Classic Mojo Mom: Work-Life Balance, Our Ladder is up the Wrong Tree. This post was adapted for inclusion in the new book PunditMom’s Mothers of Intention: How Women & Social Media Are Revolutionizing Politics in America, and, it remains my favorite Mojo Mom blog post of all time as well as the one that has generated the most passionate responses. So I wanted to share these thoughts again with you today in full. (Originally posted on December 18, 2006)
Work-life balance: Our ladder is up the wrong tree
by Dr. Amy Tiemann, author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family and creator of MojoMom.com
All the research I have done as Mojo Mom has led me to a conclusion that I really need to share with you. As mothers trying to have an integrated life with many facets, have set our sights set on the wrong goal. Our ladder is up the wrong tree in a major way.
I am talking about “work-life balance.” This idea is everywhere, and has become a watchword for my generation, Gen X, which has put “work-life balance” on the map as our highest ideal as we negotiate with our hard-charging Boomer bosses. Although it is usually presented as a positive ideal, “balance” is a trap. I argue that rather than being our highest goal, “balance” accurately describes our current situation that asks families to do it all…on our own. Until we change our thinking on this issue, we are going to be stuck with the same set of unappetizing work-life “choices” that we are faced with now.
Think about it. Who needs balance? Jugglers, tightrope walkers….and Moms. Picture the iconic cover of a chick-lit novel, showing a woman struggling to “balance” a briefcase, cellphone. and pacifier. In real life there would most likely be a dog and stroller involved too, in addition to an actual baby. When we tell women to strive for balance, we’re really telling them to keep dancing as fast as they can. We are telling them that they are failing to keep it all together without asking for help.
“Balance” is in fact a telling metaphor for motherhood. Balance is the underappreciated sixth sense in our brains. Our sense of balance is active, dynamic, and takes a constant hum of processing and adjustment to achieve—yet this vital work barely registers in our conscious mind. We only notice it when our system fails and we are thrown into disequilibrium, left dizzy and unable to function. We couldn’t get out of bed to stand up straight and walk, much less work and lead productive lives, without our sense of balance. But when is the last time you thought of your vestibular system, not to mention stopping to thank heavens for the vital job it does?
This is just like the work that mothers provide: unpaid, uncounted, and invisible labor that forms the foundation of family life. If it were counted, women’s unpaid household labor would add an estimated one-third to the world’s annual economic product, more than $4 trillion.
So if our balancing act is a farce rather than a lofty goal, what should we be aiming for?
This needs to become our new ideal, our North Star, our guiding metaphor. The motherhood movement should aim for creating a real support network that involves everyone–employers, communities, men and women. We need a team approach to holding up the world, one that recognizes the contributions that all family caregivers make, a system that does not just expect us to make the pieces fit all by ourselves on an individual level. My Mojo Mom Mantra is to “make the invisible work visible and then divide it fairly.” We are still at the beginning of that first step, increasing awareness about what mothers and fathers contribute to society, through the sacrificial giving that is required to raise the next generation of children. Support and teamwork need to trickle up from the grassroots to a policy level. We can use this context to explain the motherhood movement to our supporters and skeptics alike.
I learned a lesson about support recently. I had ordered a giant beanbag chair called a Foof Cube for our home. My 7 year old knew a good thing when she saw it. Within a day of its arrival she had commandeered it for her bed, and she’s been sleeping in it every night since then. Kids are great at taking what they need.
I am also ordering another one for myself. In the meantime, I sneak into her room during the school day and sink down into the foam cube to remind myself what support feels like. I am cradled in a snug nest. I let go, and nothing falls.
I could get used to this.
