I won’t be answering any more questions about my work-life balance

Women get scant enough airtime as it is – they shouldn’t have to use it talking about managing family and career obligations, says Sherry Pagoto

August 18, 2018
Television camera

“Where is your daughter?” This is a question that I get a lot when I’m travelling professionally and happen to share an anecdote about my 10-year-old daughter. I don’t wear a wedding ring, so my unmarried status is silently revealed to all without my consent. In a world of people who pair off for eternity, I am required to provide an explanation. I always wonder what the questioner is guessing – that I have locked her in a closet until my return? 

But also, I wonder why someone who I barely know is interested in my childcare arrangements and feels emboldened enough to enquire? Nevertheless, it catches me off guard so I just say: “With her father.” How do widows feel when they are asked this question? Like they have received a punch to the gut, I’m guessing.

Society generally has poor boundaries when it comes to women. How we live our lives, the size of our bodies and, of course, those pregnant bellies all demand enquiry. What will you be doing about work after the baby comes? Everyone wants to know if we are proceeding according to expectations. If something seems awry, a clarification is in order. 

To launch her new book, novelist and short-story writer Lauren Groff gave an interview to the Harvard Gazette. The interview starts with typical interview fare, but then pivots to Groff’s personal life. “You are a mother of two. In 10 years, you have produced three novels and two short-story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?”, the interviewer asked. 

So many numbers there, you can almost hear the mental maths not adding up. Groff declined to answer on the grounds that men are never asked this question. And she’s right, they aren’t. To this day, nobody is dying to know how Ernest Hemingway managed his life’s work, traversing continents while sipping cocktails and watching bullfights, as a father of three. Steve Jobs’ rejected daughter is a sidebar in tales of his genius. Men’s work, not their parenting habits, is the focus of our fascination.

Women should routinely reject work-life balance questions in professional forums not only because men are never asked them, but because it is an attempt to re-domesticate us, to hold us accountable for our deviation from tradition. If we aren’t scrubbing the floors and baking cookies, then who is?

The world is dying to hear: are you paying someone? If so, they assume that you are dripping with privilege. Is your husband doing it? If so, you emasculated him. Are you doing it all yourself? If so, you are exhausted and probably failing at everything. In all cases, you are missing out on the full motherhood experience. Poor thing. The “How do you do it all?” question is a trap.  

Taking the time to answer it during a professional appearance also robs us of the little airtime that we get to discuss our work. Women, especially women of colour, are under-represented in keynotes, panels, editorial sections and nearly every venue in which our voices can be heard. We can’t afford to give up any of this precious airtime.  

Even worse, incessantly posing this question to women implies work-life balance is a mysterious impossible-to-crack formula, tantamount to curing cancer. If a woman shares the golden answer, the rest of us can be saved. But that’s the thing, saved from what?  

In a CNN op-ed piece, Alexandra King laments Groff’s refusal, “For many women like me, who are not yet mothers, that question is one that I desperately want to have a better answer for.” 

Working mothers need to reflect on why the next generation is feeling so desperate. Are our lives that miserable? The fear that we are radiating to the next generation risks discouraging them from striving to become financially independent (or a mother, for that matter), which is the worst disservice we can do for each other. 

Desiring work-life balance advice is completely understandable given workplace policies for mothers are awful, but demanding that a woman interrupt her spotlight to quell anxieties that could be quelled by asking a mentor, friend or colleague is wildly inappropriate. 

A time and a place exists for us to help each other with practical advice and it is not during our book releases, keynotes or media spots. Let’s suspend our needs while our sisters enjoy their minute in the sun. 

Improving work-life balance will ultimately require widespread adoption of policies such as paid parental leave, equal pay, affordable childcare and flexible hours. Truly implementing these policies will require us to ascend the ranks within our respective sectors. If enough of us get there, we will reach the levers. For this to happen, we need to support, not interrupt, the women who are climbing those ranks. 

Sherry Pagoto is a professor of allied health sciences and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media at the University of Connecticut. 

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