Are we asking the right questions about "work-life balance"?

My dark horse favorite subject in business school was cost accounting. Now, as someone who loves strategy but not details, I was expecting to slog numbly through all my required accounting classes. But cost accounting was a whole new world for me. In cost accounting, we figure out how to categorize and break things down so we can find out what the true costs of production are. Think about a factory that makes 50 different kinds of widgets on 12 different machines with 20 employees. How do you figure out how much it costs you to make Widget #27 from start to finish, including cost of materials, cost of time on the machine(s) and depreciation of the machine(s), cost of labor (taking into account that different employees may be paid different rates), costs of building maintenance and utilities, and costs of non-manufacturing employees?

Basically, cost accounting asks you to take apart all the different elements of your business and figure out how they go together properly to determine how much it truly costs you to make the products you sell. If you calculate incorrectly, you can put yourself out of business by charging too little for your product and not covering costs. Cost accountants call that the “death spiral.”

I think this is what’s happening with all the angst about “the opt-out revolution” and all the other work-life issues people (yes, not just women) are dealing with: We’re not looking at how to categorize them correctly and we’re missing the true costs/questions. Instead of realizing that there’s a scale, and opt-out is the same as didn’t-go-back-after-maternity-leave is the same as got-laid-off-during-maternity-leave is the same as took three months maternity leave is the same as went-back-after-two-weeks-to-pay-the-rent, we’re seeing this as personal choice that some women have and some don’t (which always contains layers of privilege and moral judgment). And we’re seeing those decisions as the problems themselves, not as attempts at solutions to the two true questions: 1) How do we ensure that our children are given loving, supportive care from birth? 2) How can people do work that has value for them?

(If you’re getting a little bit stuck on my idea of work having value in relation to/as separate from childcare, read my piece “Free but not cheap” to see how I break down the idea of jobs vs. the relationship of parenting. Then come back here.)

Every mother, every woman, every person, whether they’re conscious of it or not at any given moment, is questioning whether what they’re spending their time doing has value to them. Every parent is concerned with who their child is with at this exact moment and whether their child is being taken care of appropriately. Any combination of work--for pay, not for pay, at home, in a separate location, full-time, part-time, and others in systems I’m not aware of--is just an attempt to come up with the best answers to both of those key questions with the resources and mobility each person has at that point in time. The best answer is different for people with different situations, resources, and desires, as it is different for the same people over time as situations, resources, and desires shift.

So it’s a mistake to forget, as we’re making our own choices (however limited they may be) that there are always people who have different sets of circumstances that inform the also-limited choices they make. If the limits on our choices are awareness or education, we need to work together to lift those limits. (Examples of that include calling out privilege, racism, and sexism in the workplace for those in power who don’t see it, working for better policies that include men as equal parents with equal responsibilities, revisioning work hours and locations, and voting for those who will change public policy to answer questions instead of penalize people.) If the limits on our choices are things about ourselves that we can change, then changing those things makes a lot of sense. But we need to be aware that it is to everyone’s benefit for all of us to be able to maximize our choices in ways that help others. Even if some of us do things others of us don’t see value in. (Seasonally-appropriate candy bowl, I’m looking at you.)

In addition, we need to be aware of things such as bad relationships that restrict and mutate our choices so that we can understand what needs to be changed and not spend time banging our heads against things that aren’t the actual problem. And so that we can understand the choices others make and allocate our anger and activism at the correct targets. Otherwise, we're blaming instead of analyzing and trying to do better institutionally and personally.

We’re currently in a death spiral of analysis of work-life balance. Can we pull out of it?



Reminder: The Flourish Through Divorce online workshop starts Thursday, so register now.