We talk about work-life balance as if it’s that simple. As if we only need to consider work on one hand, and life on the other, to divide our time and energy into proper and equal portions. As if life can be summed up in one word.
What happens if one day, I victoriously unplug from my office job to indulge in a little life? What part of life do I live first?
Having children dumps you into a world that hums with messaging. The loud and clear takeaway is that your children should come first. Not only in everything they do, but in their relationship to you and the rest of the world.
But if you’ve had children with a spouse or partner, you start to hear clucking tongues. You realize, with horror, that the noise is not just coming from your in-laws. It’s coming from everyone around you, warning that if you don’t pay enough attention to that relationship, you risk it entirely.
Then there’s “me time.” This suggestion is perhaps directed most often at women, especially women with children. It’s the time for recharging the batteries, and remembering who we are in an individual sense. Pedicures or naps are often encouraged. Admitting to taking very little “me time” is akin to admitting an affinity for self-harm.
And, of course, to be a full and complete person, we’re meant to maintain our friendships, host family dinners, and volunteer in the community. Also, we should probably be training for a marathon.
Work starts to look pretty easy.
To quote soap opera brilliance, we have only one life to live. To quote my law school evidence class, that life is entirely within our possession, custody and control. To quote Bon Jovi, it’s now or never.
Only death can separate me from my life, and you from yours. Therefore, it stands to reason that to take care of that life, we must first take care of ourselves. It can’t so easily follow, though, that “me time” must trump all other time, for that threatens to render us very selfish people.
What’s more, satisfaction in one’s life often depends on the happiness and security of other people’s lives. My parents always said they were only as happy as their most unhappy daughter. I find my husband or my children can equally impact my happiness by the extent of theirs.
That altruism still offers no final solution. Tending to him over them, or vice versa, or daughter over son, or vice versa, is a riddle I will never solve. An investment in one direction inevitably leads to a feeling of guilt in another. The effort at teasing out an answer leaves me depleted and needing “me time.”
Which leads very helpfully back to the predicament of square one.
Even so, I do believe there is a simple answer: work and life must be balanced, and so too must the life within life. And balancing means taking turns with priorities.
Some afternoons, I need to leave my family behind and get my hair blown dry. Not because we have an event, but because I have hair and it usually isn’t treated nicely.
Some weekends, I need to tell my husband that we’re going out for dinner both nights. Not because we have that many friends, but because we need at least four uninterrupted hours to catch up on the last seven months.
Some mornings, I need to help my daughter get dressed and accept that my son will be wearing shorts to school in December. Not because she can’t dress herself, but because she needs me in her room smoothing over any frustrations. Other afternoons, I’ll pick my son up first. Not because I want to give him more time to ask questions, but because I want to give him more time to be hugged independently.
The most we can do is wake up hoping to approximate some balancing of work and life. We can evaluate who or what needs us more, and we can triage accordingly. We can accept that we’ll neglect something.
So we can go to sleep, and wake up to try again.