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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Myth of Balance

I am convinced that it is a myth that there will always be balance between our personal and professional lives. Getting used to this idea is a watershed moment in the lives of working moms, and once accepted, the idea is liberating. For example, as a professor mom, a large part of my job is grant writing and lab research, essentially all of which is driven by deadlines. I spent years beating myself up about the fact that when I have a grant deadline looming I end up working on the weekends in the lab or at my office to make sure I hit the deadline. My husband and kids take it in stride, waving goodbye to me on Saturday morning and heading out to see a movie or play in the park. I return home in the evening, strung-out but successful in my work tasks, and constantly apologizing for being gone during family time. Finally, one night my husband asked me what I was apologizing for. “It’s not like you do this all the time, you know- once in a while you have to put in a little extra time at work, and that’s okay.” You know, he was right, and as soon as he said it out loud, I realized that it was true- working slavishly on weekends and during family time was, and is, a rarity, made more conspicuous in my own mind by its infrequency. I remember the smells in the kitchen, the music on the iPod, and what shirt he was wearing when he said it that night- it was that powerful for me, and I am grateful to him for having said it.

I’ve had the pleasure of telling many colleagues and clients that same thing since that night, with similar effect. Interestingly, this concept of accepting that it’s really okay if sometimes we let work come first to meet a deadline, and equally, that sometimes (often?) it’s necessary to put the brakes on at work to make a baseball game, dance recital, or parent-teacher conference can be uncomfortable at first for working moms, as we’re supposed to have all the balls in the air at the same time. Accepting that sometimes one thing has to get a bit more attention that another is yet another way that working moms can nourish and support themselves; it reduces “supermom” syndrome instantly.

Of course, it’s not always easy to remember that it’s okay to be out of balance from time to time, but keeping a few primary things in the front of your mind can help:

1. Remember to appreciate the forest rather than concentrating on single trees: As long as on the whole the feedback you get from your family and co-workers is that things are going well and moving forward, it’s okay to pay a bit more attention to work or home from time to time at the short-term expense of the other.
2. Be kind to yourself: As a working mom, you already know how important it is to support yourself. One way to do this is to push away feelings of guilt or inadequacy you might conjure up when you temporarily favor work over family, for example.
3. Help is a good thing: It’s okay and important to ask for help when you are in crunch mode at work or at home. Ideally, you have a spouse of family nearby that can help, but another great resource is other working moms. Creating arrangements to trade child care, transportation and weekend care with other working moms can not only help you all get what you need to do take care of, but it provides additional social opportunities for your kids.

The take-home message here is that it’s okay to favor work over family from time to time, and to put family squarely ahead of your professional life at other times. When times like this happen occasionally within the context of a generally balanced and boundary-driven life, there’s nothing to worry about- we all know that from time to time we have to make hard choices to accomplish all the things we need to do. By taking care of yourself personally and professionally, you assure that your family and career both flourish in the long run.

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