An interview with author Catherine M. Wallace about her new book Selling Ourselves Short.

So why do we struggle to earn a living and have a life? Isn't it just being overcommitted or having too many people wanting something from us? There's simply not enough time in the day.

There has always been "too much to do" in that sense. I'm sure our medieval ancestors felt that way too. What's different for us--what is so hard for us--is the context in which we face these issues. "Love your neighbor as yourself" used to be at the core of Western social ethics. With the rise of capitalism, that norm has shifted. The new norm goes like this: Get the most for the least. Trust no one, because everyone is out for himself. Look out for #1.

All this drives us just a bit crazy because human beings are inherently social. In evolutionary terms, we are herd animals; we survive by belong to a group whose members do look out for one another. What that means in moral terms or in spiritual terms is that compassion is at the core of our common humanity.

Most work-life books come down in the end to something like "Men should do more housework!" Is that where you are headed with all this? That nasty competitive males are the root of all evil?

Well, I'm in favor of sharing housework honestly, but male-bashing is cheap. And it's an easy out. I'm after bigger issues than that. Gender is--among other things!--a set of symbols and metaphors that permeate the spiritual grammar of the West. We think of competition and compassion as radical opposites, and then we assign masculinity to one side and femininity to the other. As the story goes, men are nothing but self-centered, relentless competitors; women are always gentle and nurturant and socially adept. Take that literally, and it will distort anyone's sense of sexual identity. It's nonsense both morally and psychologically, but it has long roots in Western thought. I'm glad we now realize that women are also tough and smart and capable, but there's a danger here. The danger is this: we tend to think that being a capable adult means being a tough competitor. Period. End of discussion. In the popular culture, virtues that used to be distinctively "feminine"--virtues like compassion and responsibility to other people--are now either written off either as naive sentimentality or as a failure of professional competitive nerve.

But what about family values? Aren't family values the realm of caring and responsibility?

"Family values" is just a gender-neutral way of saying that morality belongs at home, out of the public square, away from the banks and the board rooms and the stock exchange. Morality and compassion are apt to get in the way of maximizing profit and controlling the market. So if morality stays at home, as part of "family values" and "private life," then the public world of ruthless competition is free to go its own sweet way, ignoring the common good. That's what we saw in the accounting scandals. But keeping morality at home, like keeping women at home, just won't work. It's dehumanizing. It's a false account of human nature: every one of us has a conscience and, ultimately, a good heart. If we try to ignore this fact about ourselves, we will pay a catastrophic price. That's what I mean by "selling ourselves short."

This is another reason why work-life conflicts are so very costly. It's not just that we have to change hats driving home. We have to change heads. We are supposed to be two entirely different people at work and at home, and that demand can leave us feeling false no matter where we are.

What about the pressure people are under to work late, to travel frequently, to be a "team player"? Some of the problems we face are quite objective.

Indeed they are objective! Americans work longer hours than people anywhere else in the world. We do so because in some far remote corner of the American soul, we think that our careers will someday prove that we are "good people," that we have somehow "made it." Meanwhile, however, the only real evidence we have is how hard we work. So we never let up. If we stop working--whether at the office or around the house--the guilt sets in. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," remember that line? The old Calvinists worried about salvation; we have secularized that into anxiety about success. Some employers get away with making unreasonable demands because "hard work" is a hot button in the submerged Calvinism of the American soul. There's an essentially religious anxiety here that's simply profound, and it pushes us always to decide work-life conflicts in favor of work. To do anything else is "unprofessional." It's a failure of "ambition." To make any decision against maximizing income marks us as sinners in the hands of an angry god called "the market."

How do the Mommy Wars fit into all this? You really can't talk about work-life problems without talking about families with young children!

I argue that the controversy over child care for very young children is mostly a proxy war for disagreements among experts in developmental psychology. That disagreement itself is grounded in the spiritual grammar of the West. On the one hand you have "hard" masculine numbers and omnipotent causality; on the other, there is "soft" wholistic assessments and many layers and levels of causality all woven together. Behind that fight you have cell biologists snarling at molecular biologists. It's a nasty battlefield. But none of it can be translated into solid advice about what difference child care will make for any particular child.

So what conclusion do you reach or what advice do you have for parents who are struggling with this decision?

Parents are too often caught in the crossfire of this proxy war: parents often feel guilty and besieged no matter what they do. I try to put all that research into context and to offer some insulation against heart-stopping headlines in the popular press. When my children were very young, I tried every possible arrangement from working full time to being home full time and back again. I know first hand that there's no easy solution and furthermore no carved-in-stone best solution. It seems to me that parenthood is one long relentless ad-lib routine--but to do that well, you have to be both relaxed and confident. That's what I hope parents will feel after reading my argument and thinking through the issues for themselves. Parents need a solid foundation on which they can stop second-guessing themselves.

How can we stop selling ourselves short and struggling with work-life problems? In the end, what answer do you have to that?

All my cultural history keeps pointing to the same conclusion: work-life issues are not "personal problems." They are massive cultural problems; they have deep historical roots. When you see the scope of that complexity, one thing becomes quite clear. Nobody can glance into your life from the outside and say it's obvious what you should be doing. Or doing differently. None of this is obvious. I think that recognition helps.

Furthermore it's not that you are a poor manager, or inefficient, or less competent than other people. Our objective, historical, cultural context is brutally difficult. If you were not a decent, competent, caring person, all this would be a lot easier. The problem here--and the solution to the problem, ultimately--is that there is this inextinguishable spark of the sacred in every last one of us. We do care.

Another thing that helps is the ancient spiritual practice of discernment, which is a very subtle process for sorting our ways through all these distorting cultural pressures to figure out what is truly the best thing to do, here and now, given the facts of the particular situation we face. Rather than say to someone "it's all up to your own opinion," I'd rather say, "follow your own conscience." Good conscience offers much greater security and peace of mind than mere "opinion," because conscience is grounded in personal integrity, moral insight, and spiritual wholeness. Discernment is a spiritual practice or decision-making method that is designed to get us back in touch with the honest decency and the solid sanity that dwell in the quiet center of our good hearts.