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Why we're still fighting for work-life balance

Photo: S. Raj/Flickr


It’s 8:30 p.m. The kids are finally tucked in, you've double-checked that homework made it into the backpack, and lunches are made. Now for some “me” time. Your choices: start the laundry, empty the dishwasher, pay bills, answer work emails, finish the report for tomorrow’s 10 a.m. team meeting. That House of Cards episode will have to wait. Again.

If any of that sounds like your daily juggle, you’re not alone. Despite all the gains women have made in the workplace, and the technology that’s supposed to make lives easier, women still find themselves battling for balance.

“The work-life conflict, I don’t know that it’s improved at all, partly because of the economy and the degree of inequality we have,” said Aimée Dechter, research coordinator for the Department of Sociology and for the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology at the University of Washington.

Families everywhere are struggling to make their finances pencil out. Because of the labor market shift in the 1970s and ’80s, when jobs went overseas and the U.S. moved toward the service industry, most families now need both parents working, Dechter said.

“One of the ways people try to balance it is working non-standard working hours,” where one parent works during the day and the other works at night or on weekends, she said. “That’s one way they cope.” Another is to “outsource” some family tasks, like shopping and cooking. Fast food becomes a quick fix for dinner.

Heaped onto the financial burden is the societal pressure to do more for our kids.

“Everything from research to pop culture has shown us in recent years that … there’s been a transition to competitive, as opposed to collaborative, parenting,” said Dana Lee Baker, an associate professor in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at Washington State University Vancouver.

In a sense, we’re doing it to ourselves.

“Take a really close look at your own behavior,” said Baker, who has a 20-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. “I coach my daughter’s soccer team. … We’re just here to have fun. (But) it’s very tempting to add, ‘Oh, but let’s sign up for creating all different kinds of banners.’ It creates more work for other moms.”

Both Dechter and University of California, Berkeley sociology professor emerita Arlie Hochschild point out how far ahead Europe is with family-friendly workplace and childcare policies. The U.S. has the Family Medical Leave Act, for example, which allows employees to take unpaid time off without the risk of losing their jobs, but most people can’t afford unpaid leave.

“For many (in the U.S.), the workday has lengthened and job insecurity increased,” Hochschild said in an email. “In the absence of social pressure from an organized social movement, the heat is off of the workplace to offer the reforms Europeans enjoy as a matter of routine — paid parental leave, work flexibility, and state-of-the-art childcare.”

Europe certainly offers role models to follow, Dechter said, but ours is a very individualistic culture that also values intense work hours. “In the U.S., taking care of your family is a personal problem, a private matter,” she said. “Whereas in Europe, it’s a social matter. … It’s up to society and the government to help that.”

Whether we push for or wait for reforms in workplace or government policies, we can start helping ourselves and each other.

“Take the risk to love another person’s child,” Baker said. “Form that relationship. So if I am up for a promotion and need to go out of town, I have a support system.

“That can be tough, but that’s the model that worked for human beings for a very long time. … Take the risk to build your own tribe.”

Read more articles on work/life balance from the April 2015 print edition of Seattle's Child

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