Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Break Confession

When my daughter was in preschool, her spring break week was the same as that of the university and we used to go on family trips for part of the week. Once she started elementary school, her spring break and her parents' spring break went out of phase and we shifted our family trips to the winter break (in addition to summer trips).

That means during my spring break I stay on campus and have a week filled with (relatively) uninterrupted days to get caught up, to work on papers and proposals, and to recharge for the rest of the academic year. I love that week.

BUT, here is a typical conversation I have numerous times every year at a certain time:

Other person: Does your spring break coincide with your daughter's?

FSP: No, they are always different weeks.

Other person: Oh, that's too bad.

FSP when feeling reckless: No, it's not. It's great. I love having a week to read and think and write and be in the lab.

FSP when not wanting to deal with the usual frowny face, taken-aback, you-are-a-scary-scary-person (and possibly a Bad Mother) response: Yeah, it is.

What is really too bad is that I don't always feel comfortable admitting how much I like working in my office over spring break, but if the person to whom I am speaking doesn't know me well, I might not have the time or inclination to explain the overall context of my life so that they can understand why I am not necessarily a scary scary monomaniacal child-neglecting research person, e.g. (1) We go on lots of family trips, just not that particular week; (2) My daughter is a very happy and interesting person who is glad that her mom loves her work; and (3) I love my work.

Of course, when my daughter's spring break rolls around, we have a bit of a challenge. Depending on our teaching schedules, conference schedules, and so on, some or all of us go on a trip for part of that week, or one of the Insane Grandmas helps out, and somehow we manage (and typically manage to enjoy that week as well).


Alyssa said...

I hear ya - it seems whatever you say someone will thing "oh, she's a bad mom" or "oh, she doesn't value her work". Sigh. Sometimes I wish people would just either mind their own business, or at least respect the business of others.

Anonymous said...

Conferences now bring me the same nirvana as spring break seems to bring you, but I'd argue even better since there is no interruption possible (except maybe housekeeping). I get more done in a few hours each morning over room service coffee and breakfast than I do in a normal week. I still try to attend 4-6 hours a day of technical stuff at the conference, but find that a few hours in the morning does help me catch up in a way that nothing else can.

Kim said...

The preschool that my son went to used the same schedule as the public schools, so I've been juggling childcare on his break for five years now. (On my spring break, I normally grade papers in a coffee house.)

Starting next year, the college and schools will have the same spring break. I'm glad that I won't have to scramble to take care of him while I'm teaching, but I'm not sure how I'll get my grading done during my spring break.

Anonymous said...

I never had spring break in elementary school or high school. I didn't know that any kids get them before college. Maybe it's because we would usually have many snow days during the winter and the school board didn't want us in school until July.

Mickey Schafer said...

Michael Neilson left a delicious link to Neil Stephenson, a fiction writer (whose work I don't know:, and I highlighted the following paragraph for myself -- explains how I often feel when faced with the constant challenge of working whilst mothering and why days off are spent in the glorious luxury of uninterrupted work time:
"Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can't concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can't do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless."

me said...

girl, don't feel bad... i LOVE to have mommy time and i don't consider myself a bad mom at all... so you shouldn't either.

i think that parents who spend too much time NOT focusing on themselves a really not giving their kids their fullest, seriously. it is extremely healthy to show your children that you love your job and what you do. in addition, it's great for your kids to see that mommy/daddy has things they like to do also.

basically, my kids see that i like to sew, knit, read, hike and all sorts of other things (in addition to work) that i enjoy doing. and they ask me about them. i teach them stuff. they learn things. we both grow.

it's natural for you to enjoy your work and even more natural to enjoy that free time to be consumed by it.

ok, done rambling.

i've always enjoyed your blog, btw... just don't really comment much.


Anonymous said...

My confession: I wish I were in my office catching up all this spring break. Instead we decided to potty train our daughter... I can't wait for this week to be over, and I can go back to work and my husband gets to deal with this himself.

Anonymous said...

Hey, can we all send a big kudos to your daughter for being a happy kid who supports her mom and dad? And, this isn't meant as a bad mom comment; clearly one of the things that works in your family is your own kid's personality. Remember the quote from someone who said that if you asked a kid whether they'd prefer that their mom was miserable next door, or very happy, but much further away, they'd pick the miserable mom? It's nice to know that not all kids are like that. Some of them prefer the independence of not having a hovering mother (but not all of them).

Anonymous said...

I love working and doing science and I enjoy my time with kids as wll. Being unemployed, I though it would be horrible for me to sit home, but nope, its fun to be with kids as well, to watch them grow, to share lots of small moments with them, and yeah, I think I am more close to my kids during last 6 months when I am not stressed out. and in some time when I will be back to work and my kids will be grown up, I will look back this time with cherish. I think key is to enjoy whatever life throws at you and make your way towards your goal. That makes happy family and happy career.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the chillness of being productive over break. It's so refreshing! I've also never really gotten excited about going on vacation over spring break. When I was younger, my dad always had to work, but now I'm just a frugal student who doesn't want to shell out money for a frivolous trip when there are still things I need to do here.

