Careers and Caregiving: An impossible juggling act?

Careers and Caregiving: An impossible juggling act?

By Kathe Managan

Meme with sandwich and text saying "Talkin' 'bout my generation."

This fall, with my AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) card in my wallet, I attended my third new faculty orientation and learned about the policies of tenure and promotion at a university where I have been teaching since 2018. That’s because I only recently made the transition from a non-tenure track instructor position to assistant professor. Anxious to get to know and bond with my new cohort, I chatted with the small group of other recent hires. Compared with my new colleagues, it was clear that I was coming into this position with more years of experience, and a fair bit more baggage as well. How did I end up here? My story speaks to the structural constraints on faculty members in “the sandwich generation” and on solo parents in academia. It is also the story of hard choices and toxic departments.

Although I’m technically “middle aged,” I am the child of older parents and have much older siblings. This meant that growing up, I was always acutely aware of age differences in my family and of the process of aging. As my parents and siblings have gotten older, I have found myself dealing with the difficulties of aging, even though I have been lucky not to face significant health issues due to aging myself.

I got my Ph.D. from NYU in 2004 and spent my first three years doing research and teaching postdocs. Then, I began my first tenure-track position at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I enjoyed my time in Alaska and relished the chance to spend 8 months in the snow and ice. Growing up in Louisiana, I had only dreamed of such wintry landscapes as a kid. Despite being happy in my position at UAF, I applied to a position at Louisiana State University in order to be closer to my family. My mother, whose health was rapidly declining due to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), begged me to apply—plying me with stories of how wonderful it would be for our family to be together. I quickly found myself short-listed and traveled back to Louisiana for a campus visit. I recall describing that campus visit to friends as being similar to a first date: it was a great fit for my research, but there were also numerous red flags. Several faculty members asked what I knew about the department history and were anxious to stress that the “Dark Times” of the department were over. I had not heard about those “Dark Times” before my visit, but in retrospect, I should have done my homework.

My first year at LSU went fine, and then my mother’s health started to decline rapidly. She spent time in and out of hospitals. I would teach, drive two hours to be with her, work as much as I could on the hospital couch and then drive back two days later to teach again. I developed high blood pressure, heart palpitations, chronic migraines, and insomnia. I started taking prescription medications at night, just to manage. As my third-year review approached, my parents moved in with my brother and I tentatively made a bid on a house in the same town. Once I passed my third-year review, I closed on the house. I then spent a semester conducting fieldwork in the French Caribbean. During my fieldwork, my brother suffered a massive stroke. The next few years, I juggled my research and publications with helping my father take care of both my mother and brother. I eventually asked for and received a retroactive tenure clock stoppage. The department chair at the time promised to support me so I could progress in my research and writing while balancing family responsibilities going forward. That was an empty promise.

Despite all the challenges, I still managed to publish what I was told I needed to for tenure, and all my annual evaluations had all been fine, so I assumed everything would be OK. When my tenure vote came up, all but a few members of the department voted for me. Colleagues began to congratulate me. My sabbatical request was approved by the Dean. Then, the new department chair, a physical geographer known to dismiss all research that didn’t fit with his vision of “science”, wrote a letter recommending I not be given tenure. I appealed, noting the multiple procedural errors that those who had been privy to the process shared with me, as well as the department’s history of conflict and bias. The Dean upheld the department chair’s recommendation. I appealed to the Provost, with the same result. I filed a grievance with the Faculty Senate. They agreed my grievance had merit, but the head of the committee spoke to me off the record to let me know that their decision would likely not be taken seriously by the university. It was not. He gave me the name of an attorney, and let me know she would charge a third of my salary, if I decided to pursue a legal case. I consulted with a different attorney, but opted not to pursue legal action. In the end, I decided to leave academia and search other employment in Louisiana, so I could remain close to my family.

