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A Really Busy Person's Guide to Work-Life Balance

Women working the highly pressured field of neuroscience share what their studies -- and their lives -- have taught them about work-life balance.

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When it comes to who has the toughest work-life balance challenges small business owners might plausibly make a case for a top slot, but academic scientists are right there with them. A highly competitive work environment, long hours, and frequently moves between cities and institutions are all part of the game, so how do the women who take up these sorts of careers manage to balance them with a happy home life?

And better yet, how do women who study the human brain manage their lives so that they work for their professional ambitions as well as the peculiarities of the wiring in our heads?

That’s the premise of a long round up advice from female neuroscientists on the blog of the University of Washington’s Fairhall Lab.

Some Cliches Are Correct…

… it does in fact take a village, the women agree, but our modern views of childrearing sometimes keep us from embracing help. "Throughout most of history, there were many people who played a role in the raising of each child. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, sisters, brothers and whoever happened to be standing around. It’s the natural way of doing things, except that we live at a funny cultural moment wherein that normally collective job largely falls on the shoulders of one person: the mum," explains Anne Churchland of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories.

“When my children were first born, I drafted complicated schedules wherein my husband and I could offset our work hours to minimize the time our son would be in the care of others. This was fine, but we also minimized time with each other, and my life got much easier when I accepted the fact that, realistically, I needed a lot of help. A LOT,” she concludes and the other commentators largely agree: fighting the cultural pressure that causes mothers to feel guilty for leaving their kids in the care of others leads to happier parents and better socialized kids.

Having Money Matters

This may seem obvious, but all the talk of optimal schedules and choosing caregivers can mask the brutal truth we all know but sometimes fail to mention -- the more money you make, the easier it is to manage the juggle. "Spend money on services," recommends Ila Fiete, a professor of neurobiology at University of Texas, Austin. "Hire babysitters, house cleaners, gardeners, lawn mowing services, any logistical help you can manage to outsource... I cannot recommend this more highly."

For academics the takeaway from coming to terms with this reality is simple: advocate for yourself. "Ask for raises because childcare is expensive," says Catherine Carr, a biology professor at the University of Maryland. Leslie Vosshall of The Rockefeller University is equally blunt: "Earn enough money to make all this work. Children are expensive." For small business owners who have no one but themselves to appeal to, it may be worth taking a hard look at how you price your products and whether you can squeeze any more profit out your business -- even if that means a bit more time away from your family.

Your Kids Can Be a Help Not a Hurdle

This is a big one and comes up again and again in the women’s responses. Yes, of course, kids are demanding, but depending on how you raise them, they can also be a big asset in your struggle to fit it all in. "When time is tight, it’s so easy to just do everything for kids rather than teach them or wait for them to do it slowly. But if you don’t give them the time they need to become independent, they will stay dependent and that is much more frustrating in the long run," says Gwenn Garden, a professor of neurology at University of Washington, Seattle. "I heard the suggestion about storing plates and cups in low cabinets and drawers from an older woman scientist several years ago and immediately implemented it for my step-daughters. At age 5, my daughter already helps empty the dishwasher, gets her own cups of water and helps get everything ready for breakfast." This approach doesn’t just make parents’ lives easier, the women note, it also boosts kids’ confidence.  

"Children today are all geniuses. It’s amazing! Their parents tell you how they can count to 100 at age 4 or play symphonies at age 3 or read Shakespeare at age 5. A miracle! However, these geniuses are almost uniformly clueless about how to load the dishwasher, put away laundry or make a sandwich," observes Churchland, who notes that "parents are usually aware of this fact and frustrated by it- who wouldn’t like a little help around the house? But the parents of the geniuses devote all their parental resources to cultivating the genius and far fewer resources towards skills that would actually be of use. Cultivating useful skills does take time and thought, but the payoff is huge!"

Ignore Others’ Judgements

"Try not to waste time worrying about what your senior colleagues think," advises Garden, who came to this realization after she noticed sensible people don’t obsess over their colleagues’ arrangements: "I couldn’t remember much about my colleagues actions like whether or not the were regularly present and departmental functions or faculty meetings or did their ‘fair share’ of administrative or teaching responsibilities. The only things I remembered was the last time they presented their research or the buzz around a high impact publication. Once I realized this, it became easier to avoid, say no to and/or leave in the middle of a lot of things when what I would rather be with my husband and daughter."  

It’s also important not to judge yourself. "No matter what, be gentle with yourself.  As women, we are often our own harshest critics," says UC Berkeley’s Marla Feller.

And a Final Bit of Advice…

If your husband or partner isn’t as helpful with logistics as you want him to be, the University of Washington’s Adrienne Fairhall says you should try to be understanding. His brain is most likely to blame: "My husband’s inability to do family logistics is, I have learned, not universally but statistically significantly gender-characteristic and is not to be attributed to personal failings."

This may seem like a lot of advice but the scientists were all generous enough to provide lengthy responses, so there’s much more to read in the complete post if you’re interested.

Do you agree with all this advice? What would you add? 

Last updated: Sep 26, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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