Fairly early on in our marriage, my husband and I made the mutual decision that one of us would stay home with our children while they were young. For several reasons, I assumed the role of lead parent, handling everything from childcare and extracurricular activities to laundry and grocery shopping. My husband, in turn, assumed the role of breadwinner so that I didn’t bounce checks while doing said grocery shopping. Our reasons for choosing this very traditional — to the point of being almost clichéd — family dynamic are varied and uniquely personal to our situation. And, trust me, the luxury of even having this option to consider is not lost on me.
While there are several pros and cons to our decision, and it is but one of many ways of raising a family, our somewhat imbalanced approach has, for the most part, worked for us. That is not to say that is has been easy. There were several years when I was (quite literally) up to my elbows in spit-up, poop and tears. There were years when I never thought that I would be able to go to the bathroom by myself or eat lunch sitting down. My law degree collected dust on a shelf somewhere, and my career was festering in a pile of dirty laundry somewhere.
Conversely, my husband bore the burden of supporting the family financially. Trying to work his way up through the ranks of a law firm during the Great Recession, he lost more than few nights of sleep working and worrying about his ability to provide for the family.
Balance — whatever that is — was an impossibility.
Now that our children are school-age, however, traces of something akin to balance have started to filter back into our lives. I have a part-time job from home and get together with friends on a somewhat regular basis, though I still do most of the grocery shopping and all of the laundry. My husband still works an exorbitant amount of hours, but his ability to control his schedule has improved. He organizes Dad’s Day with our sons on a regular basis when I am with friends or at a work event. He is able to sneak away from the office on the occasional weekday to take the boys to school or even to a baseball game. And now that I am working part-time (albeit very part-time), the financial burden he bore for all those years may be shrinking ever so slightly.
But even with these glimmers of balance (which, admittedly, are far more common for me than my husband), our lives still feel imbalanced. Most days are heavier on one thing or another, and we feel the weight of this precariously tipped scale on an almost daily basis.
But as wobbly as this imbalance can be, the shakiness is exacerbated by the misguided expectation that life should somehow be more balanced, that we are somehow doing it wrong. And regardless of whether you take the disparate approach that my husband and I chose, whether you share financial and child-rearing obligations equally, or whether you are solely responsible for it all (God bless you!), I suspect we all feel a little imbalanced now and then. Life is busy and full and lopsided sometimes, and it’s hard not to feel like the scales are tipping one way or another. As a good friend recently said to me, “My life feels like it’s a bunch of lists with unchecked boxes.”
It all feels so hard sometimes. Out of control. Chaotic and unmanageable.
More balance, that’s what we tell ourselves we need. Work-life balance.
Well, I call shenanigans. Balance is a myth. An ideal. An obsession that is driving us all a little mad.
Balance, my friends, is bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong, it would be really lovely if we could all find the perfect equilibrium, some way to juggle all the balls in the air, some way to check the boxes on our respective lists. But sometimes—okay, much of the time—it just isn’t possible. Balance is a paradigm, the epitome of perfection. Except perfection doesn’t exist, and like I said, balance is bullshit.
I also can’t help but wonder if this never-ending pursuit of balance is just one more misguided attempt at trying to be everything and do everything, if “balance” isn’t just a less aggressive way of telling ourselves that we should somehow be able to have it all.
Because what we forget in our never-ending quests to grab hold of that ever-elusive Holy Grail of Balance is that life is inherently seasonal. Life unfolds in fits and starts, leaps and bounds. Our careers take off at the same time we are building families and raising children and trying with all our might not to lose our freaking minds. Friendships that were formed out of mutual convenience suddenly become incredibly inconvenient yet more important than ever. There are decades comprised almost entirely of growing up and away, years filled with building houses and careers and families, long stretches of untethering and letting go.
There are seasons of gestation and cultivation, of harvest and hibernation, each with their own joys and sorrows, toils and respites. Some seasons are, thankfully, seasons of balance as well—however we define “balance.” There are days or months or maybe even years when there is a certain symmetry to work obligations and personal time, rest and recreation, friendship and romance. Relationships with our beloveds are stable and secure. We get just enough, and give just enough. We are able to juggle all the balls smoothly and efficiently. Each of the boxes on our respective lists will contain neat little checkmarks.
But, dear ones, these moments are a flash in the pan. They are not the norm. They are an exception to the rule. Some days—heck, some months or years—are made up almost entirely of spit-up, tantrums and carpool lines. Calendars might be filled up with conference calls and meetings and TPS reports. Some days—some magical days—slip by in a hazy blur of lunch with friends, long walks and big glasses of wine.
And, yes, sometimes we get a little bit of all of it. Sometimes we grasp the impossible. Sometimes we find balance.
When we get down to it, balance is only attainable with a long view; balance cannot be micromanaged or forced. Yet everywhere we look we are told we need to do this or achieve that. We strive to be perfect parents, ambitious professionals, friendly neighbors, attentive friends, and devoted to our beloveds—all at the same time.
All of this pressure to find balance — to do all the things and be all the things — is including one more item on our list of failures. And this burden we put on ourselves to micromanage our own imbalanced life is just adding to the list of ways we feel like we aren’t measuring up.
Life can be itinerant, unpredictable, and chaotic (especially when young children are involved). Life can be overwhelmingly hard and devastatingly full. Life is also wildly beautiful and indulgently rich. But we don’t always get to choose if the waves crash in overwhelmingly hard or roll in wildly beautiful. Sometimes we have to ride the tide, moving in and out with the waves and the ripples, letting the water wash over us knowing that like a tiny cracked seashell, balance is probably hiding in underneath it all.
If that doesn’t work, just remind yourself: Balance is bullshit.