I am, ironically, writing this post with a baby crying himself to sleep in his crib because we’re having a sick day and our backup babysitter is out of town. Situations like this are normally the focus of the work-life balance conversation: women and childcare and gender expectations. And it’s tough, I’m not going to lie. Even with high-quality daycare, it’s tough. Notice I’m the one home with the baby in the busiest month of my year? Yeah, that. Can women really have it all? (Discuss ad nauseum.) But that’s not the conversation I really want to have.
The conversation I want to have is about the ways American culture is set up to make work-life balance near impossible for all of us. I want to talk about how other people are trying to make it work, within a system that’s set up to not work. And I want to take a moment to point out that it’s the system that’s broken, not our choices. I feel like we’re failing at work-life balance over here.
That’s not me complaining, because we have it pretty good right now. We’re no longer broke, we do work we love (finally), and we have lots of people around us that we love. This isn’t even close to our worst work-life balance situation. That would have been back when I was working sixty hours a week, plus sometimes having to pull thirty hour shifts, plus trying to run APW on the side. But it’s still not great, because the balance part is off.
It feels these days that we live lives driven by work, not centered on well, living: our home, our family, good meals, glasses of wine, time chilling out, occasional vacations. You know: the good stuff. The fundamental problem seems to be that we don’t live in a culture that values family time, or personal time, or hell, just relaxation time. We don’t think people making it home to have dinner is a priority, and we don’t value time off. We really, truly, live to work.
In my post about traveling internationally with our baby, I wrote about the wake-up call we got in London about how child-unfriendly the United States can be. But the past few years of traveling has also opened my eyes to just how focused our culture is on work, money, and the material things money can buy, at the expense of people and experiences (the stuff, I’d like to take a moment to point out, that research has shown actually contributes more to happiness). Unlike the Italians, we don’t value sitting down taking time savor a meal. Unlike the French (or Italians, or, or, or) we don’t have regular vacations. And even the English, who in theory are more like us than many other cultures, think our work hours are fucking insane. But here we are, stuck with it.
We don’t exactly live in a culture that lets you scale back to a flexible thirty-five hours a week and still pretend you you’re on a serious career track. At our house, we’ve been trying to juggle running a business, a law career with an annual billable hours requirement, a baby, a relationship, and friends. And bless, I’m glad this is the problem. (Remember when the economy was fucking us? I do. Our work-life balance sucked then too.) But. We’re not exactly winning right now. We’d like more family time, and more just life time, and we’re stuck in a system where it’s hard to make that happen.
When I look around me, I see a lot of decisions being made that are billed as “choices.” The childfree couple working forty hours a week and still not feeling like they can find time to get to the doctor, or just have a weekend that’s not dominated by errands. The parents who’ve set up schedules so they barely see each other so they can work enough hours to pay the bills, since they can’t afford childcare. The single entrepreneur working sixty hours a week, so they can afford health insurance. The mom who’s left full-time work, with a partner with a twenty-two hundred billable hour requirement (uh, someone does indeed need to occasionally… be home). And sure, in each situation, people are doing their damnedest to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. But these are not “choices,” in the strictest sense. They’re an attempt to work within a system that values work, not life. A system that doesn’t have much place for balance.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved by New Year’s resolutions. I can wish for “more family time,” but reality is reality, and I’m going to make the best of the family time I’ve got (and possibly dream of moving to another country). So I want to talk honestly about this. Let’s ditch the “can women have it all” conversation, and discuss how we’re trying to have enough, and what we’re doing that’s working.
How is your work-life balance right now? Where are you struggling? Where are you doing well? And what are you doing to try to make it work as best as you can? Please, let’s share tips and tricks.
(Double ironically, this post is running when I’m on a business trip, away from my family. Ha. But I’m going to try to be in the comments as travel Wi-Fi allows, because, THIS.)
Photo: Maddie for APW, me back in early 2012, working in our old apartment