Family is about more than babies

She is 65 years young, vigorous, a retired professor, who loves nothing more than being outdoors. She lives in the country, by herself, and enjoys watching the birds feed at her backyard feeder. On Friday evening, she went out to fill the feeder and slipped on some ice. Her body twisted, and she heard the bones in her legs break. Somehow, miraculously, she dragged herself through the snow, up some steps, back into the house and called 911. Rushed to the local hospital, then the regional hospital, then into surgery, a few days in the hospital, a week in the rehab unit, and then up to 4 months in a non-weight bearing cast.

She’s my mother.

The fall was Friday night. Saturday morning I flew to my home state and I’m spending the week here, splitting my time between the hospital and her house, holding her hand, listening to the doctors, and trying to figure out how to get things ready for her to come home. I’m grateful it was my spring break week (otherwise known as the week I was planning to work 100 hours to “catch up”). But in a few days, I need to leave, go back to finish out the semester, leaving her here, not even out of the hospital yet. I’ll be back as soon as the semester is over to spend time with her and maybe help her figure out her next moves, the ones that will take her into the city or away from the ice, but will also tear her from the birds, trees, hills, and wildlife she loves.

This is not my first time finding that a big grant proposal, an almost-done paper, or a stack of grading pale in importance compared to taking care of family. The cancer in 2007, surgeries in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were previous tangoes with elder care. And I’m hardly alone. There’s even a term for people caring for an elderly parent, while raising kids of their own: “the sandwich generation.” The Pew Research Center frames it in terms of financial burden, but the emotional and time costs are also huge. Zuska has done an amazingly good service in shedding the light on what’s ahead for many of us. As she says: “Elder care is a chronic unpredictable set of minor and major disasters plus daily repetitive tasks that are always urgent and never completed.”

Those of us with family members who have health needs care beyond belief about making sure our loved ones are safe, comfortable, and not left alone. But we are not super-human, and there will be tradeoffs between eldercare, parenting, work productivity, and self care. The number of hours in a day doesn’t increase just because your parent had a nasty fall. And just like babies don’t suddenly go away when maternity leave is up, parents don’t go away when a crisis is over and you go back to work.

When we talk about work-life balance, family-friendly workplaces, reasonable expectations for tenure and promotion, family leave and so on, we need to recognize that this isn’t just about babies and young children. It’s about all of us with any sort of strong personal connection with another human being.

21 thoughts on “Family is about more than babies

  1. Thank you for this post. One of the issues I struggle with is that all of the other early career faculty in my department have kids, while I do not- as a result, there is the expectation that I have a more flexible schedule than they do for service, teaching, etc. Because of parental care issues similar to those described by sciwo, this is not always true, and I resent that my childless status means that others think that I don’t have these external constraints.

    • That’s frustrating. Do colleagues know what’s going on and still make those assumptions? If so, double the frustration. But I think it’s a good argument for while the whole system needs to make adjustments for the ubiquity of families/personal lives, so that we each don’t have to plead on the basis of personal cases, rather none of us are expected to do unreasonable amounts of work under unreasonable schedules.

  2. Really excellent piece, that reflects a much-needed paradigm shift in how we think about “family obligations.” With an aging population that will likely live into very old age, the issue of elder care is particularly important. Thanks for this!

  3. yes. Agree 100%. I feel your emotional, physical and professional pain. Been there, done that, have the t-shirt.

    And even if elderly relatives (or even spouses and siblings etc) don’t have health problems NOW, then accident or illness can happen at any time to any of them. Even in the most supportive families, it is often the daughters/sisters who seem to be expected to drop everything else. (Now we will get posts from men who have ‘been there’ – but it doesn’t alter the fact that many families still expect it to be the woman who is somehow ‘more free to come’)

    That is why, when I have had any input into writing workplace conditions, I have worked hard, to ensure any new equity provisions that are written into guidelines or work contracts are just that – equity – generalised, so that they don’t specifically mention ‘children’ whenever possible, but leave it general to cover any family situation.

