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Friday, July 4, 2008

Graying the Boundaries

I've been going through one of those periods when it feels like there are just not enough hours in the day. Maybe you know the feeling- one minute it's a bright, clean morning and you're setting out the tasks for the day and suddenly you look up at the clock and it's time to hightail it home to make dinner and take on the Mom Mantle. It's frankly always a relief to come home, even if kids are arguing, husband is at a late meeting, dog has eaten a sandal, and I forgot to thaw the fish for dinner; being home is so grounding after a day spent in the Dean's office dealing with angry faculty members and students who have missed well-publicized deadlines- it reminds me of why I do all the work I do, and connects me with the people (and dog) I care about most.

Having said all that, re-entry into the home environment means, ideally, leaving the work world at work. That was my promise to myself a while back, designed to reduce the stress of work by compartmentalizing it completely. In theory, this is a great black-and-white approach, but the reality is that it does not work for me. Balance in this case is defined by the trade-offs I've chosen to make to get what I need at work and at home. A caveat here is that the world was much easier when I was "just a faculty member" because I truly controlled much of my own schedule. As an Associate Dean, however, I have far fewer degrees of freedom in my daily schedule; there are numerous "thou shalt attend" meetings, retreats, task forces, reports with tight deadlines, and committee meetings that are non-negotiable. Given all that, I've grayed my thinking and, frankly, learned to get it all done with less stress.

For example:

Ideal World: When I am home, I never do email or work- I am fully engaged with my family at all times when at home.

Real World Need: My husband and I feel strongly that our kids be home in the afternoons with one of us. To make this happen, I need to get home in time to pick my kids up from school at 3:20 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (My husband does Monday and Wednesday and we trade off alternate Fridays).

"Thinking Gray" Compromise: On Tuesday and Thursday, my husband takes my kids to school, and I get into the office by 7am. That lets me leave by 2:45 to get the kids, and then I log in and catch up on email for an hour when I get home. Then I stop working, make dinner, have dinner with my family, spend some time hanging out with my kids and husband, putting kids to bed, and then I log back in and work for another couple of hours (usually less than that) before I go to bed.

This actually works really well. and on my husband's pick up days I let him get out early. It's not perfect, and we refer to it as a "house of cards" because when one variable changes, we have to regroup and make it work. After 10 years of this, however, we've pretty much got it down, and it always seems to work out.

The older I get, the more flexible I become (Thank God) about what is enough, what is "have to", and what is worth getting my dander up about. Thinking gray about partitioning my time, while still making sure I *do* get time to just be a Mom, a wife, a daughter, and a Professor, has made me much happier and less self-critical. All that helps me work more effectively at the University and be a more patient, engaged, and present participant in all parts of my life, even when the house of cards tilts and part of it falls apart- sooner or later we find a way to put the cards back together.

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