Work and life

| life, reflection

Work and life. I want to write about this in the context of family, because two of my friends recently reflected on work-life integration:

It’s also been fascinating and edifying to see how… life
fits into all of this. See, the thing about work/life balance is that
it’s really easy if your life is work; you’ve only got one thing to
balance, so by default, blam, you’re done. Watching Heidi blend her
teaching and work, scholarship and family, kids and research, home and
school – you’re a mom and you’re a professor and you’re the same
person and you blend those lives and don’t compartmentalize them…
… it’s been a revelation to see both sides at the same time, and to
realize they’re not really “sides,” but… that it’s possible to blend
them, you don’t have to partition one from the other quite so firmly.

I know what I don’t want. I’ve seen my female family members at home,
and I don’t want that work-life balance; what I’ve seen is that either
you have no work (I love my work! I want a career! I want to teach!)
or the equally unpalatable-to-me alternative of having your work is
dictated by someone who’s not you (taking a job because your family
demands it rather than actually choosing to work in that way in that
time; giving up a personal career at a company in order to help with
your husband’s business, that sort of thing). I know it’s possible! I
just don’t know how it’s possible! It’s hard to see and hear and find
stories of how people come to find that sort of balance, what it looks
like, what it feels like. And I’m too shy to ask people about this
most of the time – and earlier on, when I didn’t know these things
were possible, I didn’t even know that I could ask.

Mel Chua

and feminism:

However I don’t really talk about what I mean by feminist because 1)
it doesn’t come up and 2) it’s not really something I think about a
lot. When it does, what often seems to come up is the unfairness of
women being penalized for motherhood, and as someone who doesn’t want
to have children, I’m not always sure I agree. If a woman chooses to
take a year off work and I don’t, it seems fair that I should be a
year ahead in my career. If I’m willing to travel, and relocate for my
job, and have fewer other aspects of my life to prioritize, it’s
clearly easier for me to advance.

Cate Huston

So here’s what I’m coming to understand:

It is possible for women to combine satisfying workplace accomplishments with family, community, and individual happiness. In some organizations, it’s even normal.

I’m lucky to be at IBM, where I’m surrounded by role models with all sorts of life experiences: single, in a relationship, raising young kids, raising school-age kids, empty-nesters, people who had chosen not to have kids at all; people who’ve returned to the workforce after raising their children; women whose spouses focused on child-rearing; couples who shared child-rearing responsibilities equally… Wow.

Seeing people actually live out their lives has gone a long way towards helping me accept the possibilities. There was a point in my life that I was afraid that relationships would distract me from the work I wanted to do. Now I’m married to someone who helps and inspires me do more than I had dreamed of doing. The sneak preview of parenting I get along the way shows me that it’s challenging, but not impossible, and it would help me grow, too.

So, feminism. It’s not about making everyone the same, or invalidating other people’s choices. A person who has made significant sacrifices for their career – moved a lot? took on additional challenges involving lots of extra work? – will understandably be at an advantage. That’s okay.

*It’s about the availability of choices,* so that people can build careers that fit them. Flexible schedules, off-ramps and on-ramps help people adjust their workload so that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing. Parental leaves help redress another imbalance: fathers should be able to spend time with their children too.

*It’s about valuing more kinds of work and more kinds of choices,* not just working long hours or sacrificing everything for the company.

It’s about calling out and reducing discrimination against people who’ve made different life choices. It’s about recognizing and correcting systemic disadvantages. It will be hard to work the biases out of our society. Women whose bios include parenting are described more negatively, while men actually get a benefit. I was listening to a Harvard Business podcast about advice for women returning to the workforce. The podcast described how some organizations have a “project watch” – a taskforce that occasionally reviews projects assigned to people on flexible workloads in on-ramp initiatives in order to make sure that the projects give people a reasonable chance of success. Not impossibly hard, but also not mindnumbingly easy. Neither type of project helps people grow their careers, and it’s important for people to be able to grow.

Even the way we talk about it reveals biases. I don’t think women “opt out of the workforce” – or worse, “flee the workforce”, as I’ve seen described. I think people sometimes choose the sanity of focusing on one major project at a time. I don’t think giving up on family life is a prerequisite for career success. I see examples of people who have made things work. I don’t think child-rearing is necessarily insular and limited. You can learn widely-useful things and transferrable skills along the way.

When the statistics and news stories get me down, I remind myself:

Some societies and organizations are better than others. I’m lucky to have grown up with strong role models, both male and female. I’m lucky to live in a society where sexism is discouraged. I’m lucky to be in an organization that offers many options. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who have made things work.

It’s not about the theoretical best. This is something I had to come to terms with years ago. If you worry too much about living up to your “full potential”, you’ll never be happy – particularly if you let other people define your full potential for you. It’s okay if I don’t become a super-popular nomadic entrepreneur or executive with a gazillion patents. (I find travel stressful, actually, so that would rule out the nomadic part anyway.) It doesn’t matter if other people are promoted faster, if they earn more, or if they become more famous. What matters is that I build a life that fits me, and I share what I’m learning along the way so that other people can build even better lives.

I don’t have to make all the life decisions now. A lot of this depends on things I don’t know yet. From all accounts, a baby’s first year is hectic, so people might as well plan to take a year off. After that, people make all sorts of choices. Being in a good financial and social position helps, as does keeping professional skills and networks up to date (always a good idea anyway).

We don’t have to solve all the problems in this life. I would love to wave a magic wand and create an equitable society (tada!), but it’s okay to help inch forward and work on not sliding back. We can grow a little bit at a time. Some of the little things I’m doing to nudge us forward are to always refer to it as “parental leave” instead of “maternity leave”, because work-life integration makes sense for men, too; to write without the assumption that it’s always going to be the woman staying home and raising kids; and to reflect on our biases about presenteeism, choices, and other things.

Here are some tips from another draft of this post:

Laying the groundwork

  • Save money and build a good nest egg. One of the insights I picked up from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is the freedom you get from having your own assets.
  • Build your skills and your passions so that you can make what you need doing what you love.
  • Find or build the support structures you might need: relationships, company culture, skills…
  • Cultivate relationships with supportive people.
  • Go deeper. Question the assumptions. Create unexpected value.
You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at