Find Balance Without Guilt

Brian Ballantyne, a Senior Program Manager – Inclusion & Diversity at Amazon U.K., and author of Confessions of a Working Father | Image Courtesy of Brian Ballantyne
BY GAYLE JO CARTER October 14, 2019

Already an established advocate for women’s rights, Brian Ballantyne, a Senior Program Manager – Inclusion & Diversity at Amazon U.K., now wanted to create a space that working fathers could come together to talk and share their experiences.  With that goal in mind, Ballantyne, a husband and father of two, started #confessionsofaworkingfather on LinkedIn. It seemed Ballantyne, who has since turned that into a book Confessions of a Working Father, with all proceeds donated to Winston’s Wish, (a charity for bereaved children), wasn’t the only one looking for that type of space.

Find Balance without Guilt is the topic that Ballantyne will be speaking about at Aspire’s Trailblazing Leadership Conference, Dec. 12 and 13 in London. In a recent interview, we asked Ballantyne to tell us more on this elusive balance without guilt.

Q. Is balance about those with children or more than that?

It’s much more than that. It’s 

  • Caring for ourselves: avoiding burn-out
  • Caring for others: e.g. partners, parents, kids
  • Personal interests: Sports, voluntary work, seeing friends /family
  • A balance of areas where we feel valued, as work or family alone can’t give us everything.

Q. How is balance challenging specifically for men? Is it generational?

While both my parents worked full time — to support six kids, including one with cerebral palsy – and shared the childcare and home-making — although my mom did the cooking; my dad did home/car repairs, etc. For many people it was more the case that their father (and grandfather) worked and their mother (and grandmother) cared more for the family. Nowadays with new generations we have more openly same-sex parents, perhaps more single parents, more women who earn more than their partner, and more men who want to spent time with their kids or as a career.

Men often feel like that can’t really say anything because if they say anything, women will say ‘It’s harder for us.’ Which is true but there are issues with men who feel like they can’t talk about these things. Suicide is the biggest killer among men under 40. There are issues in getting men to talk about their challenges. We’re just expected to take it like a man, all on our shoulders and it’s literally killing some of us. It’s okay to recognize it’s harder for women but men also need to have a voice.

There is also a difference internationally by country. And it’s generational. Within my parents generation, the man is expected to earn money; the women take care of the home and make the meals. That is changing. Men are more interested in doing the cooking, caring and looking after the parents. But it’s still the women. On the other hand, like Italy, it’s a more macho society and if the man’s having a child, you just carry on and if you want parental leave, it’s like ‘Why do you want that?’

Q. Is true balance without the guilt even possible?

There are two kinds of guilt: bad guilt — external coercion; and good guilt — internal gut. Bad guilt comes from when others — partners, kids, parents, peers, managers, friends, etc. — try to pressure us emotionally (i.e. withdrawal of affection) into giving more to them, beyond a reasonable boundary we are holding. I just started identifying it more and something that helped me recently is an audio book by Byron Katie called Loving What Is. It’s about looking at things in life as ‘Just Is’ or ‘Things you need to change’ Once you start putting things into those buckets it helps you figure out which it is and to be ok with it.

Good guilt is our own instinct that something needs to be rebalanced in our lives (e.g. kids growing up too fast). Letting go of guilt means giving ourselves permission to prioritize and be ok with what we decide. Bad guilt comes from relying on others (our boss, our peers, our partner, our kids) to tell us that we are ok. They will always want more of us for themselves! We have to keep our own counsel, or we will be forever blowing in the wind and feeling bad. We need to ensure that we are ok with the balance of our decisions — work and  life.

If we say ‘Yes’ all the time that doesn’t work either. That’s the paradox:  the more you say no, the more success you get.

I’m a pleaser person. You want your partner to be happy, your boss, your kids to be happy with you, your parents but often times they’re not going to be and they are going to want more than you can give. It’s about your own counsel and thinking no one is going to tell me this is OK. Even when I joined my current company, they told me no one’s going to tell you to go home at midnight.

