I’m not a big fan of the phase “work-life balance.” It implies that the two concepts (work and life) take up equal space, which is not the case for most people. With 168 hours a week, if you sleep 8 per night (56 per week) that leaves 112 for other things. You’d need to be working 56 hours per week for work and the rest of life to be truly “balanced.” Most people — even those working full time — don’t come close. We work far less than we think we do. I like the “fit metaphor” from Cali Yost, because the exact proportions aren’t specified.
But anyway, I’ve been thinking of this topic lately in light of money. Namely, can money buy you a calmer blend of work and life? In what ways can money make being a working parent easier?
What I find most interesting about this is that it seems to follow a bit of an upside-down U-shaped curve in terms of the greatest stress about the topic. Here’s the reason: Money can buy you all sorts of things. But in pursuit of it, many people move away from extended family, who are often key to making things work without copious volumes of money.
We’ll picture a few different families in this post. First, let’s think about Jane. Jane is a single mom and has worked in a variety of low-paid jobs. She has two kids. This is a highly stressful situation. On the other hand, she lives in the same neighborhood she grew up in. She has an aunt who can watch her kids after school, and a cousin who lives with her from time to time — a somewhat taxing situation in its own right, but one that at least gives her a live-in sitter who makes sure the house doesn’t burn down while the kids are watching TV. The kids stay at their grandmother’s house on a regular basis too. So Jane makes it work. Most of the time. She doesn’t have paid sick days and she gets her pay docked when she’s late to work, which she’s certainly been when the school bus has been late, but since she doesn’t expect life to be easy, Jane has never uttered the phrase “work-life balance.” Indeed, if you ask her what she’d do with extra time, she says she’d get another job.
Then we have Kim and Bob. Kim is a school secretary and Bob works in construction. Bob works longer hours in the summer, but Kim has some time off then. Kim’s hours also closely track the school calendar. Let’s say they each work about 35 hours a week on average. When the kids were younger, they used a home daycare provider in their neighborhood three days per week. Bob’s mother watched the kids two days a week, and continues to pinch hit when necessary — like if a kid is sick. Or if Bob and Kim want to go out for the evening. They’re solidly middle class, and paying for day care ate up a big chunk of their income for a few years, but now that the kids are in school, they don’t have many expenses in this regard, and they have back-up to cover all kinds of emergencies (and fortunately, Bob’s mother is pretty sprightly).
Now let’s look at Stacey and Robert. He’s a lawyer and she’s an executive at a biotech company. They earn a bit above $200,000 between the two of them and have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. The challenge? His hours are unpredictable and she has to travel to her company’s other site in London multiple times per year. They moved to Boston for these jobs, but have no family around. They can’t do daycare because neither can be absolutely sure they can pick their kids up by 6, and if she’s out of the country and he’s at a client’s office somewhere else, everything gets out of whack. They have a full-time nanny — their second in two years because the first one quit due to too much unplanned overtime. They have some sitters they call in a pinch, and a cleaning service that comes once a week, but between all this (and high taxes in urban areas) they wind up living on a lot less money than their high combined salaries would suggest. Once, when Stacey missed her flight to London because Robert was out of town and the nanny called in sick last minute and she couldn’t get either of her other sitters to come (and stay overnight – the kicker) and then she took the kids to the park and got a phone call from the police because the cleaning service came but it was a new crew and she forgot to tell them she’d changed the code on the alarm (one of those “mental load” problems)… she broke down crying and started screaming to a friend about work-life balance and her lack thereof.
Then we have Christina and John. John is a professor at a small liberal arts college and Christina runs a successful investment fund. She took home $3 million last year. They have three children. Because she is a sensitive woman, she takes great pains not to indicate in any way, shape or form that she doesn’t think her husband’s job is as important as hers. So she’s decided to set their household help schedule based on her work, not his. They have three nannies, the most senior of whom acts as a household manager, coordinating the other two’s schedules, and that of the housekeeper who comes every afternoon to clean, do errands and cook dinner so it’s on the table at 7 pm, when Christina likes to eat with her children on the nights she’s home. At her fund, Christina is looked up to by younger women who ask how she does it. Christina also speaks at women’s leadership conferences about work-life balance a lot. But the talk is mostly about how she manages to leave the office by 6:30 three days a week which, if you think about it, needs to be viewed from the perspective that Christina runs the place. And she hasn’t emptied the dishwasher in six years.
Of all these families, Jane would, objectively, have the most reason to fret about work-life balance. She worries about a lot of things, but not that she’s working too much. Kim and Bob also don’t earn enough to afford a lot of help, but because of her regular hours and his extended family nearby, they do OK. The families you’ll hear talking about it? Christina talks about it from a sheer logistics perspective. She has built her home life team to the same exacting standards as her business. With both, she talks about the importance of hiring good people. But you’ll probably hear the most fretting out of Stacey and Robert. They earn enough to have very high expectations of how their life should be, but don’t earn enough to have it truly be seamless.
So I’d put it this way: money can, indeed, buy you a calmer life as a working parent. But for couples in certain lines of work — especially if one or both parties has to travel a lot and has irregular hours — it takes a lot of money to approximate the extended family or tight social networks that people often lose when they move in pursuit of highly paid jobs. That apex of the work-life-stress curve is where you hear a lot of howling, annoying as it often is to hear this from people who appear to be doing quite well for themselves.