The Leisurely Pursuit of Work-Life Balance
Sometimes, I blame my career for the tiredness that follows me to bed and hangs on when I climb out each morning. My current employment situation comprises a nearly full-time job that I perform partly at home and partly at the office, contract work that is entirely remote, and freelance work that is good when I can get it. This patchwork of positions makes for lots of flexibility but also lots of email checking, social media sharing, and note taking at all hours.
Sometimes, I blame that overwhelmed feeling on all the rest of the work I do: the housekeeping, the errand running, the cooking, the parenting. Isn’t the old saying at least partially true: "a woman’s work is never done"?
Lately, though, I have discovered another culprit for the frenetic pace of my life: in my work-life balance, it’s not my work that’s out of whack. It’s my leisure time.
That’s What I’d Like to Know
One afternoon while I researching this article, I lost all internet access through our home cable service. Initially, I tried to self-diagnose and remedy the problem. I turned the network connection on and off. I turned the modem on and off. I turned my laptop on and off.
Still offline, I finally called the cable company. When the customer service representative had me turn the connection on and off, the modem on and off, and the laptop on and off to no avail, he scheduled a service call. You’re in luck, he said. I have someone free this evening. Would that work? No, we are hosting a birthday party. How about tomorrow between 10 and noon? No, I have to drive to the office. Between noon and two? Two and four? No, tomorrow won’t work at all. But I need it before Friday. So yes, have him come today. We’ll figure it out.
The cable guys arrived as our three boys were getting home, the dog barking incessantly with all of the activity. Wires were pulled and replaced as I rolled crust for an apple pie for my father-in-law’s birthday party, and the boys complained they were hungry.
Soon enough, the repairman tracked me down in the kitchen.
“We’re done,” he said. “But I’d like for you to check it.”
I rinsed flour from my hands and fired up the laptop, my browser picking up right where I left off. The Atlantic article, “How Did Work-Life Balance in the U.S. Get So Awful?” appeared on the screen.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” the cable guy said, pointing to the article.
“Ok, it’s back,” I said, ignoring him for a moment to watch for the “internet access” message to appear in my network screen. Then, back to his comment: “Your job keeps you pretty busy, huh?”
“Let me just complain for a minute,” he said, looking around for his coworker who was already outside. Then he told me about mandatory overtime and denied vacation requests and summer plans that were on hold indefinitely.
I felt sorry for the guy. I did. I sympathized with him. I thanked him for coming on such short notice. I even tried to pay him, but apparently the service was part of our contract.
As soon as he left, I ran back into the kitchen to finish the pie, pulling out peanuts and pretzels for the boys and grabbing ingredients for dinner which still needed to be prepped. With the internet back on, I’d be able to finish an editing project for an 8 a.m. deadline the next morning.
But first, we had a birthday party to host.
Blame It on the Kids
In the recently updated Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index, researchers found that in the 36 developed countries included, parenthood had the most significant impact on a person’s work-life balance over any other factor, including age, education, and gender.
“While 29% of childless men and 28% of childless women are satisfied with their ‘time balance’, this share drops as the number of children increases, especially for women: for example, only 20% of women with three or more children are satisfied with their time balance. Single-parent families, overwhelmingly headed by women, are particularly vulnerable to time shortages,” the study said.
I couldn’t help but think of that study on the way out of the office one day last week as I rode down the elevator with a coworker who happens to be a single mom.
“I’m trying to remember where I am going next,” she said, clearly frazzled. She proceeded to outline her son’s activities for every night of the week. Little League, horseback riding, scouts.
When we arrived on the first floor, she darted out, practically running to her car as she realized she needed to deliver her son all the way downtown that evening.
Typically, a free evening on our family’s calendar begs for a plan. Sometimes, we fill it with more work: chores or errands put off from the weekend. Other times, we make plans to go out: dinner with friends, a movie or museum with my husband, the park with the boys. When we just stay home, I might tackle a project I’ve been putting off: weeding the flower beds, finally ordering those wedding photos, or looking up new recipes.
Then—when all else is exhausted, and we are, too—we turn on the TV and grab our iPhones, staying up late to watch reality TV while playing Words with Friends and browsing Facebook.
On a recent evening when the calendar wasn’t actually empty, I found myself lying in the bathtub, steam rising around me, resisting the urge to feel guilty for staying behind while my husband went to my stepson’s baseball game. At the last minute, I decided I needed just a couple of hours home alone.
The first hour I was home, I had played my guitar, watched television, texted a friend, and read a chapter in a book. Then, I decided to take a bath. I grabbed the book and my iPhone and headed upstairs. I started the water, lit a candle, and grabbed a towel from the rod on the shower door. The Fernando Ortega Pandora channel played quietly, and once my hair was washed, I intended to read. That’s when it hit me.
Even during my down time, I was still going, filling my time with more activity when I needed just the opposite. I wasn’t working, but I wasn’t resting either. The to-do list was still growing, and I was still frazzled.
I sank down low in the water, catching a glimpse of the sky reflected in the bathroom mirror. The storm from earlier was clearing, and the sun was peeking through the clouds as it set for the evening. I closed my eyes and breathed.