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.

 

8 comments

  • coco

    great !

  • Chris

    Great post Claire. I completely agree with your reference to the see-saw, that we are expected to have equal 50-50 balance between work and life. I take a similar approach – working within all areas of my life and work, doing what is right (each day) for me and my family. This can be picking and choosing, making decisions, none of them ever the same, but all working for what I need, at any given time. 

    While I agree that 50-50 balance is not achievable, there is in a sense balance, but across multiple variables in life. What comes to mind from cereal commercials is ‘Part of a well balanced breakfast’. Part of a well balanced life? 

  • Cynthia Gardell

    how timely! I feel swamped this month and looking at it from your perspective helps me. I totally agree with the seesaw example. I don’t want to feel like it is 50/50-sometimes it is very lopsided but the reasons usually outweigh the guilt. Thanks for articulating this so nicely.

  • Paulette Fontaine

    Dear Claire – To my great joy, I discovered that when I reached the bottom of your essay, I realized that you had disproved its title!  Work and life are inseparable – and each is part of the other, not arranged as a dichotomy. We each must engage in the difficult task of wrestling with and defining for ourselves the meaning of that word “balance”.  It turns out that work/life IS about “balance” but in a much more vital and holistic way.  

  • WIT

    I cannot fathom how you can possibly give equal attention to 5 children, even if you did NOT work outside the home. Assuming 2 parents, any more than 2 childen, and someone is always going to be left out since when little they are always vying for your attention, and when older they have a million activities.

  • Diane Shrier, MD

    I’ve been teaching/studying/living the issues of work-life combinations, most recently with my physician daughter.  I/we prefer the time work/life integration over the life cycle.  You might want to take a look at our commentary published in Pediatrics 2006; 117;519-522 called “Pediatricians Leading the Way: Integrating a Career and a Family/Personal Life Over the Life Cycle” Diane K. shrier, Lydia A. Shrier, Michale Rich and Larrie Greenberg.  The references might be of interest to.  Enjoyed your blog!
    Diane K. Shrier, MD
    clinical professor of psychiatry and of pediatrics, GWUMC, Washington DC

  • Tracy Benn

    Great article

  • Tracy Benn

    Great article thanks.

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