In real life, that is.
Based on my experience, the answer is -- no. No one but you (and hopefully your significant other) cares about your work-life balance.
There is never a scarcity of conversation about work-life balance in the blogosphere, especially for working mothers. There is no shortage of opinion regarding whether it is ethical enough or feminist enough for highly educated women to work part time or drop careers altogether -- people believe that educated women owe it to the society or other women or future generations of boys and girls to keep working; other people believe that women owe nothing to anyone except themselves and their families, and are perfectly within their rights to SAHM their kids and thereby find fulfillment. Whatever your take is on these issues, this post is NOT about them.
I am fairly exhausted by the recent flurry of blogosphere activity on work-life balance that was sparked by a New York Times article written by Dr Karen Sibert. Several bloggers I know have taken a stab at the article (Historiann, Isis, Cloud, and others), and it seems that Dr S does not have many supporters for her "suck it up and keep working full time, you owe it to the patients/society" message. Instead, there is an overwhelming outrage at the thought that doctors should sacrifice personal life for the profession and there are numerous calls for making work hours more humane and general practice more appealing, so the shortage of primary care doctors would not be blamed on female doctors who work part-time.
One reason for my exhaustion (besides obviously reading too many comments on too many blogs) is the fact that all these calls for balance are, when you think of it and with all due respect, painfully redundant, futile, and ultimately irrelevant. All the well-meaning commenters are preaching to the choir; in reality, the whopping 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and nonexistent tax-breaks for exorbitant childcare expenses are all you need to know about how much this society really values working mothers. In societies where working parents are considered worthwhile humans and workers, there are accommodations for work-life balance, especially parents caring for small children. Here, it's not the case, and we can all blog our hearts out, it means nothing.
In my experience, the only people who seem to be concerned (or at least say that they are) with anyone's work-life balance but their own can be found in the blogosphere. Certainly no one with whom I am in regular contact in real life gives a rat's ass about my work-life balance: whether I have any, whether I would like to have a different one, whether I face any hardship in achieving any semblance thereof. Everyone in this glorious society is too busy, and presumably too exhausted and overstretched, to think about anyone but themselves.
I am in a medium-size department (~40 faculty) in a discipline that is considered extremely macho. In my department, there are 5 women faculty. Of the 5 women, 4 are tenured: two women are senior to me (full profs), one is roughly my contemporary (we are both associate profs), and one is a few years junior, up for tenure soon (assistant prof). All the women are married. The two full professor women had kids after they had received tenure. I came to the TT with one kid in tow, and I had another one midway through the tenure track. The other two women are childfree.
I remain the only female faculty who has ever had a kid on the tenure track.
I remember mentioning this fact in the presence of the assistant professor woman; there were other people around. She rushed to point out that a male colleague of ours (who has a stay-at-home wife), also had a kid (also No 2 for him) on the tenure track. While new fathers do suffer some sleep deprivation in the baby's first year, it is NOT the same as for a new mother, especially one who breastfeeds. This male colleague had no problem working 12-hour days starting the week his kid was born (perhaps hiding from the baby at work?) I was a complete zombie for many months after birth, definitely not 100% -- physically or mentally. What truly pissed me off was that the first reaction of my female colleague (who btw says she wants to have kids, but is waiting for tenure) was to trivialize my experience. I didn't want to continue the conversation and regurgitate the tired (but true) spiel of how women have it harder than men when the child is born -- whoever does not see that does not want to see it. But I remember this situation as one of many in which I have found the female camaraderie to be completely nonexistent.
My collaborators are overwhelmingly male (95% of them). A number of them are close to my age, having 2 or 3 kids. They all have stay-at-home wives, or wives working only part-time (e.g. giving a few piano lessons per week). My husband works full time.
Over the years, the subject of work-life balance came up a few times with my male collaborators, and after a few sentences I see they no longer want to talk about it. They consider my job and my obligations to be exactly like those they have and when there emerges a hint that they may not exactly be the same, I suppose they want to avoid yet another crazy woman rant/vent/whine-a-palooza and rush to change the subject.
I wish that I could tell my male colleagues that, in addition to all the work at the actual job that I have to do, which is the same as theirs, I am still mommy and do all the non-negotiable-mommy duties that their wives do and a significant load of chores. I don't know how much my male colleagues with stay-at-home or part-time working wives do at home in terms of chores, but I imagine they probably don't do more than my husband who also works full time: my husband mows the lawn/takes care of the yard in the summer and cleans the snow in the winter; he took over a lion's share of vacuuming/cleaning clutter and laundry about a year or two ago, when I simply gave up. He also takes our older son swimming twice a week and packs his lunch. I am the primary breadwinner in the family. I also do 100% of the cooking, washing dishes, and grocery shopping. I also do nearly 100% of playdate organization, immunizations, summer camp tracking, any forms that need to be filled, and communication with the daycare/schools or other parents. I do a vast majority of childcare, especially sick-child care: 90% of the time if someone has to stay at home from work for a sick kid or take him to a doctor it's me because I don't have a boss. I do 100% of middle-of-the night calls for a drink of water, needing to pee, vomiting, or getting another dose of ibuprofen for a feverish kid. Also, I am always on the poopy-underwear and cleaning-the-potty duty because I tolerate bodily excrements better. Only mommy is allowed to get my younger son ready in the morning or give him a bath and put him to sleep, every single day. And my biggest peeve -- I never get to sleep in on the weekends. :-(
That's what I would like to tell my male colleagues if they cared to hear. However, they likely know all this, but simply don't care. Many times I have had to cancel a meeting when a kid is sick; I do not recall any of my male colleagues with kids having ever done that. I have yet to see any of them, whose kids are of similar ages to mine, cut down on the number of trips or meetings because of their kids; they don't have to, because there is always their wife to pick up the slack. But that doesn't matter -- since I have the same job as them, if I cannot cut it, it's my weakness; I should make it work and not whine about hardship or ask for special consideration. Right?
I know people have their own problems. But this society operates with so much stress and fear about the future placed on everyone's shoulders that, instead of listening to one another and hoping to help, what I overwhelmingly see in real life is that any obstacle that a person overcomes becomes a badge of honor and enables said person to look down on all others with "Look what I had to go through to meet these criteria of excellence. You too have to rise to them or go to hell." I admit I am frequently guilty of this attitude myself. We'd all nominally like more of a balance in our own lives, but don't wish for others to have a balance, because then they may drop more work in our lap. This is what I hear or read way too often in regards to maternity leave from both men and women who are childfree or have kids but also stay-at-home spouses: us breeding women should be removed from the workforce because we are such a burden on everyone else when we take a leave to have kids. It is oh so very very unfair that all the righteous workers who don't harbor uterine squatters end up picking up the slack after our lazy postpartum asses.
It's been a while since I stopped discussing work-life balance with most colleagues in real life. And I have stopped justifying why I am missing meetings or trips. But then my current pregnancy became obvious. As my belly grows, my perceived IQ and competence drop -- I become ever less a scientist, and ever more a lower being: just another procreating woman. Who apparently dumps work on others.
So, yes, while it's nice to read all these calls for work-life balance on the internet, when it comes to real life, I fear most of us only care that we ourselves get the balance. If balance for all means sometimes shouldering a bit more because someone else temporarily cannot, and especially if they cannot because of personal choices that we ourselves would not make, then the concept of balance becomes unacceptable; instead, rigid rules must be followed and complete sacrifice at the altar of work is expected. What I see in real life is nothing more than every man and woman for themselves. Until that changes, we're all screwed. But I am totally not holding my breath for it to change in my lifetime. I'd sooner expect to see a real live unicorn.