Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Myth of Balance

Two recent articles point out the impossibility of achieving balance in career and family for women.You simply can not be in two places at once1.

However, the way societies treat "part-time workers" is outrageous and perhaps something we can rectify.

Here's the money quote from the first article:
Part-time employment has failed to deliver either at home or in the office, with large numbers of white-collar workers suffering career burnout and family stress.

Those hit hardest are women professionals who had looked to part-time work as a way of balancing family responsibilities and working life.

But a report to be published today says many part-time professionals are being confronted with reduced incomes, career dead-ends and the inability to find enough family time.
The second article is even more depressing.

The problems with part-time work are compounded by the way men reduce the number of hours they work at home by MORE than the number of hours their partners reduce their paid work hours2. So these women end up doing more work for less pay because they work "only part-time".

Until our entire society changes its attitudes, which I doubt will happen anytime soon, let's just agree to go easier on ourselves.

I think that many part-timers have already accepted the raw deal. Why else would studies repeatedly show that mothers who work part-time enjoy higher mental health than other mothers?

(Mothers who stay home full-time experience the highest stress and enjoy the lowest mental health with mothers working full-time in between. Mental health appears to peak at around 30 hours per week of paid work.)

If women who work part-time outside the home have the longest combined workday of all mothers, why are they the happiest?

One of my friends explained the paradox, "Perhaps it is because we don't expect things to be equal."

We haven't failed. Society has failed us.

After Mark wound up his post-doc and before he started his first "real" job, we took a three week self-supported bicycle tour through France. One night, we met an older American couple dining at a neighboring table at a restaurant in Bonnieux. We had a wonderful chat about travel, work, career and family.

She had always worked full-time because science majors earn more than philosophy majors (even with gender discrimination). Anyway, the husband worked part-time while the children were young. For the most part, they were content with the way their children turned out. They were also content with their career choices and had visited an enviable list of places.

They both agreed that the most disappointed people were the women who stayed home full-time to raise children. They both saw in the children of SAHMs a high degree of self-centeredness and a sense of entitlement. They told horror stories of children demanding that their parents throw elaborate and expensive weddings or send them to expensive private colleges when the parents had no retirement savings.

"So what did those parents do?" I asked.

"They took out home equity loans and then sold their homes in NY and moved to Florida." They were simply too poor to continue to live in NY after their children were done with them.

Think of part-time work as asset allocation for time. The chances of both your career and home life tanking at the same time is smaller than if you put all your eggs in one basket.

[1] Unless you are a quantum mechanical state function under very specific laboratory conditions)

[2] This finding came from a published time use survey several years ago. The men self-reported how they spent their time. However, in studies that used self-reported time diaries in conjunction with observers in the homes, professional men were shown to over-report the time they spent on housework.


  1. "Think of part-time work as asset allocation for time. The chances of both your career and home life tanking at the same time is smaller than if you put all your eggs in one basket."

    Yes. This is a useful stock market investment strategy, and may apply to other aspects of life. However, it's been my consistent experience that our society doesn't value competent generalists as much as highly competent specialists. This is true in art, science, business, love, etc.

    Nonetheless, there are many content investors who follow this strategy in the stock market.

    A similar choice is offered those who work a 9-80 work week (alternate Fridays off with 80 hours of work accumulated in the preceding 9 days). Looked at on a day by day basis, they have the opportunity to become even more specialized than someone who works "only" an 8 hour day five days a week: Workers on a 9-80 schedule both work and play in more concentrated (specialized) blocks of time.

    [Aside: Is this true? With competing family requirements I've chosen the consistency of the regular work week over the 9-80 work week. But, if I were at work an hour earlier each day (to the detriment of my family) then I could synchronize my meeting schedule with my peers more completely and could be more up to speed on business activities. This might make me more valued, but perhaps this is a side effect of conformance to the majority rather than specialization.]

    If 9-80 workers are more valued because they are specialized, I wonder if this extrapolates to a guideline that part time workers ought to concentrate their time at work into as few days per week as possible?

  2. Anonymous17:23

    Yes, depressing, but I think there is something to the idea that perhaps people who work part time accept the situation, and are happy that they are able to mange both motherhood and work. Societal change is a long way away unfortunately, and goes way beyond educating our daughters. I continue to maintain that we still have a long way to go in terms of educating our sons.

  3. I work "part time". It's actually pretty much full time - 32.5 hours each week. We break the law by having me work 6.5 hours with no lunch break.

    You know, it does suck for me. It's better for everyone else but it truly sucks for me. I go straight from getting the kids off to school to work. Then work 6.5 hours and come home just in time to pick the kids up from school. Then it's homework time until soccer.

    I hate that I never have time that's just for me until everyone is in bed. So I'm exhausted all the time. I end up taking naps on evenings when there is no soccer.

    Mr. Gaia and I have all but decided the boys will be in the after school program so that I can have some "me" time. I just have to convince myself that I deserve it and not decide to work full time during that time.

    I do it because it does make the family life easier. We have evenings free from homework and can participate in soccer, etc. Plus we have income enough to save for retirement and college and have a little fun now and then. But after 3 years I'm starting to feel resentful.

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  5. Gaia, that's precisely what I am talking about. You do the work of two people without the respect or appreciation.

    You deserve the "me" time. You need it. Your whole family will be happier if you get some decompression time.


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