Who wants balance anyway?

The other day, a friend of mine told me that work-life balance is getting old. That no one really wants to talk about work-life balance anymore. Now, I don’t think that is necessarily true; I find that lots of people still want to talk about work-life balance. But personally, I found my friend’s point of view quite refreshing, because without being able to really put my finger on why, I don’t really want to talk about work-life balance myself. Not that I usually do, but I do regularly find myself dragged into discussions on work-life balance and I always think there is something in these discussions that just doesn’t feel quite right.

I have previously explored how focusing on work-life balance can be problematic when studying women and work. Within feminist research it is seen as problematic because it can lead to the assumption that the only constraint on women’s careers is childcare, as opposed to things like discrimination and gender norms. And indeed, it is often women who search for balance, what with their double shifts. That is, the women who do a full day of work at work more often than not then come home to do another full day of household chores and care responsibilities etc. (See Arlie Hochschild’s book The Second Shift, which although over a couple of decades old continues to be a very good and relevant book.)

But it wasn’t until last night when I was talking to my husband about balance that I realized that the reason I feel sort of bored with this whole concept is that I personally don’t actually really want balance in my life. When looking back at my life so far, the times I have felt most happy and fulfilled have not been times of perfect balance between work and other areas of life. It has rather been when I have been able to devote myself to whatever it is that makes me tick. I want to be all consumed by whatever it is that I find exciting (at the moment that happens to be my research). And then at times I also want to be able to prioritize other things that are important to me, or when I need to, without feeling guilty.

To be honest, my life sometimes feels completely out of balance, but that doesn’t necessarily make me less happy. For example, I tend to write ideas for blog posts on paper napkins in the kitchen while cooking dinner for the kids because that’s often when these ideas come to me; I work on weekends; I typically read work related stuff in bed before turning the lights out; and then there was the time a couple of weeks ago when I had the stomach flu but still feverishly engaged in debate on feminism on social media. I think that would probably not be considered a balanced lifestyle, but who cares, I love it and that’s exactly the way I want it.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many people feel overwhelmed – I know that I sometimes do – and I know that many struggle to manage all the different areas of their lives. But even though it may seem like it, I don’t think searching for balance is necessarily the answer. Like I’ve said before, people who feel fulfilled usually don’t have issues with balance (see my posts The irony of work-life balance and Control). At least it isn’t how I want to live my life. I don’t just want to keep my balance, I want to love what I do, and I want to look at my life and realize that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and not worry about whether I am dividing my time equally between work and life. Besides, doesn’t it strike you as a bit backward? Work-life balance sort of implies that work isn’t a part of life. But work is very much a part of life. I want to feel alive while I’m working, and I’m lucky to have work that gives me energy instead of sucking it out of me. But I also want to be able to seamlessly combine all the things that are important in my life, which are my family, my friends, my work, and my hobbies. I mean, what else is there? Oh right, sleep. I do need more sleep.

Having what it takes

With the risk of turning the entire academic world against me, I’m going to let you in on a secret: to get a PhD, you really don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But you do have to be tenacious and diligent. That means that when working on a PhD, you’re in it for the long haul and you have to have the discipline to keep at it. You can’t give up. Even when you think you are never going to finish, that it will never turn into a thesis, you still don’t give up.

The other thing about working on a PhD is that it is an emotional roller coaster. Especially in an area like the social sciences, where you choose your topic – a topic you’re interested in, or even better, passionate about – you inevitably start to equate yourself with your work. Your thesis becomes a very personal project, and since you’re basically working on your own, your self-esteem fluctuates with your thesis. When work is good you think it’s because you are good, and when work isn’t so good you invariable start feeling that you’re pretty bad yourself. Yes I know, it isn’t true, but that is how it feels.

So it’s years of ups and downs, euphoria and despair – and plain hard work of course – and you stick it through and all of a sudden you’re given the green light to submit your thesis. And then you get on the mini emotional roller coaster of waiting for examiners’ reports, and then you finally get those and you probably have to do some revisions and finally, magically, you finish your thesis and it gets accepted and life is a dream. The happiness I felt when my PhD was accepted is almost hard to describe. It lasted for weeks. A friend of mine said it was like being in love.

