Monday, December 12, 2011

More on Balance

You know that question, "How do you do it?"  It's intended as a compliment, right?  And also has a bit of judgment in it (I haven't seen the movie yet, but there are plenty of judgments in the trailers alone)?  I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (thanks to S. for lending that to me for an entire year, which is how much time it took me to finish that slim little book).  And now I think the answer to that is, "With luck and a shitload of help."  In other words, I worked hard and tried some things and failed a lot, but also I "do it" because I was born at a particular time in a particular location and into a particular social class and ethnicity.  Apparently Idaho, circa 1975, was a fortunate time and place to be born.

I don't mean that facetiously.  I would just have to make sense of what I mean, and I'm not able to do that yet because I haven't had a cup of coffee yet.  I gave up coffee.  Until about 10am.

I think I've tried to say something like this a few times, about how the notion of "balance" for working mothers (and maybe for everyone) is a culturally-constructed mirage.  But here's Martha Beck on it, writing in her funny and eloquent way (and with inappropriate cocaine jokes, which make me feel better about my own inappropriateness.  And skip down to the bottom for another useful article if you don't want to read this one):

Here is typical scenario from when my children were younger: It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday’s tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering email, grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner, and cuddling one of my children through some of the horrors of growing up. I finally sat down at my computer around midnight—and looked up just now to see the sun rising. 
Since I’m up, I decide to set a historic precedent by preparing breakfast. All goes well as I awaken my children and head to the kitchen, at which point I remember how much I hate to cook. I even hate to toast. The kids arrive, yawning, and ask what I’m planning to serve them. I think for a minute, then say, “We have Oreos.” 
My children roll their eyes. 
“We have cocaine,” I venture. I’m pretty sure they know this is a joke. I’ve never seen cocaine, much less tried it—although frankly it’s beginning to sound like a good idea. Isn’t that how Sigmund Freud got so much done? 
Understand three things: (1) I don’t have a job. I am a writer, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; (2) my children are not young. They walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and (3) I’m kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family. I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote several big fat books about it. Plus, I’m a life coach. You’d think I could live a balanced life as a 21st century American woman. 
Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way. 
Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden recounts two years the author spent living in solitary harmony with the wilderness. The book’s premise is that all humans could live simply and naturally, as Thoreau did. As a teenager, I loved Walden. Years later, as an exhausted working mother, I learned something Thoreau failed to mention in his journal: The entire time he was roughing it, his mother and sisters helped care for his needs, hauling in food and hauling out laundry. The reason Thoreau didn’t write about this is that he took it for granted. Like most thinker’s of his generation, he saw “women’s work” as a product of natural female instinct: Birds fly south for the winter, and women show up to wash men’s underwear. Okay, so I’m a little bitter—but only because this attitude pervaded American culture well into my own lifetime. 
Early American feminists fought for the right to participate in the workforce by assuring everyone that it was easy to do women’s work—perhaps with one’s toes, while simultaneously performing jobs traditionally reserved for men. I once believed this, and I have the colorful medical history to prove it. Women of my generation thought we could have everything; experience taught us we could have everything but sleep (one sociologist who studied an early cohort of working mothers wrote, “These women talked about sleep the way a starving person talks about food”). Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan while never letting hubby forget he’s a man turned out to be a logistical challenge to rival the moon landing, but without support from Houston.

Three Ways to Lose Your Balance 

I spent the last decade of the 20th century interviewing American women and found that no matter how they sought balance, virtually none of them attained it in their culturally prescribed role. Some of these women were like Meg, a stay-at-home mother who sacrificed her career to care for her children, only to feel devalued by a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth. Others resembled Laura, a 43-year-old lawyer who never got the marriage or children she’d always expected. Laura’s heart ached every time she attended yet another baby shower. At work, married people dumped extra work on her, figuring she had no life. But most of the women I spoke to were like Stephanie, who had a good job, two children, and chronic fatigue. For years Stephanie’s boss complained that her work was inadequate because of the time she devoted to her family, while Stephanie (and her relatives) worried that her children were suffering because of the energy required by her work. 
Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together. But there is hope. 

