The insecure scholar: The best-laid plans

Family responsibilities require complex arrangements to allow time for work – but when they break down, they become an acute source of anxiety for the temporary contractor

January 12, 2010

The snow was fun, of course. We had lots in our neighbourhood. School was cancelled for two days and the childminder couldn’t make it, so we dug out my old sledge (unused since 1991) and spent hours sliding down the local hill and making snowmen. Once safely home, we drank hot chocolate and watched old movies in front of the (admittedly gas) fire. Idyllic, right? Well yes, it was, as long as I suppressed thoughts of the work I wasn’t doing...

Regular readers of this column may be forgiven for sighing and seeing a pattern here: much of what I choose to write about concerns how some of the more pleasurable aspects of my life have a bittersweet tinge to them. My insecure career casts a pall of guilt and anxiety over more or less any activity that doesn’t guarantee either financial reward or further work.

Those two days taking care of the kids ate into the first of my final four weeks of contracted employment. With my project almost finished, I had planned to use these weeks to get a jump on the job and grant applications I need to do. That plan hasn’t been entirely derailed, but the time available has been whittled down.

This is a familiar story for me. Life is complicated and unpredictable for everyone and particularly so for those of us who have children. My working life depends on a complex mix of childminding, nursery and school, together with the childcare that my wife and I do ourselves. Every so often these arrangements break down: the childminder gets sick, the childminder’s son gets sick, the childminder’s husband gets legionnaires’ disease (seriously – this actually happened), school gets cancelled due to snow, kids are too sick for school or nursery, etc, etc. On top of that I get sick (I have a chronic health condition), my wife gets sick, the broadband connection fails, the heating breaks down and so on and so forth.

This is the stuff of life and I don’t resent my family responsibilities for a second. Any working parent deals with these issues to a greater or lesser extent. And yet for someone on a temporary contract, enforced absence from work can cause serious problems. I’ve calculated that over the two-year life of my contract, I have lost at least eight weeks to unforeseen events and probably more to periods when I’ve been convalescing from illness and able to do only limited amounts of work.

Throughout these periods, the contract has rolled remorselessly on. Although I’ve been able to finish my project on time, I’ve had to abandon many of my attempts to prepare for life after the contract ends. Ideally, I’d have liked to have extended my contract by applying for another research grant that would start when the current one ends. The time I had planned to do this coincided with a period of turmoil in my childminder’s life and by the time things had been settled, I had too much work to do and it was too late in any case for the application and assessment process to be completed by the time my contract ends.

I admit I may have been too passive here. I am not an expert on the ins and outs of employment law and although a cursory reading of my contract suggests I am not entitled to any contract extension, perhaps if I had fought for it, my contract could have been extended a little. The truth is that I didn’t want to seem petty (most of my enforced absences were occasional days rather than blocks of time) or a troublemaker (for most of my contract I took the view – mistakenly as it turned out – that if I kept a low profile my position might be extended).

Society is still adjusting to the demise of the housewife who keeps the home fires burning while the man works predictable hours no matter what. Progress has nonetheless been made in many professions and flexible working is increasingly accepted as a desirable thing.

There is still a long, long way to go though before the needs of those of us who work on temporary contracts are properly taken into account. Until that happens, the inevitable problems that family life throws up will continue to threaten the viability of my career. It’s a cruel world in which the needs of my kids so often imperil the working life of their father, on whose ability to earn a living they depend.

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