Years ago, as a determined and optimistic new mother, I believed that work-life balance was a real thing that actual people achieved if they managed their time correctly. I was 100% earnest in my efforts to divide my daily time equally between work, family, social life, and self-care. Color-coded scheduling spreadsheets may or may not have been employed.
For years I remained steadfast in my mission to achieve equilibrium. I kept telling myself I’d get there one day. If I could just stick to my schedule, control it, I would achieve an empty to-do list at the end of each day, which would be the marker of my success at “balance.”
But, of course, color-coding can’t materialize extra time. I’d slip quietly from my son’s room after an hours-long bedtime routine and realize I hadn’t made it to the gym, let alone found time to shower. I’d swear I was going to return a friend’s call and then one of the kids would get sick and need every ounce of my attention. It would be a week before I’d finally call. I only finished three classes into that MBA.
Day after day, I failed. I failed because young children are selfish and give not even one single crap about anyone’s schedule. I failed because, as has become widely acknowledged, work-life balance isn’t really a thing. Randi Zuckerberg famously coined the entrepreneur’s dilemma back in 2011: “Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time w/family. Staying fit. Getting sleep. Pick 3.”
And if work-life balance is a sham in general, it’s doubly so for parents, and exponentially so for moms. When it comes to the division of household labor in marriage, married men tend to do less housework than they did when they were single, while women tend to do more housework after they get married. Add kids to the mix and the imbalance is exacerbated. Then add the mental load that is more likely to be carried by women, and it’s no wonder we fantasize about cloning ourselves. We know it’s impossible to do it all. And, even if we did correct the imbalances inherent in arbitrary gender roles, work-life balance would still be impossible to achieve.
Or would it?
Turns out once I was OK with admitting defeat in this area, a pattern began to emerge that made me question not only my (and Zuckerberg’s) hard-earned cynicism, but also whether I had in fact been defeated at all.
I realized I’d been striving for each of my days to equally reflect my priorities and values. It was as if I was caring for little seedlings that needed nurturing on a regular, rolling schedule. But I simply couldn’t get to everything everyday — and instead of me seeing this as failing, I saw it as me remaining flexible and responsive to the things around me. I was adjusting and flexing my daily attentions as life adjusted and flexed its daily demands. I was, in fact, tending to all my seedlings — just on a different rhythm.
For example, sometimes a friend has a crisis and I drop everything else for a week to cook her some meals and help with driving her kids. Sometimes I become engrossed in an exciting work project and don’t make it to the gym or to a social outing even once during that period. Sometimes one of my kids is having a rough week and needs extra attention, and that means I set aside everything else so I can focus on that.
This is adapting.
And by the way, I started to notice something about that precious to-do list: everything still got done. No, not each day. Not by a long shot. But over time.
This past summer was a hot mess. I was separating from my husband, moving into a new house, learning to co-parent effectively, taking on as much work as I could, and raining down as much love and attention as possible on my two kids who were out of school and whose world had just been flipped upside down. So, naturally, self-care took a major backseat. I didn’t go to the gym. I ate carbs like it was my job. I went a year without a haircut. I went out with friends once in six months.
But it had to be that way. I had to get my finances in order, and I had to make sure my kids were okay. Those two things took just about every minute of my waking hours. But now I’m finally settled in my new home, the kids are back in school, and I’ve hit a rhythm with work. I got a haircut last week (phew). Yesterday I made shredded chicken tacos with a cabbage-kale blend for the “lettuce” and a homemade lime salsa to top it off with. I’ve gone to the gym four times in the last couple of weeks. Self-care is back in the building.
Years ago I’d have looked at the wild ebb and flow that constitutes my present existence and thought I was a complete disaster. A woman who just can’t get it together.
I know better now. I know that though Randi Zuckerberg’s tweet may have voiced the collective frustration of moms everywhere, perhaps we all have been just a little too hard on ourselves and have been judging ourselves according to the wrong criteria. My own life is a lot more balanced than I first realized. It turns out that balance just looks a lot different than I had been told it should. In real life, it’s messy. It’s not symmetrical or pretty or even remotely predictable. And thank goodness, because color-coded spreadsheets never really were my cup of tea.