The work-life balance: Just another way in which you don’t measure up

I’m in the middle of writing up my mid-year appraisal, a task which is of course harder than doing the actual work which is being appraised. It’s especially difficult if, like me, you fear that writing anything more positive than “I’m crap at my job” will make you sound like an arrogant knob. So you twist and turn and faff about, finding ever-more convoluted ways in which to say “I’m alright, really, I suppose”. And then you get to the question which asks you where you’d like to be in five years’ time.

In five years’ time I will be forty-two and five years’ closer to death. Obviously I’d prefer it if this wasn’t the case, but putting “I’d like to have discovered the secret of eternal youth” on your appraisal form is not the done thing. I know this because the form even suggests the criteria by which you should be assessing five-years-hence you: “career progression, training, aspirations, work-life balance”. Looking on the bright side, I can think of things to write for all of these, apart from the last one.

I’m not sure why my employer wants to know how I see my “work-life balance” in five years’ time. More crucially, I can’t think of anything to put which wouldn’t indicate a lack of career focus. I’d like to be working part-time? I’d like to be leaving the office at five on the dot? I’d like to have fled the rat race, moved to a cottage in Brittany and forgotten all of this shit? None of these sits comfortably alongside my avowed career progression objectives (to be running the company, providing that this can be achieved by simply bumbling along). The fact is, I don’t have a “work-life balance” plan. I don’t even know what the phrase means.

“Work-life balance” irritates me as a concept, and not just because I think work is a part of life rather than something to be played off against it. It irritates me because it has a touchy-feely, non-corporate, almost anti-capitalist image, whereas actually it’s just marketing-speak for not being a total loser. It’s all very well being good at your job but if you’ve not got the proper “work-life balance” then you’re failing at life itself. Women are especially good at failing in this way, because women are meant to be particularly committed to “life” (aka domestic work and childcare – ’cause that’s really livin’).

“Work-life balance” is often discussed in newspaper supplements when people (usually women) who once had high-powered careers have taken a step down to “focus on the things that matter”. This is presented as a noble choice, involving the realisation that some things – usually babies – are more important than money. It is of course complete bollocks. People who’ve had high-powered careers can afford to buy their own quality time with their children. They don’t need a pat on the back for it. People who are working shifts, working two jobs, struggling to piece together enough money to manage while getting whatever childcare they can for their offspring – these are the people who are focusing on the things that matter. As are people who can’t afford to work and are staying at home to raise their children. Neither of these groups have got the “balance” right, according to the “work-life balance” rules. But they are doing their best for their kids and that is the most important thing.

Sometimes I lie in bed at night and think about how ace my sons are, but also how quickly they are growing up. Then I panic about how much I work and how I don’t see enough of them, and how when I do I’m too tired, and I feel such terrible, terrible guilt. Which is of course of sod all use to anyone, but I think it anyhow. And then I think about how in the future, when I look back on this, I won’t regret working. I’ll regret regretting. I’ll regret stressing about a stupid standard that I just can’t live up to, when all along I have had such beautiful children and should just be happy with that.

Of course, I’m not going to put any of this on my appraisal form. I’ll put something along the lines of “I’d like to have gained further experience in X and ideally be taking on greater responsibilities in Y and blah-di-blah-di-blah”. There will be no mention of how I’ll also be model-thin, and look younger than I do now, and be a best-selling novelist, and also have that third baby, although obviously all of that is going to happen, too. I’m just not doing the “work-life balance” thing. That’s when the pressure gets too much.


3 thoughts on “The work-life balance: Just another way in which you don’t measure up

  1. I read an article once years ago of the “ten things you can do to be a better parent” variety. The only point that stuck with me was “Stop with the mommy guilt.” It went on to say that we all feel it, and we’re all doing the best we can, so just keep on doing your best. I still felt it–hell, I still feel it, and my daughter just turned 30–but it helped to have read that. I hope it helps you, too.

  2. My mum worked full time throughout my childhood (and still does, now I’m old enough to live in a house on my own) and she always says she wishes she hadn’t spent so much time being guilty about it. I actually liked her not being there all the time – our relationship is now really close. I know that this is not ideal for everyone, and we were lucky, but I think you’re right about the worrying – it does seem pretty counterproductive. But maybe that just means it’s another thing to beat yourself up about…hell, I’m worried about this now, and I don’t even have kids or a ‘career’ yet…

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