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Why is work/life balance so tough? Because it’s made up

Nicole Xu

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Carrie Lane, professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton, provided an historical overview of American work history to foreground a discussion about why a different understanding of work can benefit us as individuals and as a society. Amber Murphy, a St. Louis native with personal experiences to share around challenging the work/life binary, also joined the show.

The term “work/life balance” is now so commonplace, it almost feels natural. But the separation of work from life – taking a work call versus taking a walk after meals, for instance; or cleaning up post-job versus cleaning up after a child or elder – hasn’t always existed the way we know it nowadays. Even casual conversation with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances shows how that binary framing of work versus life has tangible consequences.

Here's some of what Lane and Murphy had to say on the show.

Lane: “The pandemic reminded us that the boundary between work, and life has always been really, really messy. All of a sudden, you had some people having to leave the home to go work, and who was going to look after their kids when they weren't in school … or look after any other dependents in the household and manage the life at home while they were out in the dangerous situation of working during a pandemic? And then you had other folks, if they had constructed this boundary for themselves between work and the rest of their lives, that just fell apart because all of a sudden, they were, if they were lucky, they still had a job and they were working from home. But they were [also] doing all of the other stuff of homemaking at the exact same time. So I think it just revealed to us how tenuous that boundary has always been, something we seem to keep forgetting every couple decades, and then reminding ourselves.”

Murphy: “Before having kids, I already felt sort of frustrated by the division between work and life – this idea that I had to put my job hat on and go to work, I had to leave my home and look a certain way and act a certain way in that space. It just always sort of left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. Having kids, I was able to kind of move away from that half-way. A lot of it for me has to do [with] a bit of a feminist perspective. Although I'm with my children part time, it's important to me that they see me working, that I am able to stay financially independent, and that I have my own interests and sort of goals outside of my home and outside of my children. It's the best balance I've been able to come up with.”

Lane: “What if work wasn't structured in a way that we felt like we needed permission to have work not be the complete center of our lives? What if we accepted that people's lives are a lot bigger than their work, and that we can still be great, productive valued workers; and [were] able to say, ‘You know what, right now, I'm going to step back a little bit – either go part-time or stop doing all the extra work…’ or whatever shape that might take for an individual?”

For more about the historical dynamic between work and life, and what navigating that relationship can look like, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Why is work/life balance so tough? Because it’s made up

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Elaine Cha is the host/producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.