Let’s face it: Work/life balance is fiction

About a month ago, I was sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Route 611, wending my way from Montgomery County toward Jackson’s dermatologist appointment in Fairmount. It was 8 a.m., rush-hour traffic was starting to build and so was my anxiety. It was my first time taking him to a doctor’s appointment alone, and I needed every detail to work perfectly —nap in the car, be pleasant in the waiting room, short wait, quick visit, no traffic on our way to daycare —to make it to my office for my 10 a.m. meeting. Piece of cake.

Meanwhile, in our hectic morning routine, I had no time to do my makeup, so I was applying mascara haphazardly as I drove, silently willing police to pull me over so I could unload on them unnecessarily about societal expectations for working women — all while the song “Have a Great Day” streamed through the speakers, putting an ironic exclamation point on my already absurd day.

While an early-morning doctor’s visit isn’t par for the course, juggling the responsibilities and expectations of parenting and professional life is an intense, around-the-clock job — mired with societal standards and made worse by new-parent guilt and ignorance. Throw in the element of being an LGBTQ parent, and all bets are off.

Here are a few of the realizations I’ve come to about the work/life “balance.”


The unachievable balance

First off, the very concept of a work/life balance is pure fiction. It suggests we’re one person when we’re home with our child and another when we enter the office. In reality, we’re the same person with many dimensions, experiences and expectations, albeit some of them competing with one another.

Case in point: I’m currently writing this column at 32,000 feet, en route to a business trip in Las Vegas. Nothing, I’ve found, highlights the ridiculous concept of trying to balance work and home life than going away on business. Today before my flight, I waffled between work tasks (checking emails, editing a column, packing my bags), home tasks (mowing my lawn, walking my dog four times) and Jackson tasks (pre-filling bottles, cleaning curious substances from his humidifier, ordering diapers on Amazon and trying to squeeze in quality time). I wasn’t trying to be an employee for a set number of hours and then a homeowner and then a parent — it all melded together into a big ball of stress. 

When I had another conference in Vegas a few months ago, I dashed from session to session, checking in on my mom to see how her babysitting duties were going and later rushing back to my hotel room so I could Facetime with Ashlee and Jackson before his bedtime. Instead of hitting the Strip on what was my first trip to Vegas, I bought an obnoxiously overpriced bottle of wine and sipped from a paper cup in bed while looking at old newborn pictures of Jackson.

On the road or in the office, I’m the same person I am when I’m home—and I have the same responsibilities. I recently had an important interview for a story I was working on and, halfway through, I found myself drifting off, wondering if I would be able to wrap this up in enough time to get home and walk the dog before Ashlee left for class, because I knew it was too chilly of a day for Jackson to tag along on an outdoor adventure. At home, I have found myself answering work emails while Jackson is sitting on my lap finishing his nighttime bottle, or getting frustrated with him when all he wants to do is play at 8 p.m. and I have a load of freelance projects waiting for his bedtime.

The idea that parents can “balance” their professional selves with their personal selves shouldn’t even come into the equation, as balancing suggests two opposing entities — and that there should be some fair and equal distribution. In reality, it’s about achieving harmony among the many enmeshed elements of one’s identity — being aware of where we’re needed most and when and trying to rise to that challenge.


Making it work

Accepting that balance is unattainable seems to be the first step toward holding down a career and a baby — without fully losing your sanity. A key part of that recognition, however, is also accepting that other people won’t quite get just how blurred the lines are around between parent and professional.

For instance, a few weeks ago, a coworker, whom I like, stopped into my office to chat. “You know, you really look tired,” he began. Thankfully, he didn’t pick up on the plastered smile I projected back. He went on to regale me with a story about a friend who, for months after her child’s birth, was “unfriendly” and withdrawn and how she too came out the other side. I thanked him for his kind words and frantically put my earbuds back in. To me, that was the parental version of the “You should smile” comment that so many women have fielded from passersby on the street. While my coworker may have been well-meaning, what he didn’t realize was I had been up almost the entire night, as Ashlee, the baby and I all were fighting a nasty head cold. I was tired, sick and sick of being tired.

But to that coworker and, doubtlessly, countless others, I shouldn’t have presented that truth at work. Except for parents in the throws of a new baby who understand all that experience entails, I think many put a dangerous distance between home and the office — with the assumption that, sure, having a baby is tough, but leave it at the door. We’re supposed to be the model parent at home and the model employee at the office — with little wiggle room for the mental, physical and emotional baggage parents and employees carry with them every day. The same extends to countless other challenging experiences employees face — a death, mental-health struggles, a breakup, the effects of which many workers may strive to suppress in order to preserve the image of being the ideal employee. 

But that game can take a toll. And without flexible workplace policies or an organizational culture that recognizes the intertwined influence of work and home, the feat of ensuring those competing aspects of one’s identity don’t overrun one another, can be a solo job.

For me, I found it helpful to remind myself not to sweat the small stuff. Yes, I feel my hand itching toward my phone when I see it ding with a work email while I’m feeding the baby. Answering it would mean one less thing to do tomorrow. But it would also mean a few seconds less I have to devote to Jackson — something I know I may regret not too far in the future. Work (my work, at least) isn’t life or death — it can always wait.

I’ve also tried to find ways to integrate my responsibilities. As we were building our baby registry, for example, I found myself quickly falling down the rabbit hole of baby research; I knew that, if I didn’t find out right then if Stroller A or Stroller B was safer and had a better value, I wouldn’t be able to focus on my work. So I took a break and pulled up reviews and did some non-work at work. Once satisfied, I got busy again. Let’s face it: Not everyone is 100% productive for eight-plus solid hours every day at work. Water-cooler conversations, Facebook scrolling and other mindless activities doubtlessly eat into many employees’ days. So instead of feeling guilty if I try to knock out a “home” task at work, I remind myself that the peace of mind I get from doing so makes me a more focused and productive employee.

Advocating for change can also provide the perspective parents may need. The United States remains the only developed nation in the world without mandated maternity leave — making full LGBTQ-inclusive parental leave seem even more like a pipe dream. While many companies have gotten on board and recognized the value of inclusive benefits, most haven’t.

Working for an HR magazine, I’ve learned just how hot today’s jobs market is — meaning employers want to keep their workers; they need to. So what’s the harm in asking HR about plans to expand maternity leave to parental leave (and even full family leave to afford flexibility for all sorts of deserving situations)? Other areas for improvement could be flex time and work-from-home programs, which are gaining steam — and rightfully not just for employees with kids — as organizations increasingly recognize the value of benefits that acknowledge employees’ blended work and home lives.

Parent or not, and LGBTQ or not, allies can have a big impact on progress and, if enough LGBTQ and ally employees make the case for workplace policies and programs that can enable all employees to bring the best of themselves to work and to home, both our workplaces and our homes will be all the better. n