What image comes to your mind when you think of the word balance? A balance beam? Or maybe a stack or differently sized rocks? The feeling I get is that balance is a little shaky. I see myself with my arms out, waving and wobbling about, until balance is achieved. When you look up the definition of the word balance they use words like equilibrium and steadiness. One of the definitions is “the equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.” It is this definition of balance that we think of when we hear the phrase “Work Life Balance”.
The phrase Work Life Balance implies the need to evenly distribute your time between work and life. From the start, we know that is near impossible. If you work eight hours a day you would literally have to balance that out with eight hours of “life”, and in a perfect world eight hours of sleep. Though the math works out, the reality rarely does because “life” is not just one thing to manage. Life breaks out into family, household, friends and personal responsibilities. Now you are trying to find balance, equal time, for all of these things. It’s overwhelming. Thinking about it in that way brings to mind an image of a Jenga game, where the carefully stacked blocks are balanced but teetering waiting for one more piece to be removed before it all falls apart.
So how do you get past that feeling that your daily balance is a tower of blocks that is waiting to collapse? First you need to accept the fact that balance is not something that can be measured daily. Some days everything falls into place – your work gets done, there’s no traffic, making dinner is a breeze and you get to spend quality time with your little ones. Other days, you’re not so lucky - a big work project means working late or a sick kid means not working at all. As if the overall stress of days like those are not enough, we put added stress on ourselves by thinking about how out of balance we are on that day. We need to accept that balance is something that can look very different from day to day, it doesn’t have to be equal as the definition implies.
The powerful fact is that you get to define what balance looks like for you. For me, it’s come down to deciding what is most important to me in that given day. If I have been working late, then I try to find a quick dinner to make so that we can spend time with the kids before bed doing something fun. Or if there is a book report due the next day that is nowhere close to being done, that might mean leaving work early and logging in later on that night to finish up. I know it’s not always that easy. Summertime is a great time to look at what is and what is not working. It gives you a chance to slowly start to incorporate your new vision of balance and see how it works before the school year adds another level of chaos. Work life balance, or even just life balance, is possible when you are living your own definition. It doesn’t have to be perfect equilibrium, as long as it feels steady to you.
A few years ago I was feeling “off”. Looking back, I’m not sure I could have narrowed it down to one specific feeling. It wasn’t that I was unhappy – I had a great life, great family, friends, job, house, etc. And it wasn’t that I felt like something was missing. I just had this feeling like there was something more. I started looking for things I could change, so I started looking for a new job. After a couple weeks, I felt totally uninspired and discouraged. It was the end of 2012 and I had just started following Gabrielle Bernstein after her appearance on Super Soul Sunday. She was offering a free teleconference focused on goals for 2013. I signed up and dialed in. Gabby is a fantastic speaker. Even over the phone, unable to see her, you could feel her energy and passion. After only a couple minutes, I grabbed a pen and started taking notes. Then, as if she were speaking directly to me, she said – “It’s not about the job, the title or the company. The most important question you have to ask yourself is how do you want to feel?” And with that one question, my life changed forever.
How did I want to feel? That was a good question. The question followed me everywhere I went – driving in the car, making dinner, drying my hair. I turned to my journal, my trusty old friend. I started writing and like many times before, the answer I was looking for appeared on the page. I wanted to feel the excitement and synergy of working as a team on a project. I wanted to feel less tired and less frustrated with my children. I wanted to feel supported. And I wanted to feel more connected with the people in my life that were so important to me. Boy, it sounds like I was a total mess! It certainly didn’t feel that way being in the middle of it, but when I finally slowed down enough to listen to myself, I could clearly identify why I was feeling “off”.
When you see someone and ask “How are you?” what are the responses you usually hear?:
“Busy! We’ve had a different activity every night.”
“Things are just crazy for us right now.”
“The weeks feel like they just fly by.”
Sound familiar? I’ve caught myself saying, one or all of these things multiple times. It’s weird because without even recognizing it, your routine, calendar and to do list start to take over the management of your days. Your entire day becomes one big checklist from morning until night. And then you wake up the next morning and do it all again. Despite all the technology gains and efficiencies, we’ve somehow managed to come up with more to do instead of less. In our frenzy to get everything done, we stop questioning why we are doing it all in the first place.
I had known that something was “off” for quite a while, but I left it on my to-do list as something to dig into at a later time. There’s always a “but”. I know I will be so much happier when I’m able to (fill in the blank) BUT…….. I’ll do it when school gets out or when this project at work is done or when baseball season is over or when the kids are a little older.
