The term work/life balance. Over-used, over-simplified and over-promised. I guess the term is supposed to ensure that we spend time (1) looking after our jobs and (2) looking after our lives, making sure the two are nicely balanced. But in my experience it's simply a term pandered around and used less as a positive and more as a way to berate ourselves for the lack of said balance in our lives.
The truth is that we all have a certain amount of energy that we can expend each day. Those energy supplies can be topped up in a number of ways: a good diet, exercise, making sure we’re getting enough sleep, and even stimulants. But still that energy is finite. Unless you’re the duracell bunny, at some point you are going to crash.
Work/life balance seems to suggest that if you spend a proportion of your life at work and a proportion at home, and you get that division right, for you, everything will be dandy. It suggests that the concern is the physicality of where you are and that if you get the split right, all will be well. Work at work, home at home. But that’s simply not true.
A typical example
Let’s look at a working mother - and excuse the detail here but I feel like it's important to really exemplify the average day for a working mother. This mother has a great employer who has allowed her to work short days, 9–3, every day to ensure she can take her children to school and pick them up again. Dream scenario, right? Well that depends.
If that woman’s looking at emails on her phone from 6.30am while she gets her children dressed and fed (forgetting to feed herself); has Skype messages pinging on her phone while she does the school run and does a conference call on the way in to the office, the she was at work long before 9am.
She arrives at the office and has to run straight into a meeting; then another, then another (during which she gets a phone call from the school informing her that child has banged his head); then works through lunch (and missing the chance to phone her friend) because she feels guilty that she is leaving at 3; starts but can’t find the time to finish three different pieces of work (because she can’t stop worrying about child and the head-banging incident); running out the door at 3pm shouting that of course she can join the call at 4.15pm while the children watch TV (forgetting about the fact its gymnastics tonight) and she’ll finish the report in the evening (despite already having earmarked the evening for that yoga class she keeps meaning to do) - then physically the fact she has left the office, that she apparently works flexible hours, is kind of irrelevant.
So switch the physical location, and now she is at 'home', She arrives at the school gates, probably late, likely feeling guilty and with the weight of the world on her shoulders. In her mind, she hasn’t done well at work and now she is about to ‘fail’ her children by not being able to attend to them when she gets home. Her energy has gone, even without the conference call and the report to finish, her supplies are probably so diminished that she’s barely able to manage to do her child’s reading book, let alone play puzzles, join in the hairdressing role play or fit her tired and weary body into the play-house to play picnics, and definitely not drag herself back out again to attend a yoga class.
How could this be different?
My point: work/life balance, in its current form, is purely about where you are and the hours you keep - and that is simply not enough. Creating a life that works for you, where you can truly feel like you are using your energy well across all the things that are important to you, is far more complicated. And let’s break it down further. This isn’t just about work life and home life, its about your life too. Eating breakfast is important, that phone call to a friend is important, that yoga class is important, that night in front of your favourite TV show is important, if that’s what you choose to do. Balance in your life isn’t just about work and the kids, it’s about living a life that feels full, feels manageable and is built upon a strong foundation of wellness - and that starts with you.
The majority of women find themselves on a treadmill they likely jumped on in their early twenties and have been pounding ever since. What they need to do is just switch that damn thing off and work out what it is what they actually want to be doing each day - based on who they want to be in the world, their values, what brings them joy.
Let’s be real - working mothers, even those doing a job that brings them joy, are unlikely to ever feel like its all going swimmingly but they can get closer than many of them are right now. So let’s put an end to flaky HR terms and start focussing piece-by-piece on creating a life that works for you. If you want to hear more then get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org