June 13 2024

Three Bodies: One Problem, Many Solutions

by Monique Moultrie, Georgia State University

African American outdoor family portrait, c.1899

I specifically asked to discuss family relationships in this column because I thought it important to expand our conversation on gender and work-life balance beyond the two-body discussion. Thus, I have titled these remarks “Three Bodies: One Problem, Many Solutions” to reflect the numerous relationships I value in addition to my academic life. While I will respond most closely with comments on my relationship with my elderly mother and grandmother, I also plan to attend to how I negotiate these relationships with my partner of ten years and my academic institution.

I have spent my burgeoning academic career concerned with single Black Christian churchwomen who desire a primarily heterosexual intimate relationship but seldom achieve this goal. Thus, it feels in a way inauthentic to spend any significant time in this article discussing my heterosexual relationship with my partner when I recognize this is not the reality for many of the women I feel accountable to over the years. I also want to prioritize my relationship with my elderly grandmother and mother because I recognize how our academic discipline must begin to discuss the “greying” of the academy. While I am not in the sandwich generation because I “merely” coparent a high school senior, many of my colleagues are now at the beginning stages of a new reality where they are experiencing a simultaneous decrease in care for their children while experiencing an increase in care for their parents. This is to be expected as the Centers for Disease Control reports that by next year those age fifty and older will represent forty-five percent of the US population.

Particularly relevant for our discussion is the statistic that two out of three caregivers are women; so rather than just consider how family pulls women out of academic life, we must begin discussing how the academy pushes female caregivers out.  These sheer statistics point to the fact that individuals and institutions must begin to think critically about the impact of caring for elderly parents on one’s career, so this is where I am going to start my reflections.

The Family Unit and the Academy

My maternal grandparents, who sacrificed to raise their nine children and then to raise their four grandchildren in an impoverished, rural Virginia home, reared me. I refer to my maternal grandmother as my mother, and my negotiations with my academic career and primary familial relationships begin with my commitments to her. I will offer a few snippets from the yet-to-be-made-a-Lifetime-television-drama that is my life to share what I mean: As a doctoral candidate my seventy-eight-year-old “mother” began having so-called mini-strokes that eventually lead to a heart attack and an actual stroke that required she undergo rehabilitation therapy. She had never been particularly ill, so the family was poorly equipped to deal with her needing significant assistance, and we floundered as we tried to do triage care (educating ourselves on her condition, making the day to day decisions to run her household, and adjusting to the changed reality that she would no longer be the independent self we imagined our mother to be). She speedily recovered, and we considered ourselves lucky only to then have our world shaken when she experienced a massive stroke in the summer of 2009. This stroke left her extremely impaired, unable to walk, unable to use her right hand, and experiencing bouts of aphasia that led to her being hospitalized for four months. I returned home as I had done for the month she needed us during her prior rehab only to realize that this would not be a quick stay, and that I would need to leave my doctoral program temporarily so that I could be an active participant in her care. As a student still working on a dissertation, I initially lied to myself first by saying that I could technically work from anywhere (seriously underestimating how exhausting caregiving is), then by saying I didn’t need to take a formal leave and that I would just make up the time when my mother recovered. Not utilizing academic policies when/if they are there for you is a fool’s errand, and it was a hard lesson learned when I needed to “justify” to my university why I had not completed the degree in the appropriate number of years. But I wouldn’t change this hard-earned lesson because I decided some time ago that my primary relationships would be ones with the people and places that nurtured me, not with the academy that sometimes tolerated me.

Hence, my discussion of negotiating the academy with family relationships starts with the import of understanding the constrained choices in deciding for yourself where your loyalties lie, what your priorities are, and not apologizing for those decisions. To a certain degree my filial relationships can be understood as ones of obligation (i.e., repaying a debt that my family gifted to me). On the other hand, I am also oriented by a sense of gratitude that requires I give back to those who generously supported me. The difficulty of setting one’s family relationship as primary while in the academy is that many of our structures are in support of independent households of two (preferably heterosexual couples), perhaps with children. Lost in this system is the cultural legacy of ancestors or embracing the elderly that some communities of color revere. Trying to fit my cultural norms into a system that sees family in a much more limited fashion has been daunting but ultimately worth persevering because it is a destabilizing act. If, in fact, our country is aging rapidly, our institutional culture cannot continue to presume our larger family units do not exist.

However, balance is not only required from our vocational institutions, it is also required from our families as well. For example, my biological mother (the woman who birthed me but did not raise me) has been diagnosed with stage four inoperable brain cancer. I am currently tasked with making the medical decisions for her end of life care. Despite the fact that I had a distant relationship with her, my family (that is, the mother who raised me), expects me to be the primary caregiver. Given the fact that I am on an academic research leave for the year, in my family’s eyes I am not “technically working” so I am not giving up anything. The academic calendar is baffling for individuals who work most weekdays and sometimes weekends. Getting a salary for coming to campus two days a week is absurd to my relatives, and they constantly expect me to be immediately available, unwilling to acknowledge the preparatory work that goes into an academic career. They remain as unwilling as the academy to acknowledge other commitments in my life exist.

