Does Work-Life Balance Actually Exist?

Libby Kane
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When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent interview, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance,” she created a firestorm in America.

Sandberg, who is famous for putting the onus on women to “keep their foot on the gas pedal” of their careers, also shared that she has been leaving the office at 5:30 p.m in order to have dinner with her children for years, but never felt comfortable admitting it publicly until now.

It’s nothing new that a working mom is pulled in four directions at once, but for years we’ve heard about this elusive “work-life balance.” It’s the holy grail of working motherhood, that key to being at the school play and on the conference call at the same time; the trick to maintaining a smudge-free work wardrobe and a smudge-free kitchen counter.

But now that women make up the bulk of college grads, not to mention the workforce—and they’re also still Most Likely to be Mothers—why is it so revolutionary for a working mom to announce that she leaves the office before 6 p.m.–especially since she sends early morning and late-night emails to compensate?

How Do You Find Work/Life Balance?

What do you think about Sandberg’s comments? Do you believe in work-life balance? How do you find it?
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Among the many things that contribute to gender imbalance across all spheres, Sandberg identifies at least two that continue to make things especially tough for working moms (and all moms, really).

1. Apparently, a Woman Still Needs a ‘Wife’

When we think about work-life balance, we think of the inherent imbalance of the “third shift.” This idea, which has buoyed gender conversations since the 1970s, explains that most working moms cover the majority of three shifts (kids, household and work), while their partners generally cover one (work) and change.

Data shows that even when their partners pitch in with household tasks, women spend up to three hours per week re-doing chores done by their partners. And that’s after they spend twice the amount of time as their partners doing the work in the first place.

In fact, Elle reports that when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton broached the subject of becoming a litigator with a male colleague way back in the ’70s, he told her it would be impossible because she didn’t have a wife–someone to lay out her clothes in the morning and “make sure she has clean socks.”

While the anecdote is outdated, Sandberg made much the same quip just this year, joking that the best way to ensure an equitable division of labor was to “marry another woman.”

While she was using humor to make a point, the fact that the same punchline still holds forty years after a well-meaning man told the future United States Secretary of State that the lack of clean socks would hinder her career path—and the fact that it’s being told by one of the country’s most powerful female executives, suggests that yes, even today, we still have a “third shift” problem.

(If you’re interested, we recommend–with a hat-tip to The Grindstonethis incredible essay published in the 1970s by Judy Syfers, entitled “I Want a Wife,” where the author lists the myriad reasons she wants a wife of her own, ending with the query, “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”.)

2. We Still Feel Guilty—But We Shouldn’t

Sandberg also noted that a particular hurdle for working moms is the guilt women feel about focusing on work or on motherhood—to the exclusion of the other—and that she hasn’t seen a similar kind of guilt rampant among her male colleagues.

“I think all women feel guilty,” she says. “I don’t know a lot of men who feel guilty for working full time–it’s expected that they’ll work full time … I wonder if there were more shared responsibility, if more men would feel guilty too, and women would feel less of it.”

But maybe it’s not just our partners’ lack of enthusiasm for housework that’s to blame. Sandberg’s observations jibe with the concept of martyrdom, one of five marketing tenets presented by Mary Lou Quinlan, Jen Drexler and Tracy Chapman in their book “What She’s Not Telling You: Why Women Hide the Whole Truth and What Marketers Can Do About It.” After personally speaking to hundreds of women, they found that women take pride in their oversized workload, and generally believe that not only can they do it all–they can do it best. Women, the research has found, genuinely believe that things won’t get done well if they don’t do it themselves, and they’re willing to take on the extra pressure and stress that goes along with the burden. In other words, many moms are happy and willing to martyr themselves.

Pamela Druckerman, author of “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” said something similar when we interviewed her earlier this year (read our interview here). “The tendency for middle-class American moms is to embrace guilt,” she said. “We self-flagellate a bit. French mothers say guilt is a trap … They see the risk of guilt contaminating all their free time, and they will take pockets of guilt-free alone time.” It appears the notion of guilt isn’t necessarily universal–in fact, it might be unique to American women. French mothers appear to have the same talent that’s lauded in American men: The ability to take guilt-free time to relax.

In fact, letting yourself off the hook might be better for your emotional health: Researchers from the University of Washington found that working mothers who profess that their home and office lives can be seamlessly juggled (“It’s easy!”) are at a greater risk for depression than their more realistic colleagues.

What You Can Do About It

Sandberg’s lament isn’t the only one to take aim at that elusive state of balance as of late. Real estate legend Barbara Corcoran also said this year, “I gave up years ago on the concept that you could actually have balance in your life. I think it’s a phantom chase.”

We say: If you can counter the forces above—in other words, enlist everyone in the house to help you clean (there are ways), live with imperfectly folded socks, and try abandoning guilt and accepting that being in two places at once is truly impossible without superpowers, then perhaps we can eliminate the need to go another 40 years with everyone needing a “wife.”

Image Credit: Flickr.com/World Economic Forum

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  • JAG

    Many people of my generation (especially women) have bought into the impossible belief that they can “have it all”, and all at the same time. Add in society’s insane expectations, and you get:

    - Parents who can’t say no when each kid wants to do 5 different activities a week.
    - A wife who is supposed to be there for the kids, move up at work, get a decent night’s sleep, co-manage the household, and somehow find time for herself
    - Fathers who spend all their time working their way up the ladder, and then realize 15 years later that they don’t really know their own families.

    I believe that you can have balance, but you cannot have balance if you are trying do to everything. People whose real priority is career advancement should recognize that they aren’t going to have time for much else. The key to balance is being honest about the implications of our choices, and making choices we can live with.

  • A Leadbetter

    Here in Holland, where more people work part-time (including men!), things are a little more relaxed but even in homes where both partners work part-time, they do tend to spend their time at home differently. Women do housework + kids, men do kids + stuff for themselves. They feel no guilt either. While I wish I had a wife, I also sometimes wish I was a man and didn’t suffer from female guilt!

  • Levent Islek

    Hi, my book “THE WOLF WITH A BELL” coming soon to all markets. You can ask from, (www.shaker-media.nl)
    Levent Islek