For Ijah, it looks like this:
Each day, around 5 AM, she helps her husband prepare for work while simultaneously rolling popiahs for her home-based business. Ijah does not like her kids starting off their day by waking up to a mess, so she remembers to put everything away by then.
“Sometimes I might accidentally take a nap. My daughter’s transport will arrive at 10 AM downstairs, so if I take a nap then that’s it,” she tells me.
Ijah tries to stay on top of all of this from dawn to dusk, and by the end of everything she’s usually exhausted. Exhausted, but fulfilled, she says.
When the pandemic forced many of us to work from home, the resulting overwork and burnout revived discussions around work-life balance. Why do so few of us have it? Is it even possible? How do you actually achieve it?
Female entrepreneurs like Ijah suggest that perhaps we need to re-think what we really mean when we talk about balance. Does balance mean more free time? Or does it just mean we feel balanced, as though all our different needs in life are being met?
Balance can encompass anything, ranging from having more family time, to being able to spend one’s energy on hobbies or just downtime for yourself. But in the course of achieving all this, having to make sacrifices will be inevitable.
Time was the biggest sacrifice, quips Joyce, who founded her small business Chokmah in May this year.
Chokmah creates home decor and lifestyle wares made from environmentally sustainable materials, which Joyce spent much of this year trying to perfect. From the beginning she recognised that starting your own business requires dedication and grit, and was bound to take time away from her personal schedule, even as it added more stress.
It has been challenging to “wear many different hats, as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, a friend,” all while running a fast and growing business. But she tells me, “I will make sure I have allocated time for each aspect as I believe that I cannot give what I do not have.”
When physical workshops, a key element of her business, were forced to stop during the Circuit Breaker, there was no better time to innovate. She eventually built a DIY kit that packs the workshop experience in a box.
She had her hands full with Chokmah and everything else at home, but Joyce was still able to explore her creative spirit. Even though it demanded more energy, Joyce knew that her energy was spent working on what she did best: being creative and innovative.
“Currently with a full-time job, it has definitely been harder to balance my commitment and responsibilities to gratus. The great thing about gratus is that I don’t really see it as work. But with gratus alongside my full-time job, I definitely do not have that much free time.”
“Personally, I am the type of person who takes a lot of pride, gratification and self-worth out of the work I do. So despite limiting myself to a niche or small set of options, I will only pick jobs to do in the field that I am passionate about … which gratus allows me to,” she says.
Chasing one’s ambitions is a legitimate and important aspect of life, and work-life balance should also incorporate this, points out Samantha Kwan, 31, who helps with creating a social media presence for aspiring small business owners.
While Samantha may not have her own side business, she spends a bulk of her time leading Project Cookoh. Project Cookoh is a community-led initiative in Jalan Kukoh that provides a platform for home-based small businesses run by mothers—like Ijah—within that residential community.
Samantha doesn’t currently have a family of her own, but she is a firm believer that work-life balance can exist for everyone: “I don’t have kids and I can’t speak for everyone, but personally I think it’s about figuring out your own priorities and while it’s easier said than done, to be able to put your foot down and stand for what’s right for you or for what you love.”
These women share the consensus that family aside, work-life balance is even more important for an individual so that they can guiltlessly spend time on hobbies or their interests instead of working more to fill up time.
Levine urges that work-life balance for women and everyone else be redefined: “I think that flexibility and freedom is very important, not only for women but in general. I think it is especially accelerated with the ongoing pandemic and the work from home situations. But of course for women with full-time jobs and a family to care for and with the whole “double shift”, I think flexibility will be more important.”
“To me, as long as you get the job done well and have fulfilled your duties, it really doesn’t matter how many hours you use,” she adds.
As a fresh graduate who has stepped into a world of uncertainty, Levine sees gratus as a way to pursue something of interest alongside her job. She hopes to eventually expand it into a vegan cafe.
Finding a hobby or passion requires you to invest a part of yourself. It demands an additional level of energy, because it can be all too easy today to get bogged down by work.
At the same time, goals and targets mean different things for everyone, and for many of us it can provide a sense of direction or respite from usual routines. This is why it’s important to see work-life balance not just as working a set amount of hours, or doing things like raising a family. Ultimately, it’s about the outcomes—knowing what we want and being able to pursue those things.
Female entrepreneurs may seem to hold it all together, but this often also reveals the inequalities that still exist at home, where women tend to bear the burden of caregiving more than men, and often carry the sole responsibility of meeting the needs of their families.
Even though Serene Choong, 30, spends a lot of time looking after her son, she decided to turn her entrepreneurial ambition into reality this year. But being a full-time mother and an entrepreneur comes with its own set of challenges.
“I spent a lot of time trying to learn, explore and work things out to establish whatever that we have now. It was not easy as I have a 3-year-old toddler at home with me.”
This additional responsibility might have been exhausting, but it was trying her hand at something new that makes life much more enriching for Serene on top of being a homemaker.
29 year-old Ijah concurs that being a stay home mother means that caregiving work occurs round the clock with no clear rest periods. It depends on how things work out during the day.
Fortunately, her husband has supported her every step of the way, especially when she has to scramble to make last minute scheduling arrangements. He also pitches in to take care of their children whenever he is not working. This allows her to focus on her business, and when that is done, they spend time together with their kids.
To Ijah, establishing a strong understanding between a couple and re-distributing work at home are key to laying the foundation for couples to enhance each other’s work-life balance.
Consider also how activities like household chores can be a way for families to spend more time together. In its own way, this brings working couples together and enables them to forge a deeper bond with each other. With both parties playing an active role in running the household, it cultivates an environment where each person respects the other enough to understand that cooperation and boundaries are crucial for happy, supportive, and balanced relationships.
And for men who are accustomed to prioritising work over their families, paying closer attention to how women juggle both career and domestic responsibilities might change how they themselves understand ‘work-life balance’, and help them find the time to pursue what’s actually important.
Even as the definition of work and its boundaries continues to change, the debate around work-life balance will likely persist.
But given what the pandemic has taught us, there is no ideal time to re-evaluate what work-life balance really means, or consider how we subscribe to a narrow definition of what life is beyond work. If things are not working, then it’s up to us to do something about it.
These entrepreneurs show us life is so much more than ticking things off your to-do list. There is always room for what makes you happy, so long as you make it a priority, and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary.