Just over three years ago I quit my job as a teacher.
Work-Life Balance as a teacher is incredibly difficult to achieve, and I certainly never cracked it. I found that 14 hour days were, and I imagine still are, the norm; the famed holidays are essential otherwise I assume teachers would just… die.
Budget cuts and inflexible employers, combined with our particular family circumstances, meant that early in 2016 my twelve year long career was unceremoniously wrapped in a tissue and flushed down the maternal brain drain.
I was gutted.
But I was also gifted a reluctantly-accepted opportunity to reassess my life.
A few months after I finished teaching I wrote a list for Clemmie Telford called Life as a Stuck-At-Home-Mum.
Staying at home with the children was never part of the plan and I struggled with a toxic cocktail of emotions. I felt like I had failed the children I had left behind, abandoned my colleagues at the chalkface, and I suffered a profound loss of identity: for my whole working life I had been a teacher – who was I now?
I wasn’t happy, a state not improved by the day-to-day grind of life at home with two children then aged just 1 and 3. My resentment was magnified when I realised that giving up Work meant that the balance with Life got no better, and in some respects actually got worse.
I was conscious that the option to give up Work was a privilege some would love to have, but it was choice made from necessity not desire so I couldn’t pretend that I was not also frustrated and unfulfilled.
In an expression of these feelings, I outlined a typical day during which I would:
attempt to shower
unload the dishwasher
load the washing machine
dress the children
make a cup of tea
attempt to eat breakfast
donate it to a child
brush their teeth
wipe hands, faces, bums
sweep the floor
wipe the table
load the dishwasher
find the cold cup of tea
brush their hair
brush my teeth, fail to brush my hair
wrestle their shoes, coats and hats on
drop the older child at nursery
go to the park
help the small child to climb stuff
repeat “Yes, it’s a bin lorry/ dog/ cat/ leaf/ tree/ table/ chair …
make another cup of tea
wipe hands, faces, tables, floors
wrestle resistant limbs into a sleeping bag
bribe him into his cot
pretend he is asleep
find another cold cup of tea
phone a utility company and sit on hold
make a fresh cup of tea
d r i n k t h e t e aaaaaaaa
hang out the laundry
put on another load
pay a bill
retrieve him from his cot
play… a bit
put on coats, shoes, hats
collect the other child
cook the tea
tidy the kitchen
wipe faces, hands, tables, floors
load the dishwasher
run the bath
herd and undress the children
put them in the bath
unload the washing machine
hang out the washing
wash the children
dry the floor
take to bed
return the children
tuck them in
turn out the light
tidy away the toys
sit down to eat
tidy the kitchen
load and start the dishwasher
And when he asks, “What have you done today?” reply, “Nothing really.”
If you are parents you will probably be familiar with the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts nature of looking after small children. You might also know that when you become a full-time carer it becomes clear that while most people accept it is hard, very few will see it as Work.
It turns out that I was one of them.
In my head I wasn’t doing anything. Or at least, nothing I was doing had any value, and I wanted to get back to Work – proper Work, paid Work.
My cultural conditioning insisted that real Work is accompanied by a pay check. The many hours of unpaid labour that take place in the home – the Domestic Burden – do not count.
To add insult to injury, organising our lives into a tussle between just two opposing forces of Work and Life means that if the Domestic Burden is not Work, it therefore must be Life.
But is this true? Is this what was meant in the 1970s when the phrase Work-Life Balance first appeared in common usage? Are we really being encouraged today to strive for balance between paid work and unpaid labour?
Of course not.
It is essential to our humanity to maintain space between the mundane daily tasks that are part of life-with-a-small-l that keep us alive, and the Life-with-a-big-L pursuits that make us feel alive.
But the Work of wiping noses, bums and floors disguises itself as Life and this posed me with a problem. I wasn’t Working so why wasn’t I happy to be Living? I dripped bitter tears while condemning my selfish sense of entitlement – how could I want more when I apparently already had so much?
But perhaps the problem was never me. The deficiency was not in my character – it was an error in the equation of Work-Life Balance.
Work-Life Balance has long been seen as the route to emotional, mental and physical well-being, but in fact it has never been possible to divide life into two neat halves. Although starved of attention, there has always been a third appetite equally hungry for our time, but if you can’t see it, how can you value it?
Lifting Unpaid Labour out of my peripheral vision and into plain sight attributed it with the importance it had always deserved. Rather than lurking in the underbelly of my life and mind, the Domestic Load now co-exists, fully acknowledged, alongside the importance of Paid Employment.
And importantly, never again will I confuse taking care of their lives for living my own.
In the last two and a half years, since writing that list for Clemmie, I have retrained and reentered the world of Paid Work as a freelance social media specialist for small businesses. I also write. I work mostly from home around 18 hours a week, spread over three short school days when my youngest is in childcare. The children, now aged 4 and 6, remain the focus of my time.
Sometimes I wonder if the peace I have reached with this life is actually a quiet submission to my own oppression. There are other times when it’s not easy to stand firm against a tide that pushes us to want everything NOW.
There are always times I feel frustrated by my boundaries, and there have been occasions I have pushed at my limits, and taken on too much. I am ambitious. I have dreams and drive and when opportunities come along it is sometimes difficult to resist indulging them.
But I try to no longer see my Life as a daily battle between those two opposing forces. Now I see how Life is in a constant state of flux and flow – we contract here, to expand there; as one appetite shrinks, it makes space for another to grow.
The turmoil of this push-pull has been soothed by the words of others who feel the same. Michelle Obama in her memoir, Becoming, said:
‘My work was interesting and rewarding, but still I had to be careful not to let it consume me. I felt I owed that to my girls. Our decision to let Barack’s career proceed as it had – to give him the freedom to pursue and shape his dreams – led me to tamper down my own efforts at work. Almost deliberately, I’d numbed myself somewhat to my ambition, stepping back in moments when I’d normally step forward. I’m not sure anyone around me would have said I wasn’t doing enough, but I was always aware of everything I could have followed through on and didn’t.’
This is clearly where the similarities end (!) but as her words washed over me they fortified my resolve. I enjoy my work and I feel excited about where it might take me, but now is not my time.
Because someone has to look after the children.
‘Work-Life Balance’ turns out to be just another empty buzz phrase in our soundbite culture that fails to acknowledge the reality of how we live.
‘Work-Life Balance’ is not possible with our current definitions of what constitutes Work, and the singular point of Balance that it suggest we should strive for and maintain does not exist.
Balancing our Work and our Life – achieving Work-Life Happiness – however is something much more fluid.
If we are lucky it might happen in one week, but then not the next. It hopefully happens over the course of a few months, but most likely takes several years. As long as we are mindful, Work-Life Happiness can definitely take place over a lifetime.
With that in mind I’d like to end with these words from a Twitter poet, Emily-Jane Clark, shared a few weeks ago by Sarah Turner, The Unmumsymum:
I don’t want to have it all
I want to have it
In bite size chunks
So I don’t choke.
Stop telling us
We should have it all,
Do it all
Be it all
It’s not possible
And we’re too tired
So fuck off.
*It was a privilege to be asked to speak at Lists Live for Clemmie Telford x EtsyUK @etsyuk and I would also like to acknowledge the awesomeness of the other speakers that night:
Margo McDaid @margoinmargate
Medina Grillo @grillodesigns
Zoe Blaskey @motherkind_zoe
And of course, Clemmie Telford @clemmie_telford
Portrait photos by @samnapper_