Balancing Two Careers

This brings me to the third body I prioritize, and sadly, it is not my own. My third prioritization is that of my partner. We have shared each other’s lives for the past ten years and all of my career decisions are made in consultation with him and my mother. He is a nonacademic body, though he is seminary trained and understands the world of academe. As a nonacademic body in our three-body problem, he presents another particular community to be accountable to—that of the black church. His career aspiration is to be senior pastor of a Baptist congregation, and while his career does not impact my publications, it does influence my public engagement because his state and national conventions present a more conservative Christianity that is often opposite to the liberal topics I research.

Because he intends to pastor, there are certain ways in I must coordinate my academic schedule to make sure I am available for public piety moments; I am rarely able to skip church to finish a deadline, and I am nudged into teaching Vacation Bible School in the summer, for example. In a recent candidacy for a pastorate, the congregation requested a two-page summary of his wife’s spiritual gifts and potential contributions to the life of the church. Despite stating in his interview that I was away on a research leave, there were numerous questions asked about my ability to be present as “first lady” if he were called to that congregation. We have personally negotiated these boundaries for years as a commuting couple: I currently live in Boston and he in Nashville. When I return from leave, I will be in Atlanta, and he will still be in Nashville. We have made concessions in the relationship for commuting, yet his religious community seems less accepting than the academy of this scenario.

The Burden of Wholeness   

Having presented the three bodies to which I am currently most accountable, I now want to shift to discuss my one main problem—that there are not more of me! I realize how unrealistic, unhealthy, unnecessary it is to negotiate from so many different places, and it would be great to have a duplicate wife/daughter. So to deal with the problem of just one me, I have been working on integrating myself more thoroughly. I was excited about participating in the work-life balance conversations of the AAR’s Status of Women in the Profession Committee because many challenges prevent women at all stages of their careers from achieving a satisfactory balance between earning a living and fulfilling other commitments and responsibilities. These challenges include the need to care for self, children, elders, extended family members, as well as partners in addition to our sometimes-burdensome institutional expectations. As a woman of color I often faced added difficulties because I am called on not only to do extra committee work to provide representation but also to mentor students of color who may have few role models. Toni Bambara posits in The Salt Eaters an important question that guides my integrative work today. She pens “Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”1  I understand that my wholeness and wellness come from me setting priorities and negotiating on my own terms to whom and what I give my time and talents. In my still relatively young career I’m trying to figure this out. I ask myself, “Does my wholeness mean finding ways to live with deep-rooted oppressive structures like the academy? Does it require committing to others more than myself?  Does wellness come in the holy ‘no’ when asked to give beyond what I am comfortable?”

I offer no concrete answers, just solutions I have tried along the way as my means of concluding my remarks. My first concrete suggestion is to be conscious and be honest. I have been clear for a very long time that it is important for my wellbeing that I stay connected to my mother. When she suddenly got sick I found myself in the Atlanta airport unsure if I would make it home in time to say goodbye. I promised and bargained with the Divine within that I would always be no more than a two-hour flight of my home in rural Virginia. This declaration brings me comfort because it is an acknowledgement that being there for her transition is as important as being present in her life. Yet it comes with an academic cost. I have geographically limited my career possibilities to the East Coast. While there are stellar institutions within that corridor, my desire to be in partnership with my husband means I also want to live within a two-hour flight of Nashville. I am landlocked by love. Being honest with myself means I realize this puts numerous Research 1 positions out of my reach. I was trained at three Research 1 institutions and that’s where I thought (and was told) I should teach. But a funny thing happened: I realized that the academic elitism I was chasing was not an internal goal but an external one. What I mean is I discovered that although I liked being at a school with a large endowment and wealthy alums, it was more important to me to in close proximity to the people that sustain me when I am aware how fleeting that is in the academy. Thankfully, I do not view my career trajectory as one of settling because the cognitive dissonance my students experience around my black female body teaching them anything about religion is as validating to me as the acclaim of a research institution. (Although I do wish my pay reflected this equal validation!)

Another suggestion is to understand whether you are making a decision out of cultural respect or out of guilt and/or expectation. I have done both. I have made peace with both but truly know that being fully integrated means being fully agential. Not reacting to expectations but setting one’s own priorities. This is difficult within the academy where tenure guidelines interpret for you where you should place your priorities. I will publish because it is necessary, but I will equally be present for loved ones because it is also necessary. I hope to remain human through these decisions by staying connected to my values and not others’ opinions of my success.

