Work-life balance is a concept that can vary for different people but, at its core, it is about an individual achieving what she or he perceives to be the ideal combination of time and effort spent on lifestyle interests (e.g., health, well-being, family, pleasure, hobbies) and professional pursuits (e.g., career, professional development, work hours, work expectations).
One thing no one ever comes right out and says about work-life balance is that the “life” portion of this equation means “children.” Yet it’s what far too many people assume.
Work-Life Balance When You’re Childfree
Having interviewed dozens of childfree men and women in the course of my scholarly research on the subject and spoken with thousands of others via social media, I know that one workplace challenge many – perhaps even most – childfree adults face is the perception that our time is less valuable than that of our parent colleagues. And while we all operate in a world where it takes just 24 hours for the earth to complete a rotation around its axis*, the idea that the childfree somehow have more time than everyone else just won’t die.
In my interview with Amanda, a media strategist in her mid 30’s, she reflected on how she has struggled with the perception that she had more time than the parents with whom she worked.
If I wanted to leave my work to take care of something personal, the people that were parents were like, “No.” They felt their stuff was more urgent. My dog having to go to the vet was not equal to their child being sick. I was getting more judgment on that.
Amanda went on to explain,
It was totally OK for the parents to leave at 5 o’clock sharp, but there was more of an expectation that I could stay late so I could help out with an event because I didn’t have kids. … I had to protect my personal time in a way that people with kids didn’t have to because they have this personal trump card; there’s a toddler that needs me or I’m breast feeding. No one questions that stuff, but if I’m like “I have a date,” that’s not as legitimate. … I’ve had employers ask me to cancel a vacation or come in when I’m sick or work from home if I was dealing with a family emergency when I don’t perceive that parents would be asked the same thing.
A teacher in his late 20’s, Matt has also had the experience of people assuming he has more time and that his time is less valuable than that of his parent colleagues. Matt said most of these assumptions reveal themselves in the course of casual conversations at work, particularly when a deadline is looming. As he put it,
A lot of people will say, and kind of make off-hand comments like, “Oh, so you’ve got the time to revise this before Friday!”
Matt says his colleagues do not make the same assumptions about parent employees and their available time.
As childfree people, when we do take the time to balance our lives with our work, we’re sometimes greeted with the raised eyebrows of our colleagues. My own experience using the benefits provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act for a sports injury suggests as much. When a concussion forced me to significantly reduce my work hours, the assumption that I’d quit the sport that caused the injury was common.
While my brain has recovered from the concussion and my ego from the sting of people pushing me to quit the sport that I loved as a result, I’m still struck by the discovery that people felt free to question the choice I’d made for how to spend the “life” portion of my own work-life balance equation.
We wouldn’t think to criticize a parent’s choice for opting to spend their time outside of work with their children. Why then should we criticize non-parents for spending their non-work time on other pursuits?
Life Means More Than Children
Even for parents, equating “life” with “children” to the exclusion of everything else is limiting. Multiple studies find that we all have roles that are not related to parenting that sometimes conflict with work (e.g., see here and here). These parts of our lives – which include activities like volunteer work and other public service, involvement in clubs and organizations, care for friends or parents, self care, and hobbies – must be balanced with work.
Everyone loses when work conflicts with people’s lives. Employees suffer, their friends and families suffer, and even employers suffer. One study found that workers who struggle with work-life balance are not only more susceptible to psychological strain, depression, and anxiety but also less committed to their organizations.
We would all be better off if we recognized the need for work-life balance for all and understood that “life” encompasses far more than children. This is true for parents and the childfree alike.
*OK, fine. Technically it’s 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.09 seconds.