On not being Superwoman, or, this is how she does it

                                         The Boy, The Boys, and me.

It’s been almost a year now since I returned from maternity leave to my full time job as an academic at UCL. At the time, I had three children aged 3 and under (The Boy, and The Boys – fraternal twins). Not a week has gone by without someone commenting on the fact that I am Superwoman. So I thought I would explain how I balance having rather a large family of small people and academia: partly to show that it can be done, partly to show that I am not superwoman but incredibly lucky, and partly as a record for myself in the future when I think “how did I do that?”

I’m not superwoman… I have a supportive partner. Seriously, the most important piece of advice I can give to anyone contemplating having a career and a family is choose the right person to do it with. It takes two to tango, and the raising of a family should not just be the responsibility of the mother. Neither should looking after the household be. Feminism begins at home, folks: share chores and childcare equally. I never understood the statistics that show that women do much, much more than men – and working mothers even more – around the home. I just wouldn’t stand for that. My Husband and I are both hands on and support each other, as well as do our best for the bairns.

I’m not superwoman… I can afford childcare. This is not a glib statement. The cost of childcare in the UK is just horrific, especially near London. Given the fact that we had twins (surprise!) we are currently paying three lots of full time nursery fees, presenting us with a bill each month of just under £3000. By the time the boys all go to school, we’ll have paid around £100k in childcare costs. You need to be paid a certain level of salary and/or have a level of savings to be able to afford that, and I’m incredibly lucky that our household income is such (I’ve had two major promotions since becoming pregnant with The Boy) that we can afford for both of us to go to work. I refuse to countenance this in a “will my salary cover childcare?” way – why is it always the women’s salary that has to cover childcare? But the fact of the matter is that many people in our situation – three kids for the price of two – don’t have a choice and one of them has to give up work as the finances just dont add up. I’m incredibly lucky that we didn’t have to make that choice – lets face it, if you give up your academic job, the competition is such that you arent getting one back again – although it has meant sacrifices from us and we are financially hanging on by the skin of our teeth til The Boy starts school soon.

I’m not superwoman… I have flexible working hours. Long academic working hours are legendary. But so are their flexibility. In the first year I was back to work with The Boy, I looked after him at home one day during the working week, and no-one batted an eye-lid as I made up the hours in evenings. This year, in a twelve week period between April and June, I had six weeks off with all the boys as we were undertaking a huge build at home and it was best to get out of the way while the really messy stuff happened. I regularly work in the evenings so I can spend more time with the boys through the week (I usually see them for a couple of hours every morning and evening, although I think missing bedtime once a week or so to go to work events is acceptable). I never work weekends, though, unless I am at a conference. Weekends are family time.

I‘m not superwoman… I dont work in a lab based discpline. One or two days a week I work from home from my shed at the bottom of the garden (I’m here now! hello!) which means I keep on top of email and working documents, plus can power through the laundry backlog in lunch and coffee breaks. I would hate to be in a job that meant I had to be in London every working day though – and not sure how I would cope having to be in a lab from 9-5 every day (at least). I can imagine that would be exhausting, and you would certainly not see very much of your children if you had to commute. As it is,  on the days I am in town I make my first appointments of the day at 10am, and often leave UCL at 4.45 so I am home with the boys by 6pm. All academic jobs are not created equal, but the ones which are flexible… man, are they flexible.

I’m not superwoman… I can afford help around the home. Despite our best efforts (and lets face it, it was never my ambition to be a dream house wife) we have a cleaner come in for two hours a week to deep clean the bathrooms, scrub all the floors, and hoover throughout the house. Something I also dont understand: guilt about paying for extra help (as long as you pay decent rates, pay for holidays, and dont treat your cleaner like…. dirt). We go with a local agency, and they are fab. It takes the edge off the house, and I can ensure that the house is hygenic, especially during crazy periods in term time when finding those hours a week to scrub the floors would slay us.

I’m not superwoman… I take as many shortcuts as possible. I havent ironed anything since 2003. And that was just my graduation shirt. I’m not spending hours of my time making things flat just so that they can get crumpled again when worn. No-one has noticed yet (have you? right? If so, you’re too polite to say, thanks). Make as many short cuts around housework and your home as you can. Think efficiency, rather than show-home. I’m never going to be one of those people that walks across a room to find a coaster in a drawer before they put their cup of tea down at the other side of the room. Seriously? My home – and office – are set up to be as efficient as possible, even if that can lead to weird juxtapositions of stuff in places.

