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