I Am Thankful, But I Am Tired: Working for Nuns

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.”


13 thoughts on “I Am Thankful, But I Am Tired: Working for Nuns

  1. “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.”

    Maybe it should be. Those of us who choose the difficult and under-appreciated work of caretaking, teaching, and providing the society with its next generation of workers and citizens should get credit for doing so at all levels of life — including in the workplace. The fact that you are an involved mother should mean that you are granted greater flexibility in your workplace, in my opinion. I don’t think it’s necessary to place judgements on different lives — the callings of childless people like nuns is no better or worse than that of those who have children. But it shouldn’t be expected that those who are raising children do the same amount of (societal, aspirational, institutional) other work as those who do not.

    • I appreciate your thoughts! And I agree, to some degree. Allow me to begin by writing that I was not totally thrilled with how I wrote the particular line that you quote – the word “flexibility” in particular. But, I chose to keep it as it challenged me to think about that point in new ways. I agree that those of us who choose parenthood should be provided certain flexibility in the workplace; for example, I am a huge proponent of longer maternity (and paternity) leaves that are more just and place us in the same bracket as most modernized countries in the world. I’m not sure how far I would extend that, however. I think we too often place greater value on an individual on the basis of whether or not they are a parent. When I was a newly tenure-tracked, single, childless faculty member, it was often the case that expectations would be greater for me to show up to weekend or evening department recruiting events because, unlike my colleagues, I did not have a family. I don’t see this as fair. A woman (or man) without children can have a passion that is as fulfilling to her as a child is for others. Are we saying that that woman should not be given the same “flexibility” to pursue that passion outside of her work life?

      A 40-something woman without children is often, in my experience, judged for that–decision or not. The thought is often: “what is wrong with her/what went wrong with her?” at its most heinous and, at its most benign her childlessness is a way to identify the woman whereas it would be much less of a concern if she were a man. I do not think anyone should be penalized in any way for choosing to not have children, and I just wonder where the line is established in the workplace in terms of employees with children versus employees without. I absolutely agree that it’s not necessary to place judgements on different lives. My post tries to get at the notion that my particular institution has cultivated a certain work ethic that ignores personal lives/lives outside of work altogether!

      As I wrote, I very much appreciate you prodding me to think about this particular element of the post which was an underdeveloped but important inclusion on my part!

      • You are clearly very thoughtful about these issues, which I agree are thorny. Those of us with kids were, at one point, childless, and so we have experience with both sides of the coin, so to speak. (Whereas, those who have never provided regular childcare really don’t *get* what it means to be an involved parent — my pre-parent self included.) I have also struggled with the idea that on some level parents and non-parents should both be treated fairly. But does fair = equal? No. Probably the best way to make things fair is to, for example, not expect anyone to show up at evening or weekend events. But it’s not always possible to provide equal treatment to different groups of people. (Hence, for example, stopping the tenure clock.) And does preparing for a marathon = being a mom to an infant anyway? No, it really doesn’t. Yes, I think everyone should be allowed to have a life outside of work. But I feel more and more that parenting really is in a separate class of outside-of-work activities. (I say all this as a former childless high-level athlete competing at the national and international level. Work was definitely a constraint on training and competing.) Parenting is different in that you (1) can’t quit and never get a break; (2) have a legally-enforced responsibility to the activity; and (3) are providing a long-term service to society — including those people who don’t choose to have kids. I certainly don’t judge people who decide to not have kids. But I *do* judge those who think having kids is a selfish move or something like getting a pet or taking on a hobby. It’s in its own class and deserves special treatment above and beyond “having a life” outside of work.

        • I think many people are perfectly willing to be as flexible as possible to help out parents, and parents need to feel comfortable asking to do things like move meeting times or do things over the phone/skype or preferentially getting tasks that can be done at home etc. However, doing less work for the same pay because you have a child? No, not appropriate. At all.

          That being said, what is considered “appropriate” time involvement in work might be the root cause of all these discussions, and parents are just the group that has the least give and thus are the most visible. I think the expectations for all employees, regardless of whether or not they have procreated, might be the problem here.

          • I agree, MM: the American work culture plays a significant role here.

