The Irish Rover contacted Professor Hollis to get a female academic’s perspective on how to balance work responsibilities and familial commitments. She has spoken on this issue on many occasions over the course of her career, and was recently invited by the Sorin Scholars to participate in a panel discussion on this very topic. She was pleased to speak to us about it.
Irish Rover: As a mother of two with a university teaching career, how do you prioritize and balance your time between your work and your family?
First, I was blessed to have parents who emphasized education for all their children. With my father in particular, it was never whether you would go to college, but where. And then graduate school. His motto was, “Get your education; once you have it, they can’t take it away from you.” He also said, “An educated woman can always take care of herself and her children, no matter what happens.”
I mention this because I have found that young women get pressure from all sides. I have taught young women whose families said, if you plan to have children, you don’t need an education. Then on the other side, they get pressure are some feminists who say, if you stay home and raise your children, you’re wasting your education.
Nonsense to both, I say. An education doesn’t necessarily make you a better parent. But why wouldn’t children do well when both parents are educated?
More to the point, an advanced education offers you more career flexibility, not less. And this is awfully important when you have children, need or wish to work and want to find that balance. In my own life, once I had children, I made choices that limited certain career paths. I had already been in academia for 10 years before I got married, and it offers much more flexibility than other careers. But even within academia, positions have been offered to me that paid much more, but required a lot of travel. I would have had far less flexibility in my workdays. I would have had to work nights. I passed on those.
Second, my husband and I decided when our first child was born that we wanted one of us to be home with our children. I made more money, so I worked, and he stayed home. This, more than anything else, is what has enabled us to find the balance we wanted, and peace of mind.
Third, I recognize how fast my children are growing up. So even if there are things I am not doing now, I can do them later. I am always thinking about where my career will go in my 60s and 70s. (I don’t ever think about retiring!)
How does your husband staying at home impact the family dynamic? Was it difficult for you to reverse the “traditional” roles of stay-at-home parent and working parent?
As between the two of us, it was not particularly difficult, no. We both felt that having a caregiver at home was a priority. Our children had a preschool they attended in the morning, so they had a place to play and learn and socialize. They thrived and were (and are) happy children—and there are few things that make you happier as a parent. I was home a lot with my children when they were babies, too, so I did not feel cheated, and my husband did not feel overtaxed. And, it afforded my husband some new options with his own educational and professional aspirations. So it has worked well for us.
Do other people think it’s weird? Probably. But if there is one theme running through my life’s choices, it is that I am far less concerned with what other people think and far more concerned with whether what we are doing works for us, keeps our family whole, happy, healthy and contented.
TIR: You mentioned that you married relatively late—before your marriage, how did you feel about the prospect of marriage? Would you say you were actively hoping to marry shortly after undergrad, or law school, or after you began teaching? Or did you want to enjoy some of your work first without the concerns of family life?
John Lennon once said, “life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” I come from a family of seven kids; I always wanted to be married and have a family. I assumed I would marry much earlier in life—in my 20s or maybe early 30s. To be honest, even throughout college and law school and in my early career, I sort of thought I’d chuck the whole thing when I got married; that I would have kids, and stay home. As it turned out, that wasn’t in the cards.
In many ways, those early career years were much harder than any of the sacrifices or decisions I have made since I had children. All my friends were getting married, having the big weddings, parties, showers, buying their first homes, having babies. I was alone, living in an apartment, working in the music business, eking out a living on starvation wages. No, that was never my ‘plan.’
But I’ll say this much—even then, I was making choices that I thought would make me happy. I had a law degree from Notre Dame; I could have gone to a law firm and made a lot of money. But that wasn’t what I wanted. And I can tell you that making your own choices is always a lonely road. Good lessons for later in life.
In the interim, I made a career switch into teaching law. I loved it. By my mid-30s, I decided to stop worrying about getting married. As is so often the case with these things, that was when I met my husband. By then, I was established, loved what I was doing, was good at it. And that was a good thing, as it turned out, since I have provided the financial support for our family!
I also gained some very valuable perspective from marrying later—I didn’t marry until I was 41. I know people who married whoever they were dating when they were 22, or 25 or 30, because they decided it was “time.” I could never bring myself to do that (not that I was inundated with offers, mind you). And thank God, because that is inevitably disastrous. The right “time” to marry is when you find the right person—not when everyone else is doing it. Making a life with another person is always a challenge; if you are married to someone you don’t truly love, or who doesn’t truly love you or if you don’t share the same values, it’s misery.
How has your faith, if at all, played into your vocational discernment? How have your faith or faith beliefs impacted the way you view motherhood as a vocation?
My faith is a huge part of everything I do, every decision I make. A day does not go by that I do not think of God’s expectations for me. The biggest challenge for my faith and beliefs about motherhood as a vocation was during all those years when I wanted so much to be a mother, and it wasn’t happening.
But that has made me much more grateful to be a mother now, and more mindful of my priorities. No matter what else needs to be done, I am my children’s mother first. Their needs must take priority over everything else, particularly while they are young. In fact, I have a little prayer that I say to the Blessed Mother that is my personal request for balance. I ask her to help me be a good wife and mother first; to be a good Christian role model to those around me. To do my job well. And then, if there is any time left, to serve and help strengthen our country.
What advice would you give to female students at the university as they think about their own future balances between marriage/family and careers? Should they prioritize one over the other? Can they truly have both? How should they view sacrifice as part of their vocation, whatever it may be?
There are so many things I would like to say! First, when you are choosing a husband, find a man who respects you. A man who respects you will honor your choices and truly be a life partner.
Second, take the long view. In a culture that worships youth as ours does, there is unspoken pressure to accomplish everything by the time you’re 30: “I have to make partner.” “I have to get tenure.” “I have to get my first screenplay sold.” There is life after 30, 40, even 50. Remember that you will be a doctor, lawyer, accountant—whatever—for the rest of your life. But your children are only babies once, and it is for such a short time. Give yourself permission to take your whole life to accomplish some things.
Third, everything meaningful doesn’t get put on your résumé. High-achieving women have a particularly hard time with this. You spend your whole life doing everything to get the best grades, admission to the best school, the best job, the best promotions, the best salary. But your most important relationships and accomplishments don’t end up as bullets on your LinkedIn account.
Fourth, your choices reflect your priorities. Look around—pay attention—the world is filled with talented and accomplished people whose spouses and children have paid a high price for their success.
Fifth, raising children is a full-time job. One person cannot do it alone, and never could. My mother—who was a stay-at-home mom—once said to me, “This idea that one woman, in a house, alone, is supposed to raise children all by herself is a myth. It was never like that. Wealthy women had nannies and nursemaids. Grandmothers lived with families. Extended family was close by—there were parents, step-parents, godparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. “ Families are often scattered now. Mothers don’t just need a loving spouse—they need a supportive network.
So, relatedly, support other women. Most women are doing everything in their power to make the best lives for their children. But we all need our colleagues, co-workers, friends to help us out from time to time. Instead of criticizing, nitpicking, gossiping, we need to reach out and support each other where we can.
Finally, ignore what the world says. The world tells you that life should be easy, that externals are important, that you should focus on your needs, do what everyone else is doing, be selfish. It has always been this way. But Christ’s life gives us the best perspective on this. Love is sacrifice.
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist in the Mendoza College of Business and a Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the Law School. She teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She can be reached at email@example.com.