It’s hard. Really hard. I know, I’ve been there. First it’s hard to allow yourself to get quiet and listen. (I had originally typed that it was hard to find the time, but that’s not true.) The time is there for you, you just have to have the courage to face yourself, to ask yourself “How do I want to feel?” It is important to do this without judgement. You can’t be your own devil’s advocate and talk yourself out of why you should not want to feel that way. For me, this is why writing it out is so helpful. In my head I can get in this back and forth banter, but when I see it written out it there is more clarity – it’s harder to allow the other side to “argue” with your gut/heart instinct.
Deciding how you want to feel is just the first step, albeit a big one, you can’t just stop there. Once you know what the desired feeling is, you have to take action. You have more control of your feelings than you realize. For me, I wanted to feel more connected with my friends and family. Each morning, I told myself that I was going to do things to feel more connected. I set reminders in my phone to go off every couple hours in case I got too busy and forgot. I made small talk with the barista (not something I’d normally do). I complimented a co-worker on a beautiful blouse. In the middle of the day I sent a text to a friend, just to let them know I was thinking of them. Imagining their face as they read it brought a smile to mine. These all started out as small connections, but grew into something more.
I know these examples sound simplistic. The actions that you need to take do not necessarily have to be difficult. The challenge comes when you incorporate this into your everyday life on a consistent basis. You can’t act from a place of feeling and let your to-do list run your life at the same time. This involves creating a new habit where every day you commit to yourself how you want to feel and make small strides throughout the day to achieve it. Start today, set aside the but and ask yourself - how do I want to feel?
I’ve been reflecting recently on what it is like to be a new Mom. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 11 years (what!), since my daughter was born, but the feelings seem like they were happening just yesterday. You spend weeks and months preparing, reading books, talking to friends, family and getting unsolicited advice from everyone who crosses your path. Everyone tells you how wonderful it is going to be, but then when the baby arrives, you realize it is so much better than anyone could have described. I remember coming home from the hospital that first day, settling in and thinking now what are we supposed to do? Day by day you figure it out. What worked one day to calm her crying does not work another day, so you just keep trying new things until something works. The days go by and slowly you get into a routine (however odd the hours might be).
I was fortunate enough to spend three months at home with my daughter before having to go back to work. I knew it was going to be hard to go back, but financially I had to work and I was looking forward to having adult conversations. So on her three month birthday, I dropped her off at the daycare center, in the arms of a near stranger and went off to work with tears in my eyes. I was able to pull myself together on the drive to the office and what happened next was surreal. As I walked into the office, it felt like I had never left. It looked the same, smelled the same and the same familiar faces were walking around in the hallway. Mentally I knew I hadn’t been there in over 90 days, but when I sat down in my chair it felt like it was just yesterday. It was weird. I picked up right where I left off. It was comforting to be able to jump in, take my mind off my baby and feel like I was getting something done. At the end of the day, the anticipation and excitement of seeing my baby was unlike any I had felt. It was fun to leave work with a surge of energy, instead of feeling tired and worn down from the day.
Even though my job was the same, I was different. “Problems” at work no longer felt like the end of the world – it was really hard to get spun up about something when I was surrounded with pictures of a peaceful, sleeping baby. My world was now bigger and the minutia of what happened at the office seemed less relevant.
After a few months of being back, I started to think about my “career”. I had always had my next goal clearly on the horizon and now for the first time I wasn’t so sure about those goals. My priorities had shifted, I didn’t want to work 50-60 hours a week to get ahead, but on the other hand, I wanted to feel like I was moving forward and not staying stagnant. I felt like no one ever talked about this side of becoming a new parent. It’s easy to talk about choosing the right daycare, getting into a routine and doing things in your new role as mommy. But no one ever talks about what happens to your old role as career woman…..
It took me many, many years to get to a place where I felt like I had figured it out. I read a lot of books, did a lot of soul-searching and journaling. My perspective and expectations changed dramatically along the way. One thing I also realized was that I wanted to help other moms get through this, whether it’s in the form of this blog or one-on-one coaching. This is a topic we need to start talking about on a larger scale. We are one of the first generations of moms that feel they can have it all – a rewarding, successful career AND a rewarding, successful family life. The fact is there are still only 24 hours in a day and juggling both priorities is not something that comes instinctively. It takes conscious effort. It’s difficult. But when you commit yourself to defining your priorities and allowing for flexibility, work life balance is something we can all achieve.
p.s. Does this sound familiar? Are you struggling with work life balance? I’d love to help by offering you a free 30 minute consultation. On this call we’ll talk about what balance looks like today, what you’d like it to look like and what actions you can take to get there. Let’s get started, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time.
I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.