There have been some great discussions going on here, here, and here regarding how to manage or even attempt a work-life balance, what it means exactly and how this applies not only to women/mothers in science, but also their partners, as well as those of us who don't have kids but do have other things that we need to balance.
This is a really important topic and frequently discussed (as it should be!). Often the conclusion is that women have to try to balance their science (or more precisely the time put into it) against their family (also family time). But by balance, what we frequently mean is giving 100% to both (does not compute). Most women who have been through this wringer offer their very individual personal experiences along with the statement that "I try." And really, what more can you ask for? None of us are perfect and none of us can be all things to all people.
Frankly, I don't think that there really is a solution to this conundrum. We will always have several priorities competing for our time and that's that. So maybe we shouldn't be looking for a way to "fix" this whole thing, but a way to make it easier. And we can start by insisting that academia accommodate.
Lots of academic institutions are making an effort to accommodate. Many of them have long way to go still. Sometimes there are insidious attitudes that antagonize this accommodation despite outward signs of support.
My GrAdvisor seems to be outwardly supportive of his people having families although he does not have one of his own (kudos to him!). To give you an example:75% of the men in our lab are married with kids, 50% of the women are married with kids and GrAdvisor has been overall very supportive of everyone. He had no problem with Tiny Post-doc only working afternoons during her second and third trimesters because of her debilitating morning sickness. He let Junior Grad Student pass on his annual month-long data collection trip because his wife was 7 months pregnant and already had two kids to care for. He petitioned (albeit unsuccessfully) allow Post-doc Friend to use the empty office as a pumping room so she wouldn't have to walk 20 minutes across campus to the designated Mothers' Aid Station. He also told PF not to inform the HR people that she would be taking more than the allotted maternity leave to recover from her difficult celivery...that way she continued to be paid in full. He has not yet complained that PF and her husband (also a post-doc in our lab) are working shifts of 6 hours for the next 6 weeks while their childcare arrangements are unavailable.
All in all, he is pretty good about it. Some time ago I expressed my concerns about continuing a career in academic science...I would like to have family someday when the timing is right (is it ever?) but BH and I are not in a big hurry at this point. Even considering this hypothetically is quite terrifying, and I have said so to GrAdvisor. Not being in a position to offer any personal insights himself, he suggested that I speak with another successful scientist and mother in the department if I was having doubts about making it work. I appreciate his suggestion and the fact that he realizes his limitations in advising on this matter. So for the most part, I am impressed with his fairly liberated views on balancing family and work, especially given the fact that he has no first-hand experience upon which to draw.
However, there is a strange and pervasive undercurrent of continued resentment. He has said to me more than once that he "doesn't have a problem" with whichever lab parent it may be working only 8 hour days, because "they have a family that they need to care for and it is important to honor those priorities."
The corollary being that I, childless as I am, should not feel as if 8 hour days are enough because there is obviously not anything more important in my life than my science.
Hmmm...so if I go and get myself knocked up, then I can have a life outside the lab?
What I don't think he realizes is that getting to a point where you want to have children with someone requires an investment of time and energy and emotion too...or perhaps he does realize this and would prefer to nip such a time-sucking endeavor in the bud?
Axiom 1: It is OK to make compromises if you have children, but there is no reason to have other priorities in your life unless they are kids.
Corollary: If you don't have "a family" (the defining feature being children -- regular-sized people don't count like kids do) then you must be available to work during every waking hour because the other people in your life do not require your attention for survival.
The other thing I have noticed is that he does treat mothers and fathers differently with respect to their "balance" problems. I am not sure that this is really about gender roles. Rather, I think that it has to do with a fundamental difference in the way that the mothers and fathers in our lab present themselves and their competing commitments.
Each January, GrAdvisor meets with each of us for a goal-setting meeting, in which we review our goals from the previous year, which ones were met, which ones were not (and why), and then set new goals for the coming year.
Post-doc friend (who is a very talented, accomplished, productive and hard-working scientist) met with GrAdvisor and mentioned that she had not quite completed one of the goals she had set in the last year. She said that she had not realized when she set those goals how much time her new daughter was going to require and that the addition of this demand on her time had caused her to re-prioritize her goals so that she could finish them in a more realistic time frame given the change in her situation. GrAdvisor's response was that she should not use her child as an excuse for decreased productivity.
PF was not using her child as an excuse. She was just stating the facts so that she could identify where the conflict was and arrive at a realistic solution.
Interestingly, PF's husband (also a post-doc in our lab if you recall) also did not meet one of his goals from the previous year...but he didn't say anything about their kid. He just proposed a new time frame for completing said goal...and everything was golden.
Same solution, different presentation, different reaction.
