Selfishness, Selflessness, and the Work-Life Balance in Academia

You haven’t the faintest conception of what I went through with your dear Robert. The ingratitude! It was I who made a man of him! Sacrificed my whole life to him! And what was my reward? Absolute, utter selfishness.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Rachel: Maybe Joey’s right. Maybe all good deeds are selfish.
Phoebe: I will find a selfless good deed. ‘Cause I just gave birth to three children and I will not let them be raised in a world where Joey is right.

Friends, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” (1998)

Over a weekend earlier this month, I had a text conversation with my brother about the feelings of guilt I was having about not doing more work. I had gotten up in the morning and paid our bills, got together all our tax information to send to the accountant, finally packed up the holiday decorations, and did some cleaning. By mid-afternoon, I was sitting in front of my computer playing games online because I was worn out and lost all motivation to work. When I told my brother what I was doing, he said that I had earned the break. My response? “I still feel guilty about it. There’s so much I could be doing!”

One of the things that I struggle with in graduate school is finding the work-life balance that allows me to be content with the amount of work that I put in and still take time for myself that allows me the space to recharge. I don’t have the answers yet, unfortunately. But I hope that this reflection on gender, Christian selflessness, and work-life balance will raise some ideas in others about how to balance work and life in academia and hopefully start a conversation about things we can do to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Although we all struggle with work-life balance, I suspect that this problem is particularly difficult for women (and especially for women with husbands and/or children).1 For example, there’s a whole genre of literature on achieving work-life balance for women with children in academia, such as Professor Mommy and Mama, PhD.2 Additionally, the American Academy of Religion’s Status of Women in the Profession Committee has launched a whole project focused on work-life balance and I just received in my school mailbox information about a Women’s History Month event next month that is focused on women’s wellness because “women typically take care of everyone else in their lives first and themselves last.”3 Part of this has to do with the pressures that middle-class American women put on themselves in relation to their children. In my “free time,” I recently finished reading Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and the approach of the French can more or less be summed up as: let go and let your child learn to handle things on their own, within reasonable limits.4 The comparisons that the author makes between her American and French friends are telling. Americans tend to micromanage and that’s part of the reason why we have so much trouble with work-life balance.

But I digress. The point is that even with two parents working, women work more hours at home than men so the problems of work-life balance still need to be addressed in a gender-specific way.5 The ways in which men balance their work and life might not work for women because of the different pressures that women experience, coming both from societal expectations and from the pressures that we put on ourselves. Life in academia adds a whole different level of pressure to this since there is always something else you can be doing. You can always be doing some reading, or writing, or grading, or lesson planning. There is never really an end point you reach when you can say, “I am done with everything that can be done on this (article, book, dissertation, lesson plan).” Being a woman in academic theology can compound these problems, which might manifest differently in fields that have more gender balance and more support for women’s issues. (I should note that my original idea for this post was prompted in part by Brandy’s two-part series on loneliness in academia because an outsider status based on gender can contribute to a lot of these difficulties, especially when you’re “competing” with a bunch of male PhDs.6)

Part of the difficulty that women have with work-life balance comes from a Christian emphasis on selflessness that has just become engrained in Western society. In preparing to write this, I found this blog post arguing that women are holding themselves back in relation to income inequality precisely because of the Christian tradition of emphasis on selflessness for women. The post explains7:

Generally, women earn less in gross income because they choose to. Why would women choose to earn less than men? Many see it as their role and selfless duty to raise children–that, in order to be a good mother, they must stay at home. Psychologically, some women hold themselves back by believing that they must play the role of “nurturer,” a moral ideal which is reinforced by longstanding Judeo-Christian cultural standards. Even so-called advocates of “women’s rights” say that women are specially tuned to an “ethics of care.”

On the other hand, not having children and instead pursuing a high-income job is considered selfish. Since selfishness is thought to be bad, many women choose to be “moral” and so decide not to pursue jobs that would allow them to earn the same high salaries as men.

A lot of this emphasis on selflessness derives from the thousands of years in which theology was written primarily by men and implicitly thus based on their own experience. Sin has come to be traditionally linked to pride, as Susan Ross notes in her chapter on the sacraments in Freeing Theology.8 As Ross explains, “The understanding of sin as pride, or hybris, is… more applicable to men than to women who have been encouraged to be selfless. Women’s sin may well lie more in an underdevelopment of the self and a too-great reliance upon the opinion of others” (200).9 Of course, another possible concern about sin deriving from this emphasis on selflessness for women could be a selfishness that manifests itself as selflessness–the martyrdom complex expressed by the ghost referenced at the beginning of this post in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Women can still be selfish while still appearing to be functioning within the bounds of selflessness. But the point that I want to make isn’t whether or not women can be selfish or prideful, but rather that there has been an emphasis on selflessness in Christian theology that may be detrimental to women who can have a tendency toward excessive selflessness.

