Work/Life: A Balancing Act

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Balancing Act

Is shopping period over yet? Nine classes are still hanging around on your OCS schedule worksheet. Hitting the refresh button on your Gmail isn’t revealing anything about that wait-listed seminar. And on top of all this, someone may need to call a search and rescue unit to track down an advisor to sign your schedule, however hazy the final product may be.

Shopping period is about scheduling more than classes. There’s the attempt to get ahead on the reading—maybe—after you finally “get the meal” that never happened last semester. There are those tempting flyers advertising THIS COOL EVENT NOW, with pizza, and THAT THING LATER, free Ashley’s. All the world seems to be buzzing around the hot and hectic, aren’t-we-the-chummiest-group-of-them-all, battle royale of panlist sign-ups called the Extracurricular Bazaar. There, the countless activities Yale boasted about during the admissions tour come back to haunt us, and hunt us out.

A new semester offers the chance to figure it out again. To decide how much time you can devote to section, a job, Bass, the treadmill, or analyzing your suitemate’s new love interest. As Yale students try to move the golden scales towards a healthy “work-life” balance, we find ourselves in one of the most overloaded and tense times of the year.

Although each Yale student makes an individual choice when it comes to balancing life’s demands and desires, each choice is taking place within this practice round for adulthood. What we learn here about work-life balance will be influential when the work portion comes, hopefully, with a paycheck.

“Wasting Time Every Once and a While”

In order to talk about “work-life” balance, we must define it. The very term “work-life balance” implies that there is an inherent separation between what is “work” and what is “life.” An interpretation of the term “work-life” could be stretched to imply that when one is “working,” one is not quite “living.” Of course, in many cases, the same kind of pleasure experienced in the “life” end of the bargain can be drawn from activities categorized under “work.”

Issa Saunders ’15 wrote in an email, “I feel like at the moment my work and my life are intertwined. I don’t think they oppose each in a way that would constitute a “balance.” I think Yalies do what they love and love what they do. At any given time, any one aspect of what we do can feel like “work” but I think overall we just enjoy our lives.”

In the same way that work can be fun, fun can become work. Jessica Lopez ’15 gave important advice that should be obvious, but often isn’t.

“You should pick extracurriculars that are fun, because that’s the point,” she said. “At the same time, I wish I had more time hanging out and doing the social thing. But, I don’t want to just be sitting in my suite doing nothing.”

Lopez explained that when she became more involved in extracurriculars the second semester of her freshman year, she became anxious that she would become stressed. Like many other students interviewed, she discovered that being busier made her more productive.

“I did better in my classes, and hung out more with my friends. When you need to get stuff done, you do it faster,” she said.

On the other hand, Lucia Huang ’14, President of the Women’s Leadership Initiative and Chief Marketing Officer of Smart Woman Securities, explained that she has to allow herself to “waste time every once and a while.”

“For example, just last night I ended up having a two-hour conversation with my suitemates about life. Even though we all knew that we had readings and emails and problem sets to do, I think it was healthy for us to ‘waste’ time and just enjoy each other’s company.”

Students suggested that scheduling got easier as they got older. Sathian said that she has modified her priorities as she approached her senior year. “I think the biggest thing that I started doing is trying to just have unstructured time with friends. It is easy to schedule meal or coffee and it is harder when you don’t have an end time.”

Working hard, playing hard

In a survey of over 500 undergraduates conducted for this article, an anonymous participant commented, “Shopping period is not a good time to ask people how anxious they feel about their schedules. It will not accurately reflect the normal stress levels of the student body.”

Jane Fisher ’14, a member of YaleDancers, a student employee at the Film Studies Center and a program assistant at the McDougal Center, spoke to this point. She said that planning rehearsals alongside class time and work shifts makes for one of the most difficult parts of the semester.

Yet the survey results suggested a different story. Only six percent of respondents said they felt “very anxious” about their daily schedules. About fifty percent responded that they were either “somewhat anxious,” with the rest feeling “neither anxious nor relaxed” to “very relaxed.” It seems like most students are somewhere in the middle of the road — certainly not lounging around, but also not terrified of the coming semester.

These responses make sense, given that participants’ evaluations of their own success in finding a work-life balance were generally positive. Additionally, most students indicated that they observed other Yalies in general to be “somewhat” to “very successful” in managing a work-life balance. Everyone’s got it figured out, almost.

These were the results from an anonymous survey. Many students interviewed expressed the opinion that they managed to set a healthy schedule, while they felt the general population was overbooked.

“We certainly have a lot of overachievers here,” said Tessa Berenson ’14, “I think I try to do a good job balancing fun and work. I know I need some time to relax and I think I do that better than the general campus. I still work like anyone else.”

Perhaps the discrepancy can be attributed to a knee-jerk reaction to the question of comparison. When asked in person, people immediately compared themselves against the extreme cases, pointing to those who have practically sold their souls to this very publication, or adversely a frat-star neighbor who only seems to leave FIFA for the occasional trip to Viva’s.

