Matthew Beard –The Guardian
I’m half writing this, half thinking about whether it is the best use of a few precious, toddler-free moments
“Framing the issue of work-life balance – as if the two were dramatically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” writes work-life guru Sheryl Sandberg.
Well, for one, those who can’t afford to walk away from a job. Unless you’re living very comfortably, you’ll usually be forced to choose work over life. But even setting aside the many people who find themselves in that situation, it’s not clear we live in a world that enables people to choose life over work. Take me, for example.
Today is Friday. It’s the beginning of my three-day weekend. Thanks to flexible working arrangements, Friday is my father-son day. We go to the park, get errands done, pop out to the zoo – it’s brilliant, and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. You’d think I’m the perfect demonstration of Sandberg’s argument, but I’ve got itchy feet. So here I am, writing an op-ed.
Or rather, I’m half writing, half thinking about whether this is the best use of a few precious, toddler-free moments. Would I rather get things done around the house and revel in the simple, domestic bliss of a clean kitchen or a floor free of stickers, marbles and other paraphernalia?
I feel this back-and-forth all the time. It’s a war of identities: the professional version of me is ambitious, busy, focused and demanding; domestic me is patient, spontaneous and calm (for the most part). To be honest, it’s exhausting, and it’s beginning to make me think we haven’t fully figured out what work-life balance really means.
We need to permit people to express their domestic identities in the workplace
At the moment, we think about work-life balance in terms of the way we allocate our time. A well-balanced life is one in which you can leave work at a reasonable hour, spend enough time on parental or annual leave with loved ones, and where parents can balance care obligations to enable both people to have flourishing lives and careers.
A look at recent proposals in the work-life balance seems to support this: the four-day working week, gender-balanced leave policies, email restrictions and unlimited annual leave all march to the beat of the time-maximisation drum.
These are all good things, but I’m not sure they can do the job on their own. Australian men often don’t take all the parental leave they’re entitled to. There’s little point giving people all this time if those people don’t know what to do with it, or aren’t equipped to use it as they should.
This is where I think Sandberg is right – there is something wrong with painting work and life as diametrically opposed, but it’s not what she thinks. It’s because it permits a world in which “work” and “life” are kept totally separate and are permitted to operate according to different norms and values.
My favourite example of this is the unintended viral sensation Robert Kelly, his kids Marion and James and his wife Jung-a Kim, who together conspired to make the best couple of minutes of television in BBC history. After the incident, Kelly copped criticism from some circles for failing to be a good father because he didn’t scoop his daughter up and pop her on his knee during an international broadcast interview. By contrast, the BBC praised Kelly for his professionalism.
Whether Kelly did the right thing or not depends on how you define him in that precise moment. Was he a father or a professor? For Kelly, in the midst of that moment, the dilemma is the same: who should he choose to be, right now?
Unfortunately, based on our current norms around professionalism, he can’t be both at the same time. According to the scripts he seems to have been judged by, Kelly needed to be detached, rational and stoic and simultaneously warm, unconditionally affectionate and responsive. And this is why I think the work-life balance discussion needs to go beyond time and begin to think about identity. We need to permit people to express their domestic identities in the workplace – to redefine what it means to be professional so that it’s not unrecognisable to the people who know us in our personal lives.
As we continue to deconstruct unhelpful, gendered divisions of labour that force women to take on domestic and emotional labour and leave men to seek paid employment, there’s a good chance more people are going to start facing these choices – between professional and domestic life.
This isn’t just important for wellbeing. Bringing “domestic virtues” of emotional expressiveness, vulnerability and the like into the workforce helps shape people’s character. Our environments shape who we are. The more we’re encouraged to be competitive, ambitious or whatever else in the workplace, the harder it will be to switch gears and express patience, humility or generosity at home.
The purpose of work-life balance is to help people to flourish, live happy lives outside of work and develop into well-rounded human beings. If we’re going to do that, we need to let people be well-rounded at work too.
- Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre
- This article is based on a chapter in Dangerous Ideas about Mothers (UWA)