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Living Full-Throttle

Motherhood, Balance, and Another Women's Movement

By Jennifer Niesslein

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The answers to gaining a little balance fall into two camps: change your life or change the country.

My mother has a cookbook called "Butter and Love," an artifact of a Patterson Elementary PTO fundraiser circa 1980. The now kinky-sounding title appealed to me as a child. I hadn't yet masterminded what I thought the elements of the good life would be, but butter and love (and bike-riding after dark and infinite Nancy Drew mysteries) seemed like a decent start.

These days, I define the elements of the good life like pretty much everyone else does: Time with our kids. Rewarding work. A satisfying love life. A tidy-enough home, clean clothes, a balanced checkbook. A roof over our heads and some food in the fridge. Friends, extended family. Ambitiously: Time to volunteer, occasional vacations, the opportunity to exercise. Plus a few minutes of pure zoning out with a beer in hand and E.R. on the TV.

So when did it become a Herculean task to fit all of these elements in? And not only fit them in, but fit them in in the right proportions?

Once upon a time, whenever I'd hear someone talk about how busy she was, I used to sort of roll my eyes and think, "Come on, lady--enough with the self-importance." But it's become pretty clear to me that part of motherhood is being important. My child only has one mother. My husband only has one wife. No one but me can or will do the things that fulfill me. At the end of the day, I'm usually wiped out, but I'm still left with the nagging knowledge that something went neglected. And I--with one healthy kid, a husband who more than pulls his weight in this house, and a job where I set my own hours--am the first to acknowledge I have it good.

"Life balance" may be clunkily titled, but it's a hot commodity. A lot of us--no matter what our specific lives look like--are lacking it. Experts from a variety of fields, from economics to business to spirituality, are penning books on the subject, and a whole new occupation--Life Balance Coach--has sprung up to help those of us trying to fit a full life into a measly twenty-four hour day.

What's the problem here? A lot of fingers are pointing to paid work. According to Ann Crittenden in her book The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued (Henry Holt, 2001), the average employed American worked 140 more hours in 1995 than in 1982--almost an extra month a year. The number of people working more than 49 hours a week rose by as much as thirty-seven percent. For mothers who hold paying jobs, that means less time to squeeze in "life" in the life/work equation. For mothers who caregive full-time, that means the person who's bringing in the paychecks is spending more time at work, leaving less time for the caregiver to fit in anything but caregiving. Despite the high media profile of so-called "mommy wars" between at-home and employed mothers, it's clear that we're all in this boat together. We're all part of a culture that sees child-rearing as an annoying sidebar to The Real World of money-making and does little to accommodate for a big fact of life: A lot of us want families, and children don't raise themselves.

So what's a mother to do?

The answers to gaining a little balance fall into two camps: change your life or change the country. Either way, it's going to take a whole lot more than butter and love.

Obviously, ours isn't the first generation to scramble for time. But a look at what our lives are like suggests that we've somehow raised the bar of what must be a priority.

We want to be fabulous parents. Child experts want us to be fabulous parents. The government wants us to be fabulous parents (evidenced most recently by "Adventures in Parenting: How Responding, Preventing, Monitoring, Mentoring, and Modeling Can Help You Be a Successful Parent," a 62-page booklet put out in January by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development). And if time spent with the children is any measure, we are approaching fabulousness. Modern mothers--both mothers with paid jobs and those who caregive full-time--spend more time with our children than did mothers of the 1920s, according to an article in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. Also changed is how we interact with our kids; according to sociologist Sharon Hays of the University of Virginia, the techniques we use (negotiating, offering children choices, fostering independence) are more time-consuming than the old way of making rules and demanding compliance. Still, the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit research center, found in a 1997 study that seventy percent of both mothers and fathers feel they do not have enough time to spend with their children.

We also want to be competitive in the workplace. But the workplace itself has come to expect more of us. "Most modern work requires us to give away a slice of our private lives," philosopher Joanne B. Ciulla writes in The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (Three Rivers Press, 2000). We're invited to join the company family, although we may have our own family already. According to Feeling Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much, a 2001 study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, nearly one-third of this country's employees often or very often feel overworked or overwhelmed with the work on their plates. In 2000, Americans had the heaviest workload in the industrialized world, including Japan, according to Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood.

With these two major components of our lives battling it out for primacy, it's little wonder that all the other stuff--from housework to our love lives--gets short shrift. Both mothers and fathers report having significantly less free time today than twenty years ago. According to the Families and Work Institute, mothers' time for themselves on workdays has declined from 1.8 hours, twenty years ago, to .9 hours, and fathers' personal time declined from 2.2 hours to 1.2 hours.

"The first thing to go is housework," writes Crittenden. A 1999 study conducted by John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, found that while housework by women has declined from an average of 30 hours a week in 1965 to 17.5 hours in 1995, it mostly represents a relaxation in standards. (Apparently, I'm not the only one who lives with things like our fake Christmas tree still waiting on the staircase landing in May for its return to the attic.)

Crittenden cites a study of thirty-seven mothers working full-time at a California hospital for clues as to what else we're giving up. The sociologist she interviewed says, "I'd say most [subjects] were getting five or six hours [of sleep] a night. Sleep--not their children--is what they are giving up directly, along with couple's time."

Although the sample was small, sleeping less in an effort to make more hours in a day is not an unfamiliar concept to a lot of us. And, sometimes, even when we're trying to sleep, that old tune of The Things I Need To Do gets stuck in our heads, and it's just easier to roll out of bed and pay the bills (schedule the vet appointment, make the preschool snack, throw in another load of laundry, etc.) than sleep. We know that lack of sleep and stress isn't good for us. Forty-three percent of Americans suffer from stress-related health problems, according to the American Institute of Stress, a non-profit information clearinghouse. The Institute links stress to myriad health woes, from lowered immunity to cardiovascular troubles.

the price of motherhood

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