That Elusive Work-Life Balance – Dream On?

Is it a pipe dream, imagining we might actually achieve work-life balance? Are we tilting at windmills – in the U.S., at least? Is arriving at that balance a matter of effectively negotiating the details with your partner, choosing among a variety of options in full awareness of the trade-offs?

Ah, yes. Trade-offs. We don’t like that much in this country. We’re more accustomed to attempting to do it all and have it all – and by that, I mean more than the traditional white picket fence and a decent job.

We want more. So much more. We deserve it, or so we tell ourselves. Moreover, it’s what we’re supposed to want – isn’t it?

Or is the issue of work-life balance just another one of those high class problems to have – which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address it, but might indicate we ought to put it into perspective?

Is Work-Life Balance a Myth?

Always worthy of a look-see, earlier this week Motherlode addressed issues of work-life balance, offering compelling statistics on the issues of work-life balance around the globe, asking readers from other countries to weigh in. According to the article,

Countries with a tradition of more supportive policies for parents do report a greater level of balance in their lives.

I have my own “other country” contacts and experiences (France and Benelux, largely), but found the article illuminating and even more so – the fact that many parents are torn no matter what age they return to work following the birth of a child. There is also a wide range of responses – as one might expect – on the expectation and need to return to work.

Some women were delighted to go back (as was I, six weeks after my boys were born). That said, I admit that leaving in the morning was physically wrenching – like piece of me was missing, and four hours into the day I’d be pining to get back to my little one. When I’d return after a nine hour absence, I recall the physical sensation of feeling “whole” again, as soon as my child was in my arms.


You bet. And feeling guilty that while I was at work – for those four hours or so anyway – I was delighted to be away from feedings and crying, and even more delighted to interact with professional adults – using my brain, my skills, engaging in conversation that had nothing to do with babies or children.

Conflict for Working Mothers

For me, the tougher years came later – when my sons hit elementary school. That’s the beginning of the period when it’s no longer about coos and kudos over smiles or developmental markers; the conflict for working mothers and fathers includes awareness of less involvement in a more complex emotional and intellectual journey. This is the child’s journey that fuels social interaction, not to mention curiosity. We reinforce habits – for better or worse – through what we praise and what we discourage, and in attitudes as well as behaviors.

Certainly, the child’s nature has much to do with this, and I kept my full-time foot in the working world, transitioning to a job that allowed me to work from a home office and still be home to take kids to and from school, to make sure they had play time afterward, and to be “there” so they could see me (and I could see them).

But that didn’t last. Those jobs are few and far between, and child care options are expensive. I was lucky; I hung on to that option for a considerable amount of time – demanding though it was. Then I hit the black hole – those years when there are no childcare options short of paying a nanny or babysitter. No school programs available, and for me (and how many others?) – no family to assist.

That black hole hit in the public school system, around sixth grade.

The Costs of Childcare for Working Parents and Their Kids

Then what, if you don’t have the money for childcare? Then what, if you must work in order to pay your bills? Enter the latch-key years, as your child becomes more and more susceptible to a world of troubling temptations at age 11 or 12?

Returning to the Motherlode article, countries cited as having superior maternity/paternity leave policies, citing OECD data, include (not surprisingly): Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, and France.

Note that four of the top ten are Scandinavian.

  • What if we were to look at quality of life measures in these countries?
  • What if we were to look at correlations to other elements of social safety net, like health care?
  • What if we were to look at poverty rates, at general standards of living, at GNP, GDP, or other economic measures?
  • What about divorce rates or longevity?
  • What if we could draw some conclusions from comparisons of that data?

The originating data which Motherlode referenced includes comparisons of employment rates for women, theoretical “personal time,” and average number of hours worked per year. I wish I had the statistics in these other areas, not to mention the expertise to analyze the correlations.

If Other Countries Manage More Balance, Why Can’t the US?

I can’t help but believe that work-life balance is an impossible dream in this country – not because of the natural tendency for a mother (or father) to be “torn” by leaving an infant or young child, but due to a complex cultural cocktail that includes personal and societal identity around “work,” insufficient options for childcare, lack of family to assist in child-rearing – worsened by going wherever you can find work, and lack of social benefits like universal health care.

To be clear – I’m not suggesting that Americans will suddenly shed our particular cultural ethos that spurs entrepreneurship, individuality, innovation, pride in our accomplishments, and a “success focus,” for lack of a better term. Nor do I think we must. But I am convinced there is much to learn from a thoughtful look at these other countries, including how we measure success, and engender respect for our accountability to each other, and to society as a whole.


