Monday, December 18, 2006

Work-life balance: Our ladder is up the wrong tree

All the research I have done as Mojo Mom has led me to a conclusion that I really need to share with you. As mothers trying to have an integrated life with many facets, have set our sights set on the wrong goal. Our ladder is up the wrong tree in a major way.

I am talking about “work-life balance.” This idea is everywhere, and has become a watchword for my generation, Gen X, which has put “work-life balance” on the map as our highest ideal as we negotiate with our hard-charging Boomer bosses. Although it is usually presented as a positive ideal, “balance” is a trap. I argue that rather than being our highest goal, “balance” accurately describes our current situation that asks families to do it all…on our own. Until we change our thinking on this issue, we are going to be stuck with the same set of unappetizing work-life “choices” that we are faced with now.

Think about it. Who needs balance? Jugglers, tightrope walkers….and Moms. Picture the iconic cover of a chick-lit novel, showing a woman struggling to “balance” a briefcase, cellphone. and pacifier. In real life there would most likely be a dog and stroller involved too, in addition to an actual baby. When we tell women to strive for balance, we’re really telling them to keep dancing as fast as they can. We are telling them that they are failing to keep it all together without asking for help.

“Balance” is in fact a telling metaphor for motherhood. Balance is the underappreciated sixth sense in our brains. Our sense of balance is active, dynamic, and takes a constant hum of processing and adjustment to achieve—yet this vital work barely registers in our conscious mind. We only notice it when our system fails and we are thrown into disequilibrium, left dizzy and unable to function. We couldn't get out of bed to stand up straight and walk, much less work and lead productive lives, without our sense of balance. But when is the last time you thought of your vestibular system, not to mention stopping to thank heavens for the vital job it does?

This is just like the work that mothers provide: unpaid, uncounted, and invisible labor that forms the foundation of family life. If it were counted, women's unpaid household labor would add an estimated one-third to the world's annual economic product, more than $4 trillion.

So if our balancing act is a farce rather than a lofty goal, what should we be aiming for?


This needs to become our new ideal, our North Star, our guiding metaphor. The motherhood movement should aim for creating a real support network that involves everyone--employers, communities, men and women. We need a team approach to holding up the world, one that recognizes the contributions that all family caregivers make, a system that does not just expect us to make the pieces fit all by ourselves on an individual level. My Mojo Mom Mantra is to "make the invisible work visible and then divide it fairly." We are still at the beginning of that first step, increasing awareness about what mothers and fathers contribute to society, through the sacrificial giving that is required to raise the next generation of children. Support and teamwork need to trickle up from the grassroots to a policy level. We can use this context to explain the motherhood movement to our supporters and skeptics alike.

I learned a lesson about support recently. I had ordered a giant beanbag chair called a Foof Cube for our home. My 7 year old knew a good thing when she saw it. Within a day of its arrival she had commandeered it for her bed, and she’s been sleeping in it every night since then. Kids are great at taking what they need.

I am also ordering another one for myself. In the meantime, I sneak into her room during the school day and sink down into the foam cube to remind myself what support feels like. I am cradled in a snug nest. I let go, and nothing falls.

I could get used to this.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you that much of what ails modern motherhood is that mothers are doing the balance work alone. Change has to happen both on the policy front and within individuals. My husband and I are dedicated to the latter (although fully supportive of policy change too), and have recently launched a website to connect and help parents who wish to equally share in all of this balance work - childraising, housework, breadwinning and recreation time. We would be honored if you checked us out at
-Amy (and Marc) Vachon

7:18 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Amy and Marc, thanks so much for posting and sharing your website with us. I am so glad to know about your work and I wish you the best. Let's stay in touch and see if we can work together.

Men are an integral part of this as well, and I love your collaborative approach.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous UnMartyred Mom said...

Amy, what a beautiful post and an important point. As long as it is up to Mom to keep balancing, to keep juggling, she won't stop to notice all the other people walking around, stealing foofs or otherwise taking care of themselves.

I'd like to add another objection to the phrase "work-life balance." Since when is work not life? Since when is life not work. Motherhood is lots of work, as any mother would agree, no matter how many hours she is actually compensated for.

12:41 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Unmartyred Mom, I agree about life and work all being one. There is only one pie no matter how you slice it. I am definitely thinking about this for a follow-up post.

By the way, I let my girl keep the Foof so that she would really get to know that supportive feeling. Someday when she's a Mom I hope she'll "Remember the Foof!"

1:57 PM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

Kids AND men are really good at taking what they need. I find that that drives me crazy about my husband and I sometimes get resentful and angry. Then I stop and think, 'Well, why am I not taking what I need, as well?'

You are right on the money, MojoMom, but I am not holding out a lot of hope for support. I think we have a long way to go on that one.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Zeldman said...

I love this quote:

"When we tell women to strive for balance, we’re really telling them to keep dancing as fast as they can. We are telling them that they are failing to keep it all together without asking for help."

How true!

I used to get caught in "the balance trap" thinking that only if I could be more organized, more scheduled and more consious about every little decsion I could "get balanced" (in terms of my roles & priorites) and things wouldn't get out of whack...

But that's just not realistic.

My favorite yiddish saying is "Humans Make Plans, And G-d Laughs" How can we keep everything perfectly balanced all the time when just when we've got everything sorted out life throws us a curve ball like losing a job, a sick parent, or a joyus occasion like another baby?

There is no such thing as perfect balance - There are only choices to be made, the best you can, on a daily, sometime moment-to-moment basis...trying to keep the big picture & end "goals" in mind.

Instead of trying to create the prefectly balanced life, I now try to remain a balanced woman. In other words - balanced inside of my own head!

To me a balanced woman regularly tunes into her own thoughts and feelings, makes choices that reflect her values, and takes the time to replenish her depleted energy and -- yes -- asks for (even demands if necessary!) support!

In short, a balanced woman lives purposefully – not perfectly. She can survive & thrive with whatever throws her way.

That's my $.02 :)

Sarah Zeldman

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I agree Sarah. There is no balance to be found outside ourselves. That being said, I don't know a single mom who doesn't feel like a "single mom," doing it all and doing it alone.

4:17 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. I have been reading with great interest, but today I have reached my breaking point of feeling completely overwhelmed. So I am starting at square one trying to get my mojo back.

PunditMom said: You are right on the money, MojoMom, but I am not holding out a lot of hope for support. I think we have a long way to go on that one.

This is very true, but when we do set lofty goals they should be the ones we really want. 'Balance' takes way too much work, IMHO. That's what is driving me nuts. Mama Atlas with the entire globe supported on her back. And I know that I have it easy compared to most Moms!

5:18 PM  

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