As a grad student I was part of a group focused on women in science and medicine. In addition to getting camaraderie and support, we had the opportunity to bring in notable women to hear about their paths to career success. And here, inevitably, the conversation would turn personal. The underlying question was always the same: How do you do it? How do you have a life — children, a spouse, a white picket fence — and a career?
While each reply was different, each tended to tip the concept of work-life balance on its head. Rather than describe a steady equipoise with scales weighted equally — career on one side, family on the other, each woman would depict a perpetual state of flux and flow, of give and take, of bringing work home and home to work and, at different times, of focusing hard on one, possibly at the expense of the other.
And so, given how many times I have heard from women about how work-life balance is not really balance, per se, I looked forward to Teresa Taylor’s new book The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success. And yet Taylor’s account left me feeling harried, not ready for action.
By any measure, Taylor has achieved significant career success. Despite being the first in her family to finish college, she worked her way to CEO of telecom giant Qwest, putting herself in the rare position of being a woman in the upper echelons of a Fortune 200 company. She also has a husband and two sons. In the book, Taylor describes her own process of struggling with work-life balance. She used to try to keep everything divided, she writes, maintaining distinct home and work calendars, keeping her kids out of any workplace conversation, and generally trying to maintain everything as separate but equal. Instead of feeling balanced, however, this left her split in two.
Realizing it wasn’t working, she began to let the two overlap. She collapsed her two calendars into one, noting, “As a consequence, I stopped feeling so segmented, and it felt increasingly comfortable to intertwine my two lives. At work, I mentioned my kids. I talked about my family. As I did this, my relationships improved at the office as well. I discovered that other people have family issues, too.”
To us, her readers, she gives the following advice. “Above all,” she writes, “try not to think of your life as a zero-sum game or as an equation that has to be balanced. I’ve learned that there is not one magical answer to the question of ‘balance.’ Society tells us it’s acceptable to succeed at work, provided it doesn’t impact our home life,” she continues. “Unfortunately, trying to achieve the mythical ‘balance’ simply causes endless frustration.”
Rather than a separation, Taylor proposes a concept of layers, integrating work and home life. She shares stories of taking the kids to the office on the weekend, when her husband was working as well so he could be home for part of the week with the children. Bringing the kids to work mostly went well, she explains. Except when it didn’t.
“One Sunday afternoon while in the conference room,” she writes, “Jack and Joe grew bored while filling the whiteboard with Picasso-like expressions in blue, green, red, and black dry-erase markers. In search of loftier artistic pursuits, they extended the limits of their creativity to include the walls. The wallpaper. The wood trim. The paint. On the large conference table sat a clean, unused whiteboard eraser. Along with explaining its uses to them, I taught my boys how to scrub walls that day.”
But while I appreciate Taylor’s message that balance may be both an unrealistic and impractical goal, I am not entirely on board with the alternative she offers.
In her description of her layering approach, for example, she details her method of time management. She writes, “If I have any sort of superpower, it’s an awareness of time. I am always watching the clock. Wonder Woman had her bullet-deflecting bracelets. I have my wristwatch. My wristwatch tells me how much time until and how much time since for every meeting, errand, chore, and task I take on.”
Reading this, I can feel myself start to hyperventilate. Who would want such a frenetic schedule? Maybe it brings career success, but happiness?
Similarly, Taylor describes working late nights after her children have gone to bed and long weekends after she has already put in a more-than-full work week. “Be who you are all the time and work harder than everyone else to make it work,” she offers.
I appreciate that she is being true to herself and encourages others to do the same, but am not sure that the way Taylor does it will ring true with many. Her energy and intensity are undeniable. But rather than leaving me inspired to push forward, her book left me thinking I couldn’t do that — or, perhaps more accurately, I don’t want to.
The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success
Greenleaf Book Group Press, April 2013
Hardcover, 232 pages