The survey suggests that students are aware that even in extreme cases everyone is navigating through what Bryan Epps ’14, events director for the Yale College Council, called Yale’s “work-hard play-hard environment.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘Wow, that person really has it together.’ But, you don’t know the methods people have for doing the things they do. My guess would be that everyone has an attempt at balance and everyone does their own thing,” said Sanjena Sathian ‘13, former editor of the Yale Globalist, “There is a huge chunk of time that you don’t see the people that go out every weekend. You don’t see the hours they spend studying at lunch, maybe at odd times during the week. We do not see this because it occurs in their private spaces.”

Higher Stakes

When considering the culture of “work-life” balance for Yale students, it is important to take into account the influence of the faculty’s example and Yale’s policies on an administrative level. This is especially true when considering questions of work-family.

Yale’s residential college system is unique in that some of our administrators, our masters and deans, live among us. Students become familiar with the sight of faculty’s children and grandchildren riding their tricycles in the courtyard or skipping through the dining hall. A master or dean’s professional and family lives are often fundamentally mixed given their living situation.

Many college websites proudly display photographs of the deans’ and masters’ children. In most cases, children are included in the long list of a master or dean’s accolades.

“Things work best when [work and life] are as seamless as possible. For instance, we love to share the joy of our grandchildren with the Silliman community,” Master Judith Krauss wrote in an email. “Many students know the children by name and will stop by to play with them in the courtyard. Some students know that I’ve been struggling to help my aging mother adjust to a new living situation. I think students appreciate seeing me and my husband as real people, embedded in multiple communities, and working to balance it all.”

Facilitating the families of its employees is a Yale administrative priority. In both 2010 and 2011, Working Mother magazine named Yale as one of the “100 Best Companies” in the nation. Working Mother praised Yale for its employee benefits and aspects of Yale’s Worklife Program. Worklife, a program run by the Department of Human Resources, exists to “help faculty and staff to balance the multiple responsibilities associated with work, academic, and personal life,” according to the program’s website. Worklife offers classes ranging from Yoga classes to parents’ reviews of New Haven schools.

“As a professor in public health, I have found Yale’s policies to be supportive of work-life balance,” Branford’s Master Elizabeth Bradley wrote in an email. “I have had wonderful department heads and deans, who have allowed flexibility in my face-time hours and in total hours at different times of my career.”

“When I had small children, I remember that reducing the number of days I worked was completely acceptable, and when I wanted to leave at 3 p.m. to pick up the kids at school, no one blinked an eye. The registrar even rescheduled my teaching, so it would occur all on a couple of days when I had family to watch the kids.”

Crystal Feimster, the mother of two sons and director of undergraduate studies for the African American Studies Department, has also had a positive experience as a working mother on the Yale faculty. She said that although balancing her family and her career can be a challenge, she is lucky that her husband is committed to equal care. Her husband, Daniel Botsman, is a professor in the Department of History and chair of the Council of East Asian Studies.

She explained that as a team, the two are committed to at least one parent being home by mid-afternoon to pick their son up from school. Therefore, they try to schedule classes, meetings with students, and faculty meetings in the mornings. They also make sure that they teach on alternating days.

“That way, one of us is not going to have to cancel class to take to our son to the doctors. You can’t really do that with other professions. A doctor or a lawyer can’t just be on call Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our situation is really ideal in some ways, [for] a two career family.”

Professors Feimster and Botsman once taught in the same department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. There, faculty meetings were held in the afternoons and consequently, she and her husband had to make clear to the department chair that they would take turns missing meetings. Professor Feimster pointed out that faculty meetings in the African American Studies Department and the Program in American Studies at Yale are around noon or lunchtime to accommodate for family life.

“Every week we look at the schedule and if there are more than two days in the week that the nanny has to stay until five, then we make different choices. Sometimes I miss dinners with my colleagues. But, sometimes it’s nice to just be home with my kids. I like to be able to give my kids a bath and put them to bed,” Feimster said.

Feimster said that over the past decade, universities in general have become better about parental leave, especially the inclusion of paternity leave. For example, Professor Tamar Szabo Gendler, chair of the Philosophy Department, said that when her now 15-year-old son was born, she did not get parental leave from her job at Syracuse University. She said that she has observed relatively flexible parental leave policies at Yale. She attributed the difference not to the schools policies per se, but to a change in attitudes over time.

Like Professor Feimster, Professor Gendler’s husband is also a professor at Yale. The two work hard to coordinate schedules for their children. Now that her children are older, Professor Gendler says they spend time on Yale’s campus. She said she has tried to create an atmosphere within the Department of Philosophy that simultaneously remains professional and allows for graduate students or professors to feel comfortable bringing their children if it makes them more able to participate.

Both Feimster and Gendler pointed out that professors don’t just have to juggle their work and family life. Many faculty members have different demands, such as caring for aging parents or other commitments within the community.

“Academics can be workaholics,” Feimster said. “For me, work-life balance is about family. Not everyone has a family, but that doesn’t mean that one should be working 24 hours a day. Work-life balance is not just family-centered but can center around creating a healthy life.”

