Once upon a very brief time, I had the freedom that sometimes, these days, feels like my dearest fantasy: exclusive focus on one thing. One hat, one role, one set of responsibilities. In this case, it was caring for my home and children. And, during that period, I may have mentioned to my mother-in-law something of the Sisyphean despair that I felt in confronting the kitchen each morning. A complaint to which she responded, “Yes, the days are long. It’s the years that are short.”
I didn’t actually get to the “years” part of stay-at-home parenting. It just felt like I did. On Mondays.
If you’ve been following along at home, you probably already know that I was not winning any prizes at the SAHM gig. If you are, I bow before you—this post is not for you.
Anyway, back then, in the midst of a PTSD recurrence/existential crisis (I’m still unclear on which of those begat which) my therapist said, “Jordinn, we’re just getting through the days. If nobody dies, we’re gonna call that a success. Just get through the days.”
I appreciate that, now.
Because I can, sitting in this same kitchen, parenting these same children, almost empathize with how very overwhelmed that woman—my former self—was.
Only now I’m like: Sister, can I get some of those minutes?
You can hang out in your pajamas or yoga pants or whatever, and don’t worry about those dishes in the sink . . . but while you’re not doing anything, could I just . . . yeah, thanks.
And I know what I’d do with those minutes. Wanna hear?
Things. I would do Things. And probably, in every case, I would do them while fielding questions about something else, or while singing or shushing or driving or snuggling.
Especially this year, with schooling at home and churching online and both of us working in a neighboring state . . . the roles and time allocations are admittedly a bit unclear.
Enter the new catchphrase for figuring out how to live amidst multiple roles and blurry boundaries and can’t-turn-it-off technology:
This copy-ready phrase has been around for a couple of years, but I first heard it a few months ago. I raised a concern about a meeting time not working well for my family, and possibly not for other families either, and was met with a two-part response from a meeting organizer: 1. This is a sacrifice for my family, too, and 2. The task here isn’t to balance your life and work—it’s to integrate it.
Perhaps, I reasoned, wrapped in this annoying response was a worthwhile idea; I have thus spent the past few months mulling it over. And believe me, I have ample opportunity. My work—whatever you call it—and my life—such as it is—are integrating all over the place. Work and life may indeed soon have sticky but eloquent love children given to fingerpainting, tantrums, and quoting Friedrich Schleiermacher.
And yet I wonder: is this loud, messy, occasionally fragrant collision really what “integration” looks like? I am not sure, and in the midst of trying to figure it out, I’ve taken to mouthing the phrase—work-life integration— to myself in moments of stress.
Note: this is actually kind of fun. For best results, apply lipstick. Sit up straight. Articulate carefully.
Ready? Try these on for size:
Babysitter, despite having completed half of a bachelor’s degree in the hard sciences, forgets what day it is; you have meeting in neighboring city in an hour.
(work life integration)
You retrieve smaller child from preschool; you must carry a sparkle leaf*–into the wind—against the pants you just had dry cleaned.
(work life integration)
Screen on, sound on: smile at a group of gathered people and explain pastoral care in a digital community; screen off, sound off, threaten misbehaving children with loss of privileges and/or life.
(work life integration)
Stop, mid-collegial conversation, to listen to 7 year old explain, again, about how Santa is going to bring “fire lizards” in a highly specific range of colors. Your colleague is treated to a lengthy filibuster, which ends only when you agree to “feed them meat.”
(work life integration)
Run personalized and highly physical daily warrior dash; hurdles day 3 include “mop floor” and “find lego man’s head before I diiiiieeee” and “bring snack for 24; no nuts” as well as “racial justice meeting,” “make meme” and “write pulpit testimonial.”
(Yep. Work life integration again.)
. . . Or is it? Is allowing this jumble of competing claims to become more and more interwoven really an accomplishment?
Is the trick to somehow do the weaving better?
Or is it that I should do less with more . . . or was it more with less?
What is missing in this phrase is the how. Which, when you think about it, basically means everything important. How does one integrate fingerpaint with a finance committee?
I have a theory, y’all. I think what’s needed in considering the “how” of work-life integration . . . which I have begun to hear as “the how of everything–all at once” is a quick history lesson. Because the trouble with the idea becomes evident when we consider the “integration” push not as a step toward the middle from “work-life balance,” but as a cultural pendulum swing away from it.
Truth: in these last two decades—the work/life balance decades—the pressure has been on both employees and employers to acknowledge that work isn’t everything. That family and vacations and space to relax and breathe are important. Work/life balance, in fact, echoed the ideals of the labor movement. Many of us have forgotten the history, but the slogan from the days of bread and roses,–8 for work, 8 for rest, 8 for recreation!—still speaks to how we might spend our hours. This balance lay at the heart of a vision of self-advocacy that paired corporate responsibility with employee health.
And so, in the second decade of this new millennium, with communication technologies that could reshape our working lives, we might be moving toward greater balance. But statistics say we aren’t. In fact, we’ve gotten far afield of the idea, in a way that suggests that the “balance” movement was a smaller pushback against a larger tide of workaholism, and not a sea change in itself.
Balance has actually failed, for many reasons, to take root in the context of our national working life . . . and now, with work-life integration, we may forsake balance altogether.
But is that what work-life integration is? The death knell for off-duty time, achieved by a rebranding of the same old dollar-driven agenda?
