Pushing the juggling metaphor a little further.

An old friend turned up to comment on my post about juggling, and as a woman in academia she has some familiarity with the metaphor and with the reality it's supposed to capture. She writes:

The department chair when I was hired ... suggested that although we're juggling lots of balls, the ball representing our families and home life is made of glass. I COULD take that as a message that taking care of my family is my most important job (and my work is not? grrr.) but I think he meant it more as that part of our lives outside of work supports our lives IN work, and if that one cracks, it's all going to break down.

I'm thinking that, if we wanted to untangle just what the department chair meant by this metaphor, we'd need to know whether he told new hires who were male that they would have to juggle a bunch of balls, and that the one representing their families an home life was made of glass. As it happens, I don't think authorial intent is all that important here.

Does the life outside of work support our lives in work? It can. Certainly, it's nice to have a place to go every evening where people love you just because they do (rather than because you've hit a certain enrollment goal or graded a stack of exams). A home life can help you keep things in perspective by reminding you that the universe is bigger than what's going on at work.

But let's not kid ourselves. There's plenty of work that comes out of our home lives. The garden needs watering (and weeding), the clothes need laundering, the meals need cooking, the dishes need washing, homework must be supervised, soccer practices must be coached, and kids of a certain age must be ferried to all the commitments not in walking distance.

Some of us are even a little happy when Monday rolls around.

To my mind, for many of us, it is too simple to say that our lives outside of work support our lives in work. It is also true that our lives in work support our lives outside of work. Here, I don't mean "support" in the sense of work providing us with clean shirts or packed school lunches. My work life gives me a perspective on the world, and an understanding of myself and my capacities, that lets me be a better parent and partner than I could be if being a parent and partner were my only job.

The juggling act, for those of us with career and family balls in play, doesn't work if either crashes to the ground.

There's something to the metaphor of the home life ball being made of glass and the work ball being made of something else that I think suggests the need to be aware of which ball it is you're about to catch at any given time. You need a different touch to successfully catch a glass ball than you do to catch a ball made of rubber or wicker or brass. Often, there is a "changing of gears" necessary to shift from work-head to home-head. If you skip the step of making this shift, you can end up flailing at first.

But if we want to juggle different kinds of things in our lives, the awareness of how those slices of our experience are different from each other is part of the fun: the feel of the delicate crystal, the fresh firm apple, or the taped grip of the flaming club as we confidently catch it and then send it back up.

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I discovered you this past weekend and really enjoy reading your pieces and the ensuing exchanges. I can't quite remember, but I think I found you through a link to the science and ethics piece that came in via an e-mail message.

As far as juggling goes... As a scientist and full professor, now a couple of decades into my career, I have learned how to juggle reasonably well. I just wish I would learn how to say "no" more often! It seems that the better I get at juggling the more requests I get. A former colleague once said "If you want something done, ask a busy person."

First, let me say I love what you are doing with this metaphor of juggling.

Second, about that idea of life outside work supporting our lives IN work...if that's what the department chair really intended to convey, he ought to be smacked. Our families and significant others don't exist just to keep us functional for our employers. That perspective implies that work, after all, really is the most important of all the balls you're juggling, and everything else matters only inasmuch as it helps you keep the work ball up in the air. Bleah!