Compartmentalization. It’s so easy. Right?


A colleague told me recently that she was able to, now, put upsetting or stressful situations at work aside since having her daughter. The experience of having a (lovely) toddler has helped her somehow no longer worry or ruminate about work. She used to be at home, upset about work things, but after the birth of her daughter, she’s learned to just let it go. It literally doesn’t bother her anymore.

Well, I have one too. A daughter, that is. I’ve had one for about 16 years. And I’ve yet to figure out how not to let things or situations – that I perceive as upsetting, unjust, uncivil, mean or dishonorable – bother me. And they come in all shapes and forms. Work things. Research things. On-the-street things. Things with friends. Things with bureaucratic government offices. Things with families. Interactions with colleagues.

I admire my colleague’s ability to compartmentalize. It is a skill that comes in very handy in life. In some less explicit ways, I think I’m very good at it but only in very particular ways. I work very hard (now) to actually go “off the grid” while I’m on holidays: to spend my days swimming and playing with Georgia, reading books, walking on the beach and generally avoiding my lurking laptop. I haven’t quite mastered it – I think actually leaving the laptop at home might be a laudable next step, but not sure I could do that (!) In other ways, I am so not good at compartmentalizing. My mobile device insists on showing me work emails on the weekend (I know, I know) and the little buzzing in my pocket reminds me that there are things that continue over Saturday and Sunday that will want attention and time on Monday morning, if not before.

But I guess I wonder a couple of things. First, is compartmentalization of the roles we have in life really possible? And why do we place so much value on being able to “separate” your roles?

In some ways, I think compartmentalization is neither ideal, nor possible. And I also think it can be stressful – and somewhat disingenuous. I’m Georgia’s mom, but I’m also a professor and a nurse – and all those things together make up who I am, along with lots of other kinds of roles, experiences (some good, some not so good) and ambitions. I’ve worked hard at all of those roles and to require myself to take one hat off in order to put another one on, seems dishonest in some way.

There’s so much now about how the average North American worker cannot possibly compartmentalize work from home life. The discourse about work now focuses on the ever-encroaching extension of work into our home and family life, the ubiquity of technology allowing us to be available 24/7 for our employers, the growing guilt over taking vacations (and the rise of the “stealth” vacation – an idea I both love and worry about) and the art of setting an email vacation notice that actually allows you to furtively check messages while you’re on the beach or with your family at the cottage. At the same time, there’s also the ongoing discussion and debate about (primarily) women’s experience in the work life – of how to manage conflicting duties, and how balancing work and family often means acknowledging that it’s very difficult and quite frankly often impossible.


There are so many ways of being in the workplace as a mother. I’ve worked with strong and thoughtful women who never talk about their children. I’ve also worked with others who have their office walls filled with finger paintings and who take calls from crying 5 year olds while in a meeting.

At some point in my career, it felt impossible for me to separate Georgia – and being a mother to her – from my work. In my classrooms and courses, I often talk about issues related to disability, acceptance, the social construction of concepts like “normalcy” and “health”, and broader topics in mental health ethics, disability ethics and pediatric ethics. I teach concepts related to family roles and functioning, and family-centred care. And at some point, I decided that, as I encourage my students to bring and share their experiences in class in a thoughtful and reflective way, I also could do the same. And I should. And it’s been, for the most part, pretty successful. I have students who were in my very first health assessment class 13 years ago, who are now friends and colleagues, who remember 3-year old Georgia. And who have, I think, thought about her, here and there, at certain times or in reference to their own experiences.

One of the foci of my much-neglected research work (welcome to academic administration) is the role and experiences of parents in providing therapy to their kids with special needs. Every single parent I’ve interacted with has had an impact upon me, and has helped me to reflect upon my own views. As a researcher doing work “in my own backyard” so to speak, I am able to differentiate my own feelings about what parent participants tell me from the analytic process – and I have, of course, methods of ensuring the rigour of data analysis and pay careful attention to that simply because I must. But I acknowledge that, when I am right in that murky place where one is living and breathing data analysis, there are middle-of-the-night hours lying awake and thinking thoughts of Georgia mixed in with all those other kids I’ve heard about, through hours and hours of parent interviews.

For me, right now, work is stressful. Frankly, parts of it are downright discouraging. There are plenty of things I’d like to change, incivility I’d like addressed, and things that both discourage and demoralize me. I’m learning a lot and maybe reassessing what I want to continue to do and how I want to do it. I’m at a kind of turning point forced upon me not only by my own choices about what I’ve chosen to do, but those around me. I know that’s life. But there you have it – that’s life. That’s not work. Or rather, that’s not just work. It’s everything.

My reactions to these work problems and stresses are, very much, built upon things I’ve learned being Georgia’s mother. The lack of compartmentalization – and the subsequent crossover of emotions, of things I’ve learned, of values I try to uphold – is inevitable. This means that, yes, I do bring these problems home, that I ruminate over evenings and weekends about difficult situations. That while I’m reading to Georgia, my thoughts are elsewhere. That while I’m at a family dinner, I’m talking about what I’m dealing with, at work. That while we are out for an evening, I’m upset about what’s just happened that afternoon at work. I have been known to cry on the College streetcar on the way home from work.

But then again, it does work both ways.

There are times when I’ve had a particularly bad day that I simply refuse to open my computer in the evening and I hang out with my kid. Drinking in her silliness and joy. Taking walks to find junk on sidewalks and then laughing uncontrollably. I’m very present. Spectacularly present. So “present” that I feel borderline defiant. Furthermore, being Georgia’s mom, I’ve developed some approaches and attributes over time, and I try to bring that same kind of approach to problems at work: patience, calmness, and a willingness to face up to difficult dialogues. It often doesn’t work – and I’m met with challenges again and again. I haven’t yet achieved a kind of seamlessness in my approach to all things across all facets of my life that one might aim for, clearly. I’m okay with that. Still working.

So then should I be working harder at compartmentalizing? Well, I don’t have a clear answer. I think there’s value in thinking about it, in deciding first whether or not the idea of compartmentalizing your roles makes sense for you. And, some people, like my colleague, seem to have happened upon it quite naturally, without apparent effort. I don’t know if, once achieved, compartmentalization is healthy or sustainable. I don’t know if it means you just bury things or deceive yourself in some ways.

And while I know one can compartmentalize one’s time (“It’s 5 pm and I’m done work now so there!”)…I don’t know if compartmentalizing our personal and emotional reactions to situations is something that we can ever realistically achieve (and I think this is one of the key problems with the whole notion of compartmentalizing). I do know two things though. They sound somewhat trite compared to all the stuff that’s inherent in this discussion, but I think that they’re both true and they serve me well. First: I’m a better mom to Georgia, much of the time, because of my job and what I’ve learned there, even in the very tough parts of my job. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I’m far better at my job, even the very tough parts, very much and very clearly because of being Georgia’s mom.