The Thinking 

The Balance Myth

June 25, 2009


The following is a critique of the widely prevalent notion that the ideal life for a woman is one of “balance,” the judicious mixing of career and home. I call this the “Balance Myth,” one of the central ideas of mainstream feminism.
On the face of it, “third-wave feminism,” as it is known, seems reasonable,  an appealing counterpart to middle class virtue. In fact, it normalizes the radical tenets of feminism. Thanks to the Balance Myth, the casual neglect of children, marriage and home are now mainstream phenomena. This seemingly harmless idea wears a soft and pleasing exterior. But, it offends exactly what it purports to uphold: the intelligence of women and their innate desire for meaningful work.


Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed at bottom all life was numerical. This idea is too complex to fully explore here, but let’s borrow and radically simplify his notion for a few moments. Number.  All of life is number.  When you stop and think about it,  it’s hard to believe we don’t keep this elementary truth in the forefront of our minds.

We are born at a definite moment in time. Let’s call this Number One of our own personal existence.  We then move through life with mathematical predictability. We start to smile after a couple of weeks. We begin to toddle on two feet at about nine months. We enunciate words at about a year. Our minds expand and diversify at foreseeable points. We enter puberty not at age four or age eight, but sometime between the ages of 12 and 15. All of us do. There are variations but only within certain fixed numerical parameters.

A woman enters her reproductive years as a teenager, but only physically. Mentally and emotionally, at least in a developed society, she lacks the maturity to become a parent until her early twenties. Her fertility peaks in her twenties and begins to decline precipitously thereafter. This numerical fact is inalterable. Only chemical intervention can possibly change it, at the risk of physical effects.

The numbered reality of existence of course isn’t inalterable. A person can die when he’s three instead of 70. Some medications stall or hasten puberty. Birth control alters the facts of fertility. The natural progression is not always natural.

We are not just numerical physically; we are numerical emotionally and mentally.  We exist as composites, our biological lives bound up with our mental world. It is not surprising that a 16-year-old challenges his parents or that a woman begins to desire marriage precisely at the time when her fertility and maturity are peaking.

Nor are our lives just numerical in the overall sense. Our days are numerical. Most of us need eight hours of sleep. We eat three meals. We have predictable lulls and peaks of energy. Our days are rhythmic. There is an exception to this rule and that is the newborn baby.  His arrhythmia drives his parents over the edge. He sleeps for two hours; eats for fifteen minutes; sleeps for 30 minutes; stays awake for four hours;  eats again and then sleeps for an hour, and on and on. He can’t latch onto the numbers. Does this explain his distress and irritability? Is he discontented because he feels his own disharmony?

This is all obvious. What is not so obvious is this: When we mess with the numbers we interfere with our own happiness and welfare. We destroy harmony, not just on an individual level, but on the social and political level as well.

Typically, when people speak of a woman having “balance” in her life, what they mean is that a woman will pursue a career first and then fit marriage, children and home in as well. Does this match the numerical definition of balance? Remember, in the mathematical sense, balance means equal weight on each side. You put two ingots on one side of the scale and balance them with two ingots on the other.

Let’s look at the mathematical facts.

For a woman to be successful in a career, she must start to at least vaguely consider the matter in her high school years. She must contemplate just what her individual choice might be. The issue becomes more serious in college, assuming that she does go to college, which is necessary if she is going to have any kind of skilled position.

Things get really serious in her early twenties. She must embark on her path at that point, getting a related job or further higher education. Given the economic realities, these are not mindless or leisurely activities. The world is competitive. For many careers, she must apply herself  with single-minded devotion and to some she must give obsessive attention.
Let’s say she wants to become a school teacher. That’s generally considered one of the less formidable careers. However, when she emerges from college, she most likely finds it not so easy, even in a good economy, to get a job. Even when she does, she will have to prove herself in the early years. At the very best, she can expect to be able to go on cruise control when she is about 25. More likely, she will first get a job at an inferior school and want to work her way to either a better or more convenient school.  In this case, she may not be settled until her late twenties.

Let’s say, she wants a more challenging career, such as that of a lawyer. If all goes very well, she will graduate from law school when she is 25; pass the bar and get a job when she is 26; and be settled in a job by the time she is 28. This, however, is a very optimistic scenario. More likely, given the realities of education and the availability of jobs, she will not be settled until she is 30 or even later. Meanwhile, once she is “settled,” she will most likely have a fairly demanding schedule. This schedule, even that of a low-level  lawyer,  will  leave her a little time to decorate her apartment and socialize with friends. It will not leave her with great gobs of time to search for a mate, but hopefully one will turn up at the office or among her existing circle of friends.

