The Work-Life Balance Myth (and other lies we tell)

Recently a friend of mine paid me a very kind compliment, telling me she admired how I “keep it all together” being a “professional and cooking fantastic meals.”  “How do you do it all?” she asked.  Well, I don’t really.  She was giving me far too much credit.  I love to cook, so I frequently post pictures of what I’m cooking to my Instagram account.  But to be fair, I do NOT cook every day.  I probably only cook 3-4 times a week, depending on what we have going on.  And, my children are now adults, so I am no longer running to cheer practice, basketball games, or tumbling class.  My kids, for the most part, take care of themselves.  In reality, my life just isn’t as busy as it used to be, so she wasn’t being fair to herself when comparing herself to me.  She’s a baseball mom!  God help me if I had boys and had to fill that role.  I know that moms of baseball players spend a crazy amount of time at the ball fields.

The point is, women hold themselves to these crazy, unattainable goals and ideals that they think society requires of them.  This is nothing new.  I have compared my physical self to supermodels for years, knowing that it is ridiculous to think should look like that, because if I did then I would probably be a super model in LA instead of sitting in a cubicle in an office in Alpharetta.  I look at magazines, thinking my home should look like what I see on the glossy pages, and when I come home to find dirty socks on the couch and dishes in the sink, I come unglued instead of just accepting that this is real life and the magazine picture is a moment in time when a house was staged by a professional and a picture was snapped to capture the perfection.

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“Chaos” by Hans on Pixabay

Our lives are not perfect, but sometimes we get the impression that everyone else has a perfect life by what we see on social media, so we start comparing ourselves to something that does not exist.  Admit it – you’ll take 10 pictures, trying to get the best shot of yourself to post online because you’ll be damned if anyone is going to see the picture of your double chin or jiggly upper arms.  I’ll bet you’ve taken pictures of your kids on vacation, everyone smiling and looking like they’re having a great time, when really what happened 10 minutes before was one kid had a complete mental breakdown, screaming and crying, and the other one was super annoyed and stomped off, and your husband had that look on his face that said he’d rather be back at the hotel taking a nap.  You didn’t snap a picture of that to post on Facebook?  Why not?  Because we all lie.  Not to be malicious, but because we want the world to believe that we are happy and have great lives, and don’t you wish you were on the beach in Hawaii like we are (never mind the 8 hour flight, the kid who puked, and the suitcase that was lost).

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Photo by rubbrduck1951 on Pixaba

The Perfectly Happy Life myth is not only perpetuated by social media (because that myth has been around a lot longer than Facebook has), but it is also perpetuated by this idea that we should have work-life balance.  If you balance work and life, you’ll be happier.  Your life will be in balance – perfectly in balance.  I have news for you:  there is no such thing as work-life balance, and the longer you try to achieve balance, the more frustrated you’ll end up being.

What?!  But the company I work for promotes work-life balance!  I’ve read articles about it!  I’ve been to seminars!  It’s a good thing!

Sure.  In a perfect world.

Balance is 1.) an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady, and 2.) a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.  If we are talking about work-life balance, we are suggesting that there is an even distribution of “work” and “life” and if there isn’t we’ll tip over, or that “work” and “life” are different elements and should be in equal proportions in our life.  I beg to differ.

First of all, how do you differentiate between “work” and “life?”  What is defines “work” and what defines “life?”  If I go to lunch with co-workers, is this a work activity or a life activity?  Because, I could argue that socializing with my co-workers is good for my position at work and helps to maintain working relationships in the office, so lunch is “work.”  But I could also say that eating is required to stay alive and the right nutrients are necessary to maintain health, so lunch is “life.”  But then again, if I’m not healthy or if I’m starving and pass out, then I can’t work and that impacts my job so lunch should fall in the “work” category.

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How about if I work from an office at home?  I’m performing work for my employer, but I’m also throwing in a load of laundry after my conference call, and that’s not work, that’s life.  Wait, isn’t laundry work?  It’s housework, which I don’t get paid for, but it’s definitely work because it’s not fun.  So is life only the fun stuff?  No, because we have fun at work, too.

See?  It gets confusing.

The lines between “work” and “life” are blurred, if we can even call them lines at all.  You can’t work if you’re not living, so isn’t “work” a life activity?  My work activities pay for and support my life activities, but I can’t work if I’m not alive.  Work is part of life.  Life is part of work.  So how do you balance the two?

Going back to the first definition of balance, work-life balance suggests that we give each equal attention and equal time.  This is not realistic, and in my opinion, not even possible.  Sometimes life gets more of us – during graduation in May I spent more time with my family and less at work.  Sometimes work gets more of us – when I had a deadline looming I had to spend some late days at the office and sacrificed time with my family.  When I finally stopped thinking I had to keep each separate and in balance, my stress level dropped dramatically.  It’s OK to give more time and attention to one over the other from time to time.  That’s just how life works.

It makes more sense to me to think in terms of Work-Life Integration.  Considering that mobile technology has enabled us to be plugged in to work while at home in the evenings and on the weekends, as well as on vacation, it makes more sense to think of work in terms of integrating it into your life, rather than treating it as a separate entity.  The flip side is also true:  we can interact with our families easily while at work, texting our kids, going online to look at grades, email teachers, texting our spouses, ordering dinner for pick-up on our way home.  And checking Facebook, you know, to keep tabs on your parents.  With more employers offering the option of telecommuting, our work life and home life has become blended; not necessarily balanced.

I think if we stop lying to ourselves and stop trying to achieve perfection in everything from our profile photos to our home décor, kids’ grades, family vacations, weeknight meals, and our overall happiness, and learn to accept that some things just are the way they are, that maybe we’ll reduce our overall stress and actually achieve happiness.  And that happiness isn’t the kind that can be posted on your Facebook wall, or photographed on Instagram.  You can’t balance life.  And that’s OK.

*Note:  This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop posting photos of the food I make.  Just remember, those meals are NOT served up 7 days/week.  And with those pretty food pictures, comes plenty of duds, and sometimes downright disasters.  My pledge to you is that I will also post those; the disasters, the duds, and the mundane.  Get ready for cereal night pics, people!

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