Anonymous said...

Here's a quote I love from Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write," written back in the 1930's when it was assumed that women stayed home with the children: "If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: 'Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!' you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights."

Kids need role models for how to live a life well. Hooray to FSP for doing that.

Anonymous said...

I have a small question. It's not for you in particular, but for the academic blogging community in general. Why is it that female academics are so obsessed with their gender?

We always get to see stuff like "MsPhD", "Scientist chick", "woman science prof"... seriously wow!

As far as my experience has been, female scientists, due to their relative rarity, are sought after and pampered by all universities. When I applied for positions, I always had to contend with the last line in the job advertisement :" Women and minorities are encouraged to apply" Excuse me, but I thought this was science... where the only thing that matters is merit?

I have seen female grad students and postdocs get offers that would make me sit up in shock and amazement. This year is no different. The offers that females have received are not just better on AVERAGE, the worst offer to a woman candidate is better than the best offer to a male candidate.

We are not Princeton or Harvard, just an average research university. But I do feel a little sorry for my male students. Now that I have tenure... I sit on those same committees and know that it is easier to offer a woman a position.

Through my years in academia, I slowly developed skin thick enough that I learned to take less offense at the fact that my application was a tad less welcome because of my race and gender.

Of course, I haven't researched this carefully, but a quick google search revealed no blogs of the "male med student" type. I don't want to kick off a gender war, but I still want to know what exactly makes this self consciousness over being a "female scientist" tick.

We are in academia. We are supposed to be the ones thinking ahead. Does it look good if we are the ones obsessed with gender/race differences all day? Isn't it galling that the corporates have actually gone a step ahead of the "idea factories" aka universities on this count?

reticent said...

Hi Anon,

Have you been in a situation where you were one of only a few of your gender? I ask because I think of myself as a female scientist/engineer, with the femaleness being integral. However, I would not think of myself as a female ballet dancer, since the "typical" ballet dancer is female (as are most people in the dance class). If you look like the stereotype it is easy to ignore the fact that the stereotype exists, while if you do not, the fact that you do not is often pointed out to you in many subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Anonymous said...


Spring break is the best time of the year- I don't know what I would do without it. I get the best things done then. I can't imagine giving that up, and I'm glad you use it wisely. Do not feel bad that the family trips are kept to other times- doing what you do during spring break keeps you overall more productive and able to take those trips later, and a better mom all around (of course these are assumptions based on my experience).

Also, to anon- we of the female gender focus on it because being of the few in academic hard sciences, it is a distinguishing quality that comes with its own issues (which are usually blogged about). In terms of seeing that much a difference in offers, I'm surprised. I have never received preferential treatment (that I know of, of course), and in fact have had to deal with the opposite. Is it possible that those ladies actually deserved it?

It's the assumption that they got those positions because they were female that is annoying. Maybe they have some quality that makes them a better applicant that shines not just on paper?

Anonymous said...

Well..what can I say. It seems truly remarkable that someone would look for other ways in which the female applicants might be better qualified...ways that might not even show on paper... and just ignore the blunt last line of the job advert

"Women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply".

There it is... in print..staring everyone in the face. But we should look for other explanations, shouldn't we?

You will notice, on the other hand, that the "subtle" ways in which female scientists are being "put down" are a little like evidence for Russel's teapot. To quote:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes."

The "discrimination" is always too subtle... so subtle that no one else can *ever* perceive it.

In any case I recant. (E pur si muove!)

Anonymous said...

"When I applied for positions, I always had to contend with the last line in the job advertisement :" Women and minorities are encouraged to apply" Excuse me, but I thought this was science... where the only thing that matters is merit?"

It would be interesting to know what field you are in. In CS, they always write this line (I suppose they are required) and in most cases it means absolutely nothing. I personally wish that they would take away the line or if they publish it, be required to do something (accept late applications, accept fewer references, whatever). But if they are not doing anything *concrete*, then they should not publish it. Otherwise, people read that line and assume that preferential treatment is being given when it may not be. Either give preferential treatment and say it, or do not give it and do not say it.

Anonymous said...


You are, right now, at a great resource for answering the "what's all this bias against women I keep hearing about?" question. Either go check out FSP's book--I haven't read it myself, but I'm guessing chapter 17 is the one you want--or just go back through the archives here (for free!) and start reading. You can go ahead and skip any posts that don't immediately seem to pertain to the issue of the treatment of women in science--you might miss a few good stories, but you'll still find plenty of examples of bias that cannot be described as "subtle". And then you can click on the comments to these posts, where you will often find people contributing their own similar experiences.

I will postulate that after doing this, you will no longer think Russell's Teapot to be a reasonable analogy.

Anonymous said...

It has never occurred to me that someone might think anyone a bad parent for liking to have the spring break free to work away on the thing one might otherwise not have time for.

If someone gave me (if I had had children, which I don't) the "that's too bad" answer, this is what I would automatically assume he/she was referring to:

Of course, when my daughter's spring break rolls around, we have a bit of a challenge.

Organisational issues, in other words.