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Living Full-Throttle

Motherhood, Balance, and Another Women's Movement

By Jennifer Niesslein

May 2003

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.

One Tuesday earlier this year, I was watching Oprah while my son and I cooked dinner. Dr. Phil--he of blunt opinions and homespun aphorisms--was trying to figure out why the couples on the show weren't having sex. No-sex-for-six-months, no-sex-for-two-years kind of not having sex. He listened to one woman describe her full-to-bursting life: mothering, a job, school. It turns out the couple didn't have all the typical Oprah problems: trust issues, childhood abuse, spiritual bereftness. The woman was, Dr. Phil said, just too busy for sex.

"How many times have you heard a woman say, 'I'm so lucky… ' and they're talking about the little crumbs they have. You know: 'I'm so lucky I have a husband' or 'I'm so lucky he makes a living' or 'I'm so lucky I have a job that doesn't destroy me and destroy our family,'" Ann Crittenden recently mused. She had just given a speech in a Washington, D.C., suburb as part of a conference on caregiving. "But they're not saying 'I deserve to have the right to have my profession and time with my child. I deserve public support the way elder people have public support from society.'"

Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter and Pultizer Prize nominee, wrote The Price of Motherhood after experiencing first-hand the lack of respect full-time caregiving gets: After she left the Times to be with her infant son, someone asked her in all seriousness, "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?"

In The Price of Motherhood, Crittenden peers into the vast divide between the lip service paid to mothering and the economic reality of mothers: "Motherhood is the single largest risk factor for poverty in old age," she writes. In a compelling economic analysis, she details how mothers--whom she claims contribute up to eighty percent of this country's unpaid labor--get, in a word, screwed. The list is long and, frankly, a little depressing: It begins with the unpaid six weeks of maternity leave available to most women (the U.S. is one of the five industrialized nations left that doesn't offer paid maternity leave, she says). After the magical six weeks are up, our choices in work arrangements are pretty slim; without a "rich and vibrant part-time labor market," the choices seem to be full-time employment or none at all. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the economic fate of those of us who caregive full-time: loss not only of wages (and the pay raises that come with time spent at a company), but of Social Security benefits. Holes in resumes that may one day be submitted to employers who might regard child-rearing as nothing more than babysitting--the old bon-bons-and-soaps vision of motherhood. And, should divorce happen, the negating of that "choice" the spouses made together, the choice that one would stay home while the other brought in a paycheck. With no compensation for the time the caregiving spouse took out to raise the children, forty percent of all divorced women in the U.S. "tumble into poverty," she writes.

While American parents scramble for that precious commodity--time--the rest of the First World countries are managing more life balance with some grace. Near the top of the who's-got-it-good list is Sweden, where the government subsidizes a full year of paid leave for mothers at seventy-five percent of their salaries, where every parent with a child under the age of eight has the right to an eighty-percent work schedule (that's four days a week), and low-income families get checks to cover the cost of child care. And, Crittenden writes, "The very suggestion of cutting mothers' and children's benefits, I was told, 'would be political suicide.'" In contrast, the major U.S. program designed to help poor mothers and children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was abolished in 1996; so-called welfare queens--whose checks were treated as handouts in the first place, not compensation for caregiving--were told to get back to work. In its sixty years of existence, this aid never amounted to more than one-half of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

So, is it time to develop a taste for gravlax, or might the U.S. take a clue from Swedish policy?

"We're never going to be a Sweden. We'll have to do it in our own way," Crittenden says of this land of capitalism and cowboy mentality. "We have this cultural sense that we're all individuals, that we're not really in this together, that we're all going to make it ourselves, we don't need any help. That ethic of the individual. And it's a strength; it explains a lot of our success economically, that entrepreneurial spirit. But it's a huge weakness because we don't really fully appreciate how we are indeed all in this together. I think [our country's] being heterogeneous, it makes it a little harder to see other people's children as our children and understand that, 'If all these other people's children are well-raised, it's going to help me.'"

By Crittenden's figuring, if we live eighty years, we're dependent over forty percent of our lives: the first twenty years and the last fifteen. "So who's taking care of those dependents?" she asks. "A good chunk of people in the prime working age. So the idea that we're all independent and don't need each other's help is just a myth. Women need to make that point very loud and clear: We're caregivers and we need a caring state. But I think it's going to take another women's movement to get that across."

