Work and life aren’t about balance

by Claire McCarthy on September 27, 2011

It was Family Weekend at my son’s college this past weekend, and I didn’t go. I couldn’t pull off the trip to Virginia. My husband had to work, so he couldn’t go either.

I felt awful. It was particularly tough because this month, juggling parenting, doctoring, writing and everything else has been more challenging than usual. Life has felt like one compromise after another.

“It’s that work-life balance thing,” someone said to me. “It’s tough to get it right.”

I don’t think getting it right has anything to do with balance.

I hate the term “work-life balance.” First of all, it makes you think of a see-saw with all your important work projects on one side and everyone you love on the other—with either side constantly at risk of either sliding off or flying through the air. Talk about a stressful metaphor.

It also makes it seem like life should be exactly 50% work and 50% family. Maybe it works out that way in the long run, but it never works out that way on a daily basis. Again: stressful metaphor.

There’s something, too, about the word “balance” that makes it sound like there is tranquility involved. Like any life involving work and kids (and housework and commuting and pets and laundry) could ever be tranquil.

And if it were just about balancing work and life, the stay-at-home parents would have it easy. I know plenty of them who feel pretty darn overwhelmed by their lives.

It’s not about balance. It’s about life, and what we cram into it, either out of necessity or choice or both. I cram an awful lot into mine, mostly by choice. It’s about the fact that life has seasons when things get crazy, and that there are always times (like this month for me) when everything comes together in ways that feel downright impossible.

So how do we know if we are getting it right?

I’ve thought about this a lot. It seems to me that there are four questions we life-jugglers should ask ourselves on a regular basis:

  • Am I trying my best?
  • Am I doing things for the right reasons?
  • Do I make those I love feel loved?
  • Am I happy?

If the answer to any of them is no, it’s time to evaluate and make some changes. But if the answers are all yes…well, then maybe things are okay, whether they are balanced or not.

So this weekend I didn’t go to Virginia. Instead, I got up early and studied Latin so I could help my daughter (it’s a good thing I love her, because learning to decline nouns again was no fun). I went to my son’s soccer game. I worked on this blog. I officiated at a swim meet. I bought a cheap sofa with my older daughter and brought it to her apartment. I spent Sunday at a room dedication ceremony, Mass, and dinner in memory of my dear friend who died last year, with people who loved him too.

I let Zack down (as it turns out, he signed up for a scuba class and was just fine). But I’ll make it up to him. He knows that—because in the midst of everything always I’ve been sure to make him feel loved. I know I’m trying my best—I’ve got the exhaustion to prove it. As for my reasons, this weekend it was about trying to be a good mother to my other children, and a good friend; there were no other reasons involved.

I have no idea if I’m getting it right. But thinking of life as balance misses the point. Life is about muddling through, about taking each day as it comes, about biting off more than you can chew—and knowing when to spit some out. It’s about being the best person you can be at any given moment.

And when I feel like I’ve pulled that off, I’m happy.

 

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