Work is really getting in the way of my work-life balance!
Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love my work—especially now that I'm a partner at a cool boutique agency, Starpoint Marketing. I put my heart into my work, and feel lucky to live in an era when women have a broad range of opportunities, including starting one's own business.
Yet I'm not in the least bit surprised at the recent spate of "having it all" discussions. I finally found time to read Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. I loved this line: “many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination.”
I got riled up about the “have it all” myth in 1987, my senior year at Barnard. That’s when I gave up my spot on the varsity rowing team to focus on my job at the New York Times. I certainly spent more hours at work than in class that year, although I didn’t slack off the latter—I just worked a lot of night shifts. Not sleeping wasn’t the right solution, as walking pneumonia later attested. And today, I still struggle with the same habits. When my son is in bed, I start my second shift of the workday, which often lasts until 2AM or later.
While prominent women can debate the nuances in commencement speeches, magazine articles, the truth is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to have every bit of the amazing, rewarding life we want—or that we could have if there was just more time. Perhaps the wish list is too long. As Slaughter points out, there are some superhuman women who somehow do it all. But how many women strive to reach all their goals only to find they fail—or succeed at too great a cost?
The fact is that each of us really has no option but to make choices, seek help, and try to set some boundaries (for ourselves and with others).
The Perfect Week
Every so often I sit down and try to figure out how to be less overwhelmed. I call it my "Perfect Week" Project. I start with 7 x 24 = 168 hours in a week. Then I try to figure out how I want to parse those out among sleep, work, childcare, home upkeep, personal upkeep, personal enrichment, etc.
Each time I do it, I'm shocked to see how fast 168 hours gets used up.
- 56 hours sleep
- 50 hours work
- 18 hours chores (shopping, cooking, cleaning, bills, home repairs, etc.)
- 14 hours childcare work (prep lunch, feed breakfast, get to school, homework, etc.)
- 10 hours personal care (shower, clothing, hair, teeth, makeup, etc.)
- 10 hours everything else (fun with kid, husband, friends, family; waiting time; emergencies; etc.)
- 7 hours exercise
- 3 hours driving places
I’m lucky. My husband does the laundry, garbage, lawn mowing, and dishes. I don’t commute. And yet those 27 hours per week that are supposedly set aside for personal care, exercise and “everything else” have a miraculous way of disappearing.
Four ideas that might help
I believe the #1 facilitator of sanity and balance is to learn to set boundaries and say no. Not only do we need to cultivate the ability to say "no, I am not going to do that for you", but we also need to say no to ourselves. No, I'm not going to keep my home sparkling clean. No, I'm not going to bake cupcakes from scratch. It is often our own standards that leave us exhausted.
Let me know if you figure out how to say no to your own desires to do it all. I haven’t discovered the method yet. I love homemade cupcakes. I smile when I walk into a clean room. And I cringe when I see a blob of dust or even a bunch of clean dishes that are dry but not yet put away.
The #2 facilitator on my list: Having lots of help, especially in these four forms:
- a romantic partner who actively splits responsibilities/chores
- hired help (if you can afford it, but not if you have to work just as many hours to cover the cost)
- awesome friends willing to barter help
- extended family who are close enough to help out (and really will)
I’m pretty lucky on this score, with an engaged husband, amazingly supportive friends, and a mom who drives 2 hours to babysit in a pinch. I used to have a domestic staff, but gave that up in the interests of less financial pressure. We’ll see how long that lasts.
My step #3 is to constantly strive for simplicity. Admittedly I’m really bad at this one, but I know it would help. Sure, it’s fun to acquire new items, but then they must be stored, cared for, maintained, repaired, paid for (by working more and earning more), etc. Cultivating the ability to shed stuff seems essential to finding balance.
Case in point: Today, I discovered I didn't have enough plastic tubs to finish putting away my winter clothes in the attic. My first instinct: Dash down to Target and pick up a few more. I never would have questioned doing that in the past. Today, I'm sorting through the winter clothes to get rid of some. And then I pulled down a half dozen tubs that have been in the attic for years unopened. I'm donating a lot of that stuff to charity and repurposing the tubs for my other winter clothes. That takes time too. But so would the trip to Target.
But I agree with Slaughter that #4 is the clincher: A flexible work structure. I’ve been lucky enough to work in two fields in which it’s acceptable to switch from staff positions to working from home. As a journalist, I worked at magazines, then freelanced. As a marketer, I did an agency job and now consult.
Working non-traditional hours can be complicated. I don't have a set schedule, and keeping up with the constant changes can be mentally draining. But I can stop at the bank during the day and work at night. I can take a day off with a sick child. Or I can work all weekend. I’m disciplined, and being my own boss suits me.
But I set higher standards than anyone I’ve ever worked for, and still haven’t figured out when those 56 hours for sleep and 7 hours for exercise fit in. But it’s a lot better than when I need clean work clothes, spend time commuting, and stay in an office all day, leaving everything else for the weekend. I found that it works better to cut costs and stay home. I don’t have the temperament to be a stay-at-home mom. I admire women who do. But I am a terrific work-at-home mom. And I know many women who can say the same.
The phased life
Slaughter talks about the adage: You can have it all—just not at the same time. I frequently advise clients that it’s best not too attempt to do too much at once. I know well that we all want to accomplish our tasks “fast, cheap and good”, but that you can only have two at a time.
In the big picture, I have achieved excellent phasing. I focused predominantly on my career in my 20s, domesticity (house, marriage, child) in my 30s, and am working to balance the two in my 40s. Along the way, huge challenges erupted to interfere with each goal, in the form of health problems, family issues, work challenges, and more. On a daily basis, balance remains elusive. The upshot: gypping almost everything in the Perfect Week, especially exercise and sleep, yet still feeling like nothing is done to my standards. I have tried to lower them, but that doesn’t feel right.
I look at friends who seem to manage their lives smoothly and wonder what their trick is. It appears that they spend less time worrying about how to make it work and more time just living. Or maybe they just seem less worried because they have balanced lives. But one thing I’ve noticed: Every woman who seems balanced has perfected the art of saying “no”. Unfortunately, when you ask them if their lives are balanced, that’s usually the answer.