How I've ditched 'work-life balance' in favor of 'work-life integration.'
'Work-life balance' is such a buzzy phrase these days, especially for working mothers. The problem is that it implies you can 'do it all,' and that juggling a perfect balancing act of separate work and personal life is a goal that's somehow achievable. We think it looks like a balanced day of equal parts allocated to work and family, when the reality looks more like a toddler pulling out the contents of a nearby cupboard as you work to meet a deadline or trying to look put together on Zoom with a baby nursing just out of frame.
It's strange to call this 'balance' when we're really just trying to make it through the day without dropping a spinning plate. What's even more strange is that we wear our packed schedules and baggy eyes like a badge of honor. And because what constitutes balance is an ever-moving target, it is inevitably doomed to fail and leads to disappointment and mom guilt.
Let's set the record straight. Doing it all is not a badge of honor. As a mother of five young daughters and a career entrepreneur now leading Saalt, a sustainable period care company with the mission to end period poverty, I'm here to liberate working mothers everywhere and tell you that work-life balance simply doesn't exist.
It's time to ditch the mom guilt and shift your attention to what you're doing well rather than what's falling through the cracks. Instead of striving for the elusive work-life balance, I'm recommending three ways to embrace 'work-life integration,' which blends work and personal life and centers on doing less—but better.
1. Simplify your time to what matters most.
You simply can't do everything well. You'll spread yourself too thin trying to balance too many demands. Yet I believe you can find personal fulfillment and achieve great success in a few key areas if you optimize the hustle and grind of your workday to focus on what's most important to you first.
Let's be real—this means cutting things out and making tradeoffs in areas you enjoy in order to make room for what matters most. Before founding our startup, I used to grow a large garden, home-can the beautiful harvest, and host a whole lot of home-cooked meals. Then, changing the lives of women and girls in need with better period care became a stronger presence in my life. Once we grew from a team of six to thirty-six in our third year and I took on the role of CEO, my once lush garden simplified to two grow boxes, I seldom home-can, and I only host meals on birthdays and holidays.
For you, it might look like exercising at home to save the commute to the gym, hiring house cleaning help, arranging with friends to cover after-school chauffeuring, or utilizing grocery delivery and meal services to get dinner on the table. It's up to you to decide what needs to go so the vital areas that bring you the most fulfillment can stay.
For me, those key areas that get my time and attention are my personal growth, health, family, and impact for good in the world. I start each day with a steadfast morning routine that devotes time to each area before diving into work by grounding myself through affirmations and exercise, being fully present for my spouse and children until school drop-off, and listening to inspiring books on my commute. When I take the time to fill my own cup before giving energy to my work, I find I'm better equipped to handle tasks with purpose and perspective. Once you've first prioritized what's most important to you and your family, it doesn't really matter how the rest of your day goes, because you started out already feeling fulfilled. It's really a beautiful way to live.
2. Find creative solutions.
Let me be clear—while this habit will help turn average days into accomplished ones, it doesn't necessarily relieve the stress of struggling to focus during a meeting while a tiny hand is trying to steal your keyboard. Being a mom and having a career do not have to be mutually exclusive, but to make it work, we as female leaders and entrepreneurs must take the lead on finding tangible, creative solutions in the workplace that ditch antiquated work models and support working mothers.
Take the high cost of childcare, which is one of the biggest barriers for mothers who want to work. I remember working tirelessly in 2016 to get our startup off the ground while also caring for our large family. With our two youngest daughters still at home during the day, it was difficult to find time to make it to the office where our growing team also needed me. That often meant bringing them to the office where my husband and I switched off keeping them busy with activities and snacks by our side. Motivated to find a solution, we founded a free, on-site preschool, available five days a week for the working parents on our team—many of whom also have young children.
Today, we employ three teachers and dedicate nearly 10% of our office space to the preschool, and it's been worth every penny. The result is high employee buy-in that is a win-win for both our company and team. Our working parents are grateful for the chance to further their careers while still seeing their children throughout the workday and knowing their kids are in a positive learning environment while they work.
3. Make work work for your life.
I strongly believe in making work integrate with your life, which means mixing personal needs and healthy habits throughout the work day. This might look like taking wellness walks on breaks, lunching with friends, or practicing breathing and mindful meditation exercises to mitigate afternoon burnout. For those with the ability to shape their work hours, you might keep a non-traditional schedule that allows you to be present for your children at school pickup and sports with a few hours put in after dinner or bedtime.
At Saalt, we've chosen to encourage work-life integration for our team with robust benefits that support real needs, like wellness budgets and a very liberal time-off policy that holistically addresses the needs of working parents by simply allowing paid personal and sick leave when it's needed, no questions asked.
For our 85% female staff, Saalt's commitment to a pro-family culture alleviates the burden of family obligations that disproportionately affect women, especially through pandemic-related challenges, like virtual schooling. Not only does this culture benefit our current team, but it has also allowed us to tap into stellar female talent who may not otherwise be in the workplace. With women accounting for the entirety of all 140,000 net job losses in December 2020, addressing family needs head-on as a means to revive the workforce is non-negotiable. Our team knows they can take time during the day for dentist appointments and after-school activities, and they're happy to start work earlier or create their own hours to have that flexibility. When you integrate flexibility for families, you don't have to sacrifice results or quality.
Friends, let's do this.
In the United States, where working moms have some of the most deficient support systems of the developed world, making meaningful progress may feel like an uphill battle. But I'm optimistic. Why? Because by nature, we working mothers are creative, we're resourceful, we're strong, and we're resilient. We know how to find solutions, to question the status quo, and to pave a better way for our children. This might mean waking up earlier in the day for quiet time to ourselves, or advocating for a pro-family workplace or maternity leave where progress is lacking (look to Alysia's story for a dose of inspiration).
If we don't advocate for ourselves, who will? No matter how we approach our days, let's stop being hard on ourselves and recognize that doing what's important and most fulfilling is better than trying to do it all.