Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

9 thoughts on “Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

  1. Pingback: Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers” | Laura's "Rules"

  2. Cooking, reading, and dancing. Got two out of the three down!

    Thanks for the NYtimes and Orion articles. I especially like the observation that “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.” Is it possible that busyness is a mechanism to keeps us from realizing how meaningless 21st century modern life is? That’s an unsettling assertion.

    • I loved that sentence as well. It certainly seems possible! With digital media, in particular, it’s possible to stay very busy (as the number of tasks has multiplied) and, perhaps, accomplish little. Now you just have to aim for number 3, whatever that one is! Thanks so much for your comment. Laura

  3. Hi – I’ve been enjoying all of your posts since I joined recently. Our family loves to dance (well, 3 out of 4 of us). We have dance parties after dinner, where we put on some good music and go for it. Also, my husband and I took a weekly salsa class at the local community college (we actually had a regular date night for 6 weeks in a row, which was so nice!), and now we do go out (salsa) dancing occasionally, as a couple. I do think I would have enjoyed the old dance/supper clubs of old…

  4. I really enjoyed the article Laura. Thanks for posting. One thing that I always find missing in the debate about the work life balance, specially the art that focus on motherhood is that no one that has any interest in being there while their children grow can possibly manage those 24/7 jobs. Male or female. There is no balance possible there. How can you be a parent if you only maybe see the kids over the weekend? We have to work less in order to create m

    • Agreed! We need a recognition of the right to parent. And far better structural supports from families, and more understanding from employers about balancing family and work. How terrific to hear from you Amal!

  5. Fantastic piece! My favorite way to slow down and connect with life is a morning walk with the kids. We talk, find bugs, meet neighbors. We usually take about 30-45 minutes, and it starts our day off really well.

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