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Let’s Realize As Moms That Work-Life Balance Just Doesn’t Exist


White House advisor Ivanka Trump—mother of three young children and author of the just-released book “Women Who Work”—recently told an audience of small business owners that she has “thrown balance out the window… I don’t even strive for it anymore because I don’t like to intentionally set myself up for failure.”  Balance implies a scale, she explained, and with children the levers are outside your control.

Another pre-Mother’s Day criticism of the work-life balancing meme comes from Sima Sistani, founder and CEO of Houseparty, a popular chatroom-style app. The mom of two toddlers recently declared to NBC News that the idea of balance is “antiquated,” and wrote an article subtitled “Why ‘Balance’ is Bullshit.”

Nevertheless, people continue to concoct balance schemes. Lots of tweaking has happened over the past few years, perhaps most notably via Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” and superwoman Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.” While Sandberg’s book focuses on raising women’s ambitions, Slaughter’s magic key is to get men to invest more in the caregiving and household side of the balance ledger.

Is ‘Balance’ Code For Inner Conflict—Or Guilt?

So long as women are conflicted about career ambitions versus family life, we won’t stop adding steps to this Rube Goldberg Contraption of balance. As with flying cars, it’s possible we’ll get there. But will it be what it’s cracked up to be?

I well remember my own attempts to achieve this balance. I think I experienced the heyday of glass ceiling consciousness at the CIA, where I worked as an analyst prior to the birth of my first child.  There was much ado about the lack of women in management positions, and I had open paths and the resources to pursue them.

But postpartum, I simply could not abide the idea of throwing myself back into work full time. During maternity leave, I explored the possibility of coming back part time, to ease myself back into the job. Though my office director insisted I work full time, the CIA was a humongous bureaucracy with many options for internal job searches. I was later able to settle into a new office part-time with some co-workers I already knew. I didn’t even have to sweat child care.  Another mom, a neighbor who lived two doors from me, fortuitously ran family child care out of her home—six kids total. (And one of my very best friends to this day was another neighbor mother who often helped there. She is godmother to one of my other children.)

‘What The H-ll Am I Doing Here?’

But balance would elude me, even in these best of circumstances. Every time I looked at my baby’s picture, I’d get unsettled, keenly feeling the separation. The fact that my family could get by on my husband’s salary forced me to ask myself why I was choosing—even three days a week—to focus on career instead of home. With each passing work day, I’d look at my son’s picture and ask myself: “What the h-ll am I doing here?”

As that inner voice got louder and louder, I conveniently found myself pregnant again. After the next maternity leave, I chose to resign and stay home full-time. I had invested the better part of a decade in my career, but in my own mind there was no contest. That’s not to say I didn’t have ambition—I couldn’t imagine a more ambitious voyage of discovery and exploration than motherhood.

Perhaps that choice makes me one of the sad, foolish, and weak women who have thus far kept 50-50 gender equality from happening in top jobs. In “Lean In,” Sandberg bemoaned the persistence of women choosing motherhood over career. And Slaughter—who happens to be CEO-of-New-America-Foundation-and-Princeton-Dean-and-accomplished-author-and-State-Department-honcho-and-international-law-expert-and-devoted-mother-of-two—agrees. Here’s a prime passage from Slaughter’s oft-quoted 2012 Atlantic Monthly article on “Why Women Still Can’t have it All”:

The pool of female candidates for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children. That is exactly what has Sheryl Sandberg so upset, and rightly so.

Sandberg and Slaughter seem to suggest that mothers like me ought to have regrets for never achieving our full career potential, and high-powered moms can escape our supposed fate. So I feel cued to stand on the sidelines and utter a couple of famous Marlin Brando lines. First, the desperate cry: “Stella!” And then this: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

In other words, I get the feeling that the feminist push for career ambition is less about choice and more about some sort of status anxiety, about successful career-oriented women devaluing my choices.

Sorry, Ladies, But Absolutely Nobody Can Have It All

To her credit, Slaughter had a good epiphany: the maternal instinct—or to use her term, the “maternal imperative”—isn’t really a choice.  It dies hard. Which, of course, leaves professional moms in a difficult spot, especially if their clueless husbands call it a day while moms are still doing all the housework and childcare after work. Not fair. I get it.