And then you realize, that although you made it to the end of your journey, it really wasn’t the end, actually it’s only the beginning. Now you embark on your life as a ‘real’ academic, and to do that you have to publish. That is, you have to write and publish academic papers in order to prove your worth as an academic, and you have to continue doing so again and again to stay in the game.

And that’s where I am right now. Near the beginning of my continued journey, and I’m working on papers. What’s surprising is that writing papers of say 8000 or 15000 words depending on what journal you plan to submit to, is unexpectedly hard. There’s no space to embellish the way I had the luxury of doing in my thesis. And also, after having put my heart and soul into my manuscript, mustering the energy to saying selected bits again but differently feels challenging. Not to mention all the future rejections I’m bracing myself for…

As I reflect over this path I’ve chosen, that certainly doesn’t feel like the easiest path at the moment, I think about tenacity, and realize that this really goes for anything you want to achieve in life. If you want something, you’re just going to have to work hard for it. Most of us are anyway. It reminds me of a TED talk I once saw (here’s another secret, I really like TED talks). I think it was a talk by Brené Brown and she mentioned how although the organizers invite successful people to talk at the TED conferences, the talks are really about failure. Instead of talking about great successes and breakthroughs, the speakers talk the audience through all the failures it took before achieving success. If they had given up the first moment things got tough, they wouldn’t be where they are now, and ironically we wouldn’t have very many success stories to talk about.

So how does this translate to every day life? Well, I’m going to quote my dad whose motto, whether playing a game of chess or navigating professional life, is ‘never give up’.

Who’s afraid of feminism?

I sometimes teach the feminist theory class of a doctoral course at the business school where I work, and it’s a class I really like to teach. When the students come in, they usually look a bit apprehensive and reserved. Most of them know very little about feminist theory when they come, but they are of course highly familiar with the debate in society on feminism and whether or not feminism is about man hating, bra burning women who want to take over the world from men. And let’s face it, I think despite so many feminists out there insisting that feminism is about making the world a better place for both men and women, this other, rather extreme and unfortunate view of feminism seems to be the one that is more widespread. So the students come to class wondering what exactly we are going to talk about for three hours.

The reason I like to teach this class is of course not the students’ apprehension, but because I was one of them six years ago, with the same reservations, and I remember exactly what that was like. So I tackle that head on and have a very open and frank, but also nuanced and enjoyable, conversation with them, and spend three hours showing them what feminism really is, how diverse it is as a theoretical perspective, and how groundbreaking and influential feminist theory has been to the way we understand and do research in the social sciences. And I hope, and like to think, that they leave after three hours with a completely new perspective on what feminism is.

Because of the skewed image people have of feminism, there are many women out there who insist they are not feminists. Or that they would be, but they just don’t like what feminism stands for. In fact, I once saw a televised discussion between Elisabeth Rehn, the first female Minister of Defense in Finland and internationally acclaimed human rights rapporteur among other things; and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Both women have done tremendous and inspiring things for women globally, but both women agreed in this TV program that neither were feminists. I was shocked. But I guess like so many other women, they probably just didn’t want to be associated with much of what they thought feminism stands for.

However, if we look to feminist theory, radical feminism, that had its time of glory in the 70’s, really isn’t all that popular or established anymore in feminist circles. There are so many different perspectives within the frame of feminism, for example liberal feminism, which is really quite moderate; eco-feminism, which is more spiritual than political; and black feminism, which in addition to sexism, focuses on class oppression and racism. Lately something called choice feminism has been quite debated, and focuses on freedom of choice (which can be a bit problematic, but I’ll save that for another blog post). The point is, radical feminism is only one perspective, but it is of course also the one perspective that is the most visible.

But to be honest, moderation doesn’t generally lead to change. You know, if feminists back in the day had said, “it would be nice if women were also allowed to vote”, we would probably still not have the right to vote. Sometimes you need to be a bit radical to make people listen and to make things happen. So although I am personally probably too moderate for my own good – ‘everything in moderation’, although a good motto in many situations, isn’t going to start any revolutions – I do admire what radical and other feminists have achieved. I am thankful for the work they have done, the fruits of which I enjoy every single day of my life.