    Now I am at the other end of the spectrum – I am the same age as your Mum, and also live in the country. It takes an ambulance more than 20 mins to get here, at the minimum, even in a dire emergency (or nearly half an hour to the nearest hospital with decent emergency facilities if one of us can possibly get the other into the car). Fortunately i have a partner, but I insist that both a relative and a neighbour who live alone contact us each day (otherwise I phone or visit) because I am aware how easily these things can happen; in fact, have sometimes happened.

    Hope your Mum comes through this and regains her strength, and so do you, and that a compromise living arrangement will work out for both of you.

    And you know something? If the grading doesn’t get done in time, then the worst that happens is the students get their marks late. Frustrating, but not as important as your Mum’s health.

  4. Thanks for writing about this. One of the reasons I took the job I did was so that I could be within a day’s drive of where I grew up, so that as my parent age I can be close enough to help when need be. Nonetheless I’ve seen how little leeway there is when these issues come up – I know a Dept. Chair who lost a family member and barely took a week off to make arrangements, and then had to jump right back into their responsibilities.

  5. Thanks for this. I’m spending “Spring Break” helping my brother clean out our childhood home, as we had to move Mom to assisted living 6 weeks ago, following a stroke. On Monday she fell, and so we’ve spent the week between the hospital and the house. Today I waited at the hospital for 10 hours, only to find that her (lousy) insurance company is delaying her release into rehab for yet another day. The hospital and facility folks both said that this is a common tactic with this company, hoping they can keep her out of skilled nursing, which they have to pay for, and send her back to assisted living, which we have to pay for. I’ve already used up what little family leave I’m allotted (2 weeks for an ill parent). 4 years ago I taught 10 weeks online so that I could get her to radiation/chemo for cancer.

    And classes resume on Monday morning–I’ve already missed too many this semester and can’t really miss more. But I live 9 hours away. I understand the issues of my colleagues with children, but wish things were more flexible for those of us with no kids, but aging and ill parents.

    • Hugs to you! Two weeks for an ill parent is certainly not enough! But I suppose the other alternative is FMLA, which is unpaid and limited to 1x per year.

  6. Yet another reason I’m seriously considering leaving academia. Tiredprof points out the problem with US work policies… 2 weeks for an ill parent. Then what? How about allowing leave without pay if necessary. What are you supposed to do if you require more time… private industry, working for myself, etc. are sounding more and more appealing to this post-grad 3rd year post doc.

    • Serious question: do you think that industry will be better? One of the issues in academia is that things like NSF deadlines, reviews, etc. don’t care about what you’ve got going on in your life, even if you can get extensions or excuses from university deadlines and classes. Industry may not have as much as of those completely external deadlines, but they also tend to have more rigid work hours/vacation periods and little/no potential for permanent job security. I’m not sure how those pros/cons come out in the end. I’d be curious to hear from people with non-academic jobs and eldercare responsibilities about how it works as my experience is all academic.

  7. First of all, I wish your mother a speedy recovery. I share your frustration – have a colleague (male) who has no children but goes home every weekend to take care of very elderly grandparents that raised him. At my university you automatically get tenure extension for childbirth, but have to petition for other family events. I don’t know how high the bar is, but I have strongly encouraged him to seek out that extension – that burden is comparable to raising a small child when you have full-time daycare. Fortunately, we have a department that is very collegial and I have repeatedly seen people step up when a faculty member has a family issue to deal with (teach a class for them, cover a service meeting, etc). The research commitments are harder to balance though as they are often subject to outside constraints and very individual.

  8. I am so sorry for you and your mother, and hope that she will have the best recovery possible. Broken bones are scarier than many people may realize. My heart goes out to you for the decisions that you and she will face about her future living arrangements. It’s so difficult to do this.

    Thank you for linking to my post. I would like to think that my writing on this topic would be of help to others. Elder care can be such an isolating thing. It’s good for people to share their experiences.

