Balance backlash

The experts say the key to happiness is finding a balance between work and family. So why does the message make parents feel worse?

Back when my husband and I were debating whether to have kids, we felt that trying to juggle two careers and a family would be too difficult. So we agreed that I would stay home until the kids were in school. Sometimes, when I could fit it in, I would write. I figured we had this work-life balance thing licked.

It didn’t quite work out that way. As much as I love my kids — Roan, six, and Jolina, four — I soon found myself yearning for some adult interaction, and I volunteered to be president of Jolina’s parent-participation preschool. I was drawn to the challenge of being in charge of the daily operations. And meeting at Starbucks to negotiate employee contracts sounded more stimulating than reading Strawberry Shortcake’s Ballet Recital for the 67th time. Then our teacher suddenly became seriously ill, and we had to scramble to find substitutes for the remainder of the year. No problem, I told myself, I’ll do nothing but preschool until we get this settled. But that meant spending less time on writing — and less time tucking in my kids at night. Was this work-life balance? Did I even know what balance is?

I’m not the only one who’s confused and frustrated by the concept. Back in the 1980s, the ideal working mom was the superwoman who had a fabulously exciting full-time career and a blissful family life, with no room for compromise. Of course, all the superwoman myth did was make mothers feel inadequate. So we moved on, and now the ideal bandied about on daytime TV and in women’s magazines is no longer about having everything; it’s about giving up some things, so you can enjoy what’s left. Work-life balance — at least as the life coaches and wellness experts see it — is about working less so you can enjoy more moments with your kids, and also about not feeling guilty if you miss the odd dance recital because of an important meeting.

But a funny thing happened along the way: These two ideas seem to have blurred together. What began as a reaction to the “gotta have it all” message has morphed into “gotta have it all, and gotta keep it in perfect balance.” Instead of freeing women from resentment and guilt, all this talk of work-life balance has given moms another reason to feel as if their lives are a mess.

“It’s so stressful to hear again and again that you must have balance,” says Therese Zulinick, a mom in Kamloops, BC. “I just want to say, ‘Hey, I’m doing the best I can. I’m flying by the seat of my pants here.’” Zulinick is an urban planner who works full-time, often on weekends and evenings, and her husband travels two weeks of every month. Even with a nanny for their toddler, Kate, she says, “life is hectic most of the time, and the struggle for balance is constant.”

Victoria mom Sonya Strong feels the same way. “I’ve given up on finding a balance. I’m going with whatever works that day.” Often that means teleconferencing while making six-year-old Jack breakfast. “There’s a good chance I don’t even know what balance is.”

Indeed, balance means different things to different people, and at different times in our lives, says Julia James, a certified life coach in Vancouver. “Work-life balance is an awkward concept because we can never really achieve it and, in a sense, it would be boring to be in perfect balance.” What it doesn’t mean — at least, not to people like James who try to coach their clients toward happiness — is achieving perfection in all areas of life at once. “There can be a backlash against the idea of balance when it comes with the expectation of having it all — the perfect family, career and spiritual life.” Instead, James says balance is something to strive toward, not something to expect on a daily basis. To do this, people need to understand their priorities. “A definition I like is that balance is a state where you experience joy and success.”

Peggy Porter, a mom, nurse and wellness coach in Darlings Island, NB, encourages parents to realize that life goes in cycles. Some days you have to work harder than others, and that means not being with your kids. On other days, you’ll beg off work to enjoy some family time. “Balance is not about being at work for eight hours, home for eight hours, and asleep for eight hours. It’s not every day; it’s your overall picture of life.” Multi-tasking (like trying to handle a business call while fixing your child’s breakfast) is a huge barrier to peace and tranquility, she says. “If your idea of balance is doing as much as you can in a day, then you will never experience the extraordinary moments in your everyday life.”

We often expect we’ll achieve balance at some specific time in the future — when we get this project finished, when the kids begin all-day school or when we get a promotion. Instead, we should focus on the moment. Porter asks her clients: “If your life was not going to change, how could you live it differently to feel joy today?” She says the idea is to determine what makes you happy and then plan your life accordingly. “Balance is not about meeting someone else’s expectations.”

Set against this abstract concept of balance is the reality that many Canadian businesses expect employees to give work a higher priority than family. As all parents know, work isn’t something we can take or leave as we please. “We are not talking luxuries here; we are talking rent, mortgage, clothes,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, who co-authored a seminal 2001 study on work-life conflict. She rejects the suggestion that many parents choose more work over family time to finance their materialistic lifestyles. In fact, she says, one in three Canadian families would drop below the poverty line if one parent stayed home with the kids, and two-career families today have the same spendable income as single-earner families in the 1950s.

Given that financial reality, Duxbury says people can’t help but feel frustrated by the message that they should give equally at home and work. For parents with blue-collar jobs, balance comes at the cost of not paying the bills. Those in managerial positions face “pulling loyalties between two things they love,” she says. Families who try to have balance by keeping one parent at home do so at great cost, Duxbury says.

Interestingly, Duxbury’s co-author, Chris Higgins, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, doesn’t buy the argument that it’s impossible to have balance today. “In most cases, people end up doing what they want.” He feels that many career-oriented parents talk about how they wish they could scale back on work, but when it comes to making choices, “what wins out is the $150,000 job,” he says. Higgins argues that people use work to escape the drudgery of home life. If you are supposed to be home to eat dinner with the kids at 5:30, and you let work keep you there until 6:30, well, you get to eat in peace without the two- and four-year-old throwing food at the walls.

Could it be that some of the backlash against balance is that people are tired of being told they should spend more time at home, when in fact they really would rather be at work? If so, few parents will admit it. For her part, Zulinick concedes that “it’s easier to make sacrifices on the home front” than at work, where her services are in high demand. She says having a full-time nanny has allowed her to cash in on the good moments of parenthood, while avoiding the dishes. Can’t say I blame her for that. Sometimes I get to stick my husband with the story-and-teeth-brushing routine when I have a preschool meeting.

Duxbury’s recent study of female professionals found that many of these women are either not having children, or they’re trying to achieve balance by starting a family later in life (usually having only one child) and hiring a live-in nanny. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see pre-nuptial agreements that lay out in advance whether the couple will have children, and who will be responsible for their care — mom, dad, nanny or a combination.

If employers play a role in our work-life imbalance, then there’s hope for the future. Experts foresee a major shakeup over the next decade, as the labour force changes from a buyers’ market to a sellers’ market. Today’s employers rely on unpaid overtime and would go under if employees truly had balance, Duxbury says. In the near future, with fewer young people entering the workforce to replace aging boomers, the most desirable employees will have the power to demand a family life. If employers are going to require work outside of normal business hours, they will have to cut employees some slack during slower times.

“As a society we haven’t become flexible about when things happen,” says Duxbury. “We need to reconceptualize; sometimes work takes priority, sometimes family takes priority. We’re never going back to nine-to-five, so balance on a day-to-day basis is unattainable.” It’s no longer poss ible to separate life into neat little compartments. However, Higgins points out that if we truly want work-life balance, it will be up to us to turn off the technology that allows work to interfere at all hours. “I see too many parents on their BlackBerrys at their kid’s hockey game.”

For today, I’ve let work take over. I’ll get my husband to stop for takeout chicken. Right now I’m determined to take a moment to revel in the feeling of one task completed, one moment of joy and satisfaction — a moment, maybe, of balance.