Lots of Work, but No Less Play: Observations on Academic Worklife and Personal Happiness

Every once in a while a student who’s considering going in to academia asks me how I manage to maintain a happy work/life balance.  I certainly don’t feel like an expert, but I am happy. But he first answer to that question has little to do with me:  find a partner who supports you and likes seeing you happy.
Rob and I got married very young. We were both sophomores in college, both enjoying college, and both invested in a long haul, education-wise. We were also both youngest children, so a friend of mine who was interested in Birth Order and personality warned us that “Two youngest children will spend each other in to the ground.”
I suppose he wasn’t wrong.  We’re still paying off student loans, even as our children get ready for college. What we both brought to the relationship, whether from birth order or some other reason, was a conviction that we deserved to be happy, and joy at seeing the other person happy. That was enough to be getting on with.
Some of the ways that has been borne out over the years are by spoiling ourselves and each other by spending money on our respective hobbies. One of the vows we wrote in to our wedding ceremony was “to encourage each other’s development as an individual, through all the years and changes of our lives.” One thing about getting married at 19: growing up and changing needs to be understood and embraced. He plays WarHammer, a game which involves dropping a ton of cash on plastic bits you can’t even play with until you’ve built and painted them. It also means I happily spend $20 on a single stamp set, seeing it as an investment in my future happiness.

It also means we’re protective of each other’s time. He’s quick to point out that a free weekend is sometimes worth more (cosmically) than what I would make grading Graduate Writing Tests, and I was overjoyed when my raise meant he could drop a class at the school that was both farthest away and the least fun for him.

Mostly, though, it means we have each other’s back in terms of support. When he’s got grading to do, I safeguard his time by picking up slack around the house. When I have something to write, he packs the kids off to Magic Mountain for the day.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about this is not how stinking lucky I am (I am—I’m aware!), but how this balance happened in a single generation.  My mom was delighted to be a Stay At Home Mom, and my dad was delighted to be a Provider.  But somehow as they raised me, it never occurred to me not to work outside the home. And Rob, who was raised by a single mom, always knew he wanted to be an involved dad.
Maybe that’s a place to start, or in my case, end—start from the understanding that you need to work—to contribute—but with the knowledge that a) there are different kinds of work, and home-making counts, and b) if you work at something you love, you’re already halfway to balance.  Second, remember that no matter how much you love your job, it is a job.  As such it supports your life, but is not your life.  This is the difference between living to work and working to live, right?  You owe it to yourself and to your family to have a full, happy home-life, and if you have kids, to model that for them.
And then, if you can, get on the Scheduling Committee, so you can write your own schedule. 😏
PS:  The Robbian Corollary to Work/Life Balance requires far fewer words.  He believes you need to be challenged to be happy, but also supported.  So the best way to do that is to have a demanding, challenging job and a relaxed, happy home.  Hard Job/Easy Home, rather than Easy Job/Hard Home.  I could be wrong, but I expect that’s his advice for everything from choosing a career to choosing a partner to the Grand Secret of Happiness on Earth.  He’s much more succinct (and dramatic) than I.

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