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Why We Need to Stop Talking About Work-Life Balance

You don't need to check your personal life at the door when you get to the office. Let's strive for integration.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth and her daughter Maile at the Capitol on Take Your Child to Work Day. photo credit: @senduckworth on Instagram.

There was something about that image: a teal blazer with a little heart on it. Tammy Duckworth — war hero, Senator, and trailblazing mom — complemented her infant daughter’s duckling onesie with the jacket to make sure the outfit followed the Senate’s dress code.

When Duckworth posted the outfit on Twitter she humanized a story that’s taken 229 years to unfold: she gave us a moment that was both adorable and revolutionary. As the first Senator to give birth while in office, she had to push a rule change to allow babies on the Senate floor—a watershed moment for millions of moms who won’t ever be senators, but who rarely see ourselves reflected in the halls of power. This rule change resonates far beyond Capitol Hill because of the implications for American professional culture. Duckworth, in her dual role as mom and leader, personifies why talking about “work-life balance” reflects an outdated way of thinking about families, workplaces, and careers. And it’s holding us all back.

Women are still struggling to make progress in America’s corporate boardrooms, but in certain ways we don’t have it quite as tough as women in the Senate. For the past 20 years, researchers at the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Foundation have consistently found that voters hold women to higher standards than men when it comes to elected office, especially mothers. “Women candidates and elected officials with children pay a price with voters who worry about how women can manage it all,” the Foundation explained last year. That same research – based on focus groups conducted in five cities in 2016 – reveals that female politicians are most vulnerable at the ballot box when their motherhood and their constituent duties are portrayed as being in conflict with each other.

This is the fraught territory that Duckworth marched fearlessly into when she began discussing the challenges of being an expectant mom in the Senate. The most politically convenient approach might have been to minimize public attention on her pregnancy and status as a mother, to confidently (if defensively) proclaim: “My attention remains on serving the people of Illinois and nothing will get in the way of that.”

Instead, Duckworth put a spotlight on obstacles working parents across America face as we struggle to succeed while pulling double duty. She’s modeled the idea that where we used to strive for “work-life balance,” we should be figuring out “work-life integration.”

The idea of “work-life balance” suggests we should check our family lives at the door when we arrive at the office and leave our work behind when we head home – that work and family are two separate ledgers in zero-sum competition with each other. But we know from experience that's not the way the world works. Kids get sick at school and need to be picked up early. Parents need additional care and attention even as they fight to live independently. Clients have urgent questions and bosses have projects that can’t wait until Monday. But it’s possible to deliver great work while taking care of an aging parent and to be a dedicated parent while carving out time to work on a weekend. We need to resist a culture that even implies otherwise.

The “work-life balance” question obsesses white-collar workers and workplaces, but these tensions are often much more difficult for wageworkers. You can’t do a service job from home with your kids or take them to your shift at a restaurant. We know that every employer can make it easier for their workers to more fully integrate their lives. And they should – because happy, fulfilled employees are better employees, and better employees lead to better business results. And for many workers, their families are the driving force behind their dedication to their work.

I’m better for being able to bring my whole self to the office. My challenges balancing motherhood and my professional aspirations inform my life’s work: I know firsthand that it takes an army of caregivers and the right infrastructure to support parents in the workforce. But most jobs are a long way from providing that support.

Too often, our world bases demands on the idea that work and life, or work and family, need to be balanced as separate sides of a person. It’s a philosophy that penalizes all caregivers, particularly mothers, when one side appears to interfere with the other. But both work and family require the best versions of ourselves – one that harnesses all of the lessons, relationships, triumphs, and trials we experienced in every setting.

If our society—and our businesses—want the best possible versions of their female employees, we have to understand and embrace the interconnectivity of our dual responsibilities. That will allow mothers to integrate their responsibilities into a schedule that doesn’t always fit everything into two neat categories. Some days it will allow mothers to spend extra time with their families, and others it will require sacrifices on behalf of the job.

And on some days, that means making sure a duckling onesie goes with a teal blazer.

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