Work/Family/Life Balance Is a Modern Myth
Juggle, Balance, Repeat
When I was just a child, I recall my mom's generation talking about how to “juggle it all”— referring to life, work, kids, house, and relationships. It was literally a juggling act. There was nothing glamorous about it. There were no "boss babes" and blogging mommies.
Fast forward to my generation, and two predominant terms come to mind: “Have it all” and “work/family balance.” That sounds ideal—better than juggling. I wonder what changed? Do more families have maids? Nannies? Did work get easier? Did kids get easier? Nope! Do more men and women share the workload? Men are pitching in about 10% more than decades ago. It’s improving…just don’t hold your breath.
The way we describe work-family life has changed, but the reality is the same. It’s a struggle (but who’s going to call that ace an ace), and if you expect anything more or less, keep searching for that purple unicorn.
While both women and men can experience this balancing act, none of us were talking about how everything is going to get done until women arrived in the workforce.
The Nightmare After Baby
My personal experience with "balancing" work, life, and family didn't go as planned. It was more like a bounce-back process than a balancing one. I averaged one hour of sleep each night. I returned to work, and two car accidents later, visions of balance were replaced with a head-above-water feeling.
My baby cried constantly, got sick at daycare more often than not, and my husband traveled for work inconsistently. I had little support otherwise.
If "have it all" meant depression, anxiety, hallucinations, sleep deprivation, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, headaches and health issues, and anal leakage (Ha! gotcha!)—then yes, I had it ALL!
How would you describe your work/family situation?
When my husband was home, he tried taking the baby, but I was physically unable to sleep with adrenaline coursing through my veins. Discussing this with my doctor was useless. He smiled and said something about how life changes when you have a baby…blah blah blah…all of this is normal.
My transition to work was equally awful…breast-feeding, hormones, deadlines, sleeeeeeeep!!!! My work was less than understanding. You know how when you’re that star player and nobody has EVER seen you screw up, and BAM you do! People are even more let down than if you were the mediocre employee who messes up daily.
Even the daycare who gladly took a bunch of my money every month, suggested I stay at home with my daughter.
My bratty alter ego whined, ‘But I want it allllllllll!’ Pout. Sigh.
While my experience with the supposed WFL (Work Family Life) balance didn’t fare well for me, I realize this isn’t everyone’s story. Some of you are crushing it out there. Who the hell are you, because studies show otherwise.
After believing I was the problem (as most sane people do), I started talking to other mothers and fathers. Not the B.S. ‘everything is going great’ small talk, but really opening this subject up forrrr rrrrreal. I started looking at the studies, and the reports from mothers, from dads, both stay-at-home-dads and men in the workforce with families as well.
The only logical conclusion was “Work/Family/Life Balance” is a myth and we're all driving ourselves nuts. Knowing that I wasn't alone in the struggle helped...a little.
“People should stop searching for the holy grail of balance. It’s not there. You can do both mediocre. You can do one poorly and one well. Or you can do an outstanding job at one and not do the other at all. If you are doing both well there is someone who is giving up doing one of those things in order for you to focus.”— Penelope Trunk (What Would it Look Like if We Said No To Work Family Balance?)
The truth Is in the Stats
When I thought it was just me who was having issues balancing, I looked into it further and found some reassuring, yet disturbing and realistic, stats.
- For instance, men who have a family are paid more on average than women who have a family.
- Studies confirm women actually DO more housework and childcare than men.
- Also, low-income families have an even wider gap in the household roles so those women do even more!
- Scheduling conflicts and the children's sick days fall more on mom.
- Women report choosing less demanding careers because they have a family, and also attribute family as a reason they do not get promoted.
- Dutch women choose part-time work during hours that do not interrupt family time and report being happier.
- At least 75% of American workplaces are still set up for the "ideal" worker (without "other" obligations) to succeed. Meaning, you'll be more successful if work is #1 and you don't have distractions like family.
- The number of men reporting an increase in work/family conflict has more than doubled in ten years. It's becoming a growing concern for men now.
- Men are expected to be involved with their families more now than ever in history.
Living the "Sequential Life"
If you want to be pretty damn good at one of these things, you live what’s called a sequential life. When you work, you’re really working and when you have a family, you’re devoted to them, then maybe work again later in life.
Otherwise you’re just doing a bunch of things to which I say, ‘if you don’t start putting work before life you’ll never be successful and if you don’t start putting life before work, you’ll never be happy.’ Good luck with that!
We Need Better Advice
Currently, there's two schools of thought on this subject:
- Those who give advice on WFL balance, define it, and believe it is attainable.
- Those who do not believe WFL balance is worth the headache and would rather nix the term altogether (I'm in this category).