Q. How can we balance from a personal standpoint?

Sometimes we decide that a work commitment needs to take priority over a personal commitment. For example, an important project that we own is being reviewed at a very senior level. Not through being pressured by our boss or peers, but because we just know that this is the right call this time. We need to explain to our partner why this is the choice we are making this time. We aren’t responsible for how they feel about it.  

People are going to pull you in different directions, but you need to hold firm. I don’t know if you can ever be without the guilt but I think it’s putting your finger on it and identifying it and saying ‘Is this because of myself or is this because someone is forcing me or persuading me in a manipulative way? If it’s the latter, I’m not OK with that. I don’t want to negotiate with terrorists. If someone is going to emotionally blackmail me: Think, ‘If they weren’t doing this, ‘What would I do?’ It’s like that thing — if no one was watching me right now, what would I do? I’m a work in progress on this. Being emotionally aware. A lot of men always start with angry because that’s our socially acceptable emotion. Once you can start putting your finger on emotions, it’s so powerful. Be more aware in making decisions.

Q. How from an organizational standpoint?

Sometimes we decide that a personal commitment needs to take priority over a work commitment (for example, a key meeting is needed regarding your home renovation). Not through being pressured by our partner or kids, etc. but because we know it is the right call this time. We need to make a stand on this decision and inform colleagues that this is your boundary and your decision. You will be more respected than a yes-person. Women often times ask for permission for things. I just keep saying ‘Just inform me.’ The conclusion I’m coming to is that we need to keep our own counsel. I had to take one of my kids to a counselor. One of my kids is gender non conforming and it’s important to work through, so I just blocked out time and did that but I didn’t ask anyone’s permission. 

Q. Work/life balance has always been a very female-centric subject. Is it more challenging for women? We know for example, that women still bear a large amount of child care responsibilities that men.

Yes, and there is a double bind for women that they are both more likely to look after kids (and elderly parents) than men. Therefore, their boss and peers might assume — without asking them — that they won’t be able to take on a project or travel. They are less likely to make this assumption about a working father.  It goes the other way in that they assume the man will be more autonomous and prioritize work.

It is harder for women because biologically men don’t give birth so there’s that physical vulnerability and it doesn’t always go smoothly. There are mothers I know in danger, especially in third world countries, their lives are in danger. In the U.S. it’s considered short term disability. 

It’s a double bind for women. Even if a woman wants bigger projects, the men assume you don’t want to travel or they don’t give you that bigger project or feedback. So, women are missing out on the work opportunities. Intersectionality; women of color, black women, Latina women there’s an additional discrimination and challenges. 

Q. Are men on on board with work/life balance now? Why is that?

I would say that only a small proportion of men are on board with this, from both a personal and organizational perspective. Men have been socialized to shield their emotions and nurturing side, not to admit weaknesses, not to let the other men down, to be the provider for their family. Many men still believe this or feel pressured to believe it. Some men go against it, while many go along with it, but it causes mental health and relationship issues. I am optimistic more men will get on board. That’s what I want to drive forward.

Q. What surprises you about the work you’ve been doing?

I’ve been involved in diversity in the workplace for 10 years and with my family for 25 years. My mother won a sex discrimination case against her company and she was always challenging my school about sexist things. So I’ve got a background of this. The last 10 years I’ve been involved in gender diversity, ethnicity, neurodiversity, all kinds of inclusion.  I’m on the board of nonprofits, working to get women on boards and things like that. I’m used to attending events where I’m the only man. I find that more comfortable than when it’s all men to be honest. I’ve learned to listen more and pay attention. It’s funny when you see a couple of men come along and start talking over the presenters. This is even worse than you not being here. A woman is on the stage talking and you’re just talking to your friend or you’re on your phone. That surprises me. I must have learned how to do that. I have 10 aunts and several sisters, maybe by being around women, I know how to handle myself better.

"We have to keep our own counsel, or we will be forever blowing in the wind and feeling bad. We need to ensure that we are ok with the balance of our decisions — work and life."

Q. How can both women and men work together to move the dial on balance? 

I started the “Working Father” blog/book to show how much women and men have in common when it comes to balancing work and parenthood, and to push together on asking for flexibility, etc. It goes beyond that, and by working together to push for more inclusive work practices, a tolerance for a variety of leadership styles —not just the alpha male!  I believe that it benefits everyone — not just women, but also us for men too.

