Mom on Sabbatical

December 02, 2005

It's a sunny October afternoon. Autumn leaves crinkle underfoot and the smell of apple cider fills the air, along with the shouts of overexcited preschoolers. I'm not in my study, not at the library, not even pretending to work on my book. Instead, I'm at the pumpkin patch with my daughter's preschool class, one of the "driving moms."

Here's the question: How much of my sabbatical time am I allowed to devote to my 4-year-old? To whom should I reveal that the timing of my year-long sabbatical had alittle to do with my writing projects, and a lot to do with the fact that it's the last year before she enters school full time?

For the tenured mother of a young child, the challenge of a sabbatical is that it intersects with another world -- the life of the stay-at-home mom. To all appearances now, that's what I am . . . and I mean the appearance part literally. My professorial jackets and skirts have been temporarily shoved to the back of the closet. "Do you still work at that school?" ask the kids at my volunteer literacy gig, eying my faded jeans.

I'm staying home with my daughter in the mornings. At 12:30 p.m., I take her to preschool and then head home to write; I pick her up at 5:30 p.m. In essence, I'm a stay-at-home mom in the morning and a writer in the afternoon.

Is that enough time to work on the book? Is my university getting its money worth?

I asked my academic dean what kind of time commitment the university expects of those on sabbatical, and I was pleasantly surprised by her answer. "I think most deans hope that a person is working 20 hours a week," she said. "This is for faculty whom you assume are actually going to complete the project."

Hello? I didn't think I had a choice. "Many deans assume that no work, aside from some reading, will get done," she went on. "They OK the sabbatical because they know the faculty needs time for renewal."

For about 10 minutes, I felt virtuous. I'm working more than the norm on my project. And then I started talking to other faculty moms on sabbatical. Almost everyone I interviewed had decided to maintain the same child-care schedules they used while teaching full time. They're rearranging their workload, it seems, but not lessening it. I won't run into them at the playground.

Even so, they feel the competing tugs on their time. "I have a lot of internal conflicts about how much time I should take out of my sabbatical to concentrate on my daughter's needs, and how much I should use this time to push forward on my new project," said Kristen Ghodsee, a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College who's on sabbatical and has a 4-year-old daughter. "There are days when I feel paralyzed by having to make this choice. I don't think my male colleagues with children feel the same pressures."

When I planned my sabbatical, I knew I wanted to spend more time with my daughter. She's a great kid, resilient and funny. But before we adopted her, she spent a year in a resource-poor orphanage. Some extra mothering, I thought, might help build up her motor skills and calm her emotional storms.

But I also want to write a really good book. I'm using this sabbatical to work on a longer, more complex novel than I've ever written before. Even though I'm giving my writing, and my child, more of myself than they've ever had before, they both cry out for more. "Mommy, I wish you were there when we sing "Come In, Grown-Ups," my daughter says, referring to the fact that she goes to extended care after preschool, while some kids are picked up by their parents. Never mind that last year, she was both taken to preschool and picked up by the extended-care team.

Meanwhile, my book's pull is fierce. I've never had time for perfectionism before, but now I find it hard to let go of any pages. The book's demands sometimes out-shout my daughter's none-too-quiet voice. "Go play," I snapped at her this morning as I tried to finish a complicated scene, and then felt guilty when she melted into tears.

"I want to be what society considers a 'good mother,'" said Ghodsee. "I want to spend time with my daughter because she is growing up so fast and I'm afraid I'm going to miss it. She's too young to appreciate what I do and why it's important to me. She just wants Mommy to play with her."

Carlena Ficano of Hartwick University timed her sabbatical carefully so as to avoid being tugged too far away from her work. "I consciously decided not to apply for a sabbatical when I first became eligible," she said. "My youngest daughter was an infant at the time, and I feared that I would not have the discipline -- or stamina -- to devote appropriate energy to a sabbatical project."

Now she's taking a nontraditional sabbatical, in which she teaches half-time during the academic year. She has maintained the same child-care arrangements and at-work hours as before. "I went into my sabbatical leave with the expectation that, although the nature of my workload would change drastically with respect to the balance between teaching, scholarship, and service, the size of the workload would not. I intended to maintain my normal work schedule, and have largely succeeded at that," she explained.

That plan also allowed her to set clear boundaries between family and work time and avoid family pressure, something that's difficult for many of us to do.

Lynn Duggan, an art professor at Nazareth College and the mother of a child who is almost 2, said, "There was an implicit expectation from my husband that I was more available to take care of household-related errands and chores." Duggan found that her extended family stopped asking her about her professional work when she was on leave and assumed she had much more spare time.

The good news is that even if you plan to keep up your usual work schedule during a sabbatical, some working-mom challenges recede. If a child is sick, you don't face the usual scramble to deal with classes, meetings, and alternate day care. And spending the day on a beloved sabbatical project makes for more relaxing off hours. Everyone I talked to, even those who kept up demanding work schedules or experienced additional family expectations, found the sabbatical good for family life.

Before adopting my daughter, I heard my colleagues make a number of scornful remarks about the hours kept by faculty mothers. "She's managed to turn a full-time job into a part-time job," one friend said of a mutual colleague reputed to skip a lot of office hours. "God forbid we call a meeting after 3 p.m.," scoffed another colleague, about another professor/mom. "Somebody will have to leave to meet the school bus."

No one derides working moms to me now that I am one. But I doubt the attitudes have changed. So if I talk to colleagues about my visit to the pumpkin patch, am I fulfilling my peers' suspicions that my sabbatical is an excuse to play with my child all day? Should I pretend to be buried in the library, working longer hours than ever?

Several moms I interviewed had a practical solution: Get the hell out of Dodge.

"Going away from your university is key to not having to justify your time to your colleagues," said Ghodsee, who's in Washington now and off to Bulgaria soon.

Or you can just admit the truth. When Duggan told colleagues she was frustrated not to accomplish as much as she planned, veteran faculty members reassured her that most sabbatical proposals are way too ambitious. "They assured me that whatever I accomplished was important and would positively impact my professional and instructional development," she said.

Remember, the upshot is in the results. If you eventually get a book or a grant out of the sabbatical, no one can fault you for building castles out of blocks and playing hopscotch along the way.

Duggan told me that the art she produced during her sabbatical resulted in a fellowship and several exhibit opportunities. My own results aren't so clear-cut yet, but then again, it's only December.

Lee Tobin McClain is a professor of English and director of the master's program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pa. She is the author of three novels for young adults.