Excerpt from Chapter 3: On Being a Woman

Balancing Home and Work — April 2007

During the 70s and early 80s, I worked as a corporate consultant on male-female issues—and one of those 'issues' involved balancing work life with home life. This is a difficult dilemma, requiring making many choices and trade-offs in order to lead a more fulfilling, less harried life.

Trying to live a 'balanced life' does not mean reaching some kind of static point. For instance, an airplane that's on course is almost never exactly on course. The pilot makes thousands of minute adjustments. Balance is about not getting so far in one extreme that you have to go to the other extreme to find some sort of equanimity.

When people feel stressed by the demands of their lives, they tend to resort to overeating, overdrinking, getting too little (or too much) sleep, and other self-defeating tactics. Unfortunately, all of those efforts to escape the situation wind up working against getting control of your life.

One of the reasons it's so difficult to make choices aimed at achieving balance is that there are always trade-offs to whatever choice you make. And you do always make a choice (even when it doesn't feel that way) because not making a choice is still 'choosing' by default.

There are certain actions that we understandably don't see as being a choice—like abandoning our responsibilities to our family. But some people with financial and family responsibilities do step off the track. They may walk away from their families, just disappearing and leaving the family to pick up the pieces. So it's not that you don't have a choice. It's that you're not willing to accept the trade-offs involved in making certain choices. So recognizing that you do have a choice (and that you are making choices) can help avoid feeling helpless and out of control.

While every choice is based on our individual values, we don't necessarily act in accordance with our stated values. Our real values are reflected in the way we use our time. For instance, if you hear someone say, "I value my family most of all," but that person works 60+ hours each week, then that's not really their value system. It just indicates a value to which they aspire, not a value they're actually living.

Unfortunately, many people justify the time they put into their work, saying the extreme amounts of time and effort are essential to building and maintaining a career. But that way of thinking illustrates how we've come to view what's 'important' in life. For instance, who says being a top-notch attorney is more important than being a stay-at-home mom? We have to break through those assumptions and overcome the pressures to do what society rewards. Aspiring to gain society's recognition of certain achievements often comes at a very high price. Those who excel in a significant way in one particular area invariably make enormous trade-offs, cutting off satisfaction in many other areas of life.

Since men particularly are rewarded for their career achievements, a man's identity has often been defined by how successful he is in his job. Therefore, many men are reluctant to use flex time or other time off that may be offered by their companies. For instance, if a man takes advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, he's judged more harshly than a woman who's trying to have that kind of balance. And everybody loses. Until men are more equally responsible at home, women cannot be equally successful at work. In fact, most working women who are also mothers are absolutely exhausted most of the time.

Men and women have to ask both their employer and their family for what they need. First, get your values and priorities straight. Second, share with others what you need and want—because people can sabotage your efforts without even knowing it. And third, go about pursuing what you want and need; don't expect someone to give it to you. (This is a special challenge for women, leading to a great deal of dissatisfaction.) It's critical to take responsibility for making choices that are based on your own priorities in life.

One of the reasons to get comfortable with making your own choices and deciding on your own trade-offs (rather than going along with what others may choose for you) is that a lack of control makes people unhappy and depressed. If you think you don't have a choice, then write down what you wish you could do. Then write down what you actually do. Compare the two lists—not focusing on which list is longest, but on which has the most significant items. This can enable you to more clearly establish your priorities and serve as a guide in making decisions based on your own personal values.

We live in such a fast-paced society, such a 'now' culture, that we tend to focus on the moment. But when you get to be my age, you realize there are many phases of life. So while you may not be able to have everything you want 'all at the same time,' you can make different choices for different periods. For instance, if you give up something during one period of your life, you may be able to come back to it later.

So when trying to balance home and work, it can be very helpful to take this long view and large sweep of life. This perspective can allow you to make decisions with the bigger picture in mind rather than just reacting to life's immediate pressures.

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