But here’s another epiphany to consider: we all live in the time-space continuum. That means absolutely nobody can “have it all.” Ever. We all must make choices with the limited time and circumstances we have. And if the maternal instinct is hardwired into us, why is it a problem?

Central to the concept of work-life balance is a view of the maternal instinct that treats it as something to be conquered. Too often, this type of feminist advocacy amounts to social engineering, which seeks to erase the maternal instinct as a motivator in a woman’s career choices. We can also see this engineering in society’s non-stop agitation for abortion, which is a full-frontal attack on maternal instinct. It’s also in hookup culture, which is anti-relationship on its face. Then there’s the issue of gender identity which, ironically, extinguishes women altogether, since its very premise is that there are no real sex distinctions. The list goes on.

Many Young People Value Traditional Roles

In “Unfinished Business,” Slaughter pivots the focus on men as caregivers.  If men were to share the burden of caregiving more equally, she reasons, women would have more freedom to lean in on their careers. And that’s fine. We should always be attentive to the needs of our family, and men shouldn’t get a pass if they loaf while their wives pick up the brunt of the work. Slaughter rightly notes that we should all value caregiving just as much as breadwinning. But, again, the point is squandered on the balance ledger: getting to that magic number, the 50-50 allocation of caregiving and household labor.

And despite the insistence on career acclaim among feminists, support for the traditional family structure—stay-at-home mother and breadwinner father—has risen 16 points among high school seniors, from 42 percent in 1994 to 58 percent in 2014. In March, the Council on Contemporary Families released the report: “Trending Towards Traditionalism? Changes in Youths’ Gender Ideology.”

There is also an upward trend of women choosing to stay home to take care of their families, while their husbands bring home the bacon. Even though the millennial generation has postponed or foregone marriage and family, many of those who do decide to start families seem to be going a more traditional route.

Should We Value Ambition Over Caregiving?

Gender ideologists are frustrated that women are choosing to raise children and forego career ambition in the process. Slaughter’s argument that society should value caregiving just as much as breadwinning sounds fine on the surface. But I detect another theme: a message that women should value career ambitions over caregiving ambitions, while striving for a balance that might keep our inner conflicts in check.

I don’t buy it. I understand the need for ambition in the sense of fulfilling our passions. But I never cared to expend energy in a futile quest to have it all. Nobody can ever “have it all.”  Parents used to tell their kids that life isn’t fair. But we do our best to navigate it. That’s life in the time-space continuum.

Sadly, the focus on 50-50 balance always ends up putting us in an anti-relationship mode. We focus so intently on the scoreboard, we lose sight of the spirit of our lives—not to mention the lives of others around us.

No doubt some would say these formulas for seeking work-life balance actually do enhance relationships, by giving women more satisfaction at work and men more insights and experience in caregiving. If that works for them and their kids, that’s their business. But it shouldn’t be everybody else’s business, and women shouldn’t feel pressured to climb a career ladder just to increase the pool for gender warriors, or gain social status—in the process, sacrificing the lion’s share of her motherhood moments.

Don’t Feel Pressured By Work-Life Balance Preachers

Stay-at-home mothers don’t fit into the picture this gender equity package sells. Yet, devotion to home and family is an investment. It’s the seed of all other relationships: friendships, true community, collegiality. As I wrote last year, it’s the bond that keeps Big Brother at bay. Do we value this as a society? No. Probably because we don’t really understand it.

It’s true that caregiving doesn’t get the attention given to breadwinning. But if society always celebrated motherhood and made a big fuss over it—beyond our Mother’s Day gift-giving—we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Everyone would be clamoring to be a stay-at-home parent if there was social status in that. But that’s fodder for some intense sociological and anthropological studies. It shouldn’t dictate how we live our lives if we are already content.

We should steer clear of the social engineering on motherhood. Otherwise, it leads to all sorts of crazy talk, like putting a monetary value on the gifting of a homemaker’s time to her family. I’ll gift as much of my time and energy to my family as I want to, thank you very much. Putting a monetary value on it is an open invitation to more social engineering and, worse, the bureaucratization of family life into government-sponsored “care-giving units.” You can keep that change.

So, lean in as a Mom. And Happy Mother’s Day!