The hell with work-life balance

It’s become very fashionable to talk about work-life balance, especially in Denmark where we take pride in having a lot of work-life balance. This means that we work only 37.5 hours a week and spend the rest of the time with our families (not many people are able to do this, especially in corporate Denmark).

According to LexisNexis, there were just 32 articles about work-life balance from 1986 to 1996 but in alone 2007 there were 1,674 articles about work-life-balancethe topic. It has probably only risen since then.

What exactly is work-life balance? According to Wikipedia, it’s a concept that includes prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) and “lifestyle” (health, pleasure, leisure, family, spiritual development et cetera). The premise seems to be that work is: career and ambition and lacking in pleasure, health or spiritual development.

I don’t believe in work-life balance. I used to be a workaholic (see blog from the past) – and I’m not one now. But I love my job. I spoke to a friend recently who told me, “You’re on the only people I know who says they love their job. Are you shitting me?”

You travel so much – what about the children?

I’m not, really. I do love my job. It gives me a lot of pleasure. It helps me grow emotionally and spiritually. And you know what, I spend a good chunk of my life working so it’s a good thing I love it. I don’t feel guilty about traveling for work, though I’m asked all the time, “Oh, it must be so hard on your kids.” I always feel that’s a loaded question, people are actually saying, “Putting career and ambition first, are you? Your kids must be suffering.” And when I say, “My kids are doing fine,” people nod and the subtext is, “Rationalizing much, are we?”

A hundred years ago when Isaiah was four months old and still nursing, I had to go for a job interview to Brussels. I’d leave in the morning and be back late in the evening. Isaiah was not going to get sustenance from a bottle. I thought I wouldn’t go for the interview – I mean, I have a baby at home.

My husband said, “Go. It’s not like you’re leaving him on the street – you’re leaving him with me. I’ll make sure he eats.”

I came home with swollen breasts and Isaiah had fallen in love with avocado. He was fine. I was fine. There was no sacrifice – no reason for martyrdom. I could have my avocado and eat it too.

My life is more than my work…and my family

The past couple of months have been busy at work. I feel very much like I’m being zapped with information and knowledge and the result is that I’m extremely energized – and I’m working more hours than I normally do. One night, time ran away and suddenly it was two in the morning. Both my husband and I were awake and he said he was off to bed and I said, “I’m having too much fun, I’ll work a little more.” He didn’t give me a lecture on the benefits of sleep (I know this already) and instead said, “I’m a little jealous of how much fun you’re having at work.”

I work for me. I also work for a paycheck that pays for the stuff we need to live a good life. But even if I didn’t push or stretch at work I would still make a decent living. So I push and stretch because it makes me feel damn good. I’m not chasing after the corporate ladder – but I am chasing after having influence and making a difference – which ends up sometimes being the same thing.

Does this mean that I don’t care about my family? I do care about my family. I care about them and care for them. But if we do takeout dinners three nights in a row I’m not the parent standing in line for the self-flagellation. If I’m unable to make my son’s school thing that he’s been working on because I have a Kaizen to attend that I can’t get out of – I’m not the mother who’s thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” I’m making choices and I am happy to tell my son, “Dude, I’m so sorry – but daddy will be there and he’s promised to send me pictures.”

And if I have to leave an important meeting in the middle because I need to pick up my son and his friend from the train station – I am not the employee who feels guilty about it. I happily tell the meeting organizer, regardless of what level they’re at, “I’m afraid I have to leave early to pick up my boys” and I don’t give it a second thought.

If I work too much – I won’t have time for my family

I hear this very often. “I don’t really want to get promoted because that will be too much work and my children are small.” Or “My family is my life and I don’t want to be bogged down with this career stuff. I just want to do my job and get a paycheck.”

I’m okay with someone making a clear choice. But I sometimes wonder if many of us (and I’m guilty of this as well) – sometimes choose one over the other without examining our capacity to stretch. We’re afraid before we get to the start line.

Why should work take away from family? Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? If we want to that is.

Work-life integrationWork Life Integration

My husband and I talk about work. He knows about my work and I know about his – in great detail. All marriages work at different levels and ours works because we’re able to share our professional lives. I use him to deal with conflicts at work and he uses me to iron out his professional kinks.

Whenever I say things like, “I’m working too much” he says, “But you like it, so how does it matter?” This is true. I work the hours I do because I enjoy it. But I’m also the one who’s very good at coming home on a sunny day and heading out to a wine bar or meeting friends or having an ice cream at the gelato place down the street.

The eight-minute drive between work and home is enough time for me to close my mental inbox and think about “What’s for dinner tonight?” And if during dinner I want to talk about work with my husband, I do.

Work is a large part of our lives. We make friends in the office. We deal with conflict situations. We succeed. We fail. Work is integral to our lives. It doesn’t define us but it certainly takes up space in our lives. Instead of making work – something outside life – I believe that it’s best to integrate. It’s best to “live” well – and holistically and if that means there are weeks or months where work has priority, give it that priority if it makes you happy; and if there are weeks or months where you need to focus on family or writing a book or throwing a party – then give that priority. It doesn’t have to be cut and dry and an exact science – life throws so many curve balls and I believe it’s important to be flexible, to be able to maneuver and to do all of this without the gut-wrenching guilt of “am I ignoring my family” or “I have a family but I have no career” – the objective is to be happy without that extra topping of self-doubt or guilt.

I have spent a good part of my career, worrying about working too much and not having enough time to play. Now, as I grow older, I realize that I can play during work and work during play – and it’s my call. I can have my cake and eat it too. I can work and write and go to wine bars and take an extra day during a work trip or a work day during my holiday – I can do these things because there is no compartmentalization. I don’t work when I’m on holiday – this is a choice but I won’t flog myself if I have to.

Life happens week days – not just weekends. And I think that’s the lesson I have learnt. Life is holistic – I don’t want to compartmentalize between work and play. I want to mix it up and live it all to the fullest.

Like Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas says:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming … What a Ride!”