Work-Life Juggling, Then and Now

A couple of Mondays ago, I was at work and got the dreaded phone call from day care. "[The Pip]'s got conjunctivitis again. It's really bad, and he needs to go home right away."

Admittedly, this isn't the very worst phone call a parent could receive, but it's very much Not Good. Conjunctivitis means a trip to the doctor for antibiotics and eye drops (which The Pip HATES), and being sent home knocks out not only the rest of that day, but the entire next day, as he has to be on medication for at least 24 hours before he can return to day care.

The call came in around 10:00, and I had a class to teach at 1:50 (our class hours are screwy-- don't ask). So, I went over to day care to collect The Pip, then home with him to watch Disney cartoons on tv. Kate was at work in Albany, but came home at lunchtime to take over with the sick Little Dude, so I could scarf down something to eat, and run over to campus to teach.

The next day, when SteelyKid got on the bus for school, I took The Pip down to Panera for a late breakfast (so we kept to our pattern of getting in the car and leaving when SteelyKid does) and Kate went off to work. My mother came up from Whitney Point for the day (a two-hour drive), getting here around 9:15 or so, when I returned home and handed off The Pip so I could go to Starbucks and get a little bit of writing done. I went and got SteelyKid at around 4 (an hour and a half earlier than usual) so she could see Grandma for a little bit before my mom had to head home.

It was an awkward arrangement, but managed to salvage a small amount of productivity for the day-- better than the absolutely nothing useful that would've gotten done had my mother not been able to come up. We're really amazingly lucky to have supportive family close enough to help out in emergencies-- I don't know how people manage without that extra support network.

I was reminded of this earlier today, when reading the AIP oral history project interview with Vera Rubin, describing how she got her Ph.D. at Georgetown in the 1950's. Her husband Bob worked during the day, while she stayed home with their (then) two children. The astronomy department classes were in the evening, so this was their routine (as described by Rubin):

My husband, at five o'clock, would leave his office in Silver Spring, and he would drive to, oh, somewhere like Georgia and Rittenhouse. He would drive two miles down into Washington, where my parents lived, and he would pick up my mother. She would get into the car with supper for her husband, maybe for her too, and he would drive her to our house. At 5:30, I would have fed the children, and she would get out of the car with her supper. I would get into the car with supper for Bob. He would drive me to Georgetown. Meanwhile, my father would leave his job in downtown Washington and come up to our house where he then would eat with my mother, using the dinner that she had brought, so I didn't have to cook dinner for them.

The classes were in the observatory, which had this little parking lot, a very pretty place, and Bob would sit in the car. I would go into class at six. I would have two classes from six to eight or nine. This was either two nights or three nights a week. I would go to class, and he would eat his dinner — his dinner, his sandwich — and then he would come in and sit in the library or something and work. But that was February '52, and I graduated February '54.

So, you know, it could be a whole lot worse. We have to scramble every now and then when the kids get sick or something comes up suddenly, and the everyday routine gets to be a bit of a grind, but, you know, at least we're not doing this three nights a week.

I suppose there are a bunch of ways to view this as depressing, but I'm choosing to look at it as an example of the power of family. Given the right sort of support network, you can make just about anything work, from the fairly trivial difficulty of one day without the kids, to the more extreme case of needing to shuffle people between houses in order to finish the degree that will let you have the career you want.

(If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to click through to see the cute photo of the Pip playing with my mom a couple of weeks ago...)

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You (and the Rubins)are very lucky to have family relatively nearby. My wife's parents are across the Irish Sea and mine are across the Atlantic -- so we have always gone it alone with our three children. I suspect that our situation is common these days as people tend to be very mobile.

It's not just proximity, it's also having family who are free to do that. My parents are both retired, and willing and able to drive a couple hours on short notice.

I agree that this problem is almost certainly larger than it used to be because of the increased rate of diffusion away from family. And also the even bigger increase in the number of two-career families-- this interview doesn't say anything about what the Rubins did to manage after she graduated, and was working at Georgetown, though presumably things got slightly easier after she learned to drive. Still, I bet there was some weird juggling going on when she was teaching and researching, too.

(A different bio, written by her husband, includes a line about how when she went on observing trips in the 60s, she would cook a large turkey to feed the family while she was gone. And that "This practice ceased when she began returning home to find most of a turkey in the refrigerator." (or something close to that-- I'm not looking up the exact wording).)

It’s not just proximity, it’s also having family who are free to do that.

QFT. Far too many people in this country, including some who appear prosperous, are one missed paycheck away from financial disaster. Grandma could be living down the street, or even in the same house, but if she can't take off work to help with a sick kid, she might as well be on the other side of an ocean when situations like this arise. Chad is admitting that while his Plan B is far from ideal, at least he has one.

when [Vera Rubin] went on observing trips in the 60s, she would cook a large turkey to feed the family while she was gone

This part, at least, has gotten better.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink