On Parenting and Academia – Part Two

On Parenting and Academia – Part Two

As promised, here is the second half of our new Writer in Residence Julia Henderson’s post on parenting in academia!


Thanks to those who reached out to me in response to my last (Feb. 24) post!

I was a little nervous to admit my struggles balancing work and family. However, hearing from others has reinforced for me how often we think we are the only ones having difficulty finding balance, but in reality, there are many others are also feeling divided, overtaxed, less-than-perfect, and hesitant to admit it.

In my previous post, I tried to think about the value parenting adds to scholarship and teaching. Nonetheless, there is still the ever-present role conflict that accompanies being a parent and an academic.

So, this week I follow-up with some practical advice geared toward surviving the combined pressures of parenthood and academia. These tips may seem like common sense, but most of them I personally had to learn by failing forward.

Though these suggestions originated in thinking about parenting, I hope some of them might be applicable to others who have high non-work demands on their time, and increased likelihood of unpredictable events throwing off their schedules. I am thinking, for example, of academics caring for elderly parents, scholars with pets that need unexpected care, or people with personal health challenges themselves.

Thanks again to Heather Fitzsimmons Frey, of McEwan University, and Katrina Dunn of University of Manitoba for contributing their ideas to this post. Thanks, too, to Melissa Poll, Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, for her thoughts.

Hot Tips for Surviving as a Parent in Academia:

1. Invest time (and money if you have it) in a good childcare situation (this also goes for pet care or eldercare). It can make your life a LOT easier to have daycare at your institution or in your home neighbourhood. Put your child on waitlists as early as possible. Melissa Poll reminds us that, especially for scholars in contingent positions, childcare can be difficult to afford. She has found it helpful to make friends with other parents and exchange child care. She also recommends, if you can, to ask relatives to help out when you’re approaching a particularly busy time. Relatives love you and your children. They want to see you thrive.

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My youngest son’s daycare graduation last June!

2. Try hard to eat well and get enough sleep. Sounds simple! In reality, it can be a big ask. Heather Fitzsimmons Frey puts it well, “I cannot teach, do research, or parent when I haven’t had enough sleep. . . my children remind me that a lack of sleep is not sustainable.

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Pictures taken on the same day before and after a long nap
(okay, I also used makeup and a filter in the second one, 
but they really were taken on the same day 🙂

3. Make the most of the time you do have. Melissa Poll provides some good examples: “Multi-task. Listen to keynotes, audio books, or academic podcasts while doing the laundry or cleaning that strange stain on the rug. Work when you know your kids will be asleep for a while, whether in the early morning or after bedtime. Make the most of short intervals of free time. Send one email. Mark a paper.”

4. Schedule a specific prep time for your classes and stick to it. Don’t over prepare. The last time I taught Intro to Theatre, I experimented with giving myself a 2.5-hour prep time for a 1-hour session (including responding to student emails and reviewing reflections). It worked very well and my evaluations did not suffer.

legos tully_0-2

Kim recommends pattern teaching prep models: they are a time and life-saver.

5. If you and your partner are both post-secondary instructors, try to organize your schedule so both partners do not start teaching first thing in the morning on the same day. It will make school and daycare drop-offs much less stressful. I find starting work at the same time is fine as there can still be minor flexibility, but starting to teach at the same time creates a cyclone of stress. I try to put a flag in my calendar about 3 months before the start of a new term to work this out with my colleagues (of course this timeline will vary depending on your institution).

6. Have a system for sharing your family members’ schedules. My husband and I both keep Gmail calendars and share them with each other. It saves time as we can quickly check the other’s schedule without having to ask. They also sync with all of our devices. Sharing shopping lists also saves a lot of time and helps with lunches – my family uses the app Our Groceries. My hungry 13-year-old can add things to the list when he finishes them off (which happens often)!!

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My family’s shared shopping list

7. If possible, assert your parenting needs to your administrative staff and Chair. However, give yourself a break for feeling intimidated about doing this too: the more junior you are (especially if you are precariously employed), the more hesitant you might feel to make too many requests. You can always consult your faculty association if you are unsure about what a reasonable request might be. In my case, my husband has worked at his institution much longer than I have at mine, so he is the one to ask for flexibility like shifting his work schedule to accommodate the teaching times I am assigned, or taking time off for sick children.

8. One of my favourite bits of advice, compliments of Katrina Dunn, is: “Only sign your kids up for activities with waiting rooms that have really strong Wi-Fi signals.” This is brilliant. Not only will your kids be happy, you can do work while you wait for them!

9. Take your kids to shows. Get their opinion and perspective. Don’t be afraid to put a TYA show on your syllabus. Take your pre-teen to adult theatre. Talking about theatre with your kids is great practice for class.

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My kids on the set of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver produced by United Players of Vancouver, and directed by my husband, Adam Henderson (my older son saw the show)

10. Have a workspace that is your own. Make it pleasant, desirable, inspiring. Have it filled with things that bring you joy, and are free of your family’s randomly deposited possessions (aka clutter)! Also keep extras there of key items you might forget (glasses, deodorant, toothbrush, medications, phone charger, pens etc.)

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Julia’s favourite office work space!

Finally, with 2020 off to a viral start, my top hot tip for right now: what to do when the flu (or anything flu-like!) strikes. Illness is a real concern if you have young children or if you are caring for anyone immune-compromised (which can often be the case with elderly parents). If students are sick, I ask them to video-chat or phone me instead of coming to my office.

I also have an advance plan for last minute emergencies. Such a plan might include the following:

  • Knowing who you can call if you need a last-minute replacement;
  • Having a backup lecture you could give in your sleep and sub-in if necessary;
  • Creating a reserve, self-directed online module to assign if you need to cancel a class. This could be one that you could sub into any course. (A good example is the assignment I discussed in my previous post, which asks students to design the cell phone of a character in the play they are currently reading.)
  • Work on what moves you. Take a pass on the rest. (Thanks for this reminder Melissa Poll!)
  • When possible and reasonable, be flexible with students – so they will also be flexible with you.
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Now I’m off to let the dogs out, get the after-school snacks ready, check-in by phone on my mom, and then return to a little marking – all while wearing my physio-prescribed leg band to improve my core-strength so my feet hurt less!

Whether you are an instructor who is considering becoming a parent, are in the thick of parenting, have emerged on the other side, or simply want to understand the parent-academic better, I’d be happy to hear your comments, questions, and advice!

If you don’t have children but find some of this advice useful, let me know too. Let’s work together to find ways to improve and refine our teaching while still maintaining our personal health and well-being.

Thanks for reading!