Crittenden's book may be the push that gets this new movement rolling. At the end of The Price of Motherhood, she offers some solutions: Employers should redesign work around parental norms, including offering the right to a year's paid leave, shortening the workweek, and providing equal hourly pay and pro-rated benefits for part-time work. The government could do much to create a caring state, like offering on-the-job insurance to those of us who do the unpaid work, setting up universal preschools for three- and four-year-olds, and providing a "child allowance," instead of a tax deduction or credit. (A deduction does nothing for the thirty percent of low-income parents who don't pay taxes, and credits don't help families where one parent is the caregiver.) One of my favorites of Crittenden's ideas is that, upon the birth or adoption of a child, a family should become a formal financial unit, like a business. Members of the family would have equal claim on the income. Along the same lines, Social Security credits would be split between the adults of the household, no matter who's bringing in the paycheck and who's doing the lion's share of childrearing. This would benefit "working and stay-at-home mothers alike, and …divorced women, who are among the poorest old people in the country," Crittenden writes.

Since The Price of Motherhood's release, Crittenden says that a whole lot of consciousness-raising has been going on--and the beginnings of a grassroots movement to secure the rights of unpaid caregivers. "A lot of people are saying, 'Oh yeah, this is what it's like.' The whole debate is shifting.

"What's exciting to me is that around the country, there are a half a dozen women, professional women in their thirties, who are saying we're going to start something," Crittenden says. "We've proven that we can do the work that men do and be professional. We have not won respect for the work that women have traditionally done and that's the key to the next stage, I think."

One player on that next stage may be an organization called MOTHERS: Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights. It's in an embryonic state right now, but Crittenden says they plan to write a Mother's Bill of Rights. Crittenden is lending her voice to the organization, along with Naomi Wolf, feminist activist and author, most recently, of Misconceptions, a critique of the birthing industry, and Barbara Seaman, an activist for women's health. (For more information, visit the MOTHERS Web site.)

In the meanwhile, Social Agenda, a women's think tank and advocacy group, is working to replace the child tax credit with a caregiver tax credit. Like Crittenden, the organization believes that caregiving is work, and it makes some compelling arguments for why a caregiver credit makes fiscal sense for the country. Under this campaign, anyone who's the primary caregiver of a family member--whether it be a child or an older relative--would receive a tax credit, or if they don't make enough money to pay taxes, a check. (For more information on the Caregiver Credit Campaign, check out

Crittenden reluctantly concludes that mothers themselves are the real reason this revolution hasn't yet happened. "[Mothers] don't feel entitled; they don't feel they deserve things for themselves. They never have," she says. "I think that's the last bit left of what women used to be taught: Women should be sacrificial, women should always serve others. We've kind of gotten rid of that for women. We teach young girls, 'Be what you can be, have ambitions, fulfill your destiny, express yourself.' …Mothers have not quite gotten out of that. So now all the things that used to be attributed to women are now attributed to mothers. Mothers are still feeling like, in their own name, they don't deserve something, in their own right."

I think Crittenden may be right, partly. But as someone whose sense of entitlement is quite intact, what seems to trip me up (and maybe a lot of women my age) is not the feeling that I don't deserve help. It's the suspicion that I just haven't figured out how not to need help. I am, after all, as much a product of this individualist culture as anyone else. I was once that young girl who was told she could be anything. And I have a really hard time letting that idea die just because I'm a mother. It is a monument to my arrogance that I researched this article, fully supported what Ann Crittenden says, and all the while thought: That's great--for other women. But I can work this out. I can be anything I put my mind to, right?

I shared this bit of navel-gazing with Lisa Belkin, who writes the "Life's Work" column for the New York Times and is the author of the newly released book Life's Work: Confessions of An Unbalanced Mom (Simon & Schuster, 2002). "There's only twenty-four hours in a day and we are human," she said. "When you change either of those things, we can be anything we want to be."

There is no such thing as life balance, Belkin believes, and you can really drive yourself nuts trying to achieve it. When I spoke with her, she was doing the little work/life dance that a lot of us do; her weekly column was due in two days, yet she was at a coffee shop with her son, drinking a latte, while construction was going on at her home. She talked to me on her cell phone. At one point, I asked her to repeat what she just said, and she replied: "I said, 'Hang on just a minute, honey. I'll be right there.'"

"[Life balance] is a jigsaw puzzle that can't be completed. There's always one piece that doesn't fit. It could be depressing--but if you can get rid of the guilt part, that's an accomplishment," she says. "The guilt comes from the fact that we care. We all care about our work. We all care about our children. If we didn't care, we wouldn't feel guilty when we couldn't give things the attention they deserve."

For Belkin, "a close approximation of sanity" means learning to be comfortable with the compromises she's made in order to have the life she wants. "I will never be executive editor of the New York Times and I don't care. I want to be home and flexible and that means giving up some degree of success."