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  1. says

    This has been a huge issue for me. All my extended family lives 3000 miles away and when I got divorced I experienced an intense longing for that elusive “village” to help me raise my kids. I have had the good fortune of finding some wonderful nannies who have become like part of the family, but at a cost — roughly one-third of my net salary. If it had not been for the child support I received during my four years of single motherhood, I don’t know how we would have survived in the very expensive city we live in.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      The single parent issue is a huge part of this picture, obviously… But even without it – all it takes is one job loss or one illness, and you’re screwed…

  2. says

    Just a little bit of support. That’s all we’re looking for. Unfortunately, for many of us, those mechanisms still don’t exist. My ex is a deadbeat. Nothing has worked in trying to get him to pay his child support. When I think of what a difference that could make in our lives…and it’s not a ton of money. Just $400 a month. But that $400 a month could be all the difference we need.
    Like you, I’m not looking for a complete overhaul, just improvements to what we already have in place. And unfortunately, for most of the country, instead of getting those improvements, we’re all going to get squeezed harder. It’s just fundamentally wrong.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Seemingly “small” amounts to some can make all the difference in the world, can’t they? But think about it, April. That $400/month that would make all the difference – in my part of the country, that isn’t enough to pay for one hour of a decent family law attorney. Then there’s the retainer. ($5,000 rings a bell.)

      And this is why “just go back to court” isn’t an option, for most who are seeking to collect on monies owed for child support. Not in my world, anyway.

  3. says

    Yep! And I have 15 furlough days this second half of the year (just announced). Not sure if the job is even going to last into next year. I am not sure I want to work outside of the home. I am not sure what I would do if I didn’t. I know that DH wants me to work…we definitely use the money I do make (which is NOTHING)…but…I hate it.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      We’re a smart country. You’d think we’d figure it out – no? Look to the models in other countries, and not seek to apply them wholesale, but in ways, gradually, that would take us in the right direction? Will it take the women to insist on this – not to mention the men who love and depend on us? Hello – politicos – are you listening?

  4. says

    Fascinating post, D, and one on a topic that is very much on my mind these days.

    I am in perhaps the most fortunate of all positions a parent can find herself in: I have a partner whose job not only supports us, but also gives him a relatively flexible schedule and very generous family leave (a semester off with full pay after the birth of each child). I am about to return to work – part-time and from home – in the hopes that my job will give me a creative and professional outlet, some extra money for my family, and still plenty of time to spend with my kids. To facilitate that, we have hired a terrific part-time nanny for a cost that is fair to her without breaking our bank.

    It is sad to me that my situation is nearly unique in this country. Whenever I discuss work-life balance with my American friends, they reply with stories of their own juggling acts to care for their children all the while trying to work to support them.

    But whenever I talk to friends and acquaintances in Western Europe about this issue, they often see our situation as the norm rather than the exception.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You are fortunate, Kristen – and I think it’s helpful that you recognize it, and speak to the fact that it’s important that half our population not lose hard-won skills and experience that can contribute, while not sacrificing responsibilities (and pleasure) involved in having family. Thank you for sharing on this topic.

      So how do we go about changing what isn’t the norm here, but is – elsewhere?

  5. says

    I have worked mostly full-time since I had my kids, well really since I entered the working world in college. At first it was to help make ends meet although the majority of my paycheck went into childcare expenses. Not being the primary breadwinner allowed any remaining income to provide for the nice-to-have’s. As my kids grew older and entered the school years, it seemed to become increasingly difficult as a working parent – trying to find time to volunteer in the schools, the dreaded “in service” days where I had no childcare but still had to work. And now it’s even more about being there to supervise which they absolutely need at this adolescent age. I am in technology and don’t have the luxury of exiting the workforce for an undefined period of time. Technology changes rapidly and any exit can prove fatal to one’s career.

    The balance I strive to achieve is having a short commute and finding companies that value family and the work-life balance. Generally I can take time off as needed and work from home frequently so it’s not as bad as it could be. So far I’ve been lucky – and I am extremely cognizant of how lucky I am in this regard.

  6. Linda says

    When I had children, although I wanted to be home when they were infants; I really wanted to be home during those later elementary/middle school years to keep more of an eye on them. Unfortunately that did not happen. While I am very thankful for my job, I am feeling tremendous guilt that they are left alone so much. I even had a dream the other night that my daughter was having a baby, and I was at work. Ugh!

  7. says

    My ex husband is from Denmark and when I got pregnant I was actually not working (laid off) but he insisted that I take one year off (if I wanted) because he said, it’s very typical for mother’s to do in DK. His sister lives in Italy and at her job, she got 1 year off per kid and she had twins. So yes, the culture is definitely drastically different. My son is going into first grade and I struggle with the sitters charging $18-$20 per hour. He also has special needs and has after school therapy so it is extremely challenging for me to work full-time. Because of this right now, I work part-time and try and eek out full-time income… challenging!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You and your ex-husband were certainly experiencing the cultural differences first hand, bleu. Quite a contrast, isn’t it? And crazy what we have to pay babysitters, depending on where we live and the scenario in terms of duties. Far more than we earn, in some instances. So how do we make that work – especially if we need an outside job for the benefits? Tremendous pressures on families in this country, in all our configurations of what “family” means…

  8. says

    It’s plain that the entrepreneurial ethos of our country has led to a government by corporations. I read something that Peter Coyote said the other day that gave me a bit of hope: “I am not even sure that the system has to change. People have to change.”

    So keep raising our consciousness, Wolf.


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