This whole fall, and especially since Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get through our first holidays without my Mom. I am posting a picture of us together at my Mojo Mom book launch in April 2009 to cheer myself up a little bit. I was really proud to have her be able to attend my author talk. She often babysat my daughter while I did my book talks, so it was really special to have her come to an event. This is one of my favorite pictures of us together:
To get through Thanksgiving I focused on being thankful for the family who were able to be with us, while remembering those whom we’ve lost. But what I am learning about grief is that it does not follow a timeline that is like most other things in society. We’re so used to experiencing events, or going through seasons, then moving on, lightning-quick. These days, the Christmas aisle is fully set up the day after Halloween, if not before! It has long been a pet peeve of mine that grinding consumerism creates a nearly unbroken cycle of spending and candy. (Remember when candy was an actual holiday treat?) But this year my emotional state is what is dominating my landscape, as I realize that grief will be a long process that needs to be honored and not rushed. I am trying to create a meaningful holiday without forcing myself to feel or act “jolly.” One part of that is conserving my energy and acknowledging that I already have a lot on my plate. The second part is figuring out what my family really does want to do to celebrate Christmas, and I to be honest I have not made a lot of progress on that one yet.
Since I need guidance more than I am able to create it this season, I wanted to share the following advice from Project Compassion a non-profit organization in based in Chapel Hill, NC, that creates community and provides innovative support for people living with serious illness, caregiving, end of life and grief. This piece is reprinted with their permission:
Hope for the Holidays: Living with Grief
The holidays are a traditionally seen as a time of joy and laughter, sparkle and glitter, sharing and gift-giving. But for people who are grieving, the holidays may be a time of mixed emotions, feelings of being overwhelmed with multiple demands, and a renewed reminder of losses. As the holidays approach, consider about how you take care of yourself during this time.
Helpful Hints for the Holidays
1. Acknowledge the Energy Needed for Grief
Adjustment to the death or dying of someone close to you does not simply come with time. The work of grief demands that you deal with all the feelings that loss engenders. This work takes psychic and physical energy that can leave you unable to deal with the extra demands of the holiday season.
2. Allow Yourself To Be Human
Avoid perfectionist expectations during the holidays. Let some things slide. If you really want to do all the cooking and baking, let the dusting go. Enlist the aid of others “in the holiday spirit of sharing.” You do not have to do it all yourself this time.
3. Plan Ahead
Sit down with your family and friends ahead of time to discuss and decide those activities, experiences, and people that make the holidays special for you. Decide to do a few special things with a few special people, not everything with everybody.
4. Set Limits
Tell your family, friends, and yourself now- and continue to remind them- that you are on a stress reduction diet this holiday season. You will not be over-doing, over-shopping, over-cooking, over-complying or over-worrying this year. Put a sign on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator to remind yourself or others.
5. Change Shoulds To Wants
Be aware of your own statements to yourself. Are you saying “I should do this or that”? Decide which of your “shoulds” you really want to do and make those your priorities. Remember: You should not “should” yourself. There are enough other people doing that already.
6. Strive For A Balanced Lifestyle
With all the parties and demands of the holidays, it is difficult for anyone to get enough rest and exercise. It is easy to overindulge. Set exercise, relaxation and self-care as a priority
7. Tell Others Clearly What You Want And Need For The Holidays
Do not be shy or embarrassed to let others know what you want from them in terms of emotional support, help, or sharing. Unknown expectations generally go unfulfilled and lead to disappointment and bad feelings.
8. Honor The Old/Create The New
This holiday time may not be like previous ones. But what will it e like? Realistically, this may be the last holiday with your ill family member. How can you make it the best?
If this is the first holiday time without your family member, include your deceased loved one to the extent that you can; the memory of him or her will be with you this holiday season no matter what you do. Consider giving gifts in acknowledgement of the person you are remembering. Consider giving love to others in honor of the love you have received. Only you can put the joy into the holidays.
9. Be Generous To Yourself
The holidays are a time of real and symbolic gift-giving. What are you giving yourself this season? When the new year rolls in, what will be your answer to the question, “What supportive and caring things did I do for myself this holiday season?”
10. Celebrate Life
It seems impossible for someone in grief to find joy and peace at any time, but especially during the season for joy and peace. This is your challenge. Life is worth living only to the extent that we make it so. Survivorship means more than merely surviving, it means fully living. Search for the living path for you and start now!
If you are grieving this holiday, I wish you solace and peace, and please know that you are not alone.