Q. Did the #Metoo movement help this or as some have reported hinder it?

In some ways men and women are starting to work together but in some ways after #Metoo, they are not working together as men are reluctant for fear of harassment charges. Men won’t be seen now not only in a wine bar but even in an office meeting space in case they get accused of harassment. I continue mentoring women and people  do make comments, ‘Oh are you dating her or having an affair?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m having a meeting in the office. We’re talking about her career.’ I carry on doing that and but a lot of men don’t want to have that hassle or their wife is worried about the women on their team. 

The #Metoo movement is important but some men are not handling it very well.  They are not getting the right message from it. Rather than thinking it’s a chance to lean in as men and see what we can do – there’s so much now, they can’t seem to step back from their ego for a moment and listen to what a woman has to say. Sometimes when men want to get involved or whether they’ve been told to get involved in diversity, they come in with the solution to the problem. This is how we should fix it. It’s a masculine approach to things to solve the problem rather than really listening and understanding the context. 

There’s a great book, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, which tells us that the brain that contains the problem contains the solution. Women, especially women of color, face this on a day-to-day basis. They probably know better than me what things work and what things don’t and what things they have tried. So before I start jumping in with my ideas, I’m going to listen and have one on ones and chats with a variety of women from our organization from China to the United States to Eastern Europe.  You hear their experiences, which is why I find mentoring so valuable, often more for me than the mentee. Listening to women’s experience day in and day out is important. There are a lot of men who aren’t listening to women’s stories. They’re listening to men’s stories so they’re saying ‘There’s isn’t a problem. I’m not hearing it.’

Q. What are the 3 things people can do to gain more balance without the guilt?

  • Check your calendar. Each week, look ahead to the next week and review the time blocks for work and personal commitments. Is the balance reasonable or leaning too much one way or another? How does your gut instinct feel?

  • Coordinate schedules. I take a forest walk every weekend with my wife where we talk through what is going on for each of us in terms of work and social, with kids and families, and also planning when we will be able to spend time together.

  • Be OK with saying No. Sometimes it isn’t possible to do everything and there are diary clashes. Try to be OK with saying no to the deprioritized activity (perhaps do that next time) so that you can give a deeper Yes to the chosen activity.

Q. What are the 3 things organizations can do to gain more balance without the guilt?

  • Value happiness. Apply to employees what we know makes customers happy. Understanding their needs and providing convenience in terms of time and place of service delivery. Remember that the output is financial results, not the number of hours that office seats are kept warm.

  •  Provide support. Support managers with guidance and processes to enable employee convenience, so that they know how to manage things in the best way for themselves, the person and the company. Managers often feel unsupported.

  • Reward accomplishments. Put themselves forward for Investor in People and Great Place to Work awards, to celebrate and recognize people for genuine successes.

Q. You are speaking at Aspire Trailblazing Leadership Conference in London in December, what do you hope to bring as a speaker and also as an attendee?

With this conference, I thought it was so important to me to show up as an ally. The most important thing for me to do is to be there and to just show up. I said to Sam [Sam Collins, Aspire’s founder and CEO], ‘I’m going to buy a ticket for the conference before you even hear my speech.’  I’m not bragging about that but I thought the most important thing for me whether I get to speak or not is to be there, to listen to all the other speakers, not just show up for my speech and leave. To engage with the other participants, to get a lot of value for myself out of it. Even if it’s aimed at women, I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of value out of it. If I get to speak on the stage, then I’m not just coming on and doing my slot and leaving. I know I’ve paid the entrance fee, I’ve listened to everyone else. It’s my turn to speak that’s how I want to approach the conference. I’m trying to role model for other men. That’s how you do it. You take part, you listen to everyone else. I’m not going with pre-prepared things and going to do some grandstanding. I’m excited about what the women on the panel are going to say and how we can build on each other. Typically men will come at it from ‘We should be doing this. It’s harmful to jump to their own conclusions.’

*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.


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