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Crystal, centre, and Manfred Grunling, right, duscuss the evening's schedule as sons Myles, 16, (seated) and Colin, 14, quickly eat their dinner before a soccer practice in Edmonton, on Monday, June 14, 2010. (John Ulan for The Globe and Mail)
Crystal, centre, and Manfred Grunling, right, duscuss the evening's schedule as sons Myles, 16, (seated) and Colin, 14, quickly eat their dinner before a soccer practice in Edmonton, on Monday, June 14, 2010. (John Ulan for The Globe and Mail)

Work-life balance? Can that cliché Add to ...

The issue of work-life balance has become a bore. Trust me. I've been writing about it since the 1990s, and I've finally decided to throw in the towel and admit that not only is balance not what it seems, but the lack of it isn't either.

This may sound like heresy in the face of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing report this week that 20 per cent of us feel we are in a worsening "time crunch," that many of us are not having any fun in our so-called leisure hours as our national parks go unexplored and fewer and fewer of us (a shocking 5 per cent!) engage in cultural activities. Instead we are stuck on a brutal 24/7 treadmill with work, childcare and eldercare (sometimes both at the same time) occupying our waking hours.

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And as Roy Romanow pointed out in releasing this report, women continue to bear the brunt of this time crunch.

That's nothing new. You could say working mothers invented the cri de coeur for work-life balance when they realized that if they didn't push for saner working hours they might never get to see the children they had given birth to. And the alarm only deepened when American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild described the "second shift" in which women would come home after a hard day at work and shoulder most of the domestic burdens as well.

That still applies, although working fathers have begun to share more of the kiddie care, if not necessarily the housework.

But the time crunch is episodic, with parents of young children smack in the crucible. If you've been through it, no one can forget that panic of waking up on the morning of a pivotal work meeting and realizing with a sinking heart your child is sick and your plans have been detonated. Or the bone-tired exhaustion you feel after coming home from work and literally not sitting down until your kids have been to the park, dinner has been taken care of and the bedtime stories have been read.

There is another intense blip when you have to be hands-on with elderly parents.

But kids grow up, parents sadly die, and then you can't believe how much time you have. In fact, I wonder why I haven't invented a cure for cancer or at least written a best-selling detective trilogy.

So the time crunch is not a way of life, it's a stage. The real issue is not work-life balance, but as one astute contributor to The Globe's live Web chat on the subject pointed out this week, "separation" between work and the rest of life. And here, no matter what stage we're at, we're failing.

Technology, not tyrannical bosses, has become our overlord. Don't ask for whom the ping tolls. And so we see a mother and father and their two adorable daughters at a sushi restaurant, with neither of the parents lifting their heads from their BlackBerrys, even when the food arrives. It made my heart ache.

Or we forgo that evening walk through a leafy park as dusk deepens because after dinner we've ambled over to the home computer where we will be "just a minute." Two hours later, we've answered utterly banal office e-mails or surfed the Net looking for something to fulfill our emotional needs when it never will.

Everyone I know does this. And they wonder where the time has gone. We need to get out of our heads. Whether it's canoeing, running a marathon or attending live theatre, we are the arbiters of our leisure life and it's up to us to make enriching choices. If we don't, the results are disastrous - physical inactivity, loneliness and a feeling of being disconnected from who we really are.

Work-life balance isn't going to be solved just by some bosses throwing up an onsite daycare or grudgingly allowing flex time. In fact, it's never going to be solved. There are simply periods of our lives when the burdens will be intense and, especially for parents of young children, we're going to have to demonstrate by doing it that we can be both excellent workers and excellent parents. If you take the time off to attend a child's soccer game and you come back the next day and do great work, then no boss has the right to complain.

Even though there are more and more bosses who understand this, "work-life balance" continues to be one of the top complaints that HR people deal with. Companies are never as family-friendly as they claim to be or even strive to be, and workers should keep looking for bosses who understand, as Freud once pointed out, that you need both love and work in equal measure to be happy. And love - self-love, family love, love of one's partner - needs nurturing. We should continue to push for fair parental leave and humane treatment of our personal problems in the workplace.

But work-life balance itself has become a cliché, an all-purpose catchphrase, and a way of avoiding personal responsibility for making healthy choices. Let's find a fresh new way to approach this issue. Or at least go for a walk in the park tonight and think about doing so.

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