I despise the term “work-life balance.” The semantics evoke work and life as opposing forces locked in conflict – the bobbing bar of a doomed tightrope walker, a teeter-totter whose fulcrum defies equilibrium. Because we rarely talk of achieving balance, it is also code for inevitable failure or guilt.
I propose an alternative. Life encompasses work. Each of us is doing life in all its crazy, wonderful, messy, rewarding glory, not in neat compartments. I believe myself blessed to have seen this at work in my extended family since birth.
My family are citrus farmers – that’s my mom in diapers on the left. And accountants, diner owners and school teachers. I cherish memories of my elfin grandmother – educated at Duke (then Trinity) in the 1920s – making payroll at the kitchen table, while demanding grandchildren read aloud to her in order to drill us on pronunciation and vocabulary while simultaneously monitoring a pressure cooker filled with marmalade that would go to family, friends, and for sale at the fruit stand. My childhood included mowing office lawns and mopping restaurant floors, learning practical math by making change and keeping invoice ledgers, discussing business plans and selection of partners over dinner, as well as receiving a rose at a dance recital from an uncle still in a work shirt, fresh from doing building maintenance. It included a constant flow of hugs, weekly library trips, and cheering parents and family at athletic meets and spelling bees alike. Whether catering for 150, critiquing our school essays, or making cut-outs for classroom bulletin boards, we were together in each other’s lives. The adults’ 80 hour weeks included it all with joy and equal parts love and motivation.
Perhaps in an era of work that pivots on intellectual activity we have lost our imagination for engaging the people important to us in activities that work-life balance proscribes as “work.” But it can be done. My husband and my siblings are sounding boards for topics from public speaking to research contracts, and our children have never been isolated from our work. Most recent example: This weekend my 16-year-old sat in on breakfast with an early career faculty member. My son heard about magical feats in pediatric neurosurgery and about how career paths are rarely linear and surprises happen. He saw how adult professionals network and strategize new projects. Should I have felt guilty for “taking away from” family time? For not driving him home first before the meeting? I don’t see it – he learned more by politely listening in on a narrative about work and life and how they seamlessly flow together. Don’t do guilt. Do life well.