Recently I took some time off during the school holidays. We woke up late. We went cycling and rollerblading a lot. We had leisurely lunches and long walks. It was beautiful weather and the days seemed to stretch on forever, filled with wonderful things like baking brioche buns, reading in the sun, and looking at the ocean. One evening, while I was rolling out pizza dough, drinking red wine and listening to jazz after a spectacular day of coastal hiking, I felt a really strange sensation in my chest. It was light, much like the beautifully risen pizza dough. It felt good.
It was joy.
And that’s when it hit me. I don’t need a struggle between work and life. I don’t need work/life balance. I need work-work balance.
I am an academic, which means a PhD is merely entry level and a chance to start at the bottom of the pile. The scramble to the top involves endless performing. Writing, publishing, doing research, attending meetings, writing grants, supervising students, filling out forms in endless Uni bureaucracy, community and professional engagement, teaching, even (ironically) attending meetings about work-life balance and wellbeing at work. If I see another email about a “working group” and two hour meetings I think I will cry.
We are expected to perform like circus monkeys, pirouetting and balancing ever increasing loads in an effortless display of super-human skills. The said effortless display is rewarded with promotions, grants, and more responsibilities. It’s like some kind of bizarre Ponzi scheme that nobody talks about – the elephant in the room.
So I do not need work-life balance, thank you very much. What I desperately need is a brutal slashing of my workload. Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working evenings and weekends being an academic circus monkey. Weekends are for connecting with friends, nature, and myself. Weekends are for decompressing from work, remembering that there is a life outside of the grind of academia, that beyond the University nobody cares about my h-index. Weekends are for sitting in the sun and eating biscuits (shh – don’t tell my GP), feeling the wind in my hair as I ride my eight-year-old’s scooter having the best time of my life, spotting whales in the ocean, reading psychological crime thrillers, and discovering new places to visit. For long conversations with dear friends. For movies and popcorn with the kids.
It’s not my work that pushes the boundaries, it’s the work on top of the work on top of the work. Layer upon layer of effort, brain space, and time, each layer threatening to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s these piles of terror that threaten my brioche baking time on weekends, that occasionally give me panic attacks, and lead to that heavy feeling on Monday mornings.
I don’t know what the answer is – either I am not cut out for academia, or I simply do the best I can with the time I am willing to give up. All I know is that nothing is worth the giving up of joy – that lovely, light feeling when I was rolling out pizza dough, that elusive elixir that I had not tasted for so many months due to my incredibly challenging schedule. But now that I’ve had a reminder, I am determined not to give it up.