How long did it take for her to learn that? Twenty years, she laughs. "I'm a proponent, not a practitioner, of the 'so-what?' theory of life."

Lisa Belkin's editors at the Times aren't the only publishers clued in to the struggles this country's parents are facing. Tomes on life balance, in different guises, stuff bookstore shelves.

The worst of them play into the mommy wars--two-hundred-plus pages of justification of why a given lifestyle is best for everyone. In their book And What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2000), Loretta Kaufman and Mary Quigley take a huge issue for us mothers--the scaling back of our careers while our children are young (otherwise known as "sequencing")--and whittle it down to a handy stereotype, from somewhere in the way-back machine. "Women like giving gifts. We really do. We shop 'til we drop for the perfect present while men often grab the first thing in sight," they write. "It's the same with relationships, especially with our husbands and children."

What they call a gift, Crittenden calls unpaid labor--and Kaufman and Quigley's subjects give incredible gifts, like moving the household cross-country alone and generally giving the husbands carte blanche to ignore everything but their own careers. The authors also more often refer to sequencing as "putting your husband's career first," rather than, say, being a full-time caregiver to your kids. This conservative bent on the idea may be most evident in their list of qualities that "family CEOs" possess, which includes the snarky "They May Even Love Their Husbands." (Which, I might add, makes it pretty hard to remember that we're all in the same boat and that we shouldn't wish unkind things on the authors' marriages.)

These defensive (and offensive) books offering a one-size-fits-all-solution seem to be falling out of vogue, though, in favor of the inspiration-style books. The latter acknowledge that readers are facing some problems cramming all the elements of their lives in a day; unfortunately, the solutions they offer are only nominally helpful. The real benefit to these books is the tone--soothing, inspirational, and offering a vision of life that does not include the simultaneous occurrence of the dog vomiting, the UPS man ringing, and your child's frenetic flinging of Play-Doh around the sunroom. From Mimi Doe's Busy But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001):

"Head over to a local pond or lake at sunset (imagine it's Walden Pond) and read some of Thoreau's writings. Children are able to understand so many of his simple yet wise thoughts. A great place to begin is this line from Consciousness in Concord: "Any melodious sound apprises me of the infinite wealth of God." You can listen to the melodious sounds of God all around you. Or how about the following from Thoreau's journal, dated June 22, 1852: "Is not the rainbow a faint vision of God's face? How glorious should be the life of man passed under this arch! What more remarkable phenomenon than a rainbow, yet how little it is remarked!"

Return to the pond, each with a journal, and write your own esoteric thoughts."

Once you get past your impulse to think things like "Would Thoreau count the slapping of mosquitoes as a melodious sound of God?", Busy But Balanced does play a strange little trick. You do feel calmer while you read it. You might, as I did, suspect that a margarita out on the patio would impart the same sense of calm as penning your esoteric thoughts pond-side, but that's not really the point. As silly as the tips in the inspiration-style books sound (lighting candles, peeking in on your sleeping child), what Doe is really espousing is living in the moment. And when so much of motherhood is preparing for the next moment (are there sheets on the crib? is my preschooler getting enough reading readiness?), it's an appealing idea. It speaks to what we're all after, anyway: not only to have the elements of the good life, but to enjoy them.

At 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 alcoholism.

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 starker trade-offs."

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 his family:

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.

Not all parents work in this environment, though. And not all mothers have someone even potentially sharing the load. Almost nine percent of the nation's households--9.8 million--are headed by a parent raising kids solo.

The life balance problem is, strangely, one that's easy to overstate and, at the same time, easy to understate.

On one hand, a lack of life balance has the tendency to sound like a personal problem. We all know the mother who has somehow managed to perfectly match her temperament with her circumstances. She might be the sequencing mother who truly does not miss her job, who honestly gets a kick out of long days with her children. She might be the mother who feels content to leave her kid with his grandparents while she puts in nine hours at the office and comes home revved up for family time. She might be the mother who's hit upon the exact proportion of part-time work to time spent parenting, and never seems to have a problem fitting in time to exercise or have toe-curling sex.

She is not most of us, however. Lisa Belkin, who's written the Times's "Life's Work" column for three years now, says, "I've received, at last count, ten thousand e-mails, and nobody says, 'Hey, what's all the fuss about! I can do it!'"

