Life balance seems impossible to achieve by career-driven women but it turns out our ancestral grandmothers have a lot to teach us about life balance, particularly about balancing work and family
Recently, Matt Lauer co-anchor of the TODAY show on NBC jumped into the life balance debate by asking CEO Mary Barra “Given the pressure at General Motors, can you do both [parenting and managing GM] well?”
Lauer’s question drew a lot of fire from men and women whom I believe were not critical of him bringing up the topic of life balance, but rather the disempowering way in which he asked it.
He essentially asked Barra if she could do both jobs well, and therefore called into question her ability to do something she is clearly already doing.
In hindsight, perhaps Matt Lauer would agree with me when I say that he should have asked a far more empowering – and enlightening – question by asking Mary Barra how she both runs GM and is a good mother.
So, let’s give Mr. Lauer a “do over” by pretending he has just asked you to chime in on the work life separation debate by saying “You are an amazing woman. You excel at your job, you are a loving and present mother, and you look like a Greek goddess. How do you do it?”
Well, how do you do it? Some coaches and time management gurus advocate leaving work at the office and being totally present at home. They say if you can achieve near total work life separation, then you will have achieved the Holy Grail of work life balance. Do these people not have smartphones that bling and bleep so they tap the screen like lab rats hitting a food dispensing button?
If you have been able to achieve a balanced life, then I say to you what the alcoholics of AA say to one who is able to control his drinking – good for you! We wish you well and beg you to leave us some tips in the comments, below.
If, however, you are like the rest of us (one of whom is dictating this article to her smartphone while she drives to a family reunion), then you are already so deeply jacked into The Matrix that a balanced life feels impossible.
For the rest of this article, let’s assume that you check email during your children’s recitals, Facebook offers to tag your friends before you even think of them and your vacation auto-responder is a sham.
Work life separation is not a new issue. In fact, work and life did not even get separated until the industrial revolution! When humans walked the earth as hunter-gatherers, work and family were inextricably bound because if you didn’t gather enough tubers or kill enough animals with your DIY spear, you would be dead.
As an anthropology student at Emory University in the 90s, I was astonished to learn that pre-agricultural women provided up to 80% of their communities’ food, participated in “collective mothering,” and often carried their babies while they gathered food or built shelters. So much for work life separation!
Let’s look at some strategies pre-agricultural women used to survive when work and life were impossible to separate and see if they can help us with our modern quest for life balance.
Life Balance and 5 Ancient Ways To Cope When Work Life Separation Feels Impossible
1 Worship the goddess
Next, push back on the bully of overwhelm by declaring yourself sovereign and take the time and space you need to enjoy life. You are not a victim, you are all powerful and valuable – treat yourself accordingly!
2 Live in a long house
Many pre-agricultural women lived together in one, long house and shared the work of rearing children. Think of a larger version of HBO’s “Big Love,” but while camping.
There is no shame in needing help outside your nuclear family! It’s actually the oldest tool in the mommy kit and it’s called “collective mothering.” Proudly embrace help like daycare, sitters, helpful neighbors and sleep away summer camp so you can both raise your kids and earn the money to feed them!
3 Ritualize your life
Ancient people didn’t have television, so they used their free time to create elaborate rituals to educate, stabilize and motivate the group. You, too, can use the power of ritual to lead your tribes.
At home, light a candle at mealtime, honor an accomplishment by serving dinner on a “red plate” or establish a special morning goodbye.
At work, celebrate accomplishments, host a weekly check-in with subordinates or “sundown” all smartphones at 9PM.
4 Teach others to shape shift
While most indigenous societies did have gender-specific division of labor, both girls and boys were taught all skills because, when it comes time to impale the impala, you can’t be picky about who holds the spear!
Insist that the men and boys in your clan not only know how to do housework, but that they actually do it.
This chapter of the Neanderthalic double burden on women so needs to be over!
5 Strap the baby to your back
It’s a snow day, the sitter is sick (again) and your husband is out of town. Don’t despair, just do what any self-respecting Kung, Inuit or Aboriginal woman would do: strap that baby to your back and get to work.
There is no shame in bringing baby to work (as long as it is safe and your work culture supports it!) Indigenous children learn all about life and survival by accompanying their mothers and fathers in their day-to-day duties. Why not teach your children about work life by proudly bringing them along when necessary?
Let’s face it: work life separation was possible from about 1750 until the invention of the beeper, but now it is not. And that’s ok. And like Mary Barra and the long line of grandmothers before us, most women use modern and ancient ways to achieve life balance so that we can be present and loving mothers, excel in our careers and somehow manage to look like Greek goddesses – even with a baby tied to our backs.