The Joy of Being Unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out. 
That’s what happened to Meg, Laura, and Stephanie when each lost her balance in a dramatic way. Meg, the stay-at-home mom, hit the end of her rope when her husband left her for a “more accomplished” coworker. Laura’s turning point was an emergency hysterectomy that meant she would never have the baby shower of her dreams. Stephanie finally realized she was trying to do the impossible the day her mother-in-law scolded her for working too much and she was fired for being too concerned with her personal life. 
There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable. This epiphany was terrible, because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions. After her crisis, Laura discovered a passion for gardening that led her to quit her corporate job and start a floral nursery business. Meg spends her time contributing to the local schools and developing relationships that help her see her own value. Stephanie got a new job by developing a proposal that showed how she could add value to a company while working from home. 
On the surface, these aren’t revolutionary acts. But they filled each woman’s life with authenticity and satisfaction. If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us. Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life. 
And also here is the editor's introduction to last month's issue of More Magazine, which says something similar.  The stories reminded me a lot of my own, especially when the girls were younger:

The other day I had lunch with an old friend who could be the poster child for the overstretched, do-it-all female. Not only is she the editor of a successful magazine but she is also its publisher. So she does two full-time jobs: creating great content for her readers and then, in her spare time, performing the equally challenging high-wire act of courting the advertisers. Oh, and she lives on the Pacific Rim, has to do business in New York and Europe several times a year and reports to a boss in Milan—she flies there regularly to meet with him. Still not seeing any problem? Well, let me add the last salient fact: She's also the mother of two kids. So it shouldn't have surprised me that when I mentioned that both my kids were now out of the house, away at school, she looked at me like a marathon dieter who'd just seen a three-layer chocolate cake: “That means you can devote all your time to work!” she said with a wistful sigh, laced with heavy doses of jet lag. “Oh, I can't even imagine!”
Only two years ago, I couldn't have imagined it either. With my kids then still at home, I too was run ragged by attempting to do it all. Take the time, for instance, when we had just moved from the city to the suburbs. Our son, JJ, had entered the local kindergarten, and somehow our name had not made it onto that small-town bible: the official school calling list. My husband had already cleared out for the 5:30 am train to his job in the city while I got JJ ready for school and our newborn daughter, Lake, out of her crib, dressed and fed. I was in full supermom mode—slipping into my best work clothes and blow-drying my hair while simultaneously microwaving JJ's bowl of instant oatmeal (jail me for high crimes against nutrition; the kid wouldn't eat anything else!) and coaxing the baby to take her bottle. Somewhere in the background I'm sure the TV was blaring the news of an impending snowstorm, but I was in move-forward mode. It could even have been one of those days when I'd gotten up at 5 am to make cookies for a school bake sale—you know, the kind you find out about from a flyer you pull out of the kid's backpack the night before. Those notes from school were always very clear: Everyone needs to participate, and they need to start from scratch … The flyers would actually specify “No Entenmann's!” (Yes, I could have disobeyed, but goody-goody moms like me never do.)
Our full-time babysitter arrived; I kissed Lake good-bye and bundled JJ into his puffer jacket. Driving him the half mile to school was one of those small maternal pleasures I refused to delegate. I pulled up to the curb and watched JJ tumble out, lean all his weight into the heavy school door and disappear inside. I grabbed the train. Ten minutes into the trip, my cell phone rang. “Is this Mrs. Seymour?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
“This is the assistant principal from Murray Avenue School,” the voice said as panic rose in my chest: Something had happened to JJ! He was kidnapped walking down the hall! He was crushed in the stampede for the classroom after the bell …
Uh. No.
“I found him wandering around the school, which is closed for a snow day. Didn't you get the call?”
“What call? We're new in town,” I said as my subconscious released little balloons of guilty recognition into my consciousness. I was sort of surprised at how easy drop-off had been—no waiting in line with 20 chuffing cars, no PTA moms hauling kindergartners out of the backseats. Pop. Pop. Pop.
“The class mother is supposed to have called you. But don't worry, I can wait here with JJ till you get him.”
Well, umm … Given the busy workday that lay ahead, I called my sitter and asked her to go, which made me feel even more like a candidate for Uber-Bad Mom. And my list of failures to balance work and parenthood goes on from there. Which is why I always squirm when I meet women who ask, “So how did you do it all?”
The answer, of course, is that I didn't. And the reality is that balance only happens over a lifetime—there will be years when you must choose family over work and years when you must do the opposite. And some, frankly, when you will run around with your hair on fire until you figure out what works for you. So it was actually comforting when I recently had dinner with a group of late-bloomer moms who reject the idea of doing it all as “unrealistic” and “self-defeating.” These women accept the necessity of making choices. One terrifically successful pediatric dentist works only three days a week and spends the rest of her time with her kids. Some of the women are staying home full time, at least for now, while others are working full time and more. I was impressed: We have come a long way. Somehow, however, I forgot to mention to them that when I was editing Redbook, I was the genius who came up with the tagline “Balancing family, work, love, time for you.” But hey, it was the ’90s!


  1. Thank you!

    I read recently about how some people become proud of their multitasking abilities, but in reality, it is a horrible syndrome, bad for you, can become less effecient, etc.... I used to write on my resume about how I can multitask well in my summary at the top, like it was good to put it there. Fuck all that nonsense!

  2. I think "Fuck all that Nonsense" would be an excellent t-shirt.

  3. let me know when you have those t-shirts for sale.