It was still 89 degrees in the shade at 7 pm and humid enough to melt concealer, but the wine was chilled and our kids were occupied. Three of us, an obstetrician, a social worker, and a Physician Assistant (that’s me), gathered in my backyard on a Saturday evening to relax and recharge. Our initial chatter jumped from the latest diets to pubescent changes in our kids to the single Patrick Dempsey-lookalike radiologist who’d moved in on the corner. We eventually got around to the elephant in the yard, how the hell we’re supposed to have full-time jobs, and facilitate virtual school without neglecting our kids, our careers, or both.
From the moment we hold our naked newborns on our chests, we feel guilty if we don’t breastfeed, if we hire someone to keep our babies while we work, or if we fail at maintaining an impossible standard called work-life balance. Work-life balance is a mystical unicorn as far as I can tell. Sure, PTA Moms or Mom Influencers appear to be “doing it all,” but word eventually leaks they’re having an affair, getting a divorce, or are in rehab. Moms who can juggle all the balls without dropping one or two are fairy tale material.
My husband is baffled by my need to please and the crushing guilt accompanying anything less than perfect. He was off with the other Dads during our backyard gathering, drinking beer, and discussing kayaks and home remodels, not a care in the world. We Moms were growing ulcers trying to figure out childcare, schooling, and our work schedules for the coming months. My husband later confirmed there was nary a mention of kids or school in the Dad circle.
Mom guilt isn’t going away without a fair amount of therapy and a good dose of “I don’t give a shit,” as my husband likes to preach, but I’m going to share how carrying a giant water cooler jug at work provided a vision of how we can shift our perspective on achieving “balance” during this crazy time.
Imagine you’re given a five-gallon water jug every day, with the water representing a set amount of energy for the day. The volume increases on days you get more sleep, exercise, and healthy foods. Inversely, it decreases with things like schedule overload or drinking too much wine.
Picture yourself with this jug, full to the brim, and you’re tasked with transferring water to labeled buckets. There’s the kid bucket, the marriage bucket, the career bucket, etc. Plus, you need to save some water so you’ll have enough for your own bucket.
“No problem,” you think, carefully pouring water into each container until they appear even. Just when you think you have it figured out, someone’s bucket requires more of your water—perhaps two of your coworkers are on maternity leave, your kid is struggling academically, or your husband is going through an emotional rough patch (which all happened to me simultaneously last year). You brainstorm and juggle, and finally manage to figure out how to get some water in everyone’s buckets. But wait! Just when balance is within reach, ‘Rona comes to visit.
With the pandemic come new buckets, labeled “your child’s virtual education” and “health of your family.” You frantically search for labels on the new buckets, surely there are guidelines and recommendations. You find instructions, but they’re vague and have conflicting information. You ask your friends for advice, but realize their buckets look different than yours. Panic ensues. More of your precious energy! How can you manage? You start drawing from your own supply to fill the new buckets. At first, it works, but you soon notice your mood dipping, energy sagging, and sleep suffering. You siphon this liquid energy from your marriage or work buckets, and these, too, start to suffer. After a few months, you’re a hot, burned-out mess on all fronts: crying, drinking too much, gaining weight, dreading work, and fighting with your spouse.
By now, you realize your energy expenditure for the day will require constant shifting depending on the days’ needs. But here’s a piece of the puzzle you weren’t told at the beginning of this analogy: You don’t have enough water to fill all the buckets to fullness.
You study the buckets again and notice a faint line at the top, “Filled to capacity, but impossible to maintain.” Crap! But wait— you squint. There’s another line you’ve never noticed! It says, “Good Enough.” The good-enough line is not very far from the bottom of the bucket, and it surprises you that it’s an option you’ve never considered.
You decide to try filling the buckets to this line instead. There’s less guilt because you realize your water supply can’t keep everyone filled up. Your daughter will still cry because you can’t cancel an entire mornings’ worth of patients to take her to the orthodontist. Your boss might be surprised when you tell her you want to cut back on the number of days you work. Your husband might be pleasantly surprised he’s getting any attention at all now.
After a few weeks of practicing the Good Enough method, you feel more like yourself, perhaps having enough energy left in your jug to go for a walk or make yourself a healthy lunch instead of eating the kids’ soggy fish sticks and untouched baby carrots.
Good enough is the new perfect. Next time someone asks you to do something, examine the buckets in your life. Remember, you’ll have to shift energy to have enough to go around. When the Mom down the street gushes that she made a spreadsheet of her elementary kids’ classes and extracurricular activities based on a point system for college admissions, remember that your line is at “good enough,” and that’s good enough.