While all this was going on, I also pursued, in fits and starts, my dream of having a child. Finding myself single at age 40, I turned to a series of medical interventions and infertility treatments. I later learned how many of my anthropologist friends went through the same struggle. At the time, however, I struggled alone, feeling like I had no one I could confide in. I finally had my son at the beginning of my terminal year at LSU. Four months later, my mother passed away. In her final days, she confided that she felt guilty for convincing me to come back to Louisiana and ruining my career. As much as I savor spending her final years together, I admit that I consider my decision to move back to teach at LSU the biggest regret of my life. But it wasn’t her fault. I should never have been put in that position.

My attempts at finding non-academic in Louisiana were fruitless, so after 6 months trying to make ends meet on unemployment, I took a visiting position Kansas State University. I packed up and left with my 14-month old son and started what looked like it might be a new life. My position was renewed the next year. But the year after, they could not get permission hire a visiting assistant professor, only a temporary full-time instructor at a much lower pay rate. I half-heartedly applied. One of the few other positions available that year was a non-tenure track (but permanent) Instructor position at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, only 45 minutes from where I grew up. The advertised pay was ridiculously low, but the position itself was appealing, so I applied and was offered the job. Although I was able to negotiate a higher salary, and summer teaching, it was still much less than what I had been making before.

With a tight budget, I scrimped and saved to make ends meet as my son completed a year of daycare. My first semester went well, and then my father’s health took a turn for the worse. He had 2 long hospital stays in spring 2019 and almost died. My siblings and I struggled to make decisions about his end-of-life care that respected his wishes. He pulled through and an underlying condition was discovered and treated. His health miraculously improved by the summer of 2019.

When my son started Pre-K in Fall 2019, I began to breathe a little easier. Then COVID hit. Suddenly, I found myself homeschooling my 4-year old while trying to work from home. I was afraid to put him back in public school until he could get fully vaccinated, because we spend time each week with my father and it was obvious that even a minor illness might be too much for his body to handle. I was eventually able to put my son in a Forest School program, where he played outdoors with a small group of kids a few mornings a week. I taught via Zoom in the outdoor space at a nearby library. It seemed like a good situation, considering the terrible alternatives.

Still, by Spring 2021, I felt like I was losing my mind. At one point, as my son was having a meltdown while I tried to teach via Zoom, I told my class, “Welcome to pandemic life. It’s a shit show!” It was. I had no time for myself and even with financial help from family, I was not able to pay all my bills. I put off needed repairs on my house and cut corners on everything I could. In Fall 2021, I proposed a new course on Careers in Anthropology and used that opportunity to revise a resume and start to apply for non-academic jobs again. The shift to remote work gave me hope that I could stay in Louisiana and find work that paid well. Then, my department got permission to replace a tenured faculty member who retired during the pandemic. I applied and was offered the position. So, here I am again, starting on the tenure track once again. This time I’m in a supportive department that seems remarkably conflict-free. My son is back in public school and I feel cautiously optimistic. I have plans to return to the field this summer, for the first time in six years. Unless something changes, I will go up for tenure not long before I turn 60. Will I be able to get promoted and go up for full professor before I retire? Will my health hold? We’ll see. If the last two and a half years have taught us anything, it is that life in unpredictable.

My story of struggling to balance the needs of my family and the needs of my job (and being penalized for it) isn’t unusual. I especially wanted to highlight the importance of taking into account the structural constrains on those with caregiving responsibilities. This is a problem throughout academia, not something that is specific to anthropology, but as anthropologists we should be able to understand how these structural constraints create an uneven playing field and take positive steps to address them. We must take into account the stresses that faculty—especially female faculty, faculty of color and contingent faculty—endure in trying to balance eldercare and childcare with our professional responsibilities. We must work harder to make it so that people aren’t penalized for being the caregiver in their family.

Kathe Managan is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. She has published on Guadeloupean language, identities and ideologies. She is currently writing a monograph on Guadeloupean Creole Sketch Comedy and National Imaginings and conducting fieldwork on the role of heritage languages in tourism in Louisiana.