To do so, however, means the realization that sometimes you juggle too many balls and something comes crashing down. This advice was given by a mentor in graduate school who admonished me to be the one who decided which ball got dropped. I will never be able to be fully present for all three bodies requesting my time. The academy, my family, and my needs are constantly being juggled. My primary familial relationship is where I draw the line. This ball stays in the air for as long as I can keep it there, and I am fully aware that with life transitions there may come a point when my partner is the primary relationship I prioritize. While I fully intend to do the work to get tenure, I will not sacrifice my heart and wellbeing to do so. This may be bad career advice, but it is healthy living!

What Institutions Can Offer

Before I leave the impression that my job is not a priority or not valuable, let me now talk about the ways one can use the work system to support one’s priorities. For example, you should be aware of your institution’s policies on adult dependent care or elder care, its adherence to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and other life cycle policies that support your need to be with family. The American Association of University Professors has a helpful Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work, which was essential in helping me advocate for the types of rights I needed protected in any position I agreed to take. Women faculty are documented to decline to take FMLA or other administrative leaves offered by their universities because of fear of reprisals against them.2 Data shows that this is a realistic concern but one that women faculty must be willing to endure to get more of the balance they need to survive in their institution. Stopping the tenure clock is a real unused possibility for most faculty members, and when given the choice of either stopping the clock and dealing with faculty resentment for picking up additional work or continuing the clock while unable to fully progress towards tenure, the end result is still a questionable tenure decision. So why not face that decision with more balanced time? This reality does not mean that we stop agitating for more equitable institutional policies or for a more humane tenure system; I am suggesting a both/and approach.

While many academic institutions have made great strides in access to childcare and policy changes to assist with child rearing (especially of infants) this progress has been slow to come in regards to elder care. Typically, this is a concern of mid-career or senior faculty who tend to have more cultural capital on their side but as the previous demographics suggest, dependent care is becoming more important for junior faculty as well. Just policies and accommodations include more flexible work schedules and benefits arrangements to allow family members to access more diverse options for caregiving that provide respite for the primary caregiver as well as economic assistance for the growing costs of aging.

The American Association of University Professors specifically suggests the following concrete institutional support for faculty caring for relatives, spouses, and partners that I pass on here for our collective advocacy: institutionally supported daycare and eldercare centers; family counseling and caregiver support groups; more flexible tenure clocks and class schedules to allow time for family responsibilities; paid leave (not just unpaid FMLA leave for dealing with family situations); clear channels for navigating university policies as they relate to family care; and department and campus wide formalized support of these policies such that they are the standard for conducting business in your department rather than viewing them as exceptions or special privileges.  Many of these require deep institutional change in policy and personnel, and if you are too junior to risk advocating for these changes place them on your list for things to talk about with a senior mentor (and if you don’t have a mentor, add that to the top of your list!). Some of these suggestions may be already offered at your institution and you are unaware they exist. Begin with your faculty handbook and your human resources office to see what your specific institution offers.

The constrained choice of caregiving and adhering to familial relationships while in the academy is a topic that junior/senior/contingent faculty and administrators must continue to bring up because of the concrete ramifications on women’s careers. For example, according to Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), women who become caregivers for an elderly person are two-and-a-half times more likely to end up living in poverty than those who aren't caregivers because women tend to be penalized promotion-wise for their family responsibilities and/or they end up retiring or leaving the workforce earlier to provide fulltime family care. Despite women being overwhelmingly impacted, male allies are essential to realizing more equitable scenarios. Thus do not try to correct the system all on your own, but you should think through the ramifications of caregiving on your income, retirement, health, and overall work/life balance.

In addition to making allies, in the recent edition of A Guide for Women in Religion, you may find useful the updated sections on aging, family, negotiations, money management, relationships, self-care, and work-life balance as you navigate through your own systems.3 There are numerous resources to help you, but truthfully self-awareness may be your most valuable resource. Be honest in your departments when you see policies that are out of line with families. Don’t opt-out when in reality you are being pushed out by hostile anti-family policies and personnel. Finally, respect your decision whatever it is in balancing your family responsibilities with your academic world. It is your life to balance!


1 Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (New York: Vintage, 1992), 1.

See for example Corbin Campbell and KerryAnn O’Meara, “Faculty Sense of Agency in Decisions about Work and Family,” The Review of Higher Education 34 no. 3 (Spring) 2011.

3 Mary E. Hunt, Kecia Ali, and Monique Moultrie, A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z, 2nd Edition. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Monique Moultire is assistant professor of religious studies at Georgia State University where she specializes in religion and race, religion and women, and sexual ethics. She is the coeditor of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z, second edition (Palgrave Macmillian, 2014) and is a member of the AAR's Status of Women in the Profession Committee.

Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-08762]. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99472441/