Work/Life Balance is Not the Key
Words for Work and Life is a series exploring the words we use for work and life and how they shape the ways we think, act, and relate to each other.
In 2014, I was re-making myself. I’ve reinvented multiple times over the years: actress to cabaret singer, to mother, to small business owner, with side trips to baker and bookseller. This time, I was going corporate. HR. The word driving me was impact. I wanted a reason to dress nicely in the morning, to hear my heels click as I passed the security guard in the lobby. I wanted to be the lead character when she finally got her shit together, curly hair straightened, framing her professional, yet empathetic face. I didn’t want to fall into a supporting role, to be solving problems but never making anything I could take credit for. I wanted to be impactful. And I wanted a key card.
At the time, Work/Life Balance was the buzzword. Companies are still trying to sell it, like a magic pill their culture can provide. Since I was in HR, I worked to sell it, to build programs to bolster it, and to measure it. I began to realize that Work/Life Balance is one of the most damaging myths we’ve created for ourselves.
First, semantics. There are deep issues with narrowing down our commitments to Work or Life. Life is much bigger than work and saying we can weigh them equally gives unfair advantage to people with means to build a robust support system (say nannies, housekeepers, assistants, financial independence, a foot in the door) and diminishes personal goals (like traveling, creativity, self-determination) that don’t always result in financial or social success. In the medical world, a powerful conversation started about the privilege and entitlement inherent in work/life balance after Stanford launched it’s time banking program to help prevent doctor burnout. Karen Sullivan Sibert, MD says “...work-life balance is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white.”
And then, at a basic level, the concept of balance idealizes constant attention to maintaining neutral. Think about a scale for a minute -- two arms balanced on a single point. It reinforces the fallacy that one person can do it all, devaluing the work of others supporting in the background and encouraging self-sacrifice. And those two arms of the scale? Their natural state is imbalance. It’s an impossible goal to balance a system that is only stable when it’s uneven.
The truth is life is messy. Anne Lamott (who spoke last month for Indie Alley’s Events) said “I used to think that paired opposites were a given, that love was the opposite of hate, right the opposite of wrong. But now I think we sometimes buy into these concepts because it is so much easier to embrace absolutes than to suffer reality... Reality is unforgivingly complex.”
My friend, I think we must suffer reality. Work is not Life’s paired opposite. Work is an element of our lives and sometimes simply a means to an end. Balance is a state of motion. It’s a privilege to choose what we focus on. Some parts of life are out of our control. Ask for help. Don’t do it alone. Make. Life. Work. Allow for some things to be important enough to take your full attention and energy. The scale will always tip. Forgive yourself. And then, when you can, let it tip another way.
Eryka left her corporate job in 2019. When she joined the Indie Alley in Fairfax, CA to focus on being a writer, she never expected to end up with the Master Key Card. Hot damn.