I’m not superwoman… I use all the technology I can to make this easy. The postman hates us with all the parcels off eBay; we use lots of shared calendars online to plan everything and keep track of the movements and needs of two adults, three small people, and a cat; I tweet, shop, and email when I’m waiting on trains. When I’m away with work I speak to the boys on video chat as often as I can. Make technology your friend.

I’m not superwoman… My Husband works from home. This is probably the biggest thing that makes our life easier, and here it is tucked half way down, quietly taking the stress out of the nursery run. My Husband is not a house husband: he has a senior job with a Canadian software firm, runs his own successful business in his spare time, and even finds the time and energy to play in a well respected band. But working from home for the majority of his time does mean he is on hand to do nursery drop off and pick up. I do try to do as many of the nursery runs as I can with my schedule – but it means that on days when the trains are borked I’m not the person having a breakdown at Kings Cross station about the fact they cant get back to the nursery before it closes at 6pm, or when one of the boys is ill and needs picking up from nursery they can be brought home immediately. Removing that level of stress from our daily lives makes going an hour away from home much, much less stressful for me, and going away with work for a night or two doesnt take olympic levels of organisation. Did I mention that I have a supportive partner?

I’m not superwoman… I don’t have a dead commute. It takes just over an hour to get door to door from home to work. I walk for 15mins (and nursery is on the way between our house and the station for drop off and pick up: dont forget the importance of location!), travel by train for 35 minutes, and walk 15 mins at the other end. Time on the station platform is generally spent on twitter: the time spent on the train I get on with some work. I get a tonne of stuff done on the train (but its also the reason I hate documents that get sent to me in the cloud. Cloud doesnt work with train tunnels).

I’m not superwoman… I travel a lot with work. This may sound like an oxymoron, given I’ve done lots of work travel over the past year with at least one or two trips a month away. I try to go away for two nights maximum, and during that time, not only do I get a couple of good nights sleep (which is not always guaranteed at home: The Boys didnt sleep through once until they were 16 months old), but I tend to work like a daemon. Room service, and work til midnight. I get loads done in hotel rooms.

I’m not superwoman… I have supportive family and friends. My mother-in-law moved to be closer to us shortly after the twins arrived. This is wonderful for the boys – getting to see their grandmother often – but also extremely helpful when illness strikes. The Boys got chicken pox the week I was giving a plenary in Paris and another invited lecture at a conference in Munich. Mother-in-law stepped in to be the other pair of hands while I was away. It comes with some drawbacks – hey, I have my mother-in-law living round the corner! But on balance, having family nearby makes caring for children, and dealing with the chaos that that often brings, much much easier. My own parents live further away, but are already signed up to stay with us as we make the transition to dealing with childcare over school holidays, and have been known to jump on a plane or train at times of real emergency. We also have a close-knit band of chums who live locally who are very involved in the the boys’ lives. Who could ask for more?

I’m not superwoman… I just work incredibly hard. I do work long hours, but when I am working I am WORKING, and when I am with the boys I am with the boys. I’ve found that, if anything, motherhood has made me much more focused, and I take my career much more seriously: if I’m going away from the family then every minute is generally filled up with tasks. No I’m not going to meet you for a coffee during the working day to talk about shoes. I have things to be done, in the shortened hours I have available in the working week since I had the boys.

I’m not superwoman… I just dont suffer from motherhood guilt. I am not one of those people who bursts into tears as they leave their children at nursery. If you feel like that, go back to them, be with them, if you have the choice to. I have faith in the care my boys get when we are not with them, and I feel I see the boys a lot for someone who both works full time in a competitive environment and commutes. Did I mention flexible working hours?

I’m not superwoman… I just have a very supportive employer.  UCL is incredibly supportive of working mothers, and were very supportive of my situation when I developed a pregnancy related disability. There are family-friendly working hours for meetings (to stop official meetings happening over breakfasts and evenings) and, in general, management are open to suggestions about how to improve support. Again, I’m incredibly lucky to have an employer who both values my contribution and supports the fact that humans might actually breed and want to continue working.

