heart is the suggestion that if something's amiss in your life,
the way to fix it is to fix your attitude. (In the case of the inspiration books, you should adopt the attitude
of a very low-key Martha Stewart, finding peace in a beautiful dinner
table and letter-writing.) Hardly a new idea, it's the basis for
every self-help movement from improving one's self-esteem to kicking
Funnily enough, I found
some of the most interesting thoughts on life balance and attitude
in a self-help-for-businesswomen book, Michele Kremen Bolton's The
Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes, and Lives
as Women (Jossey-Bass, 2000). The title is a play on The
Second Shift, the famous book by Arlie Hochschild on working
women's second job: taking care of home life. The third shift, Bolton
writes, is the time we take to reflect on (and often beat ourselves
up over) the way things are going. The book isn't without its flaws.
Bolton takes certain controversial beliefs as truths (like there
is a feminine style of doing business), and her prose suffers a
bit from the self-help model of writing.
Still, her perspective
is an interesting one. With anecdotes drawn from women living in
boom-time Silicon Valley, the book's target audience is clearly
women who are or have been part of the corporate world. Yet it's
The Third Shift that presents life balance more broadly
than the old work-versus-the-kids dichotomy (although, to be fair,
these seem to be the major components of many women's lives). Bolton
defines life balance as the tension between personal achievement
and service to others; although she generally attaches personal
achievement to work and service to home life, this new definition
of balance seems to me to be more open to all mothers--those with
paid work and those at home. Personal achievement can come in the
form of making a thriving garden with the kids; service to others
can be some mundane filing at the office.
In fact, redefining the
events of your life is a big theme for The Third Shift.
Bolton makes the distinction between compromise (which is good)
and sacrifice (which isn't). And one mother's sacrifice is another
mother's compromise, she finds. She compares two mothers, Laurel
and Juliet, both of whom left careers to focus on mothering. Laurel
is unhappy; Juliet is thriving:
"Laurel is more
vulnerable to social expectations for a successful modern woman.
She can only imagine one kind of satisfying life, which includes
full-time, challenging work. It took more than a year for her to
reexamine this somewhat rigid model and open herself to other possibilities
and their unanticipated rewards. In contrast, Juliet realized her
life could encompass both types of satisfaction, but not necessarily
at the same time. Juliet and Laurel are different . . . with respect
to their innate flexibility. Juliet's life and overall perspective
favors shades of gray, while Laurel's depiction of her choices involves
Bolton and all the other
experts agree on this point: Laurel's expectations to have a very
involved career and a very involved role in her child's life are
unrealistic. In an attempt to have both, Laurel was simply picking
up the pace of her life. Bolton suggests she change her attitude.
Bolton knows it's not
easy: "Even if you're not a classic overachiever, managing
balance is difficult and stressful because it speaks to how you
measure your own worth as a woman." In other words, what your
life's balance looks like is a shorthand: it tells you and the rest
of the world what you value most.
According to the 2000
census, 24.8 million households in the U.S. are made up of married
parents and children. So where are the guys in all this?
Whether or not this time
crunch is solely a mothers' issue is a matter of controversy. In
1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild came out with The Second
Shift, a book that detailed all the labor women--even women
who work full-time--put into maintaining the household, as compared
to men; the book showed women with paid jobs doing, over the course
of a year, an extra month of childcare and housework. In 1999, psychologist
Francine M. Deutsch published Halving Equality: How Equally
Shared Parenting Works, her National Science Foundation-funded
study on gender roles, housework, and childcare; it chronicled the
difficulty the study's subjects had breaking out of gender roles
into truly equal domestic life.
Still, the Families and
Work Institute now reports that fathers put in seventy-five percent
of the time that mothers spend on childcare and housework--up from
thirty percent in 1977. And as Lisa Belkin says, how we feel about
the amount of work we do has a lot to do with "whatever model
we're holding ourselves up against." Women may, on average,
still do more of the work at home, but men are doing a lot more
than their fathers did. "Men are patting themselves on the
back--and rightfully so," she notes.
And really, no matter
how much the men's statistics have improved, it makes no difference
if your particular guy is doing it 1977-style. In Misconceptions:
Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001), Naomi Wolf devotes much ink to the inequality
in her marriage and those of her friends after the baby comes. She
writes of one guy in her circle of friends, a "Gen-Xer with
a goatee," who had adjusted his work schedule to accommodate
No one else's husband
among the couples we knew had been able--or willing--to make any
kind of change in his work schedule. The women around me, I noticed,
began to treat this young man as a demigod. "Dan takes Fridays
off," they would say meaningfully to their husbands. To the
women, Dan's having taken even such a small step toward sharing
responsibilities at home gave him an aura of desirability: he was
a winner. To the other husbands, I began to realize, the fact that
he could take Fridays off meant his job wasn't that important. To
the men--these egalitarian, pro-feminist men--Dan was a loser.
I'm married to one of
these Gen-Xers (no goatee, but admirable sideburns). I think we
have a pretty equal marriage: we spent the same amount and quality
of time caring for our son. We both cook; we share the mental work
of whether we're out of Pull-ups or if someone gave the dogs their
heartworm pills this month. We both ignore the Christmas tree on
the landing. We both feel the time crunch. What equality means around
here is that we're both pretty fried.
Ann Crittenden notes
that it's not the housework or the childcare that's the real issue.
Equality on the homefront will come when both the domestic and business
worlds are accorded equal respect, and when the sexes achieve economic
equality. She points again to Swedish families. "When two spouses
bring home close to the same income, the family stands to lose almost
as much financially when the mother cuts back on her paid work as
when the father does," she writes. "This changes the conversation
about who stays home and who remains employed, who picks the children
up after school, who takes the child to the doctor, and so on."
Back here, it's more
often than not the women who do the compromising, for a lot of individual
reasons. And those reasons are reinforced by the fact that that's
the way it's been since home and work became separate realms. But
if we had our druthers, research suggests, that's not the way it
would be. Crittenden cites a study at Williams College that concluded,
"Of all the possible work situations for married couples with
preschool children, the women rated highest the marriage in which
both partners worked part-time." That's one fantasy, and a
few families are achieving that here.
The reality, Crittenden
writes, is there aren't many real choices for the majority of us.
Job-sharing and telecommuting positions are fairly scarce. Married
working mothers, she asserts, pay the highest taxes on their earned
income. It's a gamble whether your spouse will support or sabotage
your goals. Paid, quality childcare can be difficult to find. And
then complaining about these facts is taboo because--even mothers
say--we chose this.
I think these are relevant
facts for fathers, too. Wolf's example above suggests that some
men are caught in a machismo-riddled world where being a "winner"
means sacrificing involvement at home. It's another version of off-kilter
life balance (granted, tipped in favor of the work that brings a
paycheck and a cultural pat on the back). I just find it hard to
believe that the majority of men would rather work ridiculous hours
than be a vital part of their kids' lives; it's hard to believe
that most men enjoy the work-heavy balance of their lives. My perception,
of course, may be skewed. My family lives in an area that prides
itself on being family-oriented; no one at the pharmaceutical plant
where my husband works complains when he leaves early for a Valentine's
Day shindig at our son's preschool. There is an understanding here
in this blue-collar, unionized area that your real life occurs at
family pig roasts and church gatherings, not within the chain-linked
fences of the manufacturing site.