Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Working, Parenting, and Chronic Illness (Part 1)

This week, my spring semester ends.

And while in many ways it was a great semester (engaged, intellectually curious students, new assignments and experiments in the classroom that worked out well), I am profoundly relieved it is over.

I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts about work, parenting, and chronic illness for awhile now; a recent Boston Globe column on working from home only intensified this.

I knew back in December that finding balance would be my main challenge and while I might be self-aware enough to anticipate this, I wasn’t self-aware enough to actually do something about it in time.

During the academic year, I teach a full-time course load, plus other administrative and professional development projects and meetings. I’m also a writer with an impending deadline for an incredibly research-intensive beast of a book. Both are full-time responsibilities.

Like anything, there are compromises and trade-offs to this type of career path, one that is not a traditional office job. I work from home a couple days a week during the year, and work from home full time during summer months. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of working from home in an upcoming post, but the number one benefit of my current career is that it means more time with my daughter than I could ever have in an office job.

(Plus, the health insurance I provide for my family is awesome. Really and truly.)

After all, after working for almost five years and risking my life to have her, I don’t want to miss a thing. This was the promise I made to her and to myself when I went back to work: when I am with her, she gets all of me. No laptop, no hastily typed work e-mails, no frantic checking of the inbox for replies from editors or interviewees or students. I don’t want to be half-present with her and half-present with the other people in my life who need me.

She deserves more than that—and so do my students, and so does my book and all the people who have given me their time and insights during the writing/research process.

Some days (the best days), I am mainly with her. Other days, like when I am on campus, I make sure the mornings and the later afternoons and early evenings are all about her. Luckily, we have had family who have been able to help with watching her some of the time, and a wonderful caregiver some of the time, and the more flexible nature of my work demands means that most of the time, I spend a lot of time with her and make up what I need to do for work at other times in the day. I know we’re fortunate to have help, and I know not everyone does.

In terms of being with her and watching her grow from a precocious 4-month-old just starting to sit on her own to a chatty, giggly little girl who feeds herself and loves turning the pages of her books, in terms of being an active, engaged participant in her everyday life and routines, I have no regrets. I never felt my work took away from her, or took me too far away from her. In this way, my semester was a success.

But, a full-time workload plus a book plus daily chest PT (and all of the logistics of her health needs and doctor appointments) and everything else means that making up what I need to do was pretty challenging. For a lot of the semester, it meant staying up very, very late and getting up hours before my daughter woke up to get stuff done. It meant working almost every single Friday and Saturday night and during weekend mornings and naptimes. And all of that is clearly worth it, because it means I get to pick her up from her crib when she is all smiley and up from her nap, or take her to all her doctor appointments, or watch her devour her sweet potatoes or gluten-free snacks.

However, a schedule like that is not sustainable, not for healthy people and certainly not for people with chronic illness. (Oh, hey, and it goes against practically everything I’ve written about here and in my book, too.) It’s almost May, and the infection I caught at Christmas is still recycling itself through my lungs and upper respiratory tract and causing problems. By February, I started noticing my lung capacity was limited enough that I had a hard time walking through campus and talking at the same time. By March, my adrenals started acting up and some days, my arms and legs were so heavy and concrete-laden I needed a ride to and from work because I couldn’t get myself from my parking garage to my building on the other side of campus.

I realized a bit late in the game that all of this hard work would be for naught if it meant I was too sick to be what my daughter needs from me. Duh, right? My health affects her. What good are the carefully preserved hours with her if I can’t lift her, or take her places, or play games with her?

I’d like to say I had this huge revelation and made all sorts of drastic changes, but responsibilities are what they are. I did need to prioritize even further, though, and that meant letting go of some expectations of how much research and writing I could do during the semester. I don’t get up well before dawn anymore. I try not to schedule activities on both weekend days. I tell myself regularly (no really, I do—I find I have to repeat it to myself) “all you can do is what you can do” and what I can’t get done I leave behind me when I go to bed at night.

My husband, a fantastic father and a wonderful support system, now has a little more flexibility with his time since starting his own business, and that’s made a huge difference. (Even though he’s pulling very long hours himself, it’s amazing how much more time he has to see her now that he doesn’t have an hour-plus commute on the T every day and can walk to his nearby office.)

In the end, I made it. I made certain decisions that upheld certain priorities and I made it through. We made it. Since I don’t plan on ever having a baby and an enormous book due at the same time again, I do think life will be more manageable from here on in. This semester, my body paid some of the price but that means my daughter and my students did not. The beauty of teaching is that next semester, I can try it all over again and hope to do much better at this whole balance thing.

(And between now and then, I’ll finish that book. There’s nothing as clarifying as a deadline…right?)

I know so many of you out there have done this whole working-parenting-being sick juggling act much longer than I have. Any words of wisdom (or, moments of defeat) to share?


Medical Mojave said...

I think chronic illness means we do more sometimes because we are used to feeling like crap and pressing on anyways. Your schedule would destroy a healthy person.

In my opinion, the first year is the most labor intensive and it gradually gets less difficult to balance everything as they get older.

Also, McDonald's playland? Very helpful (in warm months when cold and flu germs aren't lingering around).

At 3 there are usually classes where parents aren't invited to participate so you can bring the laptop and work. Until then it's juggle juggle juggle.

Hope you feel better soon! I can so identify with the adrenal moments. Ugh.


britta said...

I feel as if I am still trying to find that balance in my life. Although I don't have a child, I have some regrets about taking an on-campus job WHILE taking 18 credits. One month left of the semester, and I am still struggling to find that balance.

HealingWell said...

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, kind of doing a check on what I'm doing and where I'm at with chronic illness, work, marriage, kids, etc. It can be a lot to handle. I don't have answers, but I put my thoughts into my blog post today and linked to your great post. ~ Peter

Laurie said...

Thanks, P.O.P. Even with an easygoing baby who sleeps well, it is still certainly labor-intensive. Someone I know mentioned a friend who said she couldn't write until her baby turned two--well, that isn't always an option. If I can just get the adrenals to perk back up, we'll be in good shape! :)

Britta, this whole balance thing has been a challenge for as long as I can remember--I totally hear you. Good luck getting it all done!

Peter, thanks so much for the comment and the link. Will check out your post now...

Patty said...

Motherhood and sacrifice is almost the same word to me.

Yiyelli said...

I know this is an old post but this resonates with me so much. I have a 3 and 6 year old and for the last five Years have had the great fortune of working for a small company where I could work from home and still see my kids at night but due to downsizing I am back on the market and really struggling with my next steps. my rheumatoid arthritis has been on a roller coaster these last few months and really doing some sole searching on working which I need to and love to do and what my health ad family can handle.... So any words of wisdom would be great.

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