I don’t like your advice! I don’t like advice that comes with a glaring stipulation in fine, non-existent print: “Will only achieve desired results under ideal circumstances”. If you believe you have WFL balance then you don’t need advice in the first place. You worked something out (like a deal with the devil, but that’s none of my business).
You and your partner could very well adore chores, and you’re willing to do them after the kids go to bed so that it doesn’t interrupt family time.
Most people have a life that is simply not set up in a way to find the consistent balance. And that's OK. You can't get apple juice from a lemon. The notion of WFL balance is therefore damaging to many.
In order for someone to achieve “The Balance” you have to have a partner, for instance, who had phenomenal parents so he/she has an instinctive (Mrs. Doubtfire or Mary Poppins) way with the kids. They like long walks in the park and doing dishes.
In my house this was so out of balance. I’m married to a man’s man so when the baby cried, he’d yell, “Hey why’s the baby crying?” And I’d yell back, “She’s hungry…tired…bored…sick…gassy.” He’d say, “which one is it?” I’d be a smart a** and tell him to ask her (babies can't talk of course). Then I’d tell him the truth. “There’s no way of knowing so you have to spend the next hour trying all 5-599 things it could be.”
So I gave up my career for the kids because I was good at both (Just not all at once) and my husband was only good at one (Career. Period).
And after you go through this twice (two kids for me), you don’t ever really recover. You just want life to be easier (with more sleep and take-out) and we all know that if it’s even remotely easy you’re not ‘being all you can be’ and living up to your potential in anything of significance.
I even tried balance out again from a different angle (I need to learn lessons a few times). My daughter was almost a year old when I started a part-time, work-from-home job. Freelancing work while staying at home with my daughter. The clients wanted more so I gave more until I had my second child and here I was again. Not able to perform at my peak. I knew it. They knew it. It was awkward. Nonetheless, I was consistently mediocre. Finally, I put us out of our misery and quit all those little jobs.
Years of being mediocre at both parenting and work, even though it was semi-flexible, working from home, I discovered another way in which WFL balance was a flop. It might work if you want to be Ok at something. You might even claim your job is “family-friendly”, which is code for ‘they’re willing to accept your average input’.
You get what you give. If you give 10 a hours a day to work and 5 hours to family, assuming you sleep those other hours, it will show up in some way. Likewise, if you flip those numbers around, it will be apparent. Think about it.
Pick a priority! People are just plain happier picking a priority. Once I chose my family, a huge relief washed over me. I only get unhappier as other obligations or projects start creeping up.
When you pick a priority, you have to be prepared to sacrifice other things.
You must pick one priority. Not two. Not the top three. ONE. This doesn't mean you can't do other things, it just means you have peace in your life during tough decisions.
If you have more than one-and-only-one priority, they will come face to face and you will always have an issue choosing. If you have multiple priorities, people and situations will start groveling for the top spot.
Choose the wrong one and it could spell disaster or just leave you with a guilty pit in your stomach.
How things should be: The suffering involved in this ugly rumor called WFL balance literally lies in how we think things should be while failing to acknowledge how they really are. A lot of moving pieces have to come into place to achieve just one minute of balance.
Do I have a spouse who's second nature is family? No. Do I have outside support from other family members or people? No. Have I ever worked at a family-friendly workplace? No. Are they the norm? No.
Realizing what my situation was, made reality a lot easier to face rather than ruminating over what should be.
Instead of appropriately dealing with my circumstances as they are, I had this picture in my head that was rooted from the balance myth, always shifting in my favor, in my control, rather than life (the way it really is), always throwing me a curve ball.
The idea of balance felt like I was supposed to play God and have this omnipotent view of my life, rearranging it at will like moving around a few checker pieces or toy dolls to get people and situations to balance and behave in my favor. The missing piece(s) was actually cultivating resilience/ bounce-back and contentment amidst chaos. But there was no brochure for “having less and loving it”!
Don't worry about how others are doing it- this goes for sex too. Let's pretend for a moment, you decide to compare yourself to your neighbor. She seems to make working and motherhood look easy. This shows that you are likely to compare yourself to best case scenarios. Please don't ask me to compare my body to a 20yr old model.
Just remember, there are other entire cultures that do not juggle or balance work and family. Essentially, this is a non-issue for them. In those countries and cultures that push WFL balance, they have literally fabricated a problem, which has an almost guaranteed failure rate.
The Real Issue
The issue I have with the term: "Work/Family/Life" balance is that's all work...really. Work is work. Duh! Family is work too! Life...maintaining relationships...having a social life.... All work!
Nowhere in WFL balance does it discuss YOU, and the care of you. The rest is all work and stress, sometimes joy of course, but YOU must be in that equation.
Without a 'choose yourself' strategy in every life situation, you give too much power to others in a worst-case scenario.— James Altucher