So when I hear people say, “I would be a feminist, but feminism is so much about [insert whatever you personally think feminism is too much about] at the moment” it makes me frustrated. Because it isn’t true. There are so many different feminists and feminisms out there, so many different debates going on, and all they are trying to do, whether radical or moderate, outspoken or not, is simply work towards a situation where all people, both men and women, can be treated equally and be provided with equal rights to work, care for children, follow their dreams, opt out, opt in, whatever it is they need and want to do. They just go about it in different ways. So create your own version of feminism, and let’s all be feminists, because to me feminism is about being a mensch. It’s about creating a better world, and doing it in whatever way we know how.

Julia and me (and some thoughts on men, women, and the complexity of being)

My husband asked me the other day when I’m going to write about Julia Kristeva’s work on my blog. The reason he asked is because Kristeva received quite a prominent place in my thesis, and while I was writing my thesis there was a period when basically all I talked about was Kristeva. I was working on my thesis in Adelaide, and every morning for about a week or so, I would go out to the empty, green rugby oval close to our apartment and sit on the bleachers and read Kristeva. I found her work interesting, but also challenging, so I would read what other people wrote about her work as well in order to get my head around what it was she was saying. This may sound a bit crazy, but those bleachers are forever going to be the place where Julia and I got acquainted. So to answer my husband’s question, it’s now.

The reason I got interested in Kristeva in the first place was because she does extensive work on the maternal, which is an important issue in my research. But that isn’t what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about something I saw in my Facebook newsfeed the other day, the kind of thing that many of us see every now and then, I’m sure, but which just gets me every time.

Okay here it is: “Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the number 9.”

I mean really, are we still doing this? Aren’t jokes and wisecracks about how complicated and impossible to understand women are old already? I know people who make jokes about this are just trying to be funny, and don’t really mean anything by it, but what they are unintentionally doing, is keeping alive the idea that women aren’t really to be taken seriously. By dismissing women as complicated, difficult, irrational, and hard to understand, even in jest, women are effectively kept in the position of Other, that is someone who is so different or difficult that they don’t really need to be reckoned with. I’m going to say it, these jokes are sexist.

But at the same time I think, come on guys, don’t sell yourselves short! Men aren’t any less complicated or hard to understand than women. Men are just as complex, and filled with fears, hopes, and dreams as anyone else. Anything less wouldn’t be human. Anything less would be boring. Think about it, do you really want to be thought of as one-dimensional, and on top of that, pretty much exactly the same as the next guy: simple, uncomplicated, and uninteresting?

And this is where Kristeva comes in. Kristeva is, by the way, not only a social theorist but also a psychoanalyst, linguist, and feminist to name a few, and has done a vast amount of work within these fields, so this post will in no way do her justice. But she does say something about sex and gender that I think is relevant to the point I’m trying to make. While people generally get categorized by sex or gender (i.e. you are a man or a woman, or you behave or feel like a man or a woman), Kristeva holds that although masculine is often associated with men and feminine associated with women, the feminine is not a category specific to either sex. The feminine belongs to both men and women. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that both men and women come from the maternal body (boys as well as girls are born from, raised by, loved by, and interact with women) and unfortunately taboos and silencing effectively separates men from this dimension of social life. So if it wasn’t for all the social practices, gender norms, and other constructs out there, men’s and women’s behaviors really might not be that different.

This became complicated and difficult to explain in just a few lines. I think I’m going to have to dedicate a whole other blog post to Kristeva at some point, as she really has some compelling, important, and unconventional things to say about the maternal, feminism, and society as a whole. But for now, like many before me, I’m going to ask, so men are from Mars and women from Venus? Please. How one-dimensional isn’t that? I’d say we are all much more diverse and interesting. If we’re going to talk about outer space, then men are from any number of planets in the Solar System and beyond, as are women. But as book titles go, I guess that just doesn’t sound very catchy, does it.