As women, we have heard the soothing whispers of work-life balance. It is the mythical notion that floats around the halls of workplaces everywhere. It sneaks its way into our naive minds as we are told we can have it all. We can have a fulfilling career, manage our families, have free time to practice yoga and go to book clubs, and even find time to volunteer. Being the unsuspecting innocents that we are, we sign on for it all. Six months into it, we are exhausted but unwilling to give up anything. A year into it, we’ve added therapy to our growing activities. Two years, five years, a decade passes and we finally admit work-life balance doesn’t exist and we cannot have it all or really even want it all.
Work-life balance gives hope to what we logically know is impossible. As women, many of us leave our workplaces and head home to our second shift. The second shift is all the work we have at home. It could be kid-oriented, it could be household work, it could be extracurricular work we’ve taken on, it could be a number of things, but what it definitely isn’t is relaxing. Since women have been in the workforce, they have encountered the second shift. It’s what is considered “women’s work” and takes valuable time. Grocery shopping, kid transportation, cleaning the house, and doing the laundry are all predominately women’s work. The added stress of leaving a paid job to come home to an unpaid, unappreciated job habitually leaves women with an unsatisfied feeling. Over the years, it has been recommended by many an “expert” to walk away from this second shift and leave the house unclean or the laundry piled up. While this is a novel idea, the practicality of it is as unrealistic as the idea of work-life balance. When you’ve walked by the growing mound of smelly clothes and overflowing garbage for the 100th time, you realize you personally can’t stand it anymore and so you do what you always do—you clean it up. Families can be incredibly supportive and loving…and lazy. Eventually, we give in to what we no longer want to fight about and we accept the second shift like we accept commuter traffic: we plan the time into our already packed schedules so we have clean clothes and empty trashcans.
The first shift—the paid one—would perhaps seem more fulfilling than laundry, but the eight hours we spend in the workplace is not free from family or caretaker obligations. We must ask for time off or explain our absences when we take a family member to the doctor or stay home to care for a sick loved one. The fulfillment we were hoping for suddenly turns to anxiety. Many women fear bad evaluations, lost wages, and retaliation due to missed work. We are penalized for caring for the very people we are expected to have in our lives. We also find the higher we are in the workplace hierarchy, the more is expected of us. Even in a place like the University of Oklahoma, we see the few women in leadership positions and we take note of their busy lives and juggling acts. We also take note of those around them, waiting for them to fail because they are mothers, daughters, wives, and caretakers. We see the consequences when they miss a day of work or an after-hours event because of personal reasons. We hear the slights, like “she doesn’t take her position seriously” or “she’s not competent to be here if she’s always putting her family first.” As women, we are either dedicated or erratic, but rarely are we called exceptional at our jobs.
The best we can hope for when it comes to work-life balance is to realize early on we are human. We do not owe anyone more than what we are paid for and we do not owe our second shift any more than we can emotionally withstand. We have to embrace ourselves in the less-than-perfect lives we are living. We aren’t bad citizens if we forgo volunteering at the animal shelter. We aren’t bad parents if we miss a school play or party. We aren’t bad caretakers if we arrange for someone else to check in on a loved one once in a while. And we are certainly not incompetent, unprofessional, or unreliable when we miss work to do any of the above. We are women who have learned to budget time and calculate the sacrifices required of us. The repercussions, from both the workplace and societal expectations, are brutal and swift, but we persevere. We have little option to do otherwise. What we can do, however, is cut ourselves some slack and not feel the guilt and inadequacy for doing what is necessary. Until the male-dominated workplace values the female- dominated second shift and caretaking role, we will continue to experience backlash on all fronts. The best advice I can offer is be wary of those selling work-life balance. We have not yet reached that level of equality yet
JoAnna Woolridge Wall is a lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and affiliate faculty for the Center of Social Justice at the University of Oklahoma. She serves as Director of the Take Root Programs, which promotes activism in reproductive justice. Her research focuses on feminist socio-legal issues and transnational feminist human rights pratices. Her most recent publication is From Personal to Political: How Women and Feminism Created Social Change (Cognella, 2017).