Visiting and Family

Family Academic Travel: Australia 2011

Here is a question for academic families. How does an extended visiting gig work when there’s a family?

Some background and context: This is the time of year during which I’m starting to receive notices of interesting and professionally valuable visiting positions that I can apply for. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kyoto all show up as interesting possibilities, and there are probably others around if I were to look very hard (dream gig: Visiting Canterbury Fellowship at Canterbury University).

Now if I’m going to go to Asia to do research for a long time, I’m going to want to bring the family with me. And herein lies the problem. My family quite naturally does not consider my own professional development to be a personally valuable thing. JMP works, and she has her friends here in Ithaca, and whatever the costs of living in the middle of nowhere, there’s no doubting that we’ve found it a great place for making friends with other young families.

Now, of course little EP and his soon-to-arrive baby sister can tough it out in foreign schools for a couple months. It’d be good for them, no doubt, to learn some Japanese or Cantonese in the playground. And I dream of taking EP to have his first tonkotsu ramen and banana leaf rice and for tea at the Peninsula. But JMP? How is it fair to uproot her from her work and her social network so that I can go develop professionally? There’s just about nothing, I think, worse than sitting in an apartment, halfway across the world from your friends, alone except for a toddler. I felt bad enough in Canberra for five weeks. JMP has never complained, not once, because she’s a superhero. But me, I think about it a lot, especially when she asks me what happened at work today and I say “well, you know, there’s this dynamite visiting scheme at ARI that just came up and….”

So I want to know, academic families. How do you do it? What’s the secret? Or maybe is there no secret: is the idea just that being an academic spouse is like being a military spouse, so someone’s career and social life are inevitably forced to play second fiddle and that’s just one of the trials that come with the job? I’d like to know.

PS: I think that this counts as mommy blogging. I always found that term a bit gender-normative, frankly.

Comments 6

  1. David June 25, 2012

    Secret? Being on leave is the best chance to balance family and work. Getting away from dissertation students, teaching, and committee work lets you focus more on research and family. Obviously there are inconveniences, but the most precious commodity is time. So for us, going on sabbatical was a fantastic chance to spend time with the kids.

  2. Tom June 25, 2012

    You’re suggesting that JMP will enjoy my sabbatical leave because she’ll get to spend more time with me? Call me skeptical that that’s a winning argument.

    KIDDING! That actually is really a great benefit for a two-professor couple. But for someone without a prof’s schedule, the problem isn’t exactly that she doesn’t get enough time with the family at home.

  3. Kim Yi Dionne June 25, 2012

    When we went to Malawi for 7 months so I could do dissertation research, we were able to afford a live-in nanny (and she became a part of the family). Having a nanny gave my spouse time to do what he wished. That included reading and writing. Since he was also a Ph.D. student, these were things he wanted/needed to do. He also managed to find a part-time position lecturing (for free) at the university.

    It depends on what JMP does. I think my JMW managed because he had things to do and we could afford help (our daughter was 14months old when we landed). You might think of us as something akin to a two-professor couple (we were not employed back then), but his interests are in the humanities with no ties whatsoever to Malawi. Though I thought that would be a problem, we made it work.

  4. Tom June 26, 2012

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Kim! Those are great comments. When JMP and I first ventured into the field in 2004-5 she was able to attach herself to several informal jobs. No kids, so we didn’t have or need a nanny. If we were to go to HK or Singapore we could probably afford a nanny (probably, incidentally, an Indonesian) for the kids, so it would free her up.

    But the thing is, JMP is a musician. So on one hand, she can be unemployed anywhere, but on the other hand, it means that the value that she derives from work is different from how it is for you and me. And what that means, too, is that her social network is really critical for her as a young mother with a job that pays some bills but is not really her identity (the way mine is). I’d be concerned that a long trip to a big city would actually be really lonely for her.

  5. Jessica June 27, 2012

    I agree, this is a hard thing. For OAL and I, we are both academics and conceivably could travel together except our leave years don’t align. So I find myself in the position of saying “why don’t I take your newborn son (due in one month!) away for a year to do this fellowship that would benefit me professionally but have really negative consequences for our family life?!” Obviously a no-go. So we will have to find ways to travel together over summers etc which isn’t the same research-wise but more realistic family-wise. In your situation, I would just let JMP pick the spots she would like to visit that might also advance her professional career – like learning to play the erhu in Hong Kong! 😉 But it does always feel like one career ends up taking precedence, I am just hoping that we can find ways to alternate the dominant career over time so we both win and lose!

  6. Tom June 27, 2012

    Thanks for the comments, Jessica. It’s so interesting (and I guess saddening too) to hear how many people have been facing the same challenges that we have. I’ll run the erhu example by her of course!

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