Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thoughts on work/life balance, "ambition," SAHMhood, and family-focused policy

At the recent BYU Women in Business Conference I attended (and helped plan), we had a lively presentation and discussion on work/life balance issues. This was a unique gathering, because these issues were discussed in context of doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Our motivation (as a advisory committee) for tackling this topic was centered in a comment given in a General Conference talk by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: 
I would hope that Latter-day Saints would be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents.
Chrysula Winegar was one of the presenters that evening. She is a work/life balance coach and advocate, as well as a passionate advocate for mothers the world over. 

In a recent post on her blog, she asks a question of one of her commenters, and I had thoughts that ended up being too long for a comment. So I'm posting them here. 

Chrysula asks: "Have you found you are actually able to enjoy this season [of motherhood, out of the workforce]? Or is the weight of knowing how hard it will be to "recover" professionally niggling in the background? I'd be curious, if you're comfortable, in learning more..."

Can I answer this question? I may be an anomaly on this, but this isn't something that bothers me. It never has. Maybe it's because I've been deliberate about keeping my toe in the professional puddle over the years (even while not being paid for my activities for over a decade); maybe it's because we aren't in dire straits needing money (which I realize is something that could change, and something I shouldn't take for granted and something that is itself an anomaly); maybe it's because I'm oblivious to how hard it really could be to re-enter, but I just don't feel it. 

If anything, in fact, the older I get, the less desire I have to re-enter the workforce per se. I feel the tug of my family roles to be stronger than ever (it only seems to get stronger as my kids get older -- I feel the need to be more focused, more deliberate in these roles than ever before). I also feel any other use of my skills is supposed to be outside of the workforce. 

BUT, that's not to say that I don't care about this issue in general, though, because I know that we have a lot of women who need to work and need to not feel decimated because they choose to stay home. We need more policy that allow a husband and wife options to work together in ways that work for their family. But I think some of what needs to happen is more valuing, in general in our culture, of a variety of contributions that people make outside of the realm of work, not only by corporations, but by individuals. [Chrysula gets to some of this in her post. I don't think she would disagree with me.]

But back to my point about what our culture often values. Consider, for example, the kind of voices that work against change toward more valuing of more than just work. This is a recent and much-discussed comment by Sheryl Sandberg: "I think the achievement gap is caused by a lot of things. It’s caused by institutional barriers and all kinds of stuff. But there’s also a really big ambition gap. If you survey men and women in college today in this country, the men are more ambitious than the women. And until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men ...I really think we need more women to lean into their careers and to be really dedicated to staying in the work force." 

Even while women have been at the forefront of pressing for more flex-time, etc., I also think it's often women who are also at the forefront of actually encouraging the embedding of hierarchical-corporate-ladder, kill-yourself-to-earn-your-place models...while, again, placing little to no value on the daily work of parents in their homes, of people in their communities and churches [things Chrysula lists in her post].

And so, the pressure on corporations continues to often maintain this "ambition" model to be "progressive" and "PC" and they continue to just try to more "equally" fill the rungs of the ladder. Because in reality, that is how many people measure the success of such efforts such as "equality." Or personal success. 

And it's the women who are often the ones most quickly accusing women like me of doing women and the quest for equality damage by not working. (Either that or claiming that we aren't truly being partners to our husbands if we don't have an income. Again, the measure of worth, of contribution, of value, of success, is often only measured by for-pay work, rather than seen in a larger context, valuing contributions that people can make -- especially in their families -- that are essential to the well-being of society. As a side note, here's some food for thought: One woman's response to such sentiments.) 

I'm grateful for the people who are willing to take the risks necessary to communicate to corporations (by challenging the ladder model, if not getting off the ladder altogether) that they want something different, a different mindset for work. They want work as a means, not an end, as a part of their life, not their entire world. As Chrysula notes, they work to define their world according to their values, whenever possible. They want not only the ladder leaning against a different wall, but to get rid of the ladder altogether and think about corporate culture, structure, rewards -- the whole kit and kaboodle - in a different way...in a way that wants to be part of a healthier overall culture that facilitates family life, not competes against it.  

(On a more personal, religious p.s.: While I'm a fan of talking about facilitating family-friendly policy, sometimes I worry that the discussion will miss the family part, the second part of Elder Cook's invitation. I'm reminded of the Proclamation to the World on the Family, which invites "responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society." The niggling fear I do have lingering in the background is that some will process work/family policy as existing primarily to facilitate adult lives and dreams and goals, rather than to support the doctrine of the family, which still keeps the bearing and rearing of children at the pinnacle of personal responsibility and, for lack of a better word, "success" (for those who have this opportunity, of course). This is some of what I mean by seeing work not as an end, but as a means to an end.)


  1. A fine line to walk (for men or women) is remaining ambitious and dedicated to a career or corporate employer (dedicated workers benefit any economy) while still keeping the main focus on family. This is especially difficult in a culture where the family is being devalued on a daily basis.

    Work should be a means to an end, but with the family getting short shrift these days, I'm concerned about what the trend in "ends" is. For many, I think the "end" they are seeking is personal and/or material rather than familial. And you're right. That IS a worry.

  2. Sue, thanks for your comments. Any thoughts on how we help stem the tide? How do we support families while also making it possible for people to work more easily where needed?

    I think part of it is to do our part to try to talk less about men vs. women and more about policies that are about families and systems and people. Because, in reality, the needs for flexibility aren't only about married people with kids. One of the things that Chrysula brought to the forefront for me was how elder care is another huge issue driving the need for more family-friendly policy.

    Another person recently pointed out that people with their own health issues (something also often tied to a population that is living longer) often struggle when they need to step back from work to get treatments and heal.

    And something that was discussed by the other presenter at our conference (Jeff Hill) was how flexible, "family-friendly" policies tend to put those who don't currently need them at ease. It helps the culture in general to know that there is mercy, that there are options, that the company cares about more than just "the almighty dollar at all costs."