Still, most of us seem to be managing it okay. The kids get storytime, loved ones' birthdays are remembered, we all (usually) have clean underwear. On most days, the vast majority of us are not on the verge of something drastic and heinous. On the contrary--we find our moments of happiness and fulfillment in all the elements overstuffed into our lives. Then we go get our six hours of sleep and do it all over again. Despite relating to the guy in the latest Paxil commercial ("When I'm at work, I'm tense about things at home; when I'm at home, I'm tense about things at work"), I can't say that I'm so riddled with anxiety that I dread tomorrow.

Here in the middle-class life of ordinary problems, we are living full-throttle--but we're doing it.

Maybe more instructive are the lives of mothers who are also doing it, but with that one extra element.

Take poverty. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001)--which should really be required reading material for all elected officials--after the AFDC program was axed. How will, she wondered, all these mothers survive after the end of welfare? In Nickel and Dimed, she writes of the special costs exacted on the poor, like living in a hotel for lack of money to pay a deposit on an apartment, or eating meal by meal with no place to cook or store, say, a big vat of lentil soup.

The cost in time is perhaps dearer. As Ehrenreich reports, it is virtually impossible for one person to survive on working class wages, let alone an entire family; the only way she could do it (and however briefly) was to hold two jobs. If your home doesn't come equipped with a washer/dryer, you spend long hours at the laundromat each week. If you'd like to attend your kid's holiday pageant, forget it--you can be fired for not conforming to the schedule the manager has mapped out. This is not a small problem: One in six American children--11.6 million--live in poverty, and over three quarters of them live with a working adult, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

Or, take a new family addition: our own parents. With Americans living longer and having children later in life, more and more of us find ourselves caring both for children and aging parents. A 1997 National Family Caregiver Survey found that almost a quarter of all American households was involved in caring for a person aged fifty or over, and that the typical caregiver is a married woman in her forties, provides eighteen hours a week caregiving, and works full-time. The average length of time spent caregiving was about eight years. "Informal caregivers are the backbone of the long-term care system in the U.S. today, providing much of the assistance to individuals who want to remain in their homes and need help with daily activities, including eating, bathing, and dressing, or shopping, transportation, and taking medications," an AARP report acknowledges.

Or take any number of events that do happen but aren't headline-grabbing trends. What if a member of the family--mother, mate, or child--becomes disabled? What if your support system of friends and family drops away? What if the company decides it doesn't want part-timers anymore? What if, during the time you're supposed to be sequencing back into paid work, your teenager develops a serious mental or physical illness?

The real kicker is that when any of these things happen, the smidgen of free time you once had is gone. And time is what it takes to work toward either solution--change the culture or change your attitude.

Of course it's not a good idea to live as if catastrophe's always lurking in the back of the minivan. But neither is ignoring the fact that something seems off-kilter here.

The solution depends on who you are. Some, like Lisa Belkin, believe that when people adjust their attitudes, changes in policy will naturally follow. She sees a difference in corporate culture just in the time she's been employed. "When I started at the Times [in 1982], no one would have pictures on their desk--especially women. It wasn't the sort of place where you wanted to admit you had a life," she says. "Has [corporate culture] changed completely? No. There will always be places that change faster than others. Businesses are run by human beings, who change one at a time."

Public policy reformers like Ann Crittenden would like to see the culture get a kick-start, particularly from the government. Part of the solution, she feels, is for mothers to recognize that many issues--from the elder caregiving crisis, to the painful death of AFDC, to inflexibility in the workplace--are different variations on the same problem. In The Price of Motherhood, she reports that a divorce-reform advocate finds that her cause is perceived by small women's advocacy groups as an issue for "rich white women." Another activist told her, "We have to cast child support as a children's issue. If it becomes a woman's issue, it's a loser. Domestic violence is the only women's issue that's a winner."

Yikes. If all we can ask for is not to be abused, what does the future hold?

In terms of getting the government to invest in paid parental leave, early childhood education, or "any of these basic things that they have in almost every other country, it looks like an uphill battle," Crittenden says.

"But," she adds, "women have never asked."

mmo : may 2003

This article was first published in the Summer 2002 edition of Brain, Child Magazine ( It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Jennifer Niesslein is the co-editor of Brain, Child Magazine. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with her family.

This article really could have been a book. The issue of life balance is endlessly fascinating to me--largely because I think it informs almost every decision we make, from family size, to what we have for dinner, to where we live.

If you have the time (!), you can find some really interesting analysis in The Price of Motherhood. There's a very compelling section on how this country treats veterans and why caregivers deserve the same sort of treatment. Her explanation of the history of feminism and the domestic realm is a great read, too.

Many thanks to Heidi Brown Lewis for conducting the interview with Ann Crittenden.

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