“Balance is something only rich people can afford,” is a phrase I’ve been known to utter on occasion.
It was a reaction to what I perceived as a burdensome imperative from the Wellness lexicon that made no sense to me at all. I couldn’t be happy, it droned on repeat, unless I strove for, and until I found “a work-life balance.”
I’d been self-employed forever and had added 2 kids to the mix. My partner and I both worked from home, so the progeny had no sense of us “going” to work. In their minds, we were always available to them.
And since it was the 21st century, that’s how our customers felt about it, too. The ‘always-on’ culture that came with email and messaging had already trained us to never really be “off work.”
The kids & the dogs all starred in our how-to videos on YouTube. They “helped” manufacture, box, and ship hoops. During Christmas time’s 15-hour workdays for weeks, we told them we worked for Santa – and by god, Santa needed hoops.
For stretches at a time, if we weren’t hustling, we weren’t getting by. I was worried about balancing my checking account, NOT my work-to-life-ratio.
The ‘work-life balance’ story is a story. It is one told by those who have traditionally told our stories – those who define it, have access to, and benefit from it.
As such, the ‘history’ of the conversation surrounding ‘work-life balance’ excludes the voices and experiences of slave, indentured, domestic, undocumented, and migrant labor – at least:
A brief ‘history’ of work-life balance
Industrial Revolution Paid workers now have to show up at a specific location that is not home for a set amount of time. They begin to distinguish between work and life spatially and temporally.
With 70-100 hour average work weeks, we see the rise of fair labor acts and unions. The goal becomes to ‘minimize work,’ and ‘maximize life.
1920s The 8-hour workday becomes standard for the average white, male worker.
1970s The word ‘balance’ reaches peak use in the US as more women enter the workforce with little to no relief from their ‘duties’ at home.
1980s The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is introduced in the UK during the Women’s Liberation Movement as a political bid for flexible schedules and maternity leave.
1990s Now Widespread email use and messaging encourage an ‘always on’ culture, indelibly blurring the lines between work & home.
In 2022, with remote work on the rise, the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is at peak use (spoken and written with the highest recorded frequency) with no signs of slowing.
Work-Life Balance implies a binary that feels outdated at best. At worst, it rings as an imaginary – and too often, harmful – goalpost.
It is a story that (dis)places the responsibility of ‘not working too much’ or ‘not working enough’ onto the worker’s shoulders, rather than the expectations of employers, our culture, and predatory economic systems.
By the time my family had achieved the kind of ease required to worry about balance, we’d already been forced to figure out what worked for us without it.
BALANCE – equilibrium between two separate parts
(13c. from Late Latin, bilanx, ‘two pans/scales.’)
Because, in the etymology and origin of “balance” above, it’s the word separate that throws me. As an American, I was raised to believe that my value as a human was always tied to my work. And as a girl-child of the 80s, I was also taught that I could ‘have it all.’
What’s separate about any of that? I’ve never personally been able to think about one or the other in a vacuum. Our work pays for our lives. And we plan our lives around our work.
Perhaps by work-life balance, we mean something closer to symbiosis. Let’s call it a mutually beneficial relationship between the things-I-do-for-others-for-money and the things-I-do-for-me-for-fun. Where mutually beneficial is the operative phrase.
That’s the word, nerd.