Choosing Hurts: Balancing the Pull Toward Family and Work

We westerners live in a culture that is predicated on the belief that having more options gives us greater freedom, which leads to greater happiness. We’re talking more options for everything from what we eat to whom we marry. We face a multitude of choices for the big, daunting questions like, “What line of work should I pursue?” alongside the smaller, daily questions like, “What should I wear today?” (And then, “Which jeans should I wear?” And then, “When should I do laundry?” And then, “Advil or Tylenol?”)

There’s just one problem with this belief: it’s a false one. This is not news to those with an interest in psychology. Most of us have encountered some form of the research that says a greater number of options not only leads to a more stressful decision-making process but ultimately produces greater regret and dissatisfaction. It turns out, the human brain is remarkably well-equipped to make peace with inescapable circumstances; it has a much more difficult time making peace with choosing from a plethora of options. (Have you read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness?) But we continue to seek out more options for everything, because on some level, it just does not compute that we could possibly be happier with fewer choices.

One of the (many) areas in which this frustrating conundrum plays out is the choice between work and family. It is extremely difficult to balance career and home life; we all know this, whether we’re parents or not. Of course, the choice between focusing more on work or family affects men as well as women — and this is something that I do know from personal experience, as my father was the stay-at-home parent until I was 12. (These days, my parents both work full-time, but my mother works both at home and in the office, while my father is more able to leave his work at work and takes on the majority of the home-related responsibilities.) That said, here I’m going to focus more on the work-family choice as it affects women.

Now, let me say something loudly and clearly: The fact that women have the option to choose to focus on work or family (or balance the two) is a product of so many years of hard work by so many people, and I do not take that for granted. It is absolutely wonderful and a huge benefit to society at large, that both genders can make their mark on this world through their work. But equally important is that women (and men) nurture their families. This is not just because offspring comprise the next generation of happy workers; this is for the sake of the mental health and well-being of each and every one of us, however we may be spending our time.

Next, let me say something else, perhaps slightly less loudly but (hopefully) just as clearly: I think women are suffering because of this choice. It’s not that the choice itself is a bad thing, of course; it’s just that it is very challenging to cope with competing desires for how to spend the vast majority of one’s time and energy– and the guilt, self-imposed or otherwise, that naturally follows when one chooses EITHER option. After all, family and career constitute the bedrock of human existence. What we do with the rest of our time, if it exists, is reduced to the phrase, “hobbies and interests.” (You know, that last section of your resume that you can easily omit if you run out of room after tooting your own horn for a few paragraphs… or build up if you can’t think of enough “legitimate” things to say.) Because work and family are the two most significant aspects of our lives, it makes perfect sense that our decisions about either one of these things would involve some of the most anxiety-inducing thought processes we ever undertake. Now consider when these two categories interact—when we are trying to decide whether to focus on one or the other at a particular time in our lives, and when we feel pulled back to the other thing after spending some time trying to devote ourselves more solely to one. Consider the pressure of expectations, both from oneself and from others, in both of these categories, because that’s what breeds the internal anguish.

It is, of course, much more common that people balance work and family rather than choosing one or the other, and for good reason. Not only is it often financially necessitated, but we humans just don’t very much like to choose—we want to have both options in some form, if both options are on the table. For women in particular, the stress of trying our hand at this balance is acute, because for biological reasons, we are pulled so very strongly to the caretaker role. And now, we have a culture that says we can and should also want to be out in the world, getting it done in the workplace, too.

For many women, these desires are equally strong, and both come from a very deep, essential place, so they move forward and try to do both. For many other women, one desire is stronger than the other, but they know they should want that other thing, too, so they move forward and try to do both, too. (And for many women in this latter category, it can be next to impossible to distinguish a “should want” from a “want,” but that’s for another post altogether!)

Obviously, one cannot work full-time and be a full-time parent. (It also looks quite difficult to work part-time and be a full-time parent, or even to be a full-time parent, period.) And so we choose one or the other, and we feel guilt– that we are selling short either our emotional selves or work selves. Or we compromise and try to balance the two, and we still feel guilt (though maybe slightly less, depending on how easily we can switch modes), alongside massive amounts of stress (also depending on how easily we can switch modes).

What can we do about this? I think the first step is to recognize that it’s impossible to have two different full-time jobs at once, however deeply we want to do both. Some sort of choice is forced by the simple fact that humans need sleep. The second step is to recognize that it’s less impossible but very difficult to attempt the part-time balance. Parenting is a 24-7 job, whether you work or not. The third step is to acknowledge openly and honestly the guilt we feel about having (or not having) these competing urges. It needs to be okay to choose not to have children, just as it needs to be okay to choose to be a full-time parent, just as it needs to be okay to ask for more flexible working hours and attempt both. Each of these circumstances is massively challenging, emotionally and physically. No one here “has it easy.” In fact, because we are aware of our options and suffer the mental consequences of having to choose among them, I think we all have it quite a bit more difficult.

Read more from Lydia Paine here.

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