Work-life balance: Myth or Method?

November 21, 2017

Work life balance. Hearing the phrase makes me laugh.

When I look around at working professionals my age with families, balance doesn’t seem to fit in the equation. For most parents it’s just go, go, go!

This I think is why experienced parents tell newbie parents “it gets better.”

From day one the baby consumes your life. One of my favorite moments in the movie Lost In Translation captures this reality:

“Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.

Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.

Bob: Your life, as you know it… is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.”

This is the truth: My son is most delightful! His birth however did mark a turning point in my life after which everything changed.

But I do not feel nostalgic for the era before he was born. In my mind to do so would be to suggest I lack a sense of gratitude and joy for his existence now in the world.

Still, the insanity a baby introduces into life is not something anyone can prepare for. I certainly couldn’t wrap my head around it.

I understand the nostalgia parents feel towards a less crazy time. This, I think, is why the notion of work-life balance appeals to us.

It brings back memories of a time when we felt more balanced because we had an abundance of time. These memories create a sense of having once been in control.

The work life balance ideal also suggests there is an attainable optimal balance for us to discover.

Given that in 2017 we still can’t quite figure out the balance equation, it does make you wonder why this is the case. I think there are several reasons for this.

First, the phrase is antiquated. I didn’t know much about the history behind it. The concept is derived from the work-leisure dichotomy, itself an invention of the 1800s.

While the phrase strikes a nerve in the popular zeitgeist, the way it is presented in mass media can lead you to feel like not obtaining it is some kind of moral failure.

Parents today are bombarded by constant message from the media with the message that balance is within our grasp if only we do certain things.

With articles such as “6 Tips for Better Work Life Balance.” in Forbes, and The Harvard Business Review’s entire topic page devoted to the concept, the concept is reduced to a laughably simple recipe. If only we will follow it life will be perfect.

These articles present a range of wisdom about how parents can parent better, achieve more, increase efficiency and maximize happiness.

It is assumed that the pursuit of these ends is a good in and of itself.

This, however, downplays the fundamental error behind the assumption that there is something called work, and something called life, and that there is a division between the two that requires a balance to be maintained.

The desire to maintain a sense of balance arises out of the resource scarcity we feel daily. As a parent, the finite nature of time, energy, money, and will-power are more keenly felt.

We feel the need to optimize and manage our professional and personal lives.

We like the idea of work life balance, but in our attempt to manage it we find an never ending quest to find out if it is really even a thing.

According to a 2010 CDC study, 16% of adults feel an imbalance between managing work and family.

The media is quick to sell us ideas on how we can achieve balance in just a few easy steps, the general consensus is that it’s both achievable and within our grasp.

With tips such as “set manageable goals each day” and “take five,” it is easy to feel outraged at the simplicity of it all.

When you are exhausted from work, fought traffic on your long commute, have managed to put together a meal that isn’t unhealthy garbage, prepped your lunch and clothes for the next day, and finally gotten the baby to sleep, it is easy to read the advice to just set manageable goals and “take five” and laugh.

On this note I found this reference to a Dr. Edy Greenblatt intriguing:

“Dr. Edy Greenblatt has spent years studying the effects of overwork and exhaustion on employees. She cites a common theme that many people think of work as depleting and non-work as restoring, so in order to achieve balance under that model, you would either have to quit work or work as little as possible. Not exactly an option for most people. Rather, Dr. Greenblatt suggests you put work and non-work on one axis and what restores you and what depletes you on the other axis. The key is to identify what restores you and depletes you both at work and non-work, then do more of what restores you.” (Greenblatt, 2009)

The notion of recognizing what depletes you and what restores you intuitively makes sense to me.

For example, I find playing with my son emotionally engaging and a joy generator in a way that other activities are not.

Likewise in a previous job I did a lot of interviewing and that would leave me feeling completely drained.

I think parents would do well to adopt this model; for me, reframing certain daily activities within this context has allowed me to focus in on what leaves me feeling recharged and what doesn’t.

Driving in rush hour traffic, for example, leaves me feeling totally drained. But a short rest when I get home, while my son is still sleeping from his commute nap, leaves me feeling a bit more refreshed.

Spending time with my son in the evening laughing, playing, and singing Christmas Carols gives me a sense of recharging from my day even if it otherwise seem like an energy depleting activity.

I respond positively in joy and feelings of satisfaction every time I hear my son laugh.

We would do well then I think to consider all this, especially the next time a huckster tries to convince balance can be achieved through just a few simple steps lwhich they will sell to you for top dollar.