Balancing Act: Part 2 – The Balance Myth

I have some bad news. Work/life balance is not a real thing.

I wish I could tell you it was. I’m sure I’d be a much more marketable blogger if I could write articles like “10 Easy Ways to Achieve Perfect Work/life Balance!”. If you google the topic, you’ll find plenty of articles with titles just like that. They’re articles that get attention and views. People like them.

But they’re all predicated on a myth. And that myth is two-fold. It tells us that work/life balance a) exists, and b) is achievable.

Now you may be shaking your head and thinking I’m going to be worrying too much about semantics here. That for many people talking about balance is a convenient shorthand. That we all know that our work experiences affect our home life, and vice versa. That people just want to feel empowered to spend a healthy amount of time and energy in all aspects of their life.

And that’s true, to a degree. But there’s something deeper going on here. And much darker. And we need to talk about it.

I want to quote you some data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that discusses depression in adults over the age of 20 between 2013 and 2016.

Please note that these results are based on patient questionnaires for screening and diagnosing mental health disorders, which require that individuals are seeking help, and speaking honestly to their medical providers. We know that there can still be a tendency to self-minimize mental health issues, so just keep that in mind with this data.

  • During 2013–2016, 8.1% of Americans aged 20 and over had depression in a given 2-week period.
  • Overall, women (10.4%) were almost twice as likely to have depression as men (5.5%).
  • Among all race and Hispanic-origin groups, except non-Hispanic Asian, men had a significantly lower prevalence of depression compared with women.
  • Overall, 15.8% of adults from families living below the federal poverty level (FPL) had depression. The prevalence of depression decreased to 3.5% among adults at or above 400% of the FPL.
  • Among both men and women, the prevalence of depression decreased with increasing levels of family income.
  • Men with family incomes at or above 400% of the FPL had the lowest prevalence of depression (2.3%), while women with family incomes below the FPL had the highest prevalence (19.8%).

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that you need to be careful in how you use data. You have to be careful about making assumptions. But I also think that there’s a pretty strong indication here that there is a connection between depression and gender, and depression and income.

Let’s look at another piece of data.

According to a recent report from the United Nations, women currently do 2.5 times the unpaid labor of men. The ratio is slightly better in developed countries than developing ones, but is still significant. Although unpaid labor is a vital contributor to a country’s economy, and often covers for shortfalls in infrastructure and social services, it is not highly valued. But it takes an enormous amount of time and effort.

And to be clear, this data on unpaid labor does not include the mental labor that women are often more responsible for within the household, whether it be remembering doctor’s appointments or realizing that they’ve run out of toilet paper.

So this is why I say there’s no such thing as work/life balance. Because how can we talk about work/life balance when a good half of the population is doing most of the unpaid and unacknowledged work? How can we talk about work/life balance when the top earners can hire maids and nannies and dog walkers, while the lowest earners have to do it all themselves? How can we talk about balance when our professional institutions are designed by and for men with resources?

A story of work/life balance is a story of privilege.

There’s no balance because so many people, especially lower income women, are working in the office, or the factory, or the store, and then coming home, and are still doing work.  There’s no balance because the work never ends.

Look up some of the top articles on work/life balance and you see some repeated refrains. Manage your time. Make lists. Prioritize. Say no. Delegate. Take time for yourself. Limit use of technology. Even the ones that agree that work/life balance is unachievable will still drop advice like “define success for yourself” and “build support networks”.

And none of these pieces of advice are inherently bad. In fact, most of them are quite good.

They’re also missing the point. Because all of this oh-so-helpful advice? Is telling you that it’s your fault.

And this, this is the insidious thing, the dark underside, about work/life balance. It sets you up to fail. It implies that if you are stressed and struggling and feeling overwhelmed, that the problem is with you. That you’re just not trying hard enough. That you really need to prioritize better. That you just need to be smarter with your time and money. “Just do these 10 things, and you’ll be fine!” And if you’re still not fine, well, you didn’t do those 10 things right.

The problem is not with you. The problem is with our society. With the systems we have in place that punish people who make less money. With a cultural expectation that women will pick up the slack, over and over and over again.

I’m going to say it again, because it’s worth repeating. The problem is not with you.

Next week: We’re talking positives!  What we can do to create change and take better care of ourselves and each other.

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