Having it all, I believe it is safe to say, is now a fiction. No one has it all. Not even single, childless professionals.
However, everyone does have a family life. Even single, childless professionals.
In the days leading up to the release of Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the media, social and otherwise, was saturated with opinions about the book, Ms. Sandberg, and her intentions. I quickly assumed, based on the coverage, that this was a book focused mainly on working, career-minded mothers. I thought to myself, this is another mommy-war-inspired-you-don't-have-to-quit-work-book. It is more than a little frustrating that the focus of work-life balance dialogue remains centered around parents and often mothers.
Work-life balance issues apply to everyone; these issues are not limited, as it often seems, to parents. These issues are relevant for women and men, the married and single, and those that are parents and childless. It is universal.
I read Ms. Sandberg's book and found her message, while focused on working mothers, to speak to some of the challenges facing single, childless women.
One of the passages that hit home with me was a story Ms. Sandberg described about a panel discussion she attended featuring married mothers and one single woman. The married mothers spoke about their experience and the following description addressed the single woman's perspective:
[T]he single woman interjected that she was tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously. She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack. She argued, 'My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight -- and this is just as legitimate as their kids' soccer game -- because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!' I often quote this story to make sure single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life.
Yes! While I have no stories that rival this woman's complaints, I feel her pain. Not only do single people have a right to a full life, most of us do have full lives. Single professionals, just like working parents, have to find balance in their lives, unless we are happy working 100% of the time. As Jezebel's Cassie Murdoch notes, "McKinsey & Co. did a survey of a small sample of women at 60 companies and found that both moms and non-moms who were planning to leave their jobs in the next two to three years had very similar reasons for wanting to go: 'a desire to gain more control over their personal schedules and needs.' Huh, imagine that." Professional women, regardless of marital or child status, desire a balance between work and personal time. That need for balance should be valued and available to everyone, whether they have traditional families or not.
Single professionals struggle in their own ways with finding a life amongst all the work. As stated recently in the Washington Post, "[w]hether it's our pets or our parents, our health or our education, there are many facets of our lives besides children that, thanks to work, get short shrift." Or in Ms. Sandberg's words "[i]t's not only the working parents who are looking for more hours in the day; people without children are also overworked, maybe to an even greater extent."
When I was a junior associate at a law firm my other single, childless female colleagues and I often complained that our lives would be easier if we had "wives." We also said the same about penises, but that is a subject for another story. At my firm, well over one-half of the attorneys, our bosses, were old, white men (only two equity partners, at the time, were women). They almost all had wives who did not work. Therefore, these men had help at home -- someone to do the laundry, cook, clean, shop, pay bills, care for children and parents, take the car to the shop, walk the dog and generally make their lives run. They were able to focus nearly all their time to work; and it was easy for them to assume that everyone else, including single, childless colleagues, had the same luxury.
The same applies to colleagues with children. Those with children often behave as though the interests, household duties, community work, or socializing that single colleagues do is trivial in comparison to their family responsibilities. Responses like "well, you don't have children at home," or "it must be nice to go home and have nothing to do" are common from parents. The implication, whether intended or not, in these remarks is that traditional family or child-oriented activities are more important or legitimate than the activities of single people or that single people have little responsibilities outside of work.
I am a single, childless professional and I love my job. However, to be good at my job (and many other jobs) it often takes more than 40 hours a week. I also have parents, a sibling and nieces that I love and want to see, a dog, my own health and well-being to ensure, a home and car to maintain, bills to pay, friendships to enjoy, a church to attend and support, relationships to develop and other hobbies and interests. I have to do all these things at the same time without an extra set of hands at home to help. Yet, there are folks that assume that my job is the only demand on my life.
A full life doesn't require a spouse and/or children. All lives require balance and respect. The next time you hear about a parent who has changed his or her work schedule to accommodate their child's activities, ask yourself: Would I have the same reaction if a single professional asked for a schedule change to care for an aging parent, pursue advanced degrees, remodel his or her home, pursue a hobby or be with a beloved pet during a surgical procedure?
Everyone's time (and family life) is important, no matter how it is spent.
Let's take one last lesson from Ms. Sandberg's Lean In and remember that single people "too, have every right to a full life."