I teach at a small, Catholic liberal arts university founded by an order of nuns who are guided by relatively progressive core values that direct both their ministry and our institution’s mission. (Though Catholic in mission, the institution welcomes–and even seeks–a diversity of faiths in its faculty, staff, and students. I, for example, am raised Catholic but have explored many faiths and not landed on any one in particular. I made my agnosticism clear during my interview.) These values I vaguely refer to contain commitments to justice, knowledge, choice, and compassion–all of which could be embraced by many faiths. Another feature of our founding order of women religious–and one that is not officially recorded anywhere but is universally understood–is their commitment to their work. What this looks like at my institution is a long history of women who had the passion and, more importantly for my purposes here, the time in the day, to commit to founding and maintaining an institution of higher education. Education became their calling and, therefore, consumed their lives.
Since the institution’s founding, 14 of the 17 presidents have been members of the founding order. This means that 92 of the institution’s 116 years of existence have been shaped directly by an institutional ethos of work, work, work. It was present five years ago when I arrived: (a) what I like most about ____ is that we all honor the tradition and are willing to do whatever it takes for our students to succeed, (b) we all work hard around here because we believe in the mission and in our roles as contributors to a larger cause, c) you won’t see anyone work harder than a nun, but we all try! In year one, this commitment to the institution/community was inspiring. In year five, it’s exhausting and has me reevaluating what my role is/has been versus what my role should be.
I do not mean to suggest that the religious women who shaped the institution had no lives or interests outside of their work; but, it is true that they had fewer encumbrances than many of my colleagues and I, for example. What do I have that the few remaining nuns on faculty do not? A spouse and child, for one. At my institution, the ways in which this specific group of childless have influenced the work culture is insensitive to the demands of such a family life and, I suspect, it is largely due to their ignorance about what it means to be a working professional and a parent. (I recognize that I risk painting in too broad of strokes here and implying that as someone who has chosen to have a spouse and a child, I should be granted greater flexibility than anyone who chooses to not have a family and/or children. That is not my intention, nor is it my opinion.)
I teach a 4/4 load; serve on an average of 4 to 5 committees per semester; advise; am mostly responsible for recruitment and retention efforts within my department; attend many “extra-curriculars” such as student Capstone presentations, theater or musical performances, and community events; and am expected to maintain a moderate-to-significant level of professional development each year. My typical workday is 8:30-4:30. I play with my 1 ½ year old from the time I get home to the time he goes to bed. At 7pm until the time I go to bed is spent grading. Weekends are spent grading whenever my son is asleep. (I teach literature, writing, and composition, so it’s A LOT of grading.) This is typical. This is how it’s always been. This, I’m realizing, is no longer sustainable.
I am grateful for the job I have. (Especially given the market in my field–my department just made a new hire and we accumulated over 200 applications for a literature PhD position!) I am grateful that I work in an institution where I form relationships with my students and see their growth from year 1 to year 4. I am grateful for the family-like community that the founding women religious have established. I’m grateful to have colleagues who are now my close friends. But after giving so much of myself to this place for the past five years, it’s become clear to me that it has become my identity in a way that doesn’t leave room for much else.
In conversation with my husband the other day (who is also a faculty member at my institution and a bright and wise guiding light in my life), I mentioned that my 25-year-old self would likely be appalled at my life now. I have not developed skills or hobbies that I had envisioned for myself: become a good cook, participate in a marathon or triathalon once per year, become a skilled gardener, volunteer significantly in my community. I am grateful for the life I have, on so many levels, but I’ve given too much of my time and energy to my place of employment. The fulfillment that that nuns receive from such a life (I am referring here to specific women) is sadly not transferrable to my life, one that I very much want to separate into at least two spheres: family and work. For too long that line has been blurred.
I have recently purchased one of those digital activity trackers that I wear on my wrist and that logs a bunch of data about my day into my phone. Steps walked, hours slept, food consumed, etc. If it were able to calculate the number of hours spent at my job, doing work for my job, or just thinking about my job, warning lights and alerts would flash and sound and even the algorithms that make conclusions about getting too little sleep or eating too much food would know that my life was terribly out of balance.
I recognize that change will happen, though I’m worried about pulling back 2 years out from undergoing review for tenure. When the time comes and I’ve worked myself into a panic about whether or not what I’ve done in the past 7 years in “enough,” I will at least be able to say that I have a full life with my husband, son, and second child (on the way). When the panic sets in, I will be wise to recall my husband’s words: “If, after all you put in, they don’t grant you tenure, there are far better places for you to be and far better things for you to be doing.”