Why the Work-Life Balance Conversation is All Wrong

Why Work Life Balance is BrokenA few months ago I attended a huge women’s conference with some of the most powerful women on the planet speaking.  So I sat in on a panel of experts discussing work-life integration to see what wisdom I could glean from business owners and CEO’s.  Some of what was spoken on this panel made me want to run screaming from the sardine can of an overcrowded conference room.

When the panel started with introductions, one COO started by saying in her strung out voice “I’ve only had 4 hours of sleep over the last two days.”  I thought – why the hell should I be listening to you about work-life integration?  In my opinion the panel only got worse from there.

If we were truly discussing how to have it all at the right time, I would have expected some wisdom from successful women who have found a way of being at the top of their professional game while also having a personal life they love. Instead, with the exception of the one panelist who was real and offered valuable insights, I found myself desperately wanting to rush the stage and give the others a slap and wake-up call.

It pained me deeply to see a room of several hundred women hanging on the words of a few overworked business owners as if what they spoke was gospel and held the keys to their own sweet yearnings for a career and life that works, particularly those working mothers.

As I listened to their stories, what I really wanted to know is:

  • Why do women have to get to the point of breaking before they cry out for help or are willing to set a boundary?
  • How can you possibly call it work-life balance to go to work early, come home early to catch your child’s event and then spend all night into the wee hours working once again?
  • Why do you have to be available at all hours just because you need a flexible work schedule? What are you trying to compensate for?
  • When did saying No become heresy and a career death sentence?

Story after story of working constantly and showing up at their children’s events only to have their face buried in the mobile device with work made me shake my head.  The one panelist even shared that her own son would ask her after his football games – why are you still working instead of watching my game?  This comment made her feel guilty so she stopped looking at her phone and her son really took notice as it mattered a lot to him. Yet she shared her choice with all the regret of a drug addict missing their hit.

When did work-life balance become a thinly veiled term for trying to have it all by never really being present for any of it?

The truth is there is no such thing as a perfect state of balance in nature.  It is simply a continual state of change that trends towards a state of apparent balance.  Our bodies internal systems release or withhold chemicals and hormones based on the environment at hand to stay in homeostasis.  Even when we stand in a balancing pose in yoga we are not in a static state.  We are constantly making micro movements (and sometimes large arm flailing movements) to stay balanced and not fall over onto the person on the mat next to us.

So why do we think there should be some perfect state of balance in our work or personal lives?

Work and life are about rhythm. Integration. Flow. Choices.  If you choose this, then you can’t have that (at least not right now).  You can have it all, just not all at the same time.  Think Las Vegas buffet. You really can have any of this food you want, but not all at the same meal or you will implode.  If you come back tomorrow, however you can eat at the Asian buffet section that you skipped today.

I implore you expert, successful, C-women, power listers out there who don’t have free time for yourself and have all but internally wired your mobile devices to your nervous system– stop sitting on these panels letting your workaholic dysfunction become the picture that gets painted as “work-life balance”!

I want to hear from perfectly imperfect successful women who know how to say a positive No and surf the ever-changing wave of work and life priorities in a REAL way.  Those of you who handle competing priorities gracefully at times and less-so at others; who know that it’s more important to watch your child’s event with the cell phone turned off than it is to be “on”; who are willing to dare greatly in a Brene Brown sort of way, allowing your human-ness to shine and your well-earned wisdom to gently guide and inspire other women to do the same.

Now THAT is a conversation worth having.

Could you use some encouragement and practical solutions for having a greater felt sense of balance and the courage to make the choices you really want to make?  Click here to  have a discovery session to explore how I can help you find a work/life integration that really works.


photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

4 thoughts on “Why the Work-Life Balance Conversation is All Wrong”

  1. I say a loud AMEN to you, Paula!

    I spent 18 years in corporate America, including being squeezed in middle management during the precious first years of my daughters' lives. As a single woman who adopted two kids, I was totally stressed out all the time. There was no margin for error. One melt down in the morning by a toddler — or even a simple refusal to put on socks when asked — meant being late for the first meeting of the day. Some days that was okay. Some days it threw things out of whack for the whole day, and I'd pull sideways into the pre-school parking lot with two minutes to spare (and a long list of things I needed to do after putting the kids to bed — and no energy to do it). No way to live, and certainly no way to love and parent children.

    Ironically (and I'd love to understand this all-too-common phenomenon), all of my most difficult and unreasonable bosses were women. (And I wonder: did my direct reports or team members ever think the same of me?) Are we harder on each other than we are on men? Why is that? Do we feel threatened somehow?

    A lay-off bought me my freedom. Paid off the mortgage and let me recreate my life. More time with my girls. More time for me to feed my brain and my soul. More sleep! Sure, we have very little money now, but I'm not stressed out and grumpy all the time. We have much more time together. I actually read real books now, not just listen to book reviews on NPR. My productivity & organizing business is growing and I'm hopeful for the future. I finally have a Life, with a capital L!

    My best wishes to all who struggle with unreasonable bosses and corporate cultures. For me, I was not brave enough (or well enough financed) to jump. I had to be pushed. Felt like H-E-double hockey sticks there for a long time, but now I know it was just what I needed.

    Perhaps the new generation (I'm nearing 50) coming up, those that eschew cars and the suburbs, will right this ship. If we only had to work the 40 hours we're paid for, rather than the 60 or more that's needed to accomplish our workloads, then the "balance" might actually be achievable….

    1. Thanks for sharing Sarah! Yay for you for creating more of a life by your own design. I'll be curious to see where things head as well. The "do more with less" phenomenon has been going on for decades, at some point it will snap. Regardless, every person needs to make powerful choices every day to enjoy their one precious life both on the job and off. It's about integration and choices, not madness!

  2. This was a beautiful post, Paula – and much-needed, too! I particularly appreciated the points you made about balance, debunking the myth that there is some static point of balance that we could reach 'if only.'

    I believe that we hold immense power in our hands from moment to moment. It's the power of choice. And whatever choices we face, they are like the small (and large) muscle adjustments that help us maintain dynamic balance in a busy world.

    They more often than not boil down to choices about time – how we spend it, how present we are in it. There is so much power there – but too often we don't fully own it. And then, rather than living powerfully, we live reactively from places of overwhelm and scarcity.

    But the thing is, that's a choice, too. Whether we're admitting it to ourselves or not, we are shaping our every moment with our choices. And how freeing and exciting that can be, once we embrace it.

    So thanks again for this thought-provoking post, Paula – a great reminder about what really matters and how to make it real for ourselves!
    My recent post Perfectionism Trap: 3 Time Tips to Free You!

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