For both the school teacher and the lawyer, time has been of the essence. Since their high school years, not just their days, but their minds, have been occupied in the pursit of a single goal.

There is a touching scene in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. The character Lev has just, after much delay, married Kitty. Lev and Kitty are staying at his country estate when he notices something strange about Kitty’s life in their first months of marriage. She seems to be doing very little. That’s odd, he thinks. Why isn’t she occupying herself in some important project? Why doesn’t she seem to be thinking about anything very pressing or important?

Then it dawns on Lev what she is doing. She is getting ready – emotionally and mentally – for the  project that lies before her. She will be bearing his children, raising them over the course of decades and running a household. She knows what lies ahead. She is getting ready.

Is it any surprise that women have so few children today? Is it any surprise that they find the care of these children so draining and taxing? They have spent almost of their young,premarital lives busy and absorbed in everything but this. They have not gotten ready. They arrive at the threshold of motherhood and marriage, like sprinters ready for the finish line. They have defied the numerical basis of their own lives.

Women who work at “jobs,” instead of careers, in these premarital years are much more prepared. While they may indeed work long hours, their minds have not been taken up with the strategizing and study required by a full-fledged career. Many intelligent women once became secretaries or nursery school teachers in their early twenties because these jobs left them free to look for a mate and get ready for marriage.

Now, let’s look at the numbers involved in the lives of families with mothers who continue to work after they have children.  Children are dependent for many years. They universally desire to be with their parents as much as possible in their early years. By seven, they may be ready to be away from their mothers for up to eight hours a day, but even then it is difficult for some. Of course, children can be put outside the care of their parents in those early years, but no child has ever grown to like it without steep resistance.

Once a child goes to school, he is often tired when he gets home and needs a short period to unwind. He can be kept at school until 6 p.m., but studies show that this is highly disruptive and exhausting. That’s because the child is rhythmic. He cannot be in a crowd nine hours a day without it taking a heavy toll on his peace and sociability.

In fact, school age children are highly rhythmic, so much so that if one disrupts the balance of their days they become emotionally unhinged.  Many parents see this when they go on a trip with their children and all schedules are thrown off. A child may react with tantrums and moodiness that resembles insanity.

Unfortunately, many jobs, particularly professional positions, are not rhythmic. The lawyer must respond to the turn of events, working long hours some days and less on others. The doctor reacts to emergencies. The businesswoman encounters periods when the press of budgets or clients’ demands requires a revision in her schedule. The business world is not rhythmic and it never will be rhythmic. It is based on number, but not in the daily sense we mean. A business is an essentially economic entity, not a biologic or mental or psychological being. It does not need to adhere to human rhythms and often doesn’t. For instance, I know a woman executive who lives in the Northeast who recently traveled to India for work. She went for a single day. That’s a classic example of how business does not function on the biologic level. She barely slept for four days.

The economic world is arrhythmic. The child and all of family life is not. There are ways to seemingly get around these facts. One can hire people to care for one’s children. One can work out agreements with employers though these often break down under the press of circumstances, but there are ways to create an appearance of balance.

The problem is balance is not just physical. It is emotional and mental as well. Perhaps  more than anything, the career disrupts the delicate equilibrium between a mother’s mind and her children, her husband and her home. Even when she is with them, a career necessitates that she be far away, absorbed in its demands.

Some people insist all this can be smoothed over by a careful restriction on a mother’s work hours or the choice of a career that comes with very fixed hours. But, these arrangements interfere with another kind of number.  This number is related to the intelligence of women and their natural desire for meaningful work.

In order for most jobs to be interesting and intellectually fulfilling, one cannot just pick them up and lay them aside according to the demands of something beyond that interest. One must devote the attention to them they deserve. A lawyer who agrees to work only four hours a day is most likely not going to be doing very interesting work. Legal work that requires this sort of fixed and limited commitment is essentially glorified paper-pushing.

That’s fine for the woman with few intellectual needs, you might say. The problem is most women who are smart enough to become lawyers are also smart enough to want interesting work and smart enough to want to do well at that work.

