I remember when I was thinking about starting a family. I was a second year associate at what was, at the time, considered a large law firm and I was trying to determine how I was going to make it all work. How was I going to continue my demanding career and raise a family? I wracked my brain, thinking of every possibility, as all good Type A attorneys do, and then finally gave up. There was simply no way I was going to be able to figure it out; it was not going to be something I could intellectualize, it was not a problem that I could simply solve. I was just going to have to make it up as I went along.
I think that is how a lot of us survive. We just do it. And by us and we I mean working mothers. That is not to say that working fathers do not have busy lives or that women who stay at home do not work just as hard. But, this is not about them. This us about us. About me and so many of my successful, professional, female friends who work outside the home, and inside the home, who own businesses or run companies, who cook and do school projects. All at once. It is about those of us who try to do it all and have it all, whatever that really means.
It used to be called work-life balance. This idea that you could work and also be involved in the personal aspects of your life. That some days work would take precedence and other days life would, but the overarching goal was that, at the end of the day, the proverbial scale, that touchstone of equality, would balance. After years of using the work-life balance verbiage, it became clear that work-life balance was nothing but an unattainable myth. Like the Lockness Monster or life on Mars, it was something that simply did not exist. It also presumed a one-size-fits-all solution to the issues working women were facing. And if you could not find that elusive balance, you must have been doing something wrong. So we changed the name. To work-life integration. Work-life integration looks at the issues facing working women (and men – this term is much more gender inclusive than work-life balance ever really was) more as a continuum than a scale – a sliding scale if you will. In this newer, technology driven model, we have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and our work and life are woven together seamlessly. We may go into work, then come home for dinner, only to jump back on the computer again at night in pajamas. Or, answer calls on the soccer field while the crock pot simmers at home. Work-life integration has made us master multi-taskers. Work-life integration is still the term of choice for most companies and professional service firms, although there is an even more recent use of a newer iteration, work-life fit. Work life fit focuses on the way work “fits” into your life, day-to-day and at major life and career transitions. It is more individualized, less one-size-fits-all (no pun intended) and is more of an acceptance of the ebb and flow of work and life.
Whatever term you want to use, many of us are trying to figure out how to make it work in the trenches every day. I think a better way to describe it is as more of a live game of Whack-A-Mole. We all remember that carnival game – the one where you hit a mole with a plastic mallet only to have it pop up again somewhere else on the board? That game represents the lives of so many of us. You finally get the deal closed and the client is calmed down, only to find that the science fair project is due tomorrow and you are out of glue, only to solve that problem to remember that you have to prepare for the school board meeting you are presenting at in the morning. Oh, and then there is the laundry. It is a never-ending arcade game of survival.
There is a lot of discussion about what companies can and should be doing to provide employees with work-life flexibility and options. Research shows that supported flexible working arrangements create a happier, more productive and more engaged workforce and particularly influence women’s ability to see a path to success. And as an advocate for the advancement of women and gender parity, I wholeheartedly support that premise. But, I know too many highly educated and amazing women who are exhausted, burned-out and generally out of control. Something has to give. And I don’t think it has anything to do with men specifically, but I do think there are two pieces to the puzzle – one is the programs and policies that are offered and integrated into places of employment and the other has to do with women themselves.
First, the workplace. Companies unequivocally must implement work-life policies, and they have to be available freely, without stigma, for both men and women. Flexible working arrangements, working remotely, temporary leaves or sabbaticals, unlimited paid time off, the ability to pursue other interests while still doing the job – all examples of what companies can offer, within the confines of what makes sense for that particular business model. And the stigma piece is huge. Both genders need to feel that they can utilize whatever work-life offerings are in place without derailing their careers. Second, women. And this has absolutely nothing to do with blaming women. But the reality is that women are historically so used to doing it all and not asking for help, for putting unrealistic expectations on themselves to bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan, to be everything to everyone, that they lose themselves in the process. So how do we stop this cycle? Maybe instead of trying to have work-life-something we should focus on being the best versions of ourselves that we can be, whatever the situation calls for. And realize that having it all means different things at different times and that if we are always waiting to pounce on that persnickety next mole, we are not present. I think our generation of women is caught in the cross-fire. We still carry the trappings of our parent’s generation – the more traditional roles of men and women – because many of us did not see our mothers work. Yet we do work and we hold big, important, demanding careers. And still we feel obligated in our own minds to fulfil the more traditional roles of mother and wife. The reality is, we simply cannot do it all, all the time.
Perhaps achieving true work-life balance or integration or fit is really about internal peace, about coming to terms with who we are and what we can realistically accomplish each day. Thinking more in terms of life being a marathon, not a sprint and prioritizing the things that really matter, when they matter. Because, in the big picture, it really is okay to allow that mole to live another day.