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Nope, Work/Life Balance Should Not Be The Goal

Photograph by Twenty20

Each past generation of women has given the current generation a gift. In many cases, they’ve given us a boatload of gifts. Thanks to the work of our foremothers, we have the right to vote. We have broader health, educational and political opportunities than the women who came before us. We can own a home without needing a father or husband’s signature, and we can exercise some control over our reproductive future.

I like to think that we, the women of today, can give the women of the future just as many gifts, too. Among those gifts—perhaps electing the first woman President of the United States?—I hope that future generations of women will be able to thank us for dismantling the notions of “having it all” and “work/life balance.”

These notions, and all that they imply, can apply to men, too. But how often do you hear someone ask a working dad how he “does it all”? How often do we praise men who leave work early to coach their child’s soccer team (what a good, involved dad) yet sneer at women who leave work early to attend a parent-teacher conference (ugh, she’s ditching work for her kid again)?

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When it comes to work and family, the socio-cultural narratives are stacked against women.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in The Atlantic last year, the work/life balance idiom “does a disservice to women at the bottom of the income scale, implying that people have some control over this situation … It is the ultimate expression of ‘having it all’—just enough of this and just enough of that.”

But just as with “having it all,” the idea of a “work/life balance” is one that seems to contribute to lots of guilt and very little policy change.

“How do we actually achieve that balance?” I asked another mother as we walked to pick up our children from elementary school. “And whom does the whole ‘work/life balance’ narrative even benefit?”

We need a society that does more than pay lip service to the idea of 'family values.'

She laughed that kind of wry, I-feel-defeated-but-ain’t-gonna-show-it laugh that many parents know all too well. “Some of the best working parent advice I’ve ever received,” she said, “came from a former boss who told me, after my first son was born, that there is no such thing as work/life balance. I thought she was ridiculous and pessimistic and tried my best to prove her wrong. Now I know that she was exactly right.”

Indeed. There is never a perfect 50/50 when it comes to work and family. As soon as you think you find balance, one kid gets sick and your focus shifts solely to them and not work. Or a huge project looms at work, and you miss a piano recital or a softball game. Sometimes entire weeks or months go by where work makes you distant from your family life. Sometimes entire weeks or months go by (hello, baby’s first year) where family life keeps your brain boomeranging from home to work and then back home again.

The best we can probably do is aim for something like 60/40, where the 60 alternates between work and family. And then when the "balance" looks more like 90/10, we can try and make up for it to our colleagues or to our families.

And the best our society can—and should—do is make it easier for working parents to achieve these goals.

Perfect balance is impossible. Sacrifice is inevitable.

Interestingly, Slaughter argues that instead of focusing on balance, we should focus on care. According to Slaughter, we shouldn’t just focus on it: we should value it. And that value must include adequate compensation for care work. We need more robust paid parental leave so that new parents can care for their new babies. We need more affordable child care options—and better compensation opportunities for the people working to provide said child care. We need more flex time and in-house daycare centers.

We need a society that does more than pay lip service to the idea of “family values.”

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Thus, we shouldn’t dismantle all talk of “having it all” and “work/life balance” simply in order to obliterate those ideas. Instead, we should take them apart, reconstitute them and build them into something that actually works for all parents.

When it comes to blending parenting and working, the “all” that people speak of is unachievable. Perfect balance is impossible. Sacrifice is inevitable.

Better to strive for a world in which everyone can have “some,” and work life and home life can be fulfilling and enriching, even if those parts of our lives can’t ever be perfectly balanced.

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