Judith M. Bardwick
The great literary critic, Robert Morris, asked me some very interesting questions. Here is my answer to the following question.
Morris: In your opinion, is it possible to balance what is most important in one’s career with what is most important in one’s personal life? If so, what to do? What not to do?
Bardwick: In my experience, it is not possible to balance work and one’s personal life except for relatively brief periods. Different phases in childrearing and work normally require greater effort in one part far more than in another. When that happens, and it inevitably does, less attention is paid to other sectors.
Most people think of a balanced life in terms of how much time is given to the various sectors of a life. While time is one measure of involvement, I think the critical variable is passion. How much energized, fascinated and absorbed are you in each sphere in which you are engaged? They are rarely, and usually only briefly, equal.
When relationships are pretty new, and before there are children, it is usual for people who have careers — in contrast to jobs — to commit enormous energy and time to both the relationship and their career. The demands, pressures and insecurity in the beginning of careers and relationships result in a rough balance between the two commitments. That normally changes with the arrival of the first child.
When children are very young there is no end to the attention they require and demand. And infants come equipped with an irritating cry that few parents can ignore. That’s why, beginning with the first child, unless people have full-time help, or a delighted grandparent next door, one partner typically cuts back on work, either leaving the labor force or working part time in a less demanding role. Child rearing is demanding, fulfilling, frustrating and absorbing. It is also exhausting. There goes balance! Briefly noted: children bring great joy but adult play and fun often become faint memories.
Before Competitive Childrearing became the norm and parental preoccupation with children became the hallmark of excellent childrearing, the hands-on care of children declined as children grew older and were expected to become more responsible for themselves. For many women, the time when children were old enough to go to school marked the beginning of their opportunity to devote less time to childcare and more time and focus on work. For some women that became an opportunity to return to their careers or school. It was, and for some this may still be the beginning of a better balance between us and me, and work and domestic responsibilities.
But with today’s prolonged criteria of hands-on child-rearing excellence, and the school’s and after-school pressure for high levels of parental involvement, childcare can easily become and remain the over-ridding commitment.
That was historically true largely for women but now more men are impacted either because of the high unemployment rate in this deep recession or because divorce has resulted in two single-parent households. The unbalanced demands of childcare, usually result in less commitment to career and often, to the relationship as well. In this sense childcare can now create the same kind of danger to a relationship as when one or both partners have a disproportionate focus on their career.
Right now, childcare and work command the greatest focus, awareness and effort. Commitment to, and time for the adult relationship, today, has become the tail of the dog.
And making everything harder, the criteria of excellent performance at work, in childrearing, and as a spouse or partner keep rising. There is more than enough stress to go around.
This is a catch 22. While there is enormous pressure to perform excellently in everything, a disproportionate focus on any one sector of life inevitably reduces the attention paid to the other spheres. It is possible to balance commitments in the short-term when the sun, moon and earth are briefly in synch and no part of life is clamoring more loudly than any other. But, for successful people, it doesn’t last. In addition to external pressures to achieve, successful people in work or childcare, find competition exciting, satisfying, and occasionally thrilling. There goes the old balance…again.
The balanced life is a goal, but for us it is mostly a myth.
There is too much pressure in all of life’s major parts because the criteria of excellence in every sector keep rising. This calls for an examination of values and priorities. The cost of chronic stress and of paying less attention to any major part of life is very high. The injuries caused by a long-term unbalanced life, the hurt or the destruction to the self-esteem of one’s partner or children or career can usually not be reversed. by re-balancing one’s life in the future.
This is less a matter of individual inadequacy than it is of a culture on testosterone which doesn’t address the need to lower some expectations while increasing some forms of support. I’ve argued unsuccessfully for decades, for example, for organizations to routinely hire parents of young children as part-time employees with proportionate benefits and the opportunity to return to a professional role full time when that’s reasonable. Requiring employees to take vacations is a good idea. Why not provide flex-time, four day work weeks…the list of ways to reduce stress and increase usable time is very long.
As a nation we need to do a better job of increasing the well-being of our people.