The Myth of Work/Life Balance

I promised readers a guest post exploring how one interpreter-researcher manages his work/life balance, and here it is!

The Myth of Work/Life Balance

Starring: A Young Family, Interpreting, Research and Lots of Cups of Tea

by Jonathan Downie*

As I type this, my pregnant wife is reading to our nearly fifteen month old son, I am fighting a cold and preparing for an interpreting job that will last almost all of next week and there are at least three research conferences that need my attention, especially given that for one of them, I still don’t know where I will be staying. Add on the fact that I have about an hour’s worth of research interviews to transcribe and it might seem that life is pretty crazy at the moment. It is.

When I was asked to write a guest post, the first topic that was suggested was how to balance researching, interpreting and having a family. My first response, which I didn’t dare say, was that I am not sure I know how to do this myself. The reality is that it has usually been the case that when family or research demanded more of my time, interpreting work was slow anyway. I also made the decision not to do any overnight interpreting or research conferences for the first year of my son’s life. So, it was more a case of the scales being loaded one way or the other than achieving anything that an outsider would call “balance”.

But then, perhaps balance is overrated anyway. Even in the completely crazy times, like this month where everything seems to be happening at once, or like the eight days I spent in Germany for data gathering, it has never been a case of starving one part of my life to feed another. In fact, as far as possible, I have deliberately tried not to divide my life into “parts” that I try to “balance”. Instead, I have tried (and not always succeeded) to act as one person with one life that involves all of these areas rather than three or four people trying to live together in one body. In short, I try to centre everything on family, even to the point of taking my wife and son on a data gathering trip, which became a holiday for them.

I also don’t make decisions on my time on my own. Whenever something comes up that would have me away from the house overnight or even just missing my son’s bed time, I talk it through with my wife and we decide together. That way, it is much easier to resist the siren song of overwork and the lure of getting self-worth from activities, even good ones, that would distance me from my family.

It also helps me work harder. As a big social media fan and enthusiastic blogger, it is easy, all too easy, for me to spend hours on Facebook when I have data to work on or a conference to prepare for. On the days I work from home, it really helps to have someone to kindly remind me, every so often, that Facebook doesn’t pay the bills and that paid projects should take precedence over unpaid ones.

The biggest unspoken benefit of freelancing is that, when we get to work from home, we get to be present with our families and to share our work world with them. While we might occasionally moan about distractions and might want to barricade ourselves in the home office for eight hours a day, the reality is that working from home automatically melts the work/family barrier. I believe that is a good thing. Sure, we might not be as “productive” as we imagine we might be in a workplace[1] but what could be more rewarding than getting to earn money to keep a roof over your head while getting to spend time with the people you love the most?

Freelancers also get to set their own pace, within reason. I am off interpreting from Tuesday to Friday next week. As long as I get the prep work done on time, I can choose whichever hours work best to get it done. So, if my son needs a hug or if my brain needs a bit of writing to wake it up, no big deal. My son can get his hug and then he can go play with his toys while I play with IATE.

As well as melting the work/family barrier, freelancing also then gives us a unique level of flexibility and maybe our use of that flexibility is the closest we might get to what some people call “balance”. The truth is, you can’t give a toddler lunch and do terminology research at the same time, as much as it might be fun to try. You can, however, be patient over lunch time and allow time with your toddler to let your terminology settle into your brain. After all, a relaxed brain is a learning brain.

And what about research? Well, for most of this week, research hasn’t really figured on my agenda. That’s okay. As my wife reminded me, you can only do so much. One of the benefits of being a part-time PhD student is that I get flexibility there too. If I am off for a week interpreting, no problem. If anything, given that my PhD is in interpreting, it is a win-win as I get a nice reminder of what it is like to be in the booth, working under the very same weights of expectation that I am researching. Separating research and paid work makes no sense at all when they are so closely related.

To use two words that are big in research-land at the moment, instead of balance, what I am always looking for is “engagement” and “collaboration”. The first simply means that people outside of an area, say academia or interpreting, get to discuss and debate what is going on there whenever it involves them. My family have a right to be “engaged” with my work and research life since the decisions made in those areas have a direct effect on my time with them and the amount of finance coming in.

“Collaboration” goes one step further and sees us working as a team. It might be something as simple as my wife giving me the “lay person” view on a research problem I am facing or as complex and long-term as making sure we are working together as parents and as a couple. The longer we are married, the more I realise that the greatest moments aren’t found when I have gone off and achieved something on my own but when my wife and I have worked together on something. The greatest views are the ones we have shared, not the ones I saw on my own.

The problem with looking for a “work/life balance” is that it assumes that your life can and should be split into slices, which then get shared out like pieces of chocolate cake. The problem is, of course, that there is always someone or something pushing for a bigger slice. Often, what we call “work/life balance” is simply a calculation of how much sacrifice we can ask our families to make before disaster happens.

If our families are engaged with our work in creative ways and we are engaged with their lives too, something interesting happens. Even in those moments when we can’t be with them physically, as will happen when you interpret or when you are away doing research, you do those things with the help of your family and with their blessing. Instead of “work” and “life” pulling in different directions, our aim should always be to make every part of our lives into a single, coherent whole. It’s not easy, and we will make mistakes but even the journey to get there is worth it.

[1] Anyone who has ever done both will tell you that workplaces aren’t always as productive as you might think. All those watercooler chats, team meetings, sneaky games of solitaire, trips to other offices and times spent waiting for approvals add up!


Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your story! For more stories from interpreters about how they address the issue of work/life balance, check out these links (and don’t forget to read the comments):

Being a travelling interpreter, spouse, mom and friend (Elisabet Tiselius at Interpretings)

A call for childrearing interpreters (Matt Haldimann at 2Interpreters)

Work-life balance: not as simple as it sounds (Anne-Kirstin Krämer at The AIIC Blog)

*Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, PhD student and blogger. He is also a director on the board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. He co-edits the LifeinLINCS blog for the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University and has recently launched RockYourTalk, a blog which aims to help academic, languages professionals and preachers deliver talks that work  for the social media generation.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of Work/Life Balance

  1. When I started interpreting I was concerned about the freelance trap of taking on all the work I was offered ’cause you might have a slow time later. I decided early on I wanted a life besides terping so I make personal plans and if they conflict with a job that’s offered later I just don’t accept it (unless my plans are VERY easily postponed). I feel more in control of my life doing that and have found I always have enough to cover the bills.

  2. Pingback: Weekly favorites (July 29-Aug 11) | Lingua Greca Translations

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