But to get back to the main issue (or my main problem at least!) of work-life balance, many women, and especially the type-A, ambitious women who choose a life in academia, have a natural tendency to want to do it all. But, we’ll never have any balance without taking time for ourselves to recharge–a tendency that seems to go against how women function (whether these gendered pressures are societal or natural or some combination of both is a question for another time). And sometimes the advice that is given to women in academia about how to achieve work-life balance seems to be to ultimately sacrifice the time that you need for yourself. For example, in the (very helpful) advice given in Professor Mommy, the authors note, “One thing that the vast majority of women we surveyed have in common is this: they are very careful with their time. They don’t do anything that doesn’t directly benefit their scholarship, teaching, or family life” (181). It is so easy to read that last sentence and think that all the time that you spend not sleeping should either be benefiting your scholarship, teaching, or family responsibilities and that is ultimately an unrealistic expectation that it is very easy to fall into. It is essential that in thinking about how to balance work and life, women also think about themselves in the time that they allot to their family because if you don’t take some time for yourself, you’re either going to end up taking that time unexpectedly when you had hoped to be doing something else (as I was doing when I was texting with my brother) or you’ll end up having a nervous breakdown. In order to achieve a healthy work-life balance in academia, women have to overcome the traditional Christian emphasis on selflessness and take care of themselves as much as they take care of their work and their family or home life.

Of course, in terms of how exactly to do this, I most definitely do not have any answers. I tend to try to do everything in the little time that I have during a given day. Then the time that I end up taking for myself is generally spent wasting time on the internet, which ultimately isn’t a good way to recharge. But I hope this post can be fodder for discussion about ways in which we can balance our work and life more effectively.


  1. This is not to suggest, of course, that women without children or partners are any less busy. I only mention children and husbands because much of the discussion on work-life balance in academia focuses on motherhood. 
  2.  Mama, PhD is a collection of articles by women about academia and motherhood. I haven’t read it, but one of my colleagues has and she told me that some of the articles, especially those on leaving academia, are particularly discouraging about the possibility of balancing academic work and family. However, I highly recommend Professor Mommy to anyone, whether you have children or not. It’s especially targeted toward women, but it has a lot of helpful and specific advice about how to balance your academic life with your family life. 
  3. I will admit that I am a bit uncomfortable attributing any specific characteristics to one gender or another, but I’m going to be doing that throughout this post anyway. 
  4. Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2012). 
  5. My favorite quote from that article: “It’s important to remember that fairness isn’t just about absolute equality. It’s about the perception of equality. Women may work fewer paid hours than men, but because they devote nearly twice as much time to family care (housework, child care, shopping), it doesn’t look to women like their husbands are sharing the load evenly when they’re all home together. It looks instead like their husbands are watching ‘SportsCenter.’” 
  6. At a recent meeting of the PhD students with the chair of my department, this gender imbalance was put into sharp focus. There were five women there–about half the number of men and that didn’t even count the men on campus who were unable to be there. (And there were only five women there because three of those women are in their first year. For a while it’s been only myself and one other woman who have been on campus.) 
  7. I would like to also note, however, that this choice is forced upon American women in the workplace because of the absolutely barbaric family-leave policies in our country. As this NY Times article notes, “It is no secret that when it comes to paid parental leave, the United States is among the least generous in the world, ranking down with the handful of countries that don’t offer any paid leave at all, among them Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea,” and, “While the United States takes great pride in its family values, it is the only high-income country that does not offer a paid leave program.” 
  8. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed., Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in a Feminist Perspective (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993). 
  9. Ross makes reference here to Valerie Saiving’s article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” The Journal of Religion 40, no. 2 (1960): 100-112, available via JSTOR

3 thoughts on “Selfishness, Selflessness, and the Work-Life Balance in Academia

  1. Great post, this is an important topic to discuss; a balanced life can greatly improve a person’s happiness. Spending an abundant amount of time in one area while neglecting the other can lead to an undesirable outcome leaving the individual feeling unsatisfied and unhappy. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Great post, Elissa, and lots to think about. Work isn’t everything, and we do need to take time to rest. It helps me to remember that God values rest and set an example for us by resting after his creation of the world. (God obviously doesn’t need rest, but this is always encouraging when I feel like I just don’t have time to rest!)

  3. Love this. I find this struggle to seek Sabbath particularly ironic in the study of faith – like, this academic space should inherently carve out time for mindfulness, focus, or just lazing on the couch watching Netflix. You’re right on about the double-standard between womyn and men, too!

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