    To Sciwo and everyone here struggling with these issues: From my experience (not just with my mom, but with cousins and friends who’ve been through it) no matter how carefully you consider all the options and how much you give of yourself to help your elder have the best possible life, it rarely feels like enough. Everyone seems to have guilt over not being able to do more, not being able to find more perfect solutions. Even the wealthy with every option and all kinds of support at their disposal are not exempt from these feelings (c.f. Reeve Lindbergh’s “No More Words” memoir of taking care of her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh).Reeve Lindbergh says it’s because we know that no matter how much we do, we can’t give them back youth and vigor and keep them from dying.

    The debate about whether elder care would be easier to manage from industry or academia is in some ways like the debate about whether it’s easier to have a family in academia or industry. The answer is: it depends. It depends upon how your department handles family leave issues. It depends upon how your company deals with chronic illness and family leave issues. It depends upon your local support system. I’ve seen companies where employees can donate unused sick days to another employee who needs it for cancer treatment or chronic illness; not sure if it’s ever been done for elder care, but maybe it could be. It’s a little trickier now because a lot of companies have moved to do away with separate sick and vacation day pools, and just give a certain number of leave days for employees to use at their discretion. Bottom line is there is no good way and no good place. Everybody is rigging up some crazy patchwork compromise solution. Something always suffers: the elder’s care, the caregiver’s job, the caregiver’s health, the caregiver’s family, or all of the above. Be as kind to yourself as you can, take as good care of yourself as you can, and know that you are doing the best job you can in a totally impossible situation.

    • “Be as kind to yourself as you can, take as good care of yourself as you can, and know that you are doing the best job you can in a totally impossible situation.”

      Z, you are, as always, so very wise.

    • Very wonderful post, Z. Yes, always the guilt. It is something all of us have to try to get rid of – once we have done our best, we need to realise we have done our best and we have lives, too. It is hard. Guilt not only at not giving our relatives/friends back their health, but also guilt at not doing enough at ‘work’. And then guilt at not being with our own immediate family/friends enough.

      I once woke up saying that I was going to be selfish from that day onwards, because I had observed that selfish people got all the goodies. My partner, half asleep, murmured that it was impossible. When i asked “why”, he said “selfishness takes a lot of practice over many years, and you haven’t had any of that practice.” hmmm

  9. This is a great post and I totally agree that work/life balance is not just about babies. But, at the same time, the gender card is much stronger for babies. I know that more women look after elders than men, but there isn’t the biological constraint that there is for babies. There also isn’t the triple marathon of pregnancy, child birth, and newborn care, each of which is incredibly physically draining. It’s also much easier to craft a baby policy than an elder care policy because there are just fewer variables. For example, my mother fell a few years ago and broke both her hands. But, my father was able to do all the care she needed with a bit of help from my brother. This couldn’t be more different from your situation, though the injury sounds similar, it seems harder to me to come up with ‘fair’ compensation for elder care than babies. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but the conversation is going to be longer and harder. All this together makes it easy to understand why babies dominate the conversation.

    • Alison, I agree you have summarised the community attitudes. But i also agree we need to keep trying to push for fairer policies. Where I disagree with you is that it is harder. It might be harder if we try to define each separate situation, but it is easier if we opt for general policies, that can be interpreted to apply to any family situation requiring the attention of anyone – whatever their gender description. Yes, ‘maternity leave’ is a special one that is better defined and that is why babies dominate the conversation – but after the maternity leave is over, kids can still get sick or need attention, as can spouses, parents, siblings etc, as in the example in this post. It is these ‘family care’ policies that can be worded in completely general way – if we try. Or if we keep pushing so that the authorities try. After all, illness and accidents don’t make appointments – they can happen to any of our loved ones at any time.

      But having a supportive workplace still doesn’t alter the fact, as mentioned, that deadlines for grants etc do not wait. …

  10. Just thought i’d let you know that you helped someone else. I showed this post to a friend who is in ‘the sandwich generation’ and feels bombarded from all angles. She really appreciated knowing that others are coping with similar problems. Thanks for posting.

  11. Pingback: Guest Post: The One-Body Problem | Tenure, She Wrote

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