Kids, life, work. Work, kids, life. Or, work, work, kids, no life?! Whatever order you put them in, the math often doesn't seem to add up. Can this seemingly impossible equation actually be balanced?
Balance is the feeling of strength, confidence, and control. It's having all of the pieces in the right place and the ability to move forward in unison. It's exactly the feeling I imagine you'd want if you were on a tight rope without a net. Both halves of your being are precisely distributed on either side of the wire. When the breeze nudges you over a little bit, the other side compensates and sets you right again. The alignment is perfect and neither side threatens to pull you down to the ground below where you'd land in a sad, crumpled heap. Instead, balance feels reliable and stable. And, that's exactly how I'd describe my life right now. Ha!
Work/life balance is the way we talk about managing all of the important things going on in our lives. The phrase isn't bad but it is incomplete. It also sets up some pretty grand expectations that are difficult or impossible to achieve in any given day.
What's the issue?
First, we typically talk about work life balance in terms of exactly that--work and life. I'm going to separate kids for a moment. The reason why is that if you have kids, everyone assumes they're lumped into the "life" part of the equation. They shouldn't be. This goes for aging parents or anyone else who is almost wholly dependent on us for their wellbeing. Dependents are their own special category with a whole host of joys, obligations, and responsibilities that are unique. Life is the stuff we do to sustain ourselves. We'll get to that more in a second.
Next, some human resources staff talk about work life balance as if it only applies to employees with kids. I don't think that's right and suspect you don't either so let's move on.
Because most people lump dependent care into the "life" part of the equation, actual life sustaining and fulfilling stuff gets pushed aside. All of those necessities and joys we have to keep ourselves going such as hiking, scrapbooking, or drinking wine on patios are supposed to fit in whatever time is leftover after the dependents take their cut (which is often little or none.)
So, for the purposes of breaking down this equation a bit so that we might put it back together in a way that balances out, I'm going to talk about work, kids, and life as three distinct categories. Humor me and come along, if you don't mind.
Here are a couple of things I believe to be true about work, kids, and life balance.
- If you loathe your job, there is no amount of time management (or number of relaxing pedicures) that is going to make you feel okay about being away from your kids or other life interests. Even twenty minutes spent doing a job you hate will feel like too much.
- Feeling in control and that you have all bases covered is wonderful and fleeting. You can never line up enough strategies, hacks, and backup plans to account for all of the quirky little bumps and big hurdles that life throws at us. Balance isn't something that you can "set and forget." It requires near constant maintenance and adjustment.
- The whole thing about "it takes a village" is true and doesn't just apply to raising kids. Without a strong network of support, you really are up there on the tight rope without a net and that's scary.
- Perfect is the enemy of good or done is better than perfect. You can absolutely strive for perfection on some things but not all. Trying to do everything to your standard of perfection will make you crazy and a perfectly crazy person can't help anyone.
Accepting these things helps clear a path for balancing this complex equation. A couple actions to consider:
- Check in with yourself on how well you like your job. If you're uncertain, this self-assessment might help. Take the steps you need to fix your job or find a new one. This is easier said than done, I know. However, I also know that whether work is a choice or a necessity, it consumes a significant portion of our lives and you owe it to yourself to do something you believe is productive and fulfilling.
- Read the dozens of great ideas out there on time management then pick and choose the tactics that fit your life. Know that some days those tactics are going to work and some days are still going to be a chaotic mess. Feeling balanced is something you can only assess from a distance. Perhaps looking back at the last month or year, did you generally feel like you were where you needed to and wanted to be most of the time? Expecting to feel balanced on any given Wednesday morning that is also show and share day at your child's school and the same day as your big account meeting is likely to result in disappointment.
- Take stock of your network today. Are there people who'd appreciate a thank you? Are their gaps that need to be filled? Who could you add to your circle of partners--a commuting, exercise, kid drop-off, or lunch buddy?
- In terms of the whole perfection issue, pick one or two things you want to strive for perfection. Mine are hair and cupcakes. Just kidding. Anyone who knows me knows that that's ridiculous, my hair is always a mess and I've only made one cake from scratch ever and it ended with tears. Mine are family dinners and big client meetings. I put a lot of effort into trying to make those things as great as possible. There's a bunch of other stuff I put in the good bucket and there is a growing pile over in the I-don't-give-a-hoot corner. And that's okay.
With these in mind, I believe the kid, work, life equation can be balanced and rebalanced again and again, as needed. One final thought about the notion of "having it all" that I believe relates here. We can have it all but not have everyone else's all. You can have your all. The key is knowing what's important to you and your family and career and letting everyone else's expectations sit down and shut up. Too often, we find ourselves chasing something only because someone else has it and said we should too. Checking every new "must have" against our own value list is the necessary exit off of that spinning hamster wheel.