All the Single Ladies, Married Men, and… Everyone Else: Resisting the Mentality of "Total Work"


Balancing career and family should not be framed as a women’s issue. All people—male or female, married or single—must draw boundaries between their work and their personal life, for their own good and the good of society.

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I appreciate Rachel Lu’s honest quest to discuss families and work. It’s a topic that I have discussed in public many times, and I have often been met with hostility simply for stating that men and women are different.I am glad that Lu grapples honestly with this fact.

Lu does not, however, address two key points that merit discussion and reflection. First, men also sacrifice their careers for their families. Second, single or childless women also should be encouraged to pursue personal commitments beyond their careers.

Men Must Balance Career and Family Obligations Too

Unfortunately, the phrase “sacrificing for your family” is generally used to describe women’s lives, not men’s. When I first starting writing about work-family balance, I presumed that my audience was predominantly made up of women. But my office and my email inbox filled up with men telling me that they too desire more time for family and leisure. I started paying attention to what the men around me said. “Meeting this deadline is really hurting my family life.” “I regret not paying enough attention to my kids when they were younger. I want to make up for lost time.” “I’ve given up so much personal time for my career. Is it really worth the sacrifice?”

Because of these discussions, I’ve also learned to be more attentive to men’s personal needs. For example, when I organized the speaker series at the University of North Carolina, I worked hard to arrange a one-night stay instead of a two-night stay for a speaker who had a two-year-old child at home and was five months pregnant. When I offered the same option to men, every single one decided to only stay over one night instead of two. Men’s relationship obligations may not stick out like a pregnant belly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Why should husbands and fathers be away from home more than is absolutely required?

Women supervisors and colleagues need to listen when men say things like, “I wish I had more time for my wife and kids.” Women teaching and leading young men need to encourage those men to give importance to their personal lives, teaching them how to delegate some tasks to others in order to spend more time at home.

The professional world—at least the professional world I’ve known inside of academia—is highly competitive. Whether you are a man or a woman, if you let it, your career will take every last breath, every last minute, and still tell you that you aren’t good enough. As a woman, if you sacrifice your career for your family, you may be critiqued, but no one will really be surprised. If you are a man, and you pass up a promotion for the sake of your family, will your colleagues understand you? Will your wife even acknowledge your sacrifice?

Talking about how women sacrifice for their families covers up the many unacknowledged and unappreciated sacrifices men make for their families. Women’s choices are supported by a cultural narrative (what Rachel Lu calls “The Tolstoyan Ideal”) that says it is good for women to choose family over work. If men make the same choice, it’s much harder for them to find a cultural narrative that supports their choice.

Balancing career and family should not be framed as a women’s issue. It’s a family issue. Understanding my argument requires seeing the good of marriage as the unity of persons, not the sum of the good of the individuals in that marriage. Marriage is about unity of purpose, which requires the sacrifice of some individual goods. There is no good marriage without sacrifice by both people.

Single People and the "Total Work" Mentality

Too much of the discussion about women and work assumes an overly simplistic division between the needs of married women and those of single women. It is not only married women and men with children who struggle with work-family balance—single women and men do too. Personal commitments are not limited to raising children. Of course, being a working mom is extremely challenging. But to tell single or childless women, or, for that matter, single or childless men, that they don’t have to make career sacrifices for the sake of their personal lives is damaging to their full development as human persons.

Whether one is a man or a woman, married or single, childless or raising children, every person needs a fulfilling life outside of work. Today’s careers demand all you will give—and I don’t just mean your time, I mean the very core of your identity. We live in the era of what philosopher Josef Pieper called the world of “total work,” in which our identity is so tied up with the product of our work that we forget to nurture our contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable sides.

Pieper points out that Karl Marx denied the existence of the supernatural, centering man’s identity on the product of his work. Pieper forcefully argues that anyone, from any profession, who identifies themselves primarily with the product of their work becomes a proletarian. We need leisure time to enrich our work time so that we can focus on the creative process, not just the product, of work. In the end, we will be judged by the love we put into our work, not by the perfection we achieved in our work.

