A Work/Life Balance? Does it Exist?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was the most downloaded article in the history of The Atlantic magazine. It was published the same year Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandburg released her book “Lean-In,” which encourages young women to stay in the working world once they become mothers.

Slaughter has followed up her article with the groundbreaking book “Unfinished Business,” which offers an in-depth look at the status of equality in the workforce and an action plan for change.

In her debut novel “A Window Opens,” Elisabeth Egan illustrates these issues through the character of Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three whose life is transformed when her husband loses his job and she is forced to find full-time work. Alice’s struggle is an inspiring, painful, funny and familiar account of a contemporary woman trying to maintain a work/family balance.

These books spoke to me and comforted me really during a difficult time in my life. Anne-Marie Slaughter calls it a “Tipping Point” and writes, “A key thing to anticipate is the possibility of a tipping point, a situation in which what was once a manageable and enjoyable work – family balance can no longer be sustained – regardless of ambition, confidence, or even an equal partner.” As a married woman with three healthy boys, I have all those things, and yet I reached a point where I could no longer sustain the life I was leading. My tipping point was being diagnosed with situational depression and anxiety.

Writing has always been healing for me and in an attempt to understand what happened and why I reached that tipping point and how to move forward, I’ve been writing and reading. This is an excerpt of an essay I am working on titled “I Never Wanted to be a Supermom.”

I am a 44-year-old woman with three boys; two dogs who don’t get along, and a husband who works long hours. Until recently, every day was a series of tasks to complete. This was my typical schedule: (Nod your heads if it sounds familiar.)

Make breakfast, get dressed (battle with my six-year-old about whether his shoes are tied the way he likes them!) meet the school bus, race out the door with my lunch and coffee to drive downtown so I can work 8 hours in front of a computer at a non-profit with a rapidly shrinking budget, sit in endless meetings, (check the texts from my babysitter to make sure the kids made it safely home, and that they are doing their homework), race out of the office at 5:00pm to sit in the car and seethe over the traffic, wondering what to make for dinner (if we have food in the house all is fine, but most nights I have to race to the grocery store before the babysitter leaves for the day), feed the boys, hope my husband makes it home in time to drop one or two kids off at sports, walk the dogs, pick up the kids from sports, demand that they shower, get everyone to bed (try to stay awake while reading to my six year old)…and then collapse on the couch next to my husband.

But this is what everyone does. All the moms I know keep calendars to monitor their family’s schedule. My entire office was made up of working mothers and if they could do it, so could I. Right? Wrong.

I’d been struggling with stomachaches for years, but figured I must be allergic to dairy, or gluten, or raw vegetables. So I began eliminating all sorts of food from my diet in an attempt to relieve myself from the stomach pains, but nothing worked. Everything I put in my mouth seemed to cause my stomach to hurt. In January we took a family vacation and I said to hell with it and ate whatever I wanted. I stood by the blue green water with my family and ate fried fish, conch salad, and drank Bahamian beer. I slept late and watched my boys snorkel, and felt great. I felt great not just because I was in a tropical paradise, but because I was free from pain. I was not consumed with the fire in my belly. At the end of the week we packed our bags, climbed onto the plane, and as we got close to home I began thinking about whether we had any food in the fridge for dinner, and how many emails I would have to answer at work the next day, and whether I’d scheduled the babysitter for our return, and my stomach started to hurt. Walking out of the airport I turned to my husband.

“It’s stress,” I announced. “My stomach hurts because I’m stressed out. How could I have missed it all this time?” He nodded his head. I felt stupid for taking so long to figure it out, but knowing didn’t make the pain go away. I couldn’t stay on vacation forever so I gave myself a pep talk and returned to the daily race. What choice did I have?

Related Reading on this topic:

Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family (New York Times)

The Case for Taking Parental Leave When your Kids are Teenagers (New York Magazine)

Overwhelmed, Work, Love, and Play When No one has the Time, by Brigid Schulte

Fact or Fiction?

As a nonfiction writer who has recently turned to fiction, I am compelled to share the essay “Highly Unlikely” by the fabulous Vendela Vida. After years of writing about actual events and being bound by relating the facts in my writing, I have discovered an exciting freedom in writing fiction. The imagination is a powerful thing, and Vida is a writer whose imaginative  stories are expansive, unique, and a pleasure to read. I reviewed her 2015 book “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” in the Post and Courier and wrote:

“Vida creates mournful scenes where the narrator is vulnerable and lonely, which makes us eager to follow as she dives into the next scene. Maddening in her recklessness (we wonder, who would do that?), the narrator’s illogical, spontaneous decisions are liberating (we think, wouldn’t it be great to do that?).”

The “unbelievability” of her character’s decisions are what made the book such a pleasure to read. In her essay “Highly Unlikely” Vida writes about the double standard in realistic fiction.

“As readers, we don’t want to read stories that are less interesting than the everyday lives we lead. Do we? And as writers I don’t think we should necessarily have to explain that something did happen in real life to justify a a novel’s unlikely plot. Of course it’s unlikely. That’s why we read. That’s why we write.”