Students interviewed generally said they were not having conversations about work-life balance with their professors, but had positive responses to professors who opened up the “life” side to their students.

Liana Epstein ’14, on the varsity women’s cross country team, wrote in an email, “I think the best professors I’ve had are not those that just talk about their research and are excited about their “work” in isolation … The strict academics who one might assume spend little time with their families, pursuing hobbies, or relaxing, are undoubtedly brilliant, but less successful at invigorating their pupils.”

“The most important lesson is probably that things are rarely “in balance” and we all need to learn to set priorities and make adjustments,” Master Krauss wrote. “We also need to take time for ourselves doing whatever brings pleasure and stress reduction… The hope is that students see us living our lives and take something from that.”

Looking to the future

This summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and a former Obama administration official, wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” an essay in The Atlantic that saw much buzz across the Internet. Drawing much controversy, she argued that society’s structure makes it impossible to be doting mothers and top professionals simultaneously.

Raising children is an unthinkable responsibility compared to the varied commitments of the average Yale student. Yet Slaughter’s article brings up interesting questions about how much one can handle, even with smaller stakes.

“I think Yale is preparing me really well to deal with the stresses of the real world,” Berenson said, “Here we get to try it out and try out own organizational habits, and with relatively little pressure.”

“I think college is where we learn a lot of the extremes of our personality because we are in extreme conditions,” Sathian said, “If I’m ever in a career that is really high paced, it is good to know that I can still have friends and be mentally and physically healthy in as an intense environment as school.”

Caroline Smith ’14, Junior Class Council President, said she believes that the kind of blend between work and play that happens on campus is also happening within careers. “We seem to be moving into a culture where what we do with our careers is fundamentally in line with what we believe in and what we love,” she wrote in an email

Alex Ratner ’14, who sings in the Duke’s Men, wrote of a similar hope. “I think that for the immediate future, as well as in my 20s, the ‘life’ that I’m experiencing at Yale in terms of theater/music will (hopefully) become my ‘work,’ and so ideally I won’t feel too much of a separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’ down the road. I don’t anticipate having to choose between a career and a family — I want both.”

Although a vast majority of students surveyed demonstrated that “work-life” balance would be very important to future professional lives, the survey shows that most students “somewhat anticipate” having a job that will make it difficult to fulfill personal and familial commitments.

However, when asked directly in interviews about the possibility of managing a family and professional life, students often responded that they had not considered these questions yet.

“I haven’t thought much about a family life. Part of being college age is being very selfish, so it’s not something I have started to consider,” Epps said.

“It is hard to picture because I can’t see myself with a family because I am so young. It is so hard to choose a hypothetical family over all the things you want to do,” Lopez said.

The fact that both males and females are not extremely worried about the work-family balance indicates a fairly recent change. In 2006, a controversial story ran in the New York Times, largely based on the author’s assertion that many young women in the Ivy League anticipated leaving a career to become mothers. In response, Christine Slaughter and Tina Wu wrote a piece for the YDN titled “Kids, career trade-off remains a hot topic.” They wrote that the Yale Undergraduate Work-Life Balance Survey had found that “no difference was found in the degree to which male versus female undergraduates value both family and career.”

Today, the recent survey leads to similar conclusions. However, the topic of family-work life balance has seemed to cool off, a problem looming in a far off future.

Daryl Hok ’14 said that when he starts a family depends on the demands of his career. “If I don’t have time for the family, then I wouldn’t start a family.”

“I do foresee that choice in the very distant future. Even though women have made great strides in the workforce, I think the career versus family struggle still exists,” Lucia Huang wrote in an email. “I tell myself that if I work hard enough now and make the right career choices, that when the time comes for a family, I’ll be in a career where I’m in the position to have some flexibility with my schedule for my family and that I’m in a work environment that supports that.”

Many students said that their ideas about their future options are often based on the examples of their own parents.

“I definitely anticipate choices. The biggest example I have is from my own life. My mom put her career as a professor on hold when she had me. Now she is up for tenure. If she had stayed full-time, she would have already gone through the process a long time ago,” Fisher said. “Having babies is obviously always a huge time commitment when it comes time to have a family. It’s going to have to come at a certain cost to my career.”

Berenson sees it differently. Although her mother became a stay at home mom, she believes that she will be able to find a compromise within her career.

“My mom has always been a stay at home mom. I’ve always assumed I would be because that’s what she is. It wasn’t a hard decision for her. I really value having my mom at home,” Berenson said. “It is not something I’m worried about. It is balancing two good things. A career I love, and a family.”

So we put down this paper or our laptops and choose between something a little less lofty, beginning the first problem set or another Youtube video. The Blue Book does not offer Time Management 101. We learn that from example, from our own trial and sleepy error. But maybe the ways in which we learn to fill the shortest, gladdest years of life will help us to fill in the rest of them.

“Balancing the commitments and obligations of being a Yale student is a unique challenge,” Fisher said. “Classes are not one monolithic thing. Each class is its own beast. I hope this is the busiest I’ll ever be. Who knows if it is sustainable?”

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