Judith Timson declared in the Globe last week that work-life balance issues are a “bore”. I’ve read quite a lot about work-life balance but I must say I have never heard it described as boring before, which I suspect is why Timson wrote it this way.
Her point is novel, but otherwise there’s not much to it. She acknowledges that life is tough for people, especially women, who have child and elder care responsibilities – “with parents of young children smack in the crucible” – but then advises that it’s “episodic” and to basically get over it. It’s just a “stage”.
What I want to ask Timson is how exactly she defines a “stage”? Childcare responsibilities are heavy at least until a child is, what, eight or ten years old? Is a decade a stage? What if you have more than one child? What happens if your parents need help before, during, or in addition to the children?
In law school, I had a twenty-something friend who lovingly forewent parties and meetings to make dinner for her aging parents. Fifteen years later, she is doing more of the same. And what about my 60 year old work colleague who is consumed with arranging care for her reluctant 90+ year old mother? Neither of these women have children, but if they did…? Is 20 or 30 years a life stage?
Timson’s identification of the real issue also annoyed me. The heart of the matter, she suggests, is that we fail to adequately separate work and the rest of life. We ought to unplug from the office when we’re not there. Okay, I can get behind that. Parents can certainly find more meaning in their family time by being present and turning off the hand-held device. Sure.
The thing is, I already do this, all the time. I’m not even tempted to check my work email. I write a personal blog on being mindful, for heaven’s sake. But guess what? Being present when I’m with my kids doesn’t solve the problem that I’m often not with my kids. The tension between providing for and spending time with my kids is still sitting pretty in in the middle of the room.
What I do believe, and I wonder if Timson was trying to get at this, is that while family-friendly work policies can make a huge impact on an employee’s satisfaction and sense of life balance, it’s not a cure-all for the fundamental tension between work and family. Teleworking and reduced hours can’t remedy a basic unease with being away your family, if what you really want is to be at home more. That’s a burden that employers can’t take on and it’s where, after the supportive workplace policies are implemented, the trouble really lies.
But does this make work-life balance a bore? Not to me. To me, airbrushing the child and elder care responsibilities that can define a third of one’s lifetime as an “intense blip”, as Timson puts it, is a little… um… dismissive. So is her pat remark that “kids grow up, parents sadly die”. By this, I think she means that her kids have grown up and that her parents have sadly died. Timson has oodles of time now. So the issue isn’t necessarily that work-life issues have suddenly gotten boring – they’re just not relevant to Timson anymore. That’s fine, I guess. But the distinction ought to be made.
Because for those of us boiling away in the crucible, still looking our 20 or 30 years of life “stage” straight in the eyes, work-life issues remain intensely interesting.