Friday, September 28, 2012

Dana Shell Smith’s Take on Family and Work (Kudos)

Despite my criticism in the prior post, I did really appreciate one point in Ms. Smith’s article where she describes her family’s reality:

We are clear in our own minds that in this phase of our lives, so-called "work life balance" means work and family. Full stop. Social life is on the "nice to have" list, not the mandatory list. We haven't seen a non-animated movie in a movie theater in a decade. We collapse from exhaustion most evenings and are each settled in with a book by 10 p.m. We watch almost no TV and shop for everything except for groceries online. Fun for us, at this point, is family dinner time, walking the dog, camping with our kids for a night on the weekend, or maybe getting together with another family.

You get the idea. Everything else is work. Friends and colleagues are surprised, and occasionally offended, when I categorically state that I do not agree to engagements on weekday evenings (with the exception of my monthly book club, which keeps me sane).

I appreciated this part of Ms. Smith’s article because it rings true.  It describes the reality of my family and many others I know.  Working full-time and raising a family is grueling.  I don’t think this reality is noted enough in public discussion.  As a result, I don’t think this reality is appreciated in policy debates.

Several points about Ms. Smith’s description are worth noting here.

First, I actually cringe at the phrase “work-life balance” because it means different things to different people.  Here, Ms. Smith points out that for her the “life” part means her family while others mean “hobbies” or “leisure time.”  Most parents I know who balance raising young kids and work obligations are simply exhausted as Ms. Smith describes.  We don’t have time for hobbies or much of a social life. 

But to be clear, I don’t point this out as a complaint.  My husband and I wanted to be parents and through adoption made a conscious decision to start a family.  It was no accident.  We clearly chose parenthood. 

Further, I absolutely love being a mom.  As opposed to taking fancy vacations or eating in sophisticated restaurants, going to spas or the theatre, I personally would much rather spend my time  with my kids.  Even if it is not play time.  Helping them with homework, reading with them, taking them to dance lessons or soccer practice, reading to them, or teaching them to cook.  That is all fun stuff to me. 

But I raise this point about a lack of leisure time because in my experience non-parents or parents who don’t have compensated jobs just don’t seem to understand the reality of the situation for working parents.  Friends who have no children don’t seem to understand why I rarely have seen (or even heard of) most of the films nominated for Oscars each year.  The last movies I saw in a theatre were Madagascar 3 and Cars 2.  Anything else is on DVD, at least a year or more after it has come out.  Not only do my friends without kids not understand this reality, I often sense they pity me and think it is pathetic to be so out of the loop.

Similarly, friends without children or friends who are parents but have a full-time homemaker spouse seem to not have any sense of why I might not be able to go out for a gourmet meal or cocktails after work.  At church, I get similar reactions.  It seems to never dawn on many folks that I might not be available for committee meetings or Bible Studies on week nights.  The sense I get from such obliviousness is that people don’t understand parenting to be a serious responsibility of mine.  I guess the thought is that someone else does it (i.e., my husband?), but it doesn’t really impinge on my time.  The assumption from such folks seems to be that once I leave work, I’m footloose and free to do whatever my interest me.

I know these are not isolated experiences that are unique to me.  Lots of other working moms have commiserated with me over such attitudes and the lack of insight by those around us.  Many non-parents or parents with stay-at-home spouses don’t seem to understand our reality.

When I read Ms. Smith’s words quoted above, I had an epiphany.  For parents with family and jobs to balance, it all comes down to two kinds of work: paid work and family work. 

Helping with homework, fixing meals, doing the shopping, doing dishes, signing the permission slips, doing laundry and cleaning the toilet are all types of work.  They are personal responsibilities to one’s family, not professional responsibilities.  But these are not hobbies, they are a type of work.  And fulfilling these family responsibilities is time-consuming. 

So when some talk of “work-life balance,” the word “life” refers to fun and rejuvenating activities to help with stress.  It is a type of indulgence.  But when parents use the phrase “work-life balance,” they mean something very different, i.e., balancing two different types of work.  One is compensated and performed for third parties.  The other is non-compensated and performed for one’s family.  There is typically no or little time for us to engage in the kind of fun and rejuvenating activities that help with stress. 

Ms. Smith notes that in this phase of our life when we are parenting minor children while working professionally, there is not time for anything else if we’re going to get any sleep at all. That seems kind of pathetic.  And it doesn’t sound terribly healthy.  But it rings true.  Most of the working moms I know are exhausted and perennially sleep deprived.

I was talking with a working mom friend recently about this balancing issue, and I noted that the women I know who work out regularly either have no kids or are stay-at-home moms.  I had realized not long ago that I didn’t know any moms who worked outside the home who actually found time to exercise any more.  We may get up early to go spend some time on the treadmill or use our lunch hour to run to the gym.  But in my experience and observation, such workouts take herculean logistical efforts and tend to not be sustainable.  Eventually we’re so sleep deprived we can’t keep getting up early to exercise.  Or we end up having to work through lunch or run errands for the family such that the gym is no longer a possibility.

Not only do we neglect our health in being sleep deprived and too sedentary, I had also heard repeatedly from various working moms in different contexts that they didn’t have time to go to the doctor.  They made sure to take their kids to dental and medical check-ups, but they didn’t have time to attend to their own appointments.  Some of these moms indicated they hadn’t even had time to find doctors for their own health needs.  Others had commented that they had doctors, but couldn’t find time to make and keep appointments to see them.  In the past month alone, I’ve had several working mom friends tell me about chronic and potentially serious health problems they had, for which they just couldn’t find time to get medical care.

The point is that in my experience and observation, working moms are spread so thin.  There is arguably not enough time in the day to work two demanding jobs (i.e., compensated jobs and caregiver).  This results in few opportunities for a break or relaxation.  I have a dear friend who made a comment recently that was very insightful along these lines.  She is mom of grade school kids and she has a demanding professional job.  Her paid gig has her working until the sun has gone down five days a week minimum, and she puts in significant hours every weekend.  Nonetheless, she somehow finds time to help the kids with homework on a regular basis.  She mentioned to me recently that she had another grueling week ahead of her, but she was excited because one day this week she had scheduled some outpatient surgery.  The surgery was nearly a year overdue and she had suffered a lot of pain as a result.  But things had been too busy at work for her to schedule the surgery.  Having outpatient surgery didn’t sound like fun to me, but my friend was looking forward to it because she would miss a half day of work and would be able to rest a bit.  I gently flagged for my friend that it was pretty sad to look forward to surgery; it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach!  She agreed it was pretty twisted state of affairs, but that was her honest feelings.  Her reality is she got no break unless she was under anesthesia and undergoing an invasive medical procedure.   

Because parenting is such a tough job, I strongly advise anyone from taking it on unless they are sure that is their calling.  It is a never-ending job.  You never punch out.  Not even when you go to sleep.  You are always on call.  For years.  I personally find it rewarding and can’t imagine life without my kids.  But without that kind of passion, the grind of simultaneously working full time and parenting would be miserable.

Isaiah 40:28-29

Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.



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