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Series: Tackling Work-Life Balance (20) In Pursuit of Work-Life Balance in America and in Japan

Series: Tackling Work-Life Balance (20)

In Pursuit of Work-Life Balance in America and in Japan

Kellam, Marisa Andrea
Associate Professor
Faculty of Political Science & Economics
Waseda University

A couple of years ago, when drafting my bio for the “Women Also Know Stuff” website – an organization founded by political scientists in America – I added the following line: “Dedicated to her academic career and family, she engages daily in the pursuit of work-life balance.”  It is true! Along with “publications,” “courses,” etc., I also feature a “kids” tab on my website (my proudest accomplishments). I share these personal details in my professional profile, because the pursuit of work-life balance has been a defining feature of my academic career.

Having read through some of the other posts in this series, I recognize and respect the diversity in what work-life balance means for different members of the Waseda community.  I’m honored to have the opportunity to share my perspective, and I would like to describe how my experience with work-life balance has changed over the course of my career and after my move to Japan.

My story begins in grad school at UCLA, where I met my future husband. We were both pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. Apart from the occasional hike or concert, we spent most of our time together studying or talking about our dissertations and future academic careers. Our life was political science. In our final year of grad school (2006-2007), we got jobs at a university in a part of the country where we had never lived, got married, bought a house, got pregnant, started our jobs and finished our dissertations – in that order.  We packed so many steps of life into that one year, no wonder I was stressed out! Since then, my husband and I have had parallel careers, by which I mean that we face the same job expectations, we have basically the same salary, and we share the same deadlines for conference papers and grade submissions.

Babies on the Tenure-Track in America

When our daughter was born, I was overwhelmed with happiness and the preciousness of a newborn baby. Yet, almost immediately, life and work felt zero-sum to me. There were actually two scales that I was trying to balance: not only life vs. work, but also my career vs. my husband’s career.   If I was working, he was parenting (hence, not working), and vice versa.
I struggled with the impossible balance of work and life, when life entailed around the clock breastfeeding. But it was not just a biological struggle; it was also an intellectual and emotional one. I questioned why I paid a stranger to take care of my precious baby girl so that I could carry out my research on, say, the voting behavior of Brazilian legislators. In other words, part of the struggle for me was that my research was no longer interesting and important to me.  The research had not changed, but I had.

Our daughter began full time daycare at 14 months; then came the ear infections and the chest infections. We had no family nearby. We alternated our teaching days, but that meant we each spent our research days at home taking care of a sick kid.  Our son was born when our daughter was two and a half.

The juggling of two young children and two careers affected both us, but differently. I was given a year pause on my tenure clock for each baby.  My husband was later granted a one-year extension, justified by our daughter’s asthma and frequent need for care.  These policies were tremendously helpful, but they didn’t solve the work-life balance. My husband’s peers who were granted year-long paternity leave at their universities and who had stay-at-home wives, were more productive during these years, not less. He realized that social norms meant that he would not receive the same pass for low research productivity as a new father that I would be granted as a new mother. From my perspective, even if my tenure clock was paused, my peers kept publishing and I needed to keep up with ongoing research.

Still, I look back at the first few years of our family life with fondness. From the moment they were born, our children have brought us tremendous joy. During this time, we also pursued our careers with passion and commitment. Just as surprising as it was to become uninterested in my research about six months into my first pregnancy, I was also surprised after my son’s second birthday when I found myself once again invigorated by my academic work.  However, I constantly felt I was not being the mother, nor the professor, that I was capable of being.

Raising Kids in Japan

Fast-forward a bit: when our daughter was close to 6 and our son 3, we moved to Japan. My husband began a full-time faculty position at the Faculty of Political Science & Economics at Waseda, and I began a three-year position at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study.  The first year was crazy – I commuted from Setagaya-ku with our son to childcare in Ichigaya and my husband commuted with our daughter to a hoikuen next to Waseda.  Even so, my time at WIAS was so valuable, coming at a mid-point in my career and when my children were no longer babies. I taught just one or two classes per year, and otherwise focused on turning a pipeline of working papers into publications.  If someone asked me to offer policy recommendations based on my experience, I would suggest a two-part maternity and paternity leave policy. In addition to the standard leave at the time of childbirth, I would also advocate for a year of teaching leave or substantial teaching reduction five or six years later when the parents can make up for lost research time.

In 2016, I began a full-time faculty position at the FPSE at Waseda. The impossible balancing act returned: my teaching, my research, my husband’s teaching, my husband’s research, our third-grader, our first-grader, the never-ending pile of laundry to fold, and so on. Recently, I also added an administrative position to my responsibilities; I now serve as the director of the English-based Degree Programs at the School of Political Science & Economics. The balance remains elusive, but for me the underlying tension or struggle has subsided.  In some part this is because I am now more confident and accomplished in my career and because my children are older.

But the work-life balance is also different now because of my new working and living environment in Japan. First of all, because I do not understand Japanese, my husband is primarily in charge of “external relations” for the household – a position I held when we lived in America. He mostly handles the doctor’s appointments, the school paperwork, the finances, etc. He does a lot more than this too – for instance, he cooks dinner most nights.

More generally, because Japanese society allows children to be more independent once they are in elementary school, I believe that the work-life balance is easier to manage here than it is in the USA.  My friends back home tell me about driving around all afternoon to pick up their kids from their schools and take them to and from after-school activities. Elementary school children must always have adult supervision. In contrast, my kids ride their bikes or take the train to violin lessons or soccer practice. They play at the park with their friends. They go to the convenience store alone. Of course, I want to spend time with them playing and eating together. But it is nice that I do not have to rush out of my office to pick them up at some exact time. When both my husband and I have work obligations they can take care of themselves.  Certainly, there are aspects of Japanese culture that do not foster work-life balance. Long working hours and intensive juku for children are not healthy for families, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I appreciate how there is social respect for the time and effort that motherhood entails and social support for the safety and independence of children in Japan.

I now see “work-life balance” as akin to “perfection” – something we strive for (especially the perfectionists among us) but cannot ever really achieve. There are days when I think that perhaps I do in fact have that sought-after balance in my life, but even so I feel the inherent tension. While motherhood comes naturally to me, work-life balance does not – still, I keep striving.

2019 Bowling Showdown between the Kellam Zemi and the Kurizaki Zemi:

Marisa Kellam is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, where she researches the quality of democracy in Latin America. She teaches international and Japanese students in the English-based degree programs of Waseda’s School of Political Science & Economics as a director of the program.
After earning a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA, she spent several years as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. She moved to Tokyo in 2013 with her Japanese husband and two children. After spending 3 years as an associate professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS), she began her current position in 2016. Dedicated to her academic career and family, she engages daily in the pursuit of work-life balance.

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