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.Besides, it’s what we’re supposed to want, isn’t it?
Or is work-life balance just another first world problem that we ought to put 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), yet found the article illuminating and even more so, the fact that many parents are torn no matter what age they return to work.
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, as if a piece of me was missing as I drove away. Once at the office I was fine, but 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. I was the poster child for New Mother And Conflicted. Yet I felt 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. There I was my “self” who used my brain, my skills, and engaged in conversation that had nothing to do with babies or children.
Conflict for Working Mothers
For me, the tougher years came later when my boys 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 necessary involvement in a more complex emotional and intellectual journey. This is the child’s journey that fuels social interaction, not to mention curiosity. This is a time for parents, teachers and other adults to reinforce habits, attitudes, behaviors and values – through what we praise and what we discourage, not to mention what we model.
Certainly, the child’s nature has much to do with how we proceed. 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, able to take kids to and from school, make sure they had play time afterward, and “be there” so they could see me, feel safe, and I could see them and know they were properly supervised.
While I hung on to that option for a considerable amount of time – demanding though it was (often working long into the night) – then I hit the black hole.
The black hole years arrive when there are no childcare options short of paying a full-time nanny or babysitter, and there are no school programs available. For me (and how many others?), this situation was exacerbated by my “solo parent” status, with no family to assist.
The 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, assuming your child actually has a viable way to get home, as he or she becomes more and more susceptible to a world of troubling temptations at age 10 or 11 or 12. Do we really think our children are self-sustaining at these age? Do we really think that childcare needs and expenses stop at age 5?
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 social benefits like universal health care, lack of family to assist in child-rearing, and this last, worsened by the need to go wherever you can find work.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that Americans suddenly shed our 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 “first world problem” or not, what of the stress and strain on individuals and families as they struggle to get “everything” done? What of the long-term health cost that results? What of our children — their health and safety, emotional security, proper development?
I am convinced there is much to learn from a thoughtful look at these other countries, including how we support families with both services and workplace flexibility, as well as the means by which we measure success, and engender respect for and accountability to each other, and to society as a whole.
You May Also Enjoy