Is Work-Life Balance Really Achievable?

As a working mom of two teenage boys, I’ve participated in my share of discussions about work-life balance.  Does flex-time really work?  Is it possible to work full-time and give your children the attention that they need?  Can women climb the corporate ladder and still raise a happy family?

These questions spurred fiery debate this year when Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a controversial article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” for the July/August issue of the Atlantic.  In her piece, Slaughter claims that a high-powered career and family are mutually exclusive.  Contrary to feminist teachings that women can “have it all,” Slaughter says that she left a high-profile job at the State Department to be more present for her teenage sons.

Slaughter’s article prompted a heated response, with many women pointing out that “having it all is an impossible standard” and that Slaughter’s job was so demanding that it would be “incompatible with family obligations and pleasures for men as well as for women.”

I personally believe that most of us – men, women, marrieds, singles – struggle with Slaughter’s dilemma to various degrees.   The pace of work is at an all-time high; for many, personal demands are also on the rise.  If it’s not children whose schedules spill over into work, it’s our parents (who need caregiving), our hobbies (which demand participation) and/or our relationships (which require quality time).  It’s hard to imagine anyone expecting to “have it all.”

Hannah Seligson underscores this argument in her recent New York Times piece titled “When the Work-Life Scales are Unequal: Flexible Hours Can Engender Resentment in the Office.”  Increasingly, Americans who work for companies that embrace flexible hours face what Seligson calls “office class warfare.” In some companies,“employees have come to expect that the demands of their children, in particular, will be accommodated,” she notes.  “And not all of their colleagues are happy about it….Someone, after all, has to make that meeting or hit that deadline.”

To my mind, work-life balance is possible in some professional environments and not in others.  Feasibility depends on many factors, among them:

  1. Your definition of balance:  If you expect to find a high-profile, leadership role that allows you to telecommute and be home every day by 5 pm, you’re likely to be disappointed.  You can be both a business leader and a full-time parent, but probably not at the same time.  At our company, roughly one-third of the professionals have part-time, flexible schedules; most accept reduced salaries and/or less senior positions in exchange for predictable hours.
  2. Your willingness to compromise:   Balance requires compromise – on your part and on others’.  My colleague, Elizabeth Sosnow (herself a working mother with three young boys), has a nice way of describing this.  “If a full-time employee expects flex-time, they need to give as much as they get.  Think of it as a bank.  You need to make quite a few deposits (of goodwill, overtime and dependability) before making a withdrawal.” At our firm, we give people a lot of flexibility but also a lot of accountability.  Professionals are free to set their own schedules, but not at the expense of teamwork or output.
  3. Company culture:   Some jobs are more flexible than others.  At our firm, team-members are trained to communicate closely and provide back-up for one another.  This enables a mom or dad to work from home to accommodate a parent-teacher conference.  It also allows new grads to leave early to attend their college homecoming weekend.  The key is clear communication, so that nothing falls between the cracks — and reciprocity, so that the same people aren’t always cast in the roles of “giver” and “taker.”
  4. Support network:  The big wild card is the size of the weight on your shoulders and the resources you have at your disposal.  Anne-Marie Slaughter had a rebellious teenage son, who was spiraling out of control and needed her attention in NJ– miles away from her State Department job in Washington, D.C.  In circumstances like these where family dynamics are strained and support is far away, it’s particularly difficult to balance the demands of work and life.

Despite small trade-offs, I’ve been incredibly lucky to be part of a firm that makes work-life balance possible.   I know that I’ll never “have it all.”  But I’ve been able to make choices that work for me and my family.  Overall, I believe that most professionals at our firm have the right mix of accountability and freedom to make meaningful contributions in their personal and professional lives.


With Labor Day just behind us, do you believe that true work-life balance is possible?


Connect with Meg:

Phone: 212.840.0095
Twitter: @megwildrick
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