July 19 2024

Work-Life Balance or Proportion: What’s In a Word?

by Maria Liu Wong, City Seminary of New York

Henri Matisse's "Tea in the Garden" (1919)

“Work-life balance” is a tenuous phrase. Is it possible to imagine that there can ever be real balance, or is it something we might think of instead as a “work-life proportion” in a particular season of time? A mother of three young children ages 2 years to 9 years, working full-time as an administrator and faculty in a seminary, and having spent the past three years of my life working on a dissertation on women and leadership in theological education, this notion of “work-life balance” has been on my mind A LOT. In a recent conversation with my pastor—a very busy man himself who spent a season of his life as primary caretaker for his sons while his wife was working the day shift—I was challenged me to think beyond the idea of “work-life balance,” but more in terms of proportions of time spent doing one thing versus the other.

But what if life is not so compartmentalized as that? What if you have to do two, three, or four things at the same time because of the nature of your work as a woman? Yes, there are societal expectations of men, and even in the playground these days, I see more fathers at home with their children because of flexible work situations or the state of the economy moving stay-at-home mothers back into the workforce. But women cannot escape generations of structural, societal, and cultural expectations that they have triple roles (communal, productive, and reproductive), not a single role to play.

In the past two and a half years, I have been collecting stories from women in Africa, Asia, and North America. Asking them to look back on their lives and their present personal and professional experiences, I have heard the same themes emerge: the cost of physical and mental health, the demands on time and energy, the expectations of giving and giving and giving, the need to have a space for rest, and the critical importance of community and peer support. So what collaborative wisdom do I have to share from these women who opened up their lives to me?

Stop. Be. Remember who you are in God’s eyes, whose you are—a daughter of Eve, Aslan’s beloved.

Stop. Allow yourself to say no, so that others can say yes. Surrender the control that is illusive, because there is a greater plan in place.

Stop. Rest. Take the necessary time to nurture “that other woman,” our personal self who is neglected because of pursuits to care for and serve the needs of others.

In a time and age where technology and communication have made it impossible to be unreachable unless one is simply offline, or self-disciplined enough not to reach for the smartphone to check email or messages several times an hour, there are not enough reminders in our lives to say “stop.”

I have been reminded through these stories and the ways God steps in when we cannot say “No” ourselves—most recently in the form of a very wise and experienced dissertation advisor saying, “I want you to have a good experience at your defense. Let’s push for June, instead of April” or in the missing of a deadline because of illness meaning one less paper to write—it is okay not to do everything. The world will not end.

No matter what country you may be from, the challenges are still the same for women who are single, married, parents, or grandparents. The expectation is that you will take of everything, even if you are in a demanding position of leadership at work or working on your dissertation on top of everything else. But the quality of time, the proportion of your time, the rhythm of carving out specific moments in the day for assigned tasks—even if you are craving multi-tasking, which I have learned is just switch-tasking and sometimes more time-consuming than just focusing on one task at a time—is important for a fruitful and well-nourished mind. And the rest at the end of the day is just as important.

So, stop. Be. Enjoy the preciousness of time as you gaze upon your loved one(s). Or have a sip of tea. Take that extra detour. These things shall pass. But there is a Joy and a Peace to hold onto, One whose you are, who will always be there.