“Let me know when your entire life goes up in smoke: then it’s time for a promotion.”
– Devil Wears Prada
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Luke 16:13
While work-life balance is an issue that impacts both men and women, the reality is that it impacts men and women unequally. In most countries, women are still the primary caretakers of the children and the home. At many workplaces, when an employee becomes a mother it can dramatically change the perception of employers and place said employee from the fast track to the “mommy track.” Just the revelation that one is pregnant or has a two-year old child can also significantly lower the perception of competency of a potential female employee. If woman who has the luxury of choosing to stay home (also known as sequencing or taking the off-ramp), the road may be more one way than you think. Where motherhood is a penalty on women’s wages, fatherhood is a boost for men’s salaries. For a man, it is better to establish a career before having kids because it means he is better able to provide financial support for a child and a mother who stays at home, assuming that you can and want to go on one income. It is no wonder more women are choosing a child-free life. It seems like the simpler, cleaner, more practical choice for an ambitious woman.
My first encounter with work-life balance was a “quarter-century crisis” at age 26 because I realized that I was not on the track that I had “planned” for my self. I was working my ass off establishing my career, working hard, and near burning out. The truth is I had not really put work into my own personal development. I had to look at who I am and what I want. I decided to make time to find love and develop a relationship that will hopefully lead to marriage and family. I hated dating but decided to commit to it like it was a full time job. The investment paid off, but guess what? Life is not always on schedule and to spec. Good relationships require work and time investment, and anyone telling you otherwise is either reckless or trying to sell you something.
As a young woman, I thought the ideal progression of life would go something like this: graduate college, establish my career, find love, get married (before age 26), buy a house, have kids (in my late twenties but before age 35), and keep working along the way. Now that I am a married woman with kids, I am not so sure there is a right sequence. Life is unpredictable. Chances are, what you plan for 3 or 5 years from now will probably not turn out exactly.
Work environment is not designed for balance, and by nature not family friendly. For women in particular, frustration can be found which ever way they turn. The consequences of having children once you have an establish career higher up the ladder is different than if you were just starting out on one. But is it really better to establish a career first before having children? Maternity leave has less impact on the career of someone just starting a career, and children will be older and more independent by the time their mother’s career progressed to the point of require working more hours. It is also well established that there is a motherhood penalty in the work place even as gender income gaps are closing. Not only are mothers less likely to be hired, the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater than between women and men. Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less. While women at all income levels suffer negative earnings consequences from having children, the lowest-paid women lose the most from motherhood.
The younger the child is, the more costly the child care. If you are a single mother, having a child young can be disastrous unless you have other means of support since cost of child care is not cheap. Being pregnant or having young children also means that a woman will need better healthcare. Unfortunately, healthcare is hard to come by in United States when you don’t have employer-provided healthcare. Infants and young children require more frequent trips to the doctor, with all their checkups and vaccinations. Part time and low wage jobs, in addition to being vulnerable to cuts, often do not provide healthcare benefits or unemployment benefits. Even after children reach school age, they require a lot of attention, and schools are not designed to do the job. Teachers are over-stressed, schools are underfunded, and parents are required to spend more time on homework with their children more than ever. School hours don’t match up with work hours and working parents need to pay out of pocket for after school programs and summer programs.
Once you have a family, work-life balance becomes even more difficult. Work-life balance, when children and family is involved, often translates to a mix of conflict, stress, guilt, and exhaustion. In particular for women, having balance means always feeling as if walking on a tightrope. There is a reason why the infamous working mommy guilt persists for so many women. Guilt is a signal that something is not right, that you are not living your values.
The reality is that it comes down to a work-life choice. Life is messy and chaotic, especially life with children, especially babies and toddlers, who are relentlessly demanding. Parenting is a difficult job full of risk management decisions and children often resist even the best planning. For example, you have no choice is your child is colic, has special needs, or is a poor sleeper. You cannot be in two places at once, and you cannot focus on two different things at the same time. You have to know what kind of parent you want to be and embrace the chaos. Flexibility AND structure are both incredibly important to parenting children, and just parenting itself is hard work. When you choose work and advancement as a priority and you have a family, you will lose intimacy with your spouse and children. If you choose to work 35 hours a week in order to see more of your family, you are less competitive and more dispensable compared to all the people (and there are plenty of them) who will do anything to get ahead. If you choose stay at home, realize that too comes with a hefty price to pay.
Every choice you make has its consequences and there is no way to get around risks and tradeoffs. When you don’t focus on what is important, you are depriving yourself out of the flow that comes from focus, and it will lessen your joy. There can be only one #1 priority in your life. If everything is important, nothing is important.
No matter which context you choose, stay true to yourself and take care of yourself so you can be at your best (or not lose your mind). Managing stress is important because stress is an enemy to good health. Life is a marathon, not a sprint!