Are we asking the right questions about “work-life balance”?

My dark horse favorite subject in business school was cost
accounting. Now, as someone who loves strategy but not details, I was expecting
to slog numbly through all my required accounting classes. But cost accounting
was a whole new world for me. In cost accounting, we figure out how to
categorize and break things down so we can find out what the true costs of
production are. Think about a factory that makes 50 different kinds of widgets
on 12 different machines with 20 employees. How do you figure out how much it
costs you to make Widget #27 from start to finish, including cost of materials,
cost of time on the machine(s) and depreciation of the machine(s), cost of
labor (taking into account that different employees may be paid different
rates), costs of building maintenance and utilities, and costs of
non-manufacturing employees?

Basically, cost accounting asks you to take apart all the
different elements of your business and figure out how they go together properly
to determine how much it truly costs you to make the products you sell. If you
calculate incorrectly, you can put yourself out of business by charging too little
for your product and not covering costs. Cost accountants call that the “death

I think this is what’s happening with all the angst about “the
opt-out revolution”
and all the other work-life issues people (yes, not just
women) are dealing with: We’re not looking at how to
categorize them correctly and we’re missing the true costs/questions. Instead of
realizing that there’s a scale, and opt-out is the same as didn’t-go-back-after-maternity-leave
is the same as got-laid-off-during-maternity-leave is the same as took three
months maternity leave is the same as went-back-after-two-weeks-to-pay-the-rent,
we’re seeing this as personal choice that some women have and some don’t (which
always contains layers of privilege and moral judgment). And we’re seeing those
decisions as the problems themselves, not as attempts at solutions to the two
true questions: 1) How do we ensure that our children are given loving,
supportive care from birth? 2) How can people do work that has value for them?

(If you’re getting a little bit stuck on my idea of work
having value in relation to/as separate from childcare, read my piece “Free but
not cheap”
to see how I break down the idea of jobs vs. the relationship of
parenting. Then come back here.)

Every mother, every woman, every person, whether they’re conscious
of it or not at any given moment, is questioning whether what they’re spending
their time doing has value to them. Every parent is concerned with who their child
is with at this exact moment and whether their child is being taken care of
appropriately. Any combination of work–for pay, not for pay, at home, in a
separate location, full-time, part-time, and others in systems I’m not aware
of–is just an attempt to come up with the best answers to both of those
key questions with the resources and mobility each person has at that point in
time. The best answer is different for people with different situations,
resources, and desires, as it is different for the same people over time as
situations, resources, and desires shift.

So it’s a mistake to forget, as we’re making our own choices
(however limited they may be) that there are always people who have different
sets of circumstances that inform the also-limited choices they make. If the
limits on our choices are awareness or education, we need to work together to
lift those limits. (Examples of that include calling out privilege, racism, and
sexism in the workplace for those in power who don’t see it, working for better policies
that include men as equal parents with equal responsibilities, revisioning work
hours and locations, and voting for those who will change public policy to
answer questions instead of penalize people.) If the limits on our choices are
things about ourselves that we can change, then changing those things makes a
lot of sense. But we need to be aware that it is to everyone’s benefit for all
of us to be able to maximize our choices in ways that help others. Even if some
of us do things others of us don’t see value in. (Seasonally-appropriate candy
bowl, I’m looking at you.)

In addition, we need to be aware of things such as bad
relationships that restrict and mutate our choices so that we can understand
what needs to be changed and not spend time banging our heads against things
that aren’t the actual problem. And so that we can understand the choices
others make and allocate our anger and activism at the correct targets. Otherwise, we’re blaming instead of analyzing and trying to do better institutionally and personally.

currently in a death spiral of analysis of work-life balance. Can we pull out
of it?



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6 thoughts on “Are we asking the right questions about “work-life balance”?”

  1. I agree, except you’re missing one part: risk. Any time you have a discussion about value, you also have to include the concept of risk. So, yes, choices to maximize value in two areas (work value and child-raising) are part of it, but so is recognizing that with choices come risk. When you choose, the thing you didn’t choose carries risk. (What if THAT was a better choice at a later point?) The thing you do choose has some risk too.

    So the stories about women leaving the work force only to be frustrated when they try to return – they didn’t account for the risk that they wouldn’t be able to return when they wanted to. And they probably didn’t account for the risk that the thing they chose didn’t stay the priority over time, either.

  2. These conversations lose me at "work/life" balance, which of course means I don’t generally participate in them. My work is part of my life, in ways both good (mostly) and bad. It is not separate, or something I "balance" against my life.

  3. It’s nothing but tradeoffs. What you prioritize this year might not be what you prioritize next year. You or your family’s needs can change due to health and family stage. All you can really do is what you think is the best thing for all of you at that time, and hope that you can respond as quickly as needed to emergent needs. I think in this country we always have the idea that things can only get better…and then we’re blindsided when they get worse. I agree with Marisa above about risk. That is an essential part of the life triage we are always doing all the time. I always say that mothers are God’s gift to triage, though. I really don’t think anybody else is as good at figuring out what has to happen right now and what can wait.

  4. The "work-life"/"opt-out" conversation has always struck me as mostly relevant to middle and upper middle class women/families yet I don’t actually think it’s productive to try and lump these groups together with working class and "1%" women/families either (which is sort of your point about the NYT piece, right?).

    Your two questions are right on, but although they are all related, to tackle something like the racism/priviledge/sexism question at the same time as the two questions, especially the first, just causes the whole thing to hit the skids. It’s too much.

    People want a safe place for their child to be? Then ask the question, what are the barriers to everyone having a safe place for a kid to be while a parents works? What’s the answer – subsidize daycare, offer alternative school calenders that accommodate a variety of workplace schedules, mandate more flexibility in the workplace, encourage more onsite workplace daycares, etc.

    Now your other question, how can people do work that has value to them? It’s ambiguous – does it mean value in that it pays the bills? Or that it makes them feel fulfilled? I think this is where the middle/upper-middle class versus working class mismatch comes up. Working class folks (both my parents were working class) just want to do a job that allows them to provide for their families and give their kids a better life than they had. Typically they don’t have a preference for taking care of the family and home, or one type of office or factory job over another. The value is in the paycheck or the family bottom line. Middle class folks, who worked hard to acquire a skill and/or degree that supposedly ought to enable them to have a career of some sort, are the ones with the problem of lining up expectations (feeling like their work has value) with reality. Power/racism is a factor in both groups (working and middle class), but most especially in the second because the subjectiveness of people’s skills leaves so much room for unequal treatment. Of course that debatable, I’m making a major generalization. I’m also talking more about the workplace specifically, and not about the power/racism in our education system which is totally different.

    I don’t know how to right the work/life train except to say that it needs to be broken down into smaller, more traction-able parts (is that a word?). It’s too big and like anything that’s too big, no matter how straight you make the track, it’s going to still derail.

  5. Isn’t it Jessica Valenti’s breakdown of job vs. relationship? Aren’t you stealing her intellectual property if you don’t credit her?

  6. @ Lorraine – The fact that Moxie’s piece about the relationship versus jobs is a direct response to/conversation with Jessica Valenti’s piece is abundantly clear from the original piece she cites here, and links to. In fact the first line of the post "Free but not cheap" is about Valenti.

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