“There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” said former GE CEO, Jack Welch, speaking to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference recently. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
And thus a big stink was raised.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Mr. Welch would appear to know whereof he speaks. According to the Wall Street Journal, he has been married three times and has four children. Now, I don’t know the man, but that biography does point to the likelihood that he has made his own “choices,” and faced their “consequences.”
Which line of speculation leads me to that age-old question: No, not the “should professional women have babies?/should mothers have careers? question. The “what about professional men? /What about dads who want careers?” question.
Because if corporate America is trying to break it to women that they will have to compromise their families to get the corner office, hasn’t this always been the case for men? Men are not expected to need or want work-life balance. They can have as many kids as they want. No one will say “what about the children?” while these fathers are in mad pursuit a C (fill in the letter) O title.
Why not? Because while the real lives of people have changed, the fairy tale about what men do and what women do has not.
Once upon a time “work-life balance” meant men “worked” and women took care of “life”–including their husband’s “lives”–especially, of course, their children. Now things are different. (Actually, things were always different for most everyone but the middle class and higher, but this fairy tale is about the middle class.) And now we are obsessively asking how are they different, how ought they to be different and how will the actual structure of our economy need to change in response to this difference?
Some prominent feminists like to blame women who can afford, and “choose” (to use the term loosely) to “opt-out” and wipe noses and roast chickens for a few years (or forever) following the arrival of children. These women are feminist cop-outs, they say.
I say, the culture and the economy have yet to really offer parents (male or female) a choice other than prioritizing career to the detriment of family (and by family, I mean, immediate or extended; by blood or law or informal bonds of love) versus prioritizing family to the detriment of career success.
If some parents’ (including the men who’ve begun to choose full-time at-home fatherhood) choices look like an all-or-nothing return to the 1950′s (even if in drag) it’s not necessarily because that’s their ideal. It’s just the best of a range of bad options.
But while parental leave policies, on-site day cares, milk-pumping rooms and such are great tweaks to the system, the real problem is Late Capitalism itself. The fact is, this elusive work-life balance that (mostly) women are exhorted to find is not going to show up as long as our economic model continues to be one in which constantly increasing productivity is the measure of success and “productivity” itself is only measured like the GNP–excluding any and all domestic production, like meals cooked at home, houses cleaned by the people who live in them, children raised to healthy adulthood, and you know–all that women’s work (whether the occasional man happens to be doing it or not) that contributes to human well being.
In the mythical 1950′s, women with the means not to work for pay (fewer than classic television shows might lead you to imagine) were told that they should make a career of “life.” They were exhorted to find satisfaction and fulfillment in home, motherhood, wifehood, neighborhood. Some probably did this to great personal success and happiness. Many, history tells us, did not.
I am not opposed to women having corner offices. Neither am I opposed to women working all but exclusively in a domestic realm (though most women do something between these two extremes). What any individual woman chooses–if she indeed has a choice–should be a non-issue as far as feminism is concerned.
The issue should not be work-life balance, it should be an erasure of the line between work and life, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Life should cease to be a verboten topic at work. A woman should not feel she’s risking a promotion when she asks for time off to care for a new addition to her family. It should be assumed that all people–men and women will be taking time off to care for new family members, ill family members, aging family members, etc. If that leads to a less productive company measured by simplistic profit standards, so be it. Work should cease to be exclusively considered to be paying work outside one’s own domestic realm. The ironic fact is, if I don’t clean my own toilets, I’m going to have to pay someone else to do it. Work is work. Either pay me to do it and call it my work, or at the very least, count unpaid domestic work in the GNP. Give people who do this work–at least those who raise children (arguably the hardest and most important domestic job)–credit towards social security, or whatever future system replaces it.
Life is work. Work is life. We know best how to keep our individual boats afloat. It’s only our simple-minded, gluttonous economic model that threatens to swamp us. It’s time we put that in its place and started measuring success in more wholistic ways.