Work-Life Balance: Time for Solutions!

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Work on one side, kids on the other?
Illustration by winnifred xoxo via Flickr

The issue of balance is in the news again.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, jump-started the conversation. Other moms, bloggers and commentators have been adding on since. (I particularly love Joanna Weiss’s column, Work-Life Balance: Some Helpful Tips From the Elite. Because, you know, it never occurred to me that a fishmonger who delivers was the answer to all my problems.)

Like every other American mom, I have some thoughts on work-life balance. And my thoughts are this:

Time matters. A parent who spends 12 hours a day away from home, 5 or 6 days a week, will not have the same relationship with their child as a parent who is home with that child those same 12 hours a day. Relationships — romantic, parental or otherwise — are nurtured by spending time with each other.

The concept of quality vs. quantity time is a crock of coo-coo poo. Sure, it’s important to spend time interacting with your kids, vs. simply existing with them. So if you only have an hour a day with them, it’s probably better to spend that time playing a game together than scrubbing the dishes while they play X-box in the next room. But relationships truly grow when people spend unstructured time together. Want to get to know your kids? Spend a snow day with them. Take them on a cross-country camping trip. Spend a year homeschooling them. When you’re with your kids, day in and day out, you develop an understanding of their thoughts, ideas and preferences that you simply can’t get from weekend check-ins.

That’s not to say that you have to be an unemployed, at-home parent to be a good parent. I know a ton of good parents, both employed and unemployed, at-home and at-work. But every single great parent I know spent a significant amount of time with their children at one point or another. Co-incidence? I think not.

Social support would help. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Our society talks a good deal about parenting as “the most important job in the world,” but does little to support actual parents in the act of parenting.

In our society, the decision to work outside of the home or to stay home with children is viewed as a private decision, one that should be made and handled within the family unit. Unlike moms and dads in many other countries around the world, American parents can only take time off from work if they’re economically able to do so. If they decide to stay home, they not only forgo income, but also potential retirement income.  (Wanna see a bunch of zeroes? Look at the Social Security statement of a woman who’s spent some time at home raising kids.)

If one or both parents decides to work, whether for economic need or personal fulfillment, the family is expected to handle the messy issue of childcare all alone. To date, our society doesn’t seem to believe that it has a vested interest in the care of these children and families.

Yet, when kids get out of hand (middle schoolers on the bus, I’m looking at you!), we automatically ask, “Where are the parents?”  We don’t seem to recognize that we’ve created an impossible situation for all parents.

Other countries provide generous maternal and paternal leave. Financial stipends to parents who stay home to care for children. Universal access to high-quality childcare. Those kinds of things could make a difference — for parents, for kids and for our country — yet we’re loathe to fund them. Too socialist-like, we’re told. Too expensive. So we leave our families to fend for themselves. Instead of having serious discussions about the value of parenting, we let individuals figure out their own convoluted solutions to the problem of “having it all.” We let our families figure out how to blend work and home, while placing value almost exclusively on adult achievement outside of the home. We warehouse our children in childcare centers and schools and camps, treat them as obstacles to achievement, and wonder why our children are doing so poorly in school and in life.

I think it’s high-time for parents to stop debating work-life balance, and to start demanding some real solutions. Too many parents (moms, especially) are wasting time blaming themselves for their supposed inability to gracefully juggle work, home and family. They consider themselves flawed, weak human beings because they haven’t figured “it” out yet. But guess what? The problem isn’t that you’re weak or unorganized or not sufficiently dedicated. The problem is that our society has placed you in an impossible position.

Let’s stop heaping the blame on ourselves or others, and start looking for solutions instead.

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