Maybe so, but even if the push to integrate work and life has dollar signs between the whites of its eyes, there is something more at stake here—an opportunity, in fact. As work stakes a claim on family life, we have a chance to consider—and even redefine—not just where we work, but also how, with whom, and for what purpose.
In the end, we’re not just combining a thing called “work” with a less productive and more self-indulgent thing called “life.” We are discovering and defining how to incorporate new technologies into the entire package of our daily realities (you know—the thing we might actually call ‘life.’ All of it.)
So: what could this look like, if not the stressed-out, grown up Peter Pan in Hook or Diane Keaton’s character in Baby Boom? Short of a radical conversion to a more stripped-down reality, what can we achieve for real quality of life with an “integration” mindset?
As it turns out, it depends on the model we use. There are two very different ways of framing work-life integration, and we ought to choose carefully—they seem likely to lead us to very different places.
The first way may look familiar; we might call it more-better-faster. It’s control-oriented and fear based. Be available now and later and always or THE MARKET WILL LEAVE YOU BEHIND. You MUST answer e-mails at home. You NEED to be available on vacation. Those who refuse will be fired.
Probably unsurprisingly, the writers describing work-life integration this way tended to be men, and to take an uncritical view of top-down, short term capital-driven decisionmaking. The gospel here is that the world has changed, you may have already been left behind, and the only option is to paddle hard and jettison what’s slowing you down. Those vacation days, for example.
This is depressing, consumerist, and right in line with the dominant culture. I think I’ll pass.
Fortunately, there is an alternative–a second lens on work-life integration which could be labeled the new work-smarter. This is the framework in which sudden life challenges for committed employees inspire creative, win-win solutions ranging from flexible scheduling to job sharing to videocommuting to intercompany partnerships. It’s the “better box” that we work to build together, in which new moms—or dads!—bring their babies to work, company R&D offices partner with grad student studios, and pastors give blessings to holiday shoppers and hear confessions (and all manner of other things) on Facebook or in the local coffee shop.
This vision of work-life integration is status-quo disruptive. It empowers lower levels of hierarchies, or circumvents hierarchy altogether. It provides—and even celebrates—the means through which an articulate layperson speaks directly to denominational power via the blogosphere, a programmer creates an app and gets it to the marketplace in the same day, and consumers, congregants, and care recipients communicate their needs in real time to those who can help.
The choice of how we’ll respond matters, because this—this lovely, magical, muddled, troubled present—it’s a given. What is up for grabs is whether we will act with intention and mindfulness to use technology to make human life better. To infuse our days, and those of others, with quality, the kind that imbues purpose and meaning and, in the reflective moments, even connects us with wonder.
Which brings us back to this moment. The one in which sticky jam hands are drawing oh so near to the ipad where I’m drafting my sermon, and in which my husband and I are likely to meet on the highway to swap caregiving roles, and in which I will run OR write, and will assuredly think about thorny problems while I do either.
Here, in this space, I find that even with a clear sense of hope and possibility, what’s missing amid all of this integrating is a clear sense of limit.
It’s true, in my experience, that this “integration” stuff—blending my life with . . . well, my life—it means more energy, and more joy.
But the price of cross-pollination, at least the way it’s happening in this house, is more tasks. Just as we should not expect church membership to bring with it an economy of scale—more members bring more energy demands more programs invites more services creates more costs—don’t believe for a minute that these invigorating conversations and meaningful connections of the “integration” model are going to do anything but ask more of you, in a net sense.
And more tasks? Well, friends, no new discoveries here. Eventually, something’s gotta give.
Yes, I am blessed to have these conversations and inspired to do this reading and grateful for these opportunities . . . and even so, my to do list has not morphed into a melting pot of productivity. A walk with a glitter leaf constitutes a success only in my own mind, or, if he’s feeling particularly generous, that of my four-year-old. Ditto saving the hamster from certain death, cannily avoiding a parking ticket, paying the one from last year that I forgot to avoid, changing out of pajamas into yoga pants and then into dress clothes like some sort of underaccessorized superhero. Even writing stuff (look, we’re on to adult tasks here) doesn’t magically “count” for any person who’s not directly benefiting from it.
Fact: I work for inspiring, butt-kicking women in service-dedicated, person-first institutions. But people, reasonably, still want their stuff done. And that includes the tiny people. There’s just more stuff now, and more people, and I have, maybe, more of a smile on my face. Yet ten hats are ten hats, too much is too much, and I have found many of the tasks of mommyhood to be utterly insoluble in the waters in which we swim.
Further, I attend a cutting-edge seminary, but cutting edge also means in-the-process-of-creation. In this evolving reality, it is on us to envision—and speak to—what the future might look like, especially where there’s a reason to push the door open just a bit wider.
Where is the potential for integration in this?
I’m still thinking about that. And in the meantime, I’m breathing through stress and caffeinating through tiredness and shifting my to do list in my head yet again . . . and I am also remembering about the need to put on one’s own oxygen mask.
There must be limits. We must make choices.
Including the choice of how to respond when “work life integration” is handed to us not as a point of exploration, but as a slippery non-answer to a request for consideration.
When that moment next comes,
We might choose to take what’s offered.
We might choose to view technology as another way to enforce scarcity.
Or we might just hand those shiny words back, raise our voices again, and ask that our real, live, bad mama selves be accommodated.
Because that, in this time and place, would be an integration worth seeing.
*A sparkle leaf, friends, might once have been an actual fallen leaf . . . and is now an admirably horrific combination of wet paint, microglitter, and all of the hopes and prayers of your four year old. Good luck with that.