It’s Time to Stop Answering the “Balance” Questions

Work Life Balance signpostIt’s becoming routine. Another media figure has asked another high-profile woman that question that no man is ever asked. Can you balance the demands of your career with being a good mother?

The latest is Matt Lauer claiming to want to “tread lightly” with Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. Clearly he knows these questions are awful, but he asks them anyway. We hear variations of this question on TV, read them in magazines, and get them from our neighbors.

Sometimes it’s not a question at all. As a working mother, or a mother with a career outside the home, the version I often get is the head-shaking, usually well-meaning, but occasionally overtly judgmental “I don’t know how you do it.”

And you know what? It is hard. I’ve had to turn down jobs because there was no good child care option where I live. School-related events are often scheduled during my work or commuting hours, and occasionally, I’ve had to miss a few. I’ve been robbed by a nanny. I’ve had job interviews end because the gap in my resume was related to an extended, unpaid, maternity leave (yes, I know that’s illegal).

The dearth of family-supporting public policies is a whole separate discussion, but it’s depressing, particularly when compared to other industrialized nations.

When she was running for U. S. Representative in 2012, Grace Meng (D – New York) talked about getting asked the “how do you do it?” question. Her answer, which I am paraphrasing here, was among the best I’ve ever heard:

I don’t have time to think about how I do it, I just do.

It is hard, but those of us who do it, either because we want to or we have to, make it work. Whether we work from home, rely on family for child care, have a stay-at-home husband, or have a nursery built into our corporate office, every family is different, and it’s no one’s business what our situation is.

Barra’s answer to the question was like that of a lot of other women, with mention made of the supportive husband and kids.

“You know, I think I can. I have a great team, we’re on the right path, we’re doing the right things, we’re taking accountability and also I have a wonderful family and a supportive husband, and I’m pretty proud of my kids the way they’re supporting me in this.”

While supportive husbands are awesome (just ask mine), not all women have them, and it’s self-defeating to feel that we have to defend ourselves and explain our arrangements. It also perpetuates the idea that these are acceptable questions in the first place.

There only one appropriate answer to the “Can you balance…” question, and one answer that will eventually make the question go away.

That answer is “Yes.” Full stop. No equivocation, no explanation.

Melissa Tingley is a writer, instructional designer, and twelve-year veteran of her local school board. A history and political junkie, she has been a blogger since 2006. She lives and argues politics in Massachusetts.

Image via iStockphoto

  • What made this particular interview so terrible was the question about her getting the job “cuz she’s a mom.”

    She has 30 years in the car business yet she got the job cuz she’s a mom and that automatically means she presents a softer image. He said softer, I heard “less.”

    It was so difficult to watch. Well, just as difficult, actually, as watching Savannah Guthrie interview Samantha Power in her kitchen.

  • I think the problem is the cultural conflict in the US today – women are pressured to have it all in order to be considered “successful” but once they do they are punished by stupid questions about whether they can actually handle it, as if achieving it didn’t imply it enough (as it appears to with men).

    Balance is such a myth. I really wish we could get away from that concept in general and just let people live their lives in the best way for their families.

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