Viv Groskop is on hand to solve your weekly woes


Dear Viv: work/life balance, what the hell is that?

In this week's episode of Waving, Not Drowning, Viv discusses the elusive concept of a work/life balance, other people's parenting, language barriers and a cat custody battle

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

Work/life balance: what the hell is that then?

There’s nothing like a succinct question to get things off to a flying start. Questions to Dear Viv come in all shapes and sizes, and I like to take them as I find them and this is how you phrased your question and thus I will let it stand. I sense a lot of anger in your two-sentence (almost) non-question. Plus sarcasm and frustration. These are all things that are commonly voiced around the issue of work/life balance and rightly so. Because, if ever there were an oxymoronic phrase in the English language, this is it.

I’m going to come at your question from a slightly different angle and rephrase it: “Why do we even pretend there is such a thing as work/life balance?” I have long suspected that there is in fact no such thing and I speak as someone who has not had a proper job for over 15 years. If anyone were going to discover work/life balance, then I – being an independent freelance person with no boss other than myself – would surely have discovered it. And, believe me, even when you’re left to your own devices, with no boss to answer to, it’s still extremely elusive. Example: I am drafting this reply to you at quarter to one in the morning. Do not judge me.

Let’s ask some more questions here. Why do you care about work/life balance? Why do you think anyone else has achieved it? What changes would you have to make to your life in order to get it? Why haven’t you already made those changes? I’ve learnt not to worry too much about work/life balance because I think it comes and goes and, as long as you have some degree of work and life combined, and not just exclusively one or the other, then I think you’re doing pretty well. It’s unrealistic to think that work and life will be in harmony most of the time. If you achieve that some of the time, then please do write a book about it, because I would like to know.

On the plus side, your question is valid and useful because it means you’re evaluating your life and ready, perhaps, for change. Are you asking because you’re working too hard at the moment and are looking for ways to cut back? That has to be why you’ve asked this question. Cutting back on work always seems like an unattainable goal, but it can be done. You might just need to make some radical changes to your schedule and to your expectations. Without knowing your situation, here are some things that can facilitate restoring work-life balance in the short-term: extra childcare; borrowing some money to free up some of your time; taking a work sabbatical to break the cycle of overworking; experimenting with delegating work to colleagues; talking to your boss about how some of your workload could be reduced; asking if you can go on to a four-day week for a trial period... Get creative. Make some changes just as an experiment. When you say: “Work/life balance. What the hell is that then?”, what you are really asking is this: why do I have to put up with this hell? And the answer is: you don’t. But the only person who can move out of that hell is you.

Dear Viv,

I was quite young when I had my son and most of my friends were zero tolerance on making allowances for babies. It didn't really bother us – we just took him to the pub/restaurant/wherever with us. But now my son is a teenager and my friends have small children, they expect everyone else to fit in around "Baby's schedule" – even if that means eating lunch at midday. One mum friend in particular is so dictatorial about it, it's almost impossible to go out with them. I've tried speaking to her about it, but just get a lecture about the importance of routine...

Yay! It’s a Gina Ford question! Yay! I’ve been waiting for a Gina Ford question to come in for some time and finally it has arrived. In case anyone doesn’t know what I’m going on about, Gina Ford is the childcare guru who advocates keeping babies to a strict routine. Eating lunch at midday is the tip of the iceberg. The lunch would almost certainly have to be eaten in the home, as the baby would be going down for their nap in their own room with regulation blackout blinds. The baby would not be allowed to have a sleep in a pram in the pub in case the sleep is not of sufficient quality and that disrupts the routine. Ah, my youngest child may be four now, but I know my Gina Ford.

My favourite bit of Gina Ford was the way it said in the book: 7am: Wake up. 7.05am: Eat a piece of toast. I always remember thinking, “What if I don’t want some toast? What if I want something else? And why only five minutes from waking up to getting into the kitchen to make toast? I need more time.”

But your question is about something more important than toast. It has two parts, really: (a) is it important, valuable or even essential to put a baby on a routine? and (b) more pertinently for you, what do you do if you find your parenting style is at odds with that of your friends? I’ll answer that bit first. I’m afraid you have to keep your mouth shut unless your friends with small children specifically ask your advice. I know this is an extremely annoying situation and they should just get over themselves, but unfortunately you need to let them make their own mistakes. Or maybe they’re not making a mistake – they’re just doing what’s right for them. We all behave in weird ways when we are parents – especially when we are clueless new parents – and we all just have to do whatever it takes to get through, even if this means behaving like a complete mentalist. If this means that your friends drive you so crazy with their routines and their lectures, then you might have to take a break with them for a while. Maybe until their children start school.

As to the question of routine and who’s right, you or your friend, this really is a question of taste and personality. I sympathise with your contempt for the obsession with routine and I remember how frustrated I was that I really wanted to get out of the house at lunchtime when I had a new baby and it was really hard to find other new mothers who would abandon the routine and just let their baby sleep in the pram for a few hours in the middle of the day. But, on the other hand, I did use Gina Ford routines in a haphazard way myself with all three of my children and there were times when these routines gave me back my sanity.

So, be patient and compassionate towards your clock-watching friends and maybe try and cultivate some other new friends who don’t have little tyrants dictating their every move. One final word on Gina Ford: let it not be forgotten that these are techniques developed by a nanny looking after someone else’s children as part of their paid employment. This is not the same as looking after your own child, a job which you’re not paid for and where you can never clock off and where being a bit obsessive and mad goes with the territory. Use the techniques if they help you. But if they don’t help you or appeal, it doesn’t make you a failure.

You can hear the answers to these and the following questions on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

My boyfriend's mum is Spanish and I speak “un poco” at best. I'm supposed to meet her for the first time this summer – how can I survive a weekend visit?

Dear Viv,

I just broke up with my girlfriend, who’s moving out when she finds a new place (staying with a friend for now). Break-ups are hard, but worst of all, she wants to take our cat, Philippe, with her. Now I loved my girlfriend, but (I can say it out loud now) I love Philippe more. How can we negotiate this cat custody battle? I don’t think Philippe would want to move out!

Got a question for Viv? Email her at The Dear Viv podcast airs on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

Viv Groskop is on hand to solve your weekly woes
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