I think that the primary issue at work in this differential treatment is the difference in the way that PF and her husband present the problem to GrAdvisor. PF mentioned that her daughter required more time than she had anticipated (i.e., she "blamed it on the kid"), while PFH made no acknowledgment that the unmet goal was a problem...he just proposed a new time frame as if there were no extraneous reason for his "decreased productivity".
Now, PF was livid (as she had every right to be) but not for the reason you might think. Sure she was mad that she was chastised and her husband was not over the same compromises they were both making. But what she was really mad about was that GrAdvisor couldn't or wouldn't see that her time is not cleanly separated into "lab time" and "kid time". When the kid wakes up sick and it takes a little longer to get her ready and dropped off at grandma's and this means getting stuck in commuter traffic rather than missing rush hour, she doesn't get that time back. From PF's point of view, her day is a 24 hour continuum and an hour lost in traffic is not an hour that can be snatched back at the end of the day to get that last experiment set up before leaving - she has a sick kid to pick up and a trip to the pharmacy before it closes which means leaving early enough to avoid getting stuck in rush hour traffic on the way home.
PFH tends to view his time differently. There is "lab time". There is "kid time". There is "golf time". These exist in parallel but distinct universes. Given this worldview, it is perhaps no surprise that PF often gripes about her husband's seeming inability to do the mental arithmetic that allows for the following realization: mowing the lawn (L) and taking kid to the zoo (Z) and getting in 18 holes (G) cannot all happen in the same day when L + Z + G > 24 hours. He doesn't see these things as impinging upon one another. [Edit: this is not to say that he is shirking his child-rearing duties...just that when planning how he will use his time, he seems to forget that time from categories L, Z, and G are necessarily related in that you can't do all at once, so doing one might mean not doing another in any given day. I'm sure that when he thinks about this he realizes that this is true, but it doesn't always seem to come into play in the planning stage. For this reason I suspect that it (the synthesis rather than compartmentalization of one's time) doesn't always come into play in the evaluation stage either...or maybe he deliberately leaves out this info when discussing goals with GrAdvisor because he is clever enough to realize that GrAdvisor is far more inclined to compartmentalize people's time rather than understand that many demands can impinge upon the same finite number of hours.]
I speculate that GrAdvisor also possesses this extraordinary ability to so thoroughly compartmentalize demands on his time that he cannot see multiple demands at once. Which is why PFH didn't get slapped on the wrist -- the kid exists in a different compartment, one distinct from the lab, so there is no way that the increased responsibility and time required for child-rearing could have been the cause of PFH's failure to meet his goal. Therefore, the assumption is that PFH was so busy with other goals (which he met) that he didn't have time to finish the first goal. It's OK to borrow lab time from lab time, but not kid time from lab time.
Axiom 2: "Life Hours" cannot cut into "Work Hours" if they exist in parallel but distinct universes.
Corollary: Never acknowledge that you have other priorities outside the lab and then no one will have any reason to call you out on letting your lab hours slip.
Finally, GrAdvisor has a hard time understanding that there are other priorities in people's lives. Families sure, but some of us (including those with kids) also have hobbies, friends, relationships, pets, vacations, sports, and myriad other things that add to our quality of life...and this added quality makes us happier and therefore more productive. GrAdvisor on the other hand, is pretty single-minded. As far as I know he doesn't have any hobbies outside of his science -- I can't imagine that he'd have time since he is in the office every waking hour that he is not traveling around giving invited talks. That's his choice and I won't judge it. But it does make it difficult for him to understand how the rest of us need to "balance" our work with whatever else we have in our lives that make us happy. I'm not sure he even gets what this "balance" problem is really about.
Axiom 3: If Work = Life, the equation is always balanced.
Corollary: The way to be a good/successful/serious scientist is to avoid all this pesky "balance" conflict altogether. If you make your work the singular focus of your life *presto!* problem solved!
THIS HAS TO CHANGE!!
Because let's face it folks, we each have only two hands and 24 hours in the day. And if we are being realistic about which priorities in our lives take up the most of our time we cannot go on pretending that time borrowed from Life to "balance" Work (or vice versa) is magical free doesn't-cost-anything time. This is not the subprime housing market. And even if it were, we all know how that turned out.
So there isn't an easy solution...perhaps there isn't any solution. No magic bullet is going to suddenly relieve the tension of all these competing priorities
Academia (starting with individual academics) needs to start acknowledging that we are human. We are not perfect. We cannot do it all. We cannot be all things to all people. We cannot pretend that we do not exist outside of our compartmentalized functions as scientists, mothers, women, whathaveyou. And that's OK. Because most of us are most productive at all of these things when we're happy and not stressed and know that we have a support network to help out when things get rough.