04/15/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Work-Life Balance Does Exist, But It's Not What You Think It is

"There's no such thing as work-life balance. Can we please stop talking about balance?" From Sheryl Sandberg to the women I meet in my day-to-day life, it seems that lately, I hear these comments a lot. And I disagree. For a working mother, it's all about balance. And we need to talk about it.

But first, we need to define our terms. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists nine different definitions of balance. If you take the narrow definition when you think work-life -- that it's "stability produced by even distribution of weight on each side of the vertical axis," then absolutely, it's a fantasy. But if you define balance as, "weight or force of one side in excess of another," "a means of judging or deciding," or even, "mental and emotional steadiness," then you realize a working mother's whole life is about balance.

From the time we open our eyes in the morning until the time we fall asleep at night, working women are balancing competing priorities, constantly weighing everything we do against everything else we should be doing. Take the decisions I made in one 24-hour period last week:

Should I sleep in or exercise? Exercise or catch up on email? Take the kids to school or actually get to work on time? Research home health aides for my parents or mentor a younger coworker during my lunch hour? Book a trip to corporate headquarters for some critical face time or dial in to the meeting so I can be home to help with homework? Go to a networking event or to my daughter's soccer game? Stay until the end of the game or go to the PTO meeting? Volunteer with a political campaign on the weekend or visit my aging parents? Go to my parent's house or do yard work? Meet a friend for a glass of wine or stay home with my husband? Do laundry or go to bed? Catch up on emails or go to sleep? Lie awake and stress about my to-dos or get up and cross things off the list?

My life, like the lives of so many of the 23 million working mothers in this country, is a constant series of choices -- weighing the pros and cons of every decision I make. Sure, a few of those choices are a luxury of privilege -- like whether or not to volunteer -- but most are based on pure necessity, like how to provide financially for my family and still have time to be present in their lives. That's the balancing act, and it's constant.

I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea work life needs to be a parenting discussion, not a woman-only discussion, but women are especially susceptible to the pressures of trying, not merely to have it all, but to do it all. For starters, we face inherent challenges and biases in the workforce that require us to seriously consider how we show up and how we do or don't access flex options. Second, even if we intellectually reject the media-created idea of the superwoman who brings home the bacon, fries it up in a pan, eats the bacon, but doesn't let it affect her midsection, on another level, the idea of having it all is ingrained in our psyche. We are surrounded by images of having it all, climbing the corporate ladder and being the perfect mother. Even Sandberg with her eye-opening discussion of the challenges women face at work is an image of perfection: C-level executive, caring wife and mother, well-spoken, well-coiffed, well-dressed. And doing it all? Well, women are breadwinners in fifty percent of U.S. households, and do on average, fifty percent more household chores than men do.

If we better define our terms and we acknowledge that work-life balance is about so much more than the basic question, "can you have a successful career and a thriving family life?" we start to understand just how relevant and critical the balance discussion is. To say we're trying to balance work and family is incomplete. We're balancing every decision, every day, against a whole list of competing priorities. Until we, along with our employers, our spouses and our communities understand that, we won't create the truly useful and relevant workplace policies and social structures like family leave policies, eldercare services, flex workplaces and extended-day school programs, that will support working women. There is such a thing as work-life balance, and too often, the weight or force of one side is in excess of another.