So there you have it. A confluence of luck, good choices, hard work, and support have meant that – whisper it – its not terribly stressful to be an academic working mother, for me. It would be much, much harder work to stay at home looking after 3 small boys day in, day out. I’ve done it. Believe me.

I dont like being called superwoman. It suggests I’m heading for a fall, in lots of ways. So how about this, I’ll let you call me superwoman if I maintain my academic trajectory and my boys all make it to a happy, healthy adulthood, and are fulfilled and settled in their own ways (whatever that may turn out to be). Then you can call me superwoman. But for now, I’m just a woman who happens to have a larger-than-usual young family and a job that I really enjoy (and how lucky am I, in both counts?). There are lots of us around, all doing our best: it can be done without fanfare.

You’ll also spot that I havent mentioned “work-life balance”.  I dont believe in it. There are only 24 hours in a day, and its all my life. My work is my life and my home is my life and my family is my life and my addiction to mid-century Belgian ceramics on eBay is my life. Going to the British Museum for a work meeting is as much my life as scraping squashed peas off the floor from under the dining room table, or cranking out a book chapter, or leading a sing-song of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, or looking at the UX of an iPhone App, is. Life is full, round, packed, joyous, tiring, exhilarating, exhausting, fast, fun, and being lived. I love my family. I love my job. And this is how I do it.

20 thoughts on “On not being Superwoman, or, this is how she does it

  1. Thanks for writing this! I just have two under three and am planning s return to work in September. Lots of useful tips, plus several I recognise from when I went back to work after child number one. I agree on the superwoman term, say that when we've all thrived even with all the juggling! Also, houses stay much cleaner when they're mostly played in at the weekends…


  2. Well done. I definitely found things easier working for a university when my son was smaller; now in the corporate world, I'm lucky to have some flexibility, but I have nothing like quite like it and the good health coverage I had there – huge out of pocket expenses are the norm now (and having lived in the UK, I really, really miss the NHS).

    The thing that drives me crazy now is working for a European company and seeing my colleagues there get real, paid leave for up to a year; here in the US, we have at most 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and that's only at a large company like this one. Factor in the enormous fees you pay for infant childcare (if it's available where you live) and it is almost like saying goodbye to several years of salary, but it's a worthwhile investment, to be sure.

    Perfectionism is definitely not the way forward for me, either, but it's certainly nice when your employer and the system at large are supportive.


  3. That's an amazing post, Melissa! Thanks for sharing. I agree with a lot of the points, and I don't like to be called superwoman either, it makes your achievements feel unreal.


  4. You're still doing remarkably well – well done you! My own blog, started when my three boys were little, is called Pseudo Supermum because like you, I can't claim to be supermum. Again, I have a spouse who only worked part-time – definitely helps, though paying the nursery bills was a nightmare! http://pseudosupermum.blogspot.co.uk/ (My boys present their own challenges now, being teens …)


  5. Interesting post. I sometimes say 'work/life balance' as a shorthand way of saying that I need to schedule time to do non-work things. When you are dealing with your children, you are doing that. As I don't have children, there is always the temptation to fill those spare moments with additional work. The problem is then one doesn't do social things, cultural things, and this mysterious thing called relaxation that some people get to feel. I know you probably don't do as much of those as you might like, fair enough.

    I agree with what you say about work/life balance… it is all my life and I enjoy it all quite a lot. However, that doesn't mean I don't want to set limits on how much work intrudes onto times I've set aside for other things. For example, I _read_ work emails on the weekend. I mentally assign them into one of four categories: Important/Urgent, NotImportant/Urgent, Important/NotUrgent, NotImportant/NotUrgent. I'll answer emails on the weekend but now if I judge them to be in the first category. (Or I *want* to and don't feel they are intruding…which is often the case.)