Here is where the idea of balance so outrageously denies the intellectual integrity of women.  Not only does so-called “balance” ignore the realities of the working world, it assumes women won’t be very committed to their work. It assumes they will be happy being drones. This assumption is false and exposes the anti-woman bias of feminism. It is natural and healthy for a woman to be committed to her work. It is not natural and not healthy to have this drive always interrupted.

Many women have been persuaded to accept this unsatisfying bargain because they have been convinced that raising children is intellectually unsatisfying. The very opposite is true.  Though raising children entails hours of seemingly mindless work, being a lawyer, particularly a part-time lawyer, entails many hours of mindless work. Motherhood and home-making occupy all of a woman’s faculties, including her higher level emotional and intellectual faculties. Raising children full-time is intellectually demanding because children and husbands are intellectual beings, with minds and emotions that require attention.  The only people who deny this aspect of mothering and of being a wife are those who have never tried homemaking for any length of time or those with an instinctive aversion to children. There is no question these people exist.

On the face of it, all of what I have said seems to defy the facts. Millions of women already work and raise a family at the same time. How can anyone accuse them of not having balance when they so obviously love their children? Most of them seem to be attentive mothers. Furthermore, their children turn out fine and many of these mothers never get divorced.
I have never met a working woman, except those in mentally easy jobs, who has not put aside some important aspect of taking care of children, husband or home.  Sometimes the most important thing she lays aside is her own peace and composure; surveys showing a precipitous decline in female happiness bear this out. Sometimes the most important thing she neglects is love of her husband. Or, it may be moral guidance for her children, especially in their teenage years.

Of course, full-time mothers may neglect home too.  They are not by definition morally superior to working mothers. They simply have more time to execute the essential things.  I say this with immense respect for the women who have heroically accepted the bargain they have been handed, the exhausting bargain of trying to be a man and a woman at once.

We are not just biologically and intellectually numerical.  We are spiritually numerical as well. Whether we  acknowledge it or not, we are connected  to the Supreme Oneness that lies behind everything.  It is a mother’s duty to draw her children and her entire domestic universe in the direction of this essential Unity. It is an awesome and time-consuming task. There is no possibility of combining this spiritual task and the million other duties of running a home and family with anything as demanding as a career without sacrificing something essential to family life. Balance is a lie.

Why is this lie so appealing? It is mentally mollifying – and for certain interests, economically convenient.  It is mollifying because it allows us to deny that men and women are significantly different. Mainstreamed, softened feminism is less extreme than its radical predecessor but it still seeks to smooth over distinctions.

The idea of balance has left us with imbalance. Modern life is off-kilter. To be human is always and everywhere to be partly disharmonious. We are not mathematical equations. But, harmony outrageously defied is a rebellion against nature. It’s as wrong as the idea that one plus one equals three.



Rose writes:

Your lovely post makes me think sadly of my own single mother. She hated being forced to leave me in daycare while she worked, and often comments that she wishes how she could have been a homemaker and been with me during my early years. She sometimes goes as far as to say that no woman truly wants to work if she can help it and that married women only do so because one salary is no longer enough to maintain a household. I will point out that many mothers do in fact voluntarily enter the workforce with no pressing economic need and she responds that so women are rare freaks of nature whose alien minds she cannot possibly comprehend. I myself have heard the economic argument before but think the primary reason many men cannot alone provide a middle class lifestyle for his family is that the definition of ‘middle class lifestyle’ has changed so drastically in the past few decades.

Laura writes:

Mostly, it’s the women who never had to work or never had to put their children into daycare who have glamorized career. The early womens’ advocates abhorred an economy based on women’s labor. They felt it would destroy the home and child-rearing. The National Mother’s Congress, of the early 20th century and one of the most popular women’s groups in American history,  felt so strongly about this that it fought for the “mothers’ pension” to relieve widows with children of the necessity of working. The  pension initially excluded the unmarried and divorced for obvious reasons. It later changed into the disastrous Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and we all know the result.

And, yes, as I’ve discussed before, the entry of women into the workforce in unprecedented numbers changed the consumer economy and the definition of what is needed to live a decent life. People expect more purchasable things, but also expect a lower quality of daily life. They have grown tolerant of the chaos a woman’s labor once remedied: arrhythmic living, cluttered homes, poor meals and unsatisfying leisure activities.

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