When Having It All Means Wrecking Your Health

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

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I was on the phone with a friend the other day, commiserating about sciatica. We both work full time and have young kids. “Did you know,” she said on her headset as she drove to work, the only time we have to talk, “that I lived with crippling pain for five months because it was easier than getting to the doctor?”

I do know. I went in for my annual checkup last week—my first one in three years. She asked me if I’d had an MRI for my back. Nope. Pap smear? Nope. Teeth cleaned? I laughed. I mean, who has the time? She handed me a sheaf of referrals and prescriptions for various ultrasounds, MRIs, and mammograms, which I stuffed in my bag. And there they sit.

Working and taking care of kids takes a toll on parents’ health. For one thing, if you’re anything like me, you’re constantly running your kids to the pediatrician for fevers, rashes and the occasional Exorcist-level stomach bug. If you leave work early to take your kid to the doc, it’s that much harder to take time off the next week to have your own flu symptoms checked out.

For another thing, getting adequate rest can be nearly impossible: Last winter a friend had a hacking cough that went on for months, and when I asked her about sleep, she shrugged. She’s freelance, and a single parent, and if that means going to bed at 1AM after finishing her work, that’s what it means. She developed walking pneumonia, because getting to the doctor and then getting adequate rest was impossible.

Or consider exercise. I remember exercise—I actually like exercise! And if there were just one more hour in the day I would totally do it. But I work a shifted-early day, so I can spend the late afternoons with my kids, and that means I go to bed early, and that means…maybe twice a week I can fit in a few minutes of yoga. My back-pain friend is having trouble finding time for the physical therapy appointments. Another working mom I know says she doesn’t even try. “I’m up at six with the kids and dealing with work until 11PM. There is literally no time to exercise—the work has to get done. It just isn’t possible right now.”

Americans now work a lot—47 hours a week. Other countries clock in at slightly less than 35 hours per week. We spend about 50 minutes a day commuting; if you live in a big city you can expect to spend a lot of hours idling in traffic. Add that to the hours we spend doing child care, housework, and the basic admin of life (filling out camp forms! buying school supplies!) and the time that’s left for parents to take care of themselves dwindles to nothing.

And for mothers, the stress of working and parenting can be particularly damaging: “Women who report high job stress have a 40 percent higher risk for cardiovascular disease than their lower-stress peers,” reports Working Mother.

This is not to say that stay-at-home parents are pictures of health. There are advantages to working—health insurance, for one, and the satisfaction and camaraderie of a career. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I also had trouble finding time to exercise (who was going to watch the kid?) or fitting in a doctor’s appointment (ditto).

No, this isn’t a problem with working versus staying at home—it’s a problem with the larger culture. We drive, instead of bike, to work. School drop-off is early and extracurriculars run late. We don’t have time to cook from scratch, and fresh, high-quality food is expensive. In a precarious economy, most of us feel like we have to log inhumane hours to keep our jobs.

Each fall I make resolutions, because the new school year seems more like a fresh start than January does. This year I’m resolving to get in at least a few minutes of yoga a day. And cook a couple more meals from scratch. And make an appointment for that MRI, just as soon as I can find the prescription. If it means taking on a little less work, or my kids spend a little more time in front of the TV, so be it. I like having it all, but I like my health too.

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