By Leonie Westenberg

Taking Time Out: My experience sequencing family and career

Leonie Westenberg, a lecturer in Sydney, Australia, contacted The Well to share her story of taking time away from academics to raise her children before returning to the academy later in life. As she acknowledges, this is not for everyone, and it works better in some disciplines than others, but she found advantages to her career and to her family in taking time out.

Discussions over coffee with my younger colleagues often centre on work and family life.

Yes, this is still a question as well for many women in Australia in graduate school and post-graduate school. It’s almost an existential question: what is important in life? What does it mean to pursue happiness? How can I, as a Christian woman, flourish?

Photo: Joseph Hoban

One of the reasons I become embroiled in these discussions stems from a class I teach on the feminine genius. (My thesis topic is Mary as a type of the feminine genius, with a discussion on implications for women in contemporary society.) Inevitably, after each class, a female undergraduate student will engage me in discussion. They want families and post-graduate study and careers, often academic careers. But, as one student said, “I look at my son and I think, there goes my research. He symbolizes my life, trying to walk a line between research, work, and family.”

Re-telling these conversations to my fellow women students and colleagues elicits groans of assent. They, too, wonder how to “do it all.”

How do women in graduate school (and beyond) do it all?

One of my colleagues is a full-time professor involved in teaching, research, and publication. Her solution to the work-family-study balance is her husband. He stays home full-time to care for their five young children. They are illustrating what Australian political commentator, Annabel Crabb, describes in this interview and her book, The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives.

My own solution was sequencing and the so-called "mommy track." Sequencing, a term coined by Arlene Cardozo in her 1986 book of the same name, describes the years I spent away from the full-time paid workforce, to undertake full-time mothering. (Note the use of mothering as a verb. It describes an active role, professional women taking time out from careers, to be professional mothers, using their skills and intellect in new ways.)

I am often asked if I regret those years of time-out — if it was hard to return to study and research and to join an academic faculty after time at home.

Well, yes, there was a financial cost, along with a feeling of not being quite good enough on my return to graduate school and academic work. However, imposter syndrome is experienced by many women, regardless of whether or not they experienced some years out of the workforce, so that is hard to measure.

While critics of Cardozo’s book have said that the idea of sequencing is only possible for the financially comfortable, that is debatable. My family sometimes struggled with making ends meet. Embracing the idea of minimalism while full-time mothering helped. Indeed, not only helped, but allowed me to reflect on priorities and trust in God’s provision.

Were there benefits to my time-out? Apart from the value I felt that mothering contributed to my sons, there was, indeed, an intellectual advantage. When I talk now with other academics, and I mention connections between our classes and great literature, or even contemporary literature, I am often called “well-read.” I am asked to suggest literature for further reading.

I attribute this literary knowledge and imagination to the time I had for reading — wide reading — in my time-out years of mothering. I was not consumed by reading only in my area of specialization, or only for my thesis, or in preparation for classes that I would teach in the forthcoming semester. I had time to explore — or explore again — the great books: to really read the Bible in reflection, to devour the Church Fathers and classical spiritual works, to read fiction authors — the Margaret Atwoods, the Grahame Greenes, and yes, even the J.K. Rowlings.

One way (and I stress, this is only one way) to “do it all” is with this idea of sequencing. In other words, not doing it all at once. Instead, using a time-out for mothering as a time-out to explore new fields, and a time to broaden the intellectual life while deepening our spiritual life.

The reading and personal growth that I undertook in my mothering timeout have helped me return to work with an intellectual vigour. Perhaps my career would have burgeoned if I had not taken some years out but the trade-off for me has been worth it. In graduate school and beyond, that time off from study and research can be an advantage so that a return to an academic field is not only possible but actually enhanced by personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth. 

About the Author

Leonie Westenberg is a lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. She is currently writing her thesis on Mary as a type of the Feminine Genius. Her interests include literature, living the liturgical year, and women in education. Leonie lives in Sydney, Australia. She has seven sons and one cat. Leonie is a regular contributor to blogs and to several books on home education. She writes textbooks for middle school students, encouraging a love of literature and the development of critical thinking skills. Leonie blogs at Living Without School.

Comment via Facebook