son is just finishing 6th grade this year, and it does feel like I am entering a new era. Appreciate your insights!

  2. Thanks, Tanya! I always enjoy your posts! I am a mother of four teenagers and recent PhD graduate in Political Science from your alma mater University of Kansas. Prior to returning to graduate school for the 2nd MA and PhD, I taught Russian and Arabic continuing education classes at a local community college. My two older kids were able to take my Russian classes and I took them to study at Moscow State University with my other students and degree students one summer. My third child took my Arabic class. Most of my fieldwork in North Africa I have done the first 5 weeks of each summer, which is when my kids go to my parents in Kentucky, where they ride horses and fish, go to my sister's in Savannah and help at her veterinary clinic, or remain in Kansas for all day camps and evenings with with dad. My kids are now 19, 17, 15, and 13 and have never felt I was gone for more than a couple of weeks because they were always traveling themselves. From an early age they grew comfortable taking the train to St. Louis or hopping on a flight to visit people who love them. My 19-year old is now a sophomore at KU in Political Science and Pre-law. His Russian studies continue and we plan to co-author projects in the not-too-distant future. My youngest plans to be a veterinarian from the fun times she's enjoyed with my sister in the Georgia. She's also taking French in high school and plans to travel with me on future trips to practice her French in Morocco and Tunisia. We've found a way to make graduate school and fieldwork a win-win for the whole family!

    1. Your kids are so lucky! We academics often have great opportunities to provide awesome experiences to our kids.

  3. HI Tanya! I too always enjoy your posts! I have two kids, 14 and 11. My husband is also an academic. One thing we have both done is cut back on travel. Each of us really doesn't travel more than a couple of times a semester. This is more of a problem for him than for me, given his field. But he does it, even if sometimes he feels he should be traveling more. I remind him that there will be time enough for travel after our kids leave home! Work will always be there. He agrees. I don't think this has hurt our careers.
    Another thing we do is have dinner as a family every day, even if this means that sometimes we don't sit down to dinner until 8 or 8:30. And the kids go to bed 9-9:30.
    The driving kids to activities is also a problem and we try to keep two weekdays free from after school activities for our family's sanity. This means that Saturday morning is full of activities for both of them (piano and Greek) but they do them together. (We are Greek, that's why the have Greek lesson). And like you, we rarely work weekends since we got tenure a while ago now.
    Besides this, we do a lot of the same things as you. When we travel for work in the summer, we take them with us. I also do your 4 hours a day thing in the summer (in the early morning when they sleep) and then spend the rest of time with them.
    Next year we have research leave, so we are going to spend it in the UK. Everyone who has done it has said to us that this is a great bonding time for a family and we are very excited about it!
    Thanks for posting this and for being such a source of inspiration!

    1. We took our family to Greece last summer and had a fantastic times. Pictures of us in Greece now adorn much of my house! The year abroad can be such a great experience. We are hoping to go to Europe when I have sabbatical in a couple of years.

  4. Very helpful post. Your post show us very interesting guidelines based upon your experiences. I would like to add my experience as writer. I believe continuous practice and research is the key for speed with quality in writing while you are out on tour or visits. When i start my writing i was unable to site even for 15 minutes and barely could write 5 lines in a day but i tried a lot and continue struggle help me to slowly and gradually start writing like up to paragraph. After some time i my speed got better and so on, now its time that i can write very easily and with speed about my relevant niche on tours and travel.

  5. Very impressive post it is. Along with academic writing career their are lot of other responsibilities which are important to take care of. Experience is the key factor for any writer to spend less time in writing more than without experience writers, also time management is another key factor.