My friend John was a latchkey kid – the only one I knew. In the 1950s of our boyhood, it was pretty much the rule for a parent – almost always the mother – to be at home when school let out. But John’s mother and father both worked.
I don’t recall John or his sister or brother ever complaining about their situation. And if it caused them harm, it was not apparent. The neighborhood was a tight-knit force for order; to some extent, John and I and the other kids in the neighborhood were under the watchful and caring eye of the mothers who were at home.
Over the next few decades, one-earner households and nurturing neighborhoods faded into history. Women began to work outside the home. Not just any kind of job to make a few bucks either. Little by little, they found their way into professional and business roles that traditionally had been held by men.
And now, the best place in town to enjoy a solitary walk is a residential subdivision in daytime; except for some Hispanic men pushing lawnmowers and leaf blowers, they’re as lifeless as Fukushima. The houses are empty, the inhabitants are gone. Mom and dad are both at work, the children are at day care or after-school programs.
Judging from what I see and hear in the media, I’d say that there is a good deal of dissatisfaction with this way of living and earning; hours are too long, the high level of stress is pernicious, and so-called work-life balance is elusive.
On its face, the phrase “work-life balance” implies that work is not life. What is it then? Surely not death. But perhaps not far from it in the eyes of those who are most vocal about lack of balance. More to the point, it’s about how work can require too much time and energy and leave too little time and energy for non-work activities. The pain of this is increased if the job is unsatisfactory to begin with. In that situation, “work” is something that drives people to buy lottery tickets and yearn for deliverance, and “life” seems preferable, even if the kids are brats and mom and dad have no hobbies.
I doubt John’s parents thought much about work-life balance. (Even if they had, they would not have used that phrase; it didn’t come into being until the 1980s.) I suspect that they felt no choice about the way they had to deal with their economic lot. As it was, even with mom and dad both working, the family of five lived in three rented rooms. They had to work, and the kids had to deal with it. So far as I could tell, they all simply accepted it.
Not infrequently, work-life imbalance is a complaint about the inordinate number of hours required to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as surgeons or bankers or in some similar occupation. In the print medium, feature stories on the problem keep close company with ads for Manolo Blahnik shoes and Rolex watches and adventure travel.
I have little sympathy for these people. It’s a self-inflected problem. If mom and dad – one or both – have high-powered work that eats distressingly into time for child rearing and leisure activities, that’s easily remedied. They chose to have work that they find excessively demanding; they can choose not to have such work and adapt to life without a Range Rover and first-class plane tickets.
Even middle-class families with two earners have choice. Not as much as the very well off, but some. It’s not unusual for child care, a second car, work clothes, and too-tired-to cook take-out food to cost about as much as many jobs pay. Mom or dad – either one – can choose instead to be a committed, industrious homemaker, a role that can be fulfilling and offer significant financial benefit (that happens to be tax free). That’s what my mother did.
My dad chafed at work-life imbalance as strongly as a stressed-out Wall Street lawyer, but with a twist. He had too little work, too much life. He was often between jobs or on strike or rained out.
My mother made sure his meager, intermittent earnings were enough to keep us going. That was her job. She lived according to an old-school, make-do-and-mend ethos. She enforced a budget, kept impulse spending at bay, sewed and knitted our clothes, shopped carefully for reduced-price sales, and was always clear about what we could not afford. She saw to it that lay-away plans and other thrift measures were a fixed feature of our lives. (When I was in college, she redeemed some S&H Green Stamps to obtain a gift for me – a dictionary.) And she never complained.
But let me be clear. John’s family and mine got by just fine. He was never in serious want, nor was I. We both graduated from college and found our way to a level of prosperity that was far more comfortable than what we grew up with. So did our siblings.
A number of our schoolmates never enjoyed a single day as free of care as all of mine and John’s were. Two examples.
Charles lived in a peeling-paint, broken-down house that had more occupants than it could readily accommodate. It was never clear to me how they were all related. I think it was what’s called today a blended family. One or two worn-out men in work clothes were always asleep on couches. When Charles’ mother was not at her waitress job, she was at the sink washing dishes and looking like a Dorothea Lange portrait. Fatigue and despondency hung in the air along with clouds of cigarette smoke. Nobody talked much.
Mary Ann wore shoes to school only on the coldest days. Until I got to high school, I did that too – so did other boys – but just for the fun of it. Mary Ann was the only girl to go barefoot, and she didn’t do it for fun.
The Dickensian way of Mary Ann and Charles is still all too common.
To my way of thinking, the usual work-life imbalance complaint gets more attention than it deserves; the plight of the poor, too little.