Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

How to Be a Caregiver While Caring for Your Own Career

Full vitae caregiving

Image: iStock

By the time most academics find a tenure-track job (if we find one), we are in our early 30s. As luck would have it, that’s also the age when many of us start dealing with aging or infirm parents and other elderly relatives. The timing couldn’t be worse, coming just as our careers are getting started.

Of course a health emergency can strike a relative at any age, and the larger problem for many academics is that we are often the go-to family member in a medical crisis. After all, we’re the ones with the "flexible" schedule, right? We come and go as we please, and our time is our own?

It’s not uncommon for early-career academics to lose professional ground because of family obligations. When I say "family obligations," I don’t mean being a working parent or deciding whether or not to have children. Those topics have been researched and written about extensively; we already know how parenting can set back an academic career.

The family obligations to which I am referring affect the 43.5 million Americans who are the primary unpaid caregiver for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend. Most often, they are middle-aged women who are caring for their widowed mother while also working full-time and raising their own children or even grandchildren. Other caregivers are responsible for the health and well-being of fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, even grandparents.

Anyone who’s taken care of a sick friend or relative for more than a couple of days knows the emotional and physical strain involved. Monitoring medications, sorting through insurance hassles, transporting someone to and from medical appointments, preparing meals, and sleeping fitfully are par for the course — not to mention the constant worry.

For early-career academics, the caregiving role can be particularly challenging. Graduate students who take over the care of a sick relative are forced to balance the ever-present uncertainties of doctoral study with the new instability at home. Caregiving is no easier for new faculty members, either. Academics already struggle to create boundaries between work and home, often using evenings and weekends to grade, draft lesson plans, and write. When nonwork hours are consumed with familial responsibilities, it can be nearly impossible to meet the ever-increasing expectations for publishing and service.

That is especially true for women and scholars of color — for whom gender and cultural norms demand they assume a caretaking role at a young age. Further, many female academics of color are the first in their family to attend college or earn a graduate degree, giving them a prestigious place in the family hierarchy — and thus, the obvious choice for caregiver.

Additionally, because nonacademics often perceive the "life of the mind" to be easy, flexible, and lucrative, we are often the one the family turns to when a relative falls ill and needs help.

The reality, of course, is that early career-academics are in tenuous financial and professional positions. The job market is dwindling, and most Ph.D.s are contingent instructors who work at more than one institution and have significant educational and personal debt. Most don’t have the time or money to care for others, as they must teach at several campuses in order to earn enough to pay their bills. Indeed, according to the latest salary study conducted by the American Association of University Professors, the average salary of a full-time faculty member working at a single institution was $77,088 in 2017-18, while, in the previous year, the AAUP’s study found that the average salary for a part-time instructor working at one campus was only $20,508.

Unfortunately, being a caregiver restricts your professional opportunities even more because it limits where and how long you can work. If you are solely responsible for a chronically ill relative, it is unlikely that you can attend evening and weekend events, travel to conferences, be on campus every day of the week, or teach full days when you are there.

Further, caregiving affects people’s physical and emotional well-being. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving: 72 percent of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should; 55 percent skip their own doctor appointments; 58 percent indicate worse exercise habits than before they took on caregiving responsibilities; and 60 percent say they suffer from depression that ranges from moderate (44 percent) to severe (16 percent). Those numbers are concerning on their own but even more so when compounded with research that shows how many academics struggle with mental and emotional well-being.

So here are a few tips from a scholar friend who is the sole caretaker for her 82-year-old father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and schizophrenia:

  • Gather all family records and store them in a file cabinet, organized by year. There is a lot of information to keep track of, so you need an effective and easily accessible record-keeping system.
  • Make a daily/weekly/monthly schedule and stick to it. Routines are incredibly useful for mitigating anxiety and for making sure you do everything you are supposed to do at work and at home.
  • Seek community organizations that can connect you to resources such as support groups and in-home care providers. Those agencies can also provide up-to-date information on pertinent policies and laws, and help you develop a caretaking plan that aligns with your life.
  • Consult an accountant about possibly claiming your loved one as a dependent. Then ask a financial planner for help creating a long-term budget that allows you to cover immediate expenses while also planning for the future.
  • Meet with a lawyer who specializes in family law to ensure that official documents (e.g., power of attorney, will, etc.) are in place.
  • Consider getting your loved one a social worker and/or guardian ad litem. These professionals are dedicated to ensuring the welfare of vulnerable people such as children, the elderly, and the chronically ill. Such experts are going to be better informed than you are about how to navigate the health-care system and obtain government assistance.

As for your professional life, here are some strategies that may make it easier to meet your job expectations:

Tell your colleagues about your family obligations. This is a tricky one as some people may feel their department and/or their immediate supervisor is unreceptive to family-related requests. Nonetheless, we often underestimate other people’s compassion and end up making our lives more difficult than they need to be. If your department chair and colleagues are aware of your situation, they may be less likely to ask you to do extra work and may be more forgiving if you miss a deadline.

Be a stickler about your work hours and job duties. You may feel uncomfortable sharing your personal life with colleagues, but you are well within your rights to control your own work schedule. Be sure that your signed contract clearly describes your teaching load, scholarship expectations, and service requirements — and use it as a guide. If possible, negotiate for a reduced teaching and service load for the first year or two of your job. Also, consider online teaching so you don’t have to be away from home too frequently. That will give you some time to develop a healthy work-life balance.

Do what you can to ease other burdens in your work and life. Instead of coming to campus, participate in meetings via Skype or conference call. Limit the number of individual essays you assign (and will thus have to grade), in favor of group projects. Inquire about hiring a teaching assistant (or, if your college doesn’t have TAs, ask about hiring a local adjunct) who can cover for you in the case of an emergency or help with grading.

Evaluate your research agenda. You may not be able to study the same thing you studied in graduate school if it requires you to travel to archives, be in the field, or spend significant amounts of time away from home. You might need to switch from qualitative to quantitative methods, or at least find research assistants or collaborators whose schedules are more flexible.

Write when you can but try to keep a schedule. Writing for 15 minutes a day doesn’t work for everyone. If you need to write in large chunks of time, choose a day and time when you can be away from home. Devote that block of time entirely to writing at least once a week.

Finally, take care of yourself. You’ve chosen a demanding career that may not always be compatible with intense family demands. There may come a time when you can’t do both, and it’s OK to take a leave of absence from work or to ask for help with your caretaking duties. It is not a sign of failure to pause, reflect, and reorganize your life. We fail when we aren’t honest with ourselves about our limitations. Sometimes you need to give yourself a break.

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