The Myth of Balance

Jan 12, 2006 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

The myth of "balance" is one of our culture's most pervasive and destructive myths. And Perpetua did not fall for it.

Y yo no olvido con cuanto afán, mi buen vieja trabajaba
Que día y noche se enfajaba, para conseguir el pan
'Las cosas buenas no están,' decía, 'pero no me rindo'
Y yo tampoco prescindo, de los días de mi infancia
Aunque perdió su elegancia, la loma del tamarindo

There used to be website called "Boomer Death Watch," that, as the name implies, kept track of deaths among prominent Baby Boomers such as the "Chicago 8" and other Sixties notables. The animus — it's not only fair to call it that, it's the only thing you can call it — wasn't limited to counter-culture icons. As the site's motto went "Because one day they'll all be dead." Yikes! Not just the bad ones; not just those whose "vision" shaped North American culture for the worst but even innocent bystanders like me. (Yes, I'm close to the same age as your parents; no, I don't know why they're so lame.)

I can understand some of the frustration with, and anger at, my self-important and self-indulgent generation. When I see the ads for Ameriprise Financial — you know, the one that mixes pictures of hippies and anti-war marchers with picture of moms and dads with their kids, all accompanied by the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme, Gimme Some Lovin'" — that talk about the challenge of doing financial planning for a generation as "unique" as mine, I want to puke.

I said understand, not empathize. I'd be empathetic if the people complaining about Boomer hegemony did something besides complain that Boomers get all the attention. For instance, if they seemed to have learned from my cohorts' mistakes and excesses.

Case in point: the "balance" between work and family. A recent Associated Press story, entitled "Generation X and Y Suffer Boomer Angst," began by telling readers about a 27-year-old Chicagoan "loudly proclaiming that people in her generation need to work less than their baby-boomer parents have." She told AP that "no one," by which she presumably meant people her age, "is happy.... Everyone is overworked, overstressed. No one's spending the kind of time that they want with their kids or their spouses or partners."

It's a valid and all-too-common complaint. If, as the piece maintains, members of her cohort are realizing that "having it all" is a "myth," then they have learned something my generation never really did, but I have my doubts: When the young Chicagoan tries to explain the reasons for her and her friends' unhappiness, she tells AP that "I think part of that can be attributed to the boomers...." How this might be the case is never made clear. Bad examples? The pressure to match the Boomer's accomplishments?

Others quoted in the piece seem unhappy because Boomers aren't retiring or dying fast enough to let them have "their pieces of the pie" in business, government or even music. Control is important for these folks because they envision themselves as creating "a new workplace that embraces both flexible hours and new technology — improving efficiency and giving workers more time for life off the job."

As someone who benefits from flexible work arrangements, I'm all for these arrangements becoming more common and even normative where possible. At the same time, let me point out two things: first, this idea of a "new workplace" isn't exactly new. The people who gave me the chance to work at home are even older than I am, if such a thing is possible.

Second, anyone who thinks that all, or even most, of what stands between them and "spending the kind of time that they want with their kids or their spouses or partners" is a "new kind of workplace" with a different cohort in charge has fallen for one of our culture's most pervasive and destructive myths: the myth of "balance."

Since calling "balance" a myth — not to mention consistently surrounding it with scare quotes — amounts to fighting words in contemporary American life, let's be clear about what I'm not calling a myth: the conflicts and stresses that arise from the inescapable demands associated with earning what my family calls el pan nuestro de cada dia (our daily bread).

It's likely that if you're reading Boundless you're not caught between the often-conflicting demands of putting bread on the table and being a good parent. Instead, for us, "balance" refers to the attempt to find a happy medium between two sources of personal fulfillment: career and "kids, spouses or partners." It's the attempt to maximize the satisfaction we derive from our jobs — or the things that our jobs enable us to buy — without feeling too guilty about the price our loved ones pay for this satisfaction.

Helping their employees minimize this guilt is the goal of many — no, make that most — of the "family-friendly" (big-time scare quotes) corporate policies we read and hear about: paid parental leave, onsite day care, flexible hours, and — my favorite — "lactation support" programs for new mothers. As David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, among others, has pointed out, the goal of many of these programs is to keep "workers on the job and productive so that family obligations don't interfere with work." Enlightened self-interest tells these employers that the alternative to these policies is losing valuable employees. That's why Blankenhorn calls them "employer-friendly" instead of "family-friendly."

What's more, this "friendliness" often comes at a price: People who take full advantage of flexible work hours or other accommodations will probably find themselves squarely on what's been called the "mommy track," or, in the case of men, permanent cubicle-dweller status. They will be passed over for promotions or at least be promoted less frequently than other, less high-maintenance, employees. The perception will be that the latter are more committed to the company than the former.

I know that this take on corporate motives makes me sound like a character from Syriana, but I don't expect our employers, especially publicly-traded companies, whose first duty is to their shareholders, to make our loved ones' well-being their priority: I expect us to make it ours. I expect us to understand what priority, from the Latin prioritas, meaning "first," means.

By definition, only one thing can take precedence over everything else, which is why "balance" is a myth. Eventually, the demands of work will yield to those of family or vice-versa. In the latter case, the yielding will be a more common occurrence than we care to admit to ourselves: a series of business trips, late-night meetings and missed recitals and Little League games whose totality will leave little doubt — least of all to our kids — which was our priority.

The alternative is as easy to see as it is difficult to live: It's embodied by one of my best friends. He's the kind of employee that any sensible employer would covet: way beyond competent, utterly dependable. And a great team leader. For him, professional accomplishments and satisfaction take a back seat to being able to coach his sons' Little League teams. The pleasure he gets from work pales in comparison from what he feels when his only left-handed son (booyah!) strikes out the side. It's not that he isn't aware of the trade-offs he's making or that his abilities are in demand: It's that he knows what's most important.

I know how he feels. When I face God, I will have many sins and failings to account for, but one of them won't be that I didn't capisce what mattered most: the greatest Christmas gift (Dec. 25, 1991) any man could hope for, my son David.

That brings me to the Spanish words at the top of the piece. They're from a song, "La Loma de Tamarindo," (Tamarind Hill) about the migration from the Puerto Rican countryside to the factories of New York and Chicago after World War II. Like many such songs, regardless of culture, it's a song of about loss. For me, it's also a song about one particular migrant: a woman who only made it to this country because her cousin won a local lottery and was able to give her the necessary airfare. I can only guess that life, in our sense of personal fulfillment, didn't turn out as she had hoped because she never talked about it; she was too busy making sure life would be better for her children. Before dying from ovarian cancer, Perpetua Carlo de Rivera lived long enough to know that her countless sacrifices weren't in vain.

After all she did for me, the least I owe her is to know where my priority lies: her grandson who shares the greatest of all possible birthdays.

Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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