    For what it is worth, I've never thought you are a superwoman. This doesn't mean I don't think that you work hard, or that you're really good at what you do, or that it is all amazing. I certainly couldn't do it, which is one reason why I haven't (biology being another reason). I think everyone is capable of what you've accomplished with similar (or different) solutions. But I also don't think less of women who have chosen to take different routes from you (e.g. in not having children), because that is their choice as well. I'm not saying you think this, certainly not, but there are some working mothers who have derogatory views against those making different choices. I also know that you pull your weight flexibly, whereas there are parents who detach from work entirely at 5pm and wouldn't help out in emergencies, etc. In those cases, in many jobs, it is often those that don't have children who are told “Oh, well you can stay late to sort that out, you don't have kids”. The assumption that a non-parent's activities are any less important or flexible than a parent's is a frequent form of discrimination. Though usually the discrimination is the other way around (you can't have this promotion because you've had “time off” (no I wouldn't call it that) to have kids. Just pointing out that there are two sides to a coin.

    Blah, I've babbled too much. See, this counts as 'fun' and 'relaxation' to me.


  6. Awesome Post! Thanks Melissa for writing this 🙂
    Even though am working and still single 😉 This post gives me a lot of strength and confidence that I will be able to manage my future life (with work, hubby and kids) equally well.

    Great Job!


  7. Great post! I am a mother of two working in academia in Sweden. I have all the same strategies as you, with the added bonus of the Swedish benefits for parents. We have 380 days parental leave with 80% salary, and when the kids start daycare we only pay approximately €100/month/child. Makes things so much easier!


  8. I, too, have a boy and then two more boys (identical in my case). And am an academic, but one with a lab.

    We solved childcare with a nanny. Where I am (USA), it was cheaper to hire a nanny for weekday days than pay childcare for three, even though the oldest was only 9 months from full-time school when I went back to work post-twins. This solves my husband working away from home, since the nanny can do school drop-offs and pick-ups.

    We too have a cleaner. We'd both rather have time to play with the kids when we are home than cleaning. (And yes, the kids can help us straighten up and clean up messes in the interim.)

    And no, I am not superwoman either. It gets better and moves on, one day at a time. (Twins will be four in under 2 months, tenure was achieved, life goes on.)

    Thanks for the post… it's always good to know one isn't alone in this!


  9. Thanks so much for a great post! Reading your story has made me so much more positive about being able to have kids and the career I'm aiming for. And I loved the bit when you said “there are lots of us around, all doing our best: it can be done without fanfare” YES!


  10. Great post Melissa. The epitome of work /life balance! I’ll certainly save this for future reference.


  11. What a great post! I'm going to send it to all my female academic friends. Having the two days at home also makes for greater productivity, in my experience – although clearly one must be available to colleagues needing an immediate response, as it's not fair on them otherwise.

    I too have been very lucky with a flexible workplace and supportive extended family. I can also say in encouragement that it gets easier as the children get older. My tip as the mother of a teenager is to train the children from a young age to be helpful around the house (indeed their wives will thank you for it one day!).


  12. Fantastic, thank you very much indeed for posting this. I was desperate for this sort of information 3 years ago.
    Now, 2 children (but no twins!) later, I have a similar story to yours but am instead grateful for a fantastic nanny and cleaner/nanny; in addition to wonderful husband and family.


  13. Apart from some really minor differences (my first child is a girl, and my boys are identical; my commute is 15 mins walk which is part of my daily exercise; we used a nanny and preschool rather than childcare; and I'm a self-employed barrister in Sydney, not an academic), this is my life, even down to the pregnancy-related disability (transient regional osteoporosis, in my case).

    I was amused to see “travel” as one of your positives. I came back from a week of litigation in Canberra – incredibly hard work, 14 hour days – but I was able to sleep, and someone asked me if I had been on holiday because I looked so refreshed!

    My children are all now at the local school, on the corner of our street, and having them there (as well as the twins being little guys, not toddlers any more) is a huge relief, both organisationally, and financially.


  14. The fact that you do any of this makes you superwoman. Own it. There are so many who can not and do not handle the responsibility of being a mother and having any job at all. Yes, it is wonderful that you have what at first glance appears to be flexibility, but in reality room service til midnight to accommodate what are no doubt marathon-like work hours and sleeping when you're on the road is just another sign of the genius that it takes to makes you superwoman. A non superwoman, would sleep, order room service and forget about work altogether. It is true, however, that you are not the only one, there are many of us out here, but that does not detract from the fact,…you are superwoman.


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