            To add to the child/childless debate: Like many other working parents, I value my commitment to my field, my students, my institution and my own professional work too much to expect to do less work or to be less “successful” than a colleague who is, say for the sake of argument, childless. (I use the word successful loosely, to mean ‘personally fulfilled via professional achievements’.) It is the perennial struggle of many working parents.

        • No, marathon running does not equate to being a mother. Preparing for a marathon is just one example that I used from my personal life of something that I would like to find the time to do, but I think it’s important to recognize that others may have more societally-based, long-term interests than that. Even if not, however, I still do not place greater value on those who choose to have children over those who do not. Certainly, raising children is more than “getting a pet or taking on a hobby.” Of course. It’s also an activity that requires a consideration of any personal or professional sacrifices that might have to be made in pursuit of it, just like anything else that one may choose to do in life.

          (I apologize for the long delay in my response! I have been abroad with my family in December…when we do find time to disconnect over winter breaks, we take full advantage!!)

    • “But it shouldn’t be expected that those who are raising children do the same amount of (societal, aspirational, institutional) other work as those who do not.”

      And do you feel that work expectations/commitments for parents should be less but yet they should be paid the same as their childless counterparts? Parents already get a number of tax and society “breaks” that the childless do not.

      I agree with punkeeprof: “When I was a newly tenure-tracked, single, childless faculty member, it was often the case that expectations would be greater for me to show up to weekend or evening department recruiting events because, unlike my colleagues, I did not have a family. I don’t see this as fair.”

      And yes, sometimes the only way to be fair is to treat people equally. Stopping the tenure clock is possible for folks not raising kids under some circumstances, too.

  2. @punkeeprof: “In year one, this commitment to the institution/community was inspiring. In year five, it’s exhausting….”

    Could it be that you simply have chosen the wrong institution? If I know that a certain company expects its employees to work 60+ hrs/wk, would it make sense for me to take this job knowing that is not the kind of life I want for myself? I realize you have few options. But it also seems to me that no one put a gun to your head and forced you to take this particular position. And it sounds like they were very up front about what they wanted and expected. It seems it is your wants/needs that have changed. And certainly there is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder about the wisdom, long-term, of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

    I hope you’re able to find a job where the expectations are more in line with how you envision your life evolving. I think that would be the best solution for all parties.

    • Yes, this is a thought that the post has caused me to wrestle with. You are right in that the institution was up front about expectations in terms of commitment to mission and students. However, where I feel I have been misled is in the institution’s double-talk about the personal/family life and work life balance. It is a conversation that I am currently having at an administrative level and one that is yielding helpful discussions.

  3. The role of women in a global sense is interesting, made all the more by the pressures we place on ourselves. There are no easy answers regardless of the path you choose, and there is always copious “mom guilt” to consume any excess recesses of your mind. I also have an 18-month-old and one on the way. I am not working full-time, or even for pay. Even without your specific demands there are still demands and requirements for finding balance, even if it’s discovering sanity and self-love and appreciation. I’ve found that the struggles I’ve encountered and the internal dialogue are fueled by cultural expectations maintained for centuries. Perhaps our roles have shifted, but there is a minefield of what our lives “should” be. The funny thing is that the expectations shift over time, so it’s easy to feel like a foothold is impossible.

    I have a friend on a tenure track position and another friend who is tenured as a single mother. Both have found there are no easy answers, and I admire their fight trying to find balance with little ones in the picture. Writing my blog on motherhood I’ve been truly understanding how static things feel, yet everything is so dynamic. I feel confident you’ll find your way; at some point your next step will be clear…or clearer to you. With all the wonderful support you’ve received in these comments, still no one will likely be able to truly help because it is such a personal experience. Take care of yourself as best as you can and be willing to keep asking yourself the questions you are already asking. At some point the opportunity or guidance you are waiting for, whatever that may be, will present itself if you are open to the happenings around you.

    • Thank you for your supportive and thoughtful words. I know that finding the balance is necessary for, as you say, my own emotional and spiritual development outside of my professional life. It is crucial if I am to be the present, patient, and ever-improving mother I want to be!

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