When I was a kid, my mom usually began cooking around 5 p.m. Dad arrived home at 5:30, and dinner would be on the table shortly thereafter. He’d have a shot of Black Velvet, ask us how our days went, and then reread the morning paper. We ate at the table as a family, and afterward we watched TV together. During the week, my mother spent her days making heroic to-do lists and tracking the status of family matters. She also did the shopping and the laundry, took care of us and our dogs, and managed the household in general. Inside stuff. My father, my brother, and I did the outside stuff—mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, getting the mail. This was our weekly routine for the 25 years that my father worked at IBM, where I think he was a process technician. Our life together was orchestrated and predictable. Clockwork.
Fast-forward a few decades, and my reality as a husband, father, and professional is far less finite. I try to leave the office by 5:45 p.m. on the days that I pick up my daughter, Harper, from preschool‚ and by 6:15 p.m. when I don’t. My wife follows a similar schedule. Our first 10 minutes at home include negotiations about dinner and bath time—and the typical pandemonium associated with having a 2-year-old. The next few hours are a flurry of bubbles, pajamas, eating, reading, coloring, and email. When I sit down at the computer to tie up the day’s loose ends, Harper crawls in my lap to watch Yo-Yo Ma play a quartet with Sesame Street characters on YouTube or to sing her ABCs on Fisherprice.com. Her playful screens are juxtaposed next to my browser, chat fields, and PowerPoint slides, and the windows into my work prompt her to ask, “Watcha doin’, Daddy?” My wife and I often work on any unresolved design problems that occupy our days (two designers in one household!) after Harper has gone to bed, and sneak in paying bills, managing finances, and pruning the pile of mail when we are dead-tired. On some weeknights, we go out to dinner. On others, it’s likely one of us is out of town (in fact, I’m writing this article on a plane back from doing research in India). There’s a rhythm to our life, but it’s an unpredictable give and take.
My parents’ generation had a clear division of labor and roles. The balance between work and home life was a given, not something to be obtained. Any break from routine was a little unsettling. These days, my generation has to fight for work-life balance. But is it worth the struggle? Is work-life balance even a good idea? In his book Out of Control, author Kevin Kelly notes that scientist James Lovelock discovered that the chemistry in the atmosphere on Venus and Mars was “as balanced as the periodic table, and as dead,” while the atmosphere on Earth was “wholly unbalanced, and alive.” Throughout the book, Kelly cites more examples of living systems that share similar ecological imbalances—and confirms their evolutionary success stories.
In my own experience, imbalance yields teaching moments. The small interactions that take place between my wife and my daughter and I often blend our working skills, smarts, and tools with our home routines. Checking email on our iPhones leads to playing games and ultimately builds Harper’s comfort and literacy with advanced technologies. Creating a PowerPoint deck is an opportunity to show her how a story is made before it’s told.
Through these encounters my daughter also benefits from getting a glimpse of what my wife and I do during the nine or 10 hours that she doesn’t see us during the day. Showing her a poster that her mom designed or photos from my field research gives her a much better idea of our jobs. This isn’t the perspective I got as a kid, and the lack of it narrowed my own understanding of what was possible when it came time to make important decisions about going to college and choosing an occupation. Fortunately, my passion for drawing led me to the design arts. But “Do what you love and the money will follow” is not an inspirational aphorism that I want Harper to rely on for her own career path.
I think insight into our work, mingled with spirited play, will grind a wider lens of ideas, interests, and opportunities for Harper. Meanwhile, the tempo and tension that we manage between work and life—the imbalance or the blurring of life and work into one fluid time—is an ongoing learning experience for the whole family.