Every person has to resist the world of total work for his own good and the good of society, which thrives on public forms of leisure, celebration, and worship. Single people of both sexes should draw boundaries around their work, pursue strong relationships with their families and friends, and build their nurturing and emotional side. We should encourage our colleagues to do the same, voicing our support for the decision to draw a larger circle around protected personal time and personal commitments.

The Importance of Friendship

Working women and stay-at-home women need to love and support each other. Women need to drop the comparisons with other women, which nearly always carry implicit critiques of other women’s choices. We need to counter the cultural narratives that try to fit all women into one box. Just like families should support and celebrate each other’s successes, women of all family situations should support and celebrate each other’s personal and professional triumphs.

With degrees from Yale and Princeton, all of my friends are highly intelligent women, but we have all followed different paths. No one critiques anyone’s choice or path—at least not any more, since we have all had to suffer ups and downs in our vocations. We each admire some things the others have. We all celebrate each other's milestones—whether that be a new baby, a book, a new home, or a promotion. Some of us travel and give public talks, staying on top of our professional game. Others are raising families, sacrificing for their husband’s career, and taking care of aging parents.

Regardless of the paths we have taken, women deeply desire to bond with other women, and to hear about each other’s successes and failures. But we live in such an individualistic society that as our family and work obligations grow, we lose time for friendships. We live in such a competitive society, we hardly have the safe spaces needed to unveil our vulnerabilities.

Having friendships with women that span the spectrum of family and work situations has taught me that each path has its stresses, joys, fulfillment, and disappointments. No one person can have it all, but if you have a close group of friends, you can rejoice in all the good things in life—because others you know will have the good things you don’t have, or don’t have right now, or could have had but gave up.

I’ve also learned that relationships with husbands and children, as great as they are, do not fulfill every personal need women have. Women need close friends. Women need fellowship and support given by other women. As women, we can hug each other, cry to each other, and send each other emails with lots of smiley faces and exclamation points. We can be squishy, emotional, and giggly with other women in ways that we most often are not with our male colleagues, or sometimes even with our husbands. Women connect to women in ways that are different than the ways we connect to men.

I think the same holds true for men. The world of total work has nearly obliterated male friendships. To be a good husband and father today, you had better dedicate every free moment to your wife and children. But what have we lost, now that men don’t have time for friendships? Are marriages and families really better off when wives and husbands have no other close friends outside of their relationship? I think not. In part because men and women are different, we crave same-sex friendships.

Meaningful, Loving Relationships: Pursuing Higher Goods

I suggest we stop framing the work-family debate in terms of achievement—whether that be some achievement in the work sphere or by subtly framing marriage and children as yet another thing to be achieved. Instead, we should frame the debate in terms of the highest goods that all men and women desire—starting with meaningful relationships. Equating meaningful relationships with marriage is like letting the world of “total work” have everything except marriage. But if we have ceded that much territory to total work, what’s to stop “total work” from taking over all of our personal lives? I fear, in fact, that the world of “total work” is making the family less and less like a true domestic sphere—a sphere of enjoyment, vulnerability, and unconditional love. In the world of total work, even the family is judged in utilitarian terms.

Achievement is good and should be celebrated. But love is a higher good, and one that we need to cherish and nurture.

By starting the debate with the premises of liberal individualism, we ignore the mentality of “total work” that makes it so hard for men and women, single and married, with children or not, to find a narrative to justify sacrificing one’s career for one’s personal life. In this country, we certainly have a narrative of the value of work—and in many ways, that narrative of hard work and pursuing excellence is good. But we lack a cultural narrative that protects the true domestic sphere—the sphere of leisure rightly understood as contemplation, awe, and meaningful relationships with God and others.

We are not called to bring “total work” into our leisure time, but we are called to bring leisure into our work lives. Only by nurturing our full humanity, and then bringing that full humanity into our workplaces, can we adopt the right attitude toward our work. If we elevate both our work and our leisure to a supernatural level, then the good we do and the beauty we experience will be even deeper. Ultimately, it’s not the material value of our work that matters, it is the love with which we do it.

By integrating an authentic view of leisure into both our work and our personal lives, we can unite our personal good with the good of others. Then maybe we—not I, and not you—but we can have it all.

Margarita Mooney is an Associate Research Scientist in the Sociology Department at Yale University.

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