“Annie Rose, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a mommy,” she answered emphatically.
“You will be a phenomenal mommy!” I responded. “And is there anything else you would like to do, too?”
“No,” she said simply. “I don’t want to have to spend time away from my little kids. I don’t want to write a book, or have a garden, or make paintings, or do anything except snuggle with my kids and read to them and play with them. I don’t want another job besides being a mommy.”
And there you have it. The knife, artfully wedged into my heart, twists as my young daughter clearly points out that from her perception, I have failed at the work-life balance. She is right, of course, if you are working from the assumption that there is such a thing as a perfect work/life balance. The question is, from whose perspective are you judging whether the right balance has been achieved? From the eyes of your career? From the eyes of your children? From the eyes of your partner? What satisfies one will undoubtedly leave another wanting.
Therefore, I reject the idea completely. There is no work-life balance. I cannot make myself unhappy about not achieving a balance that I don’t believe exists to begin with.
I know that there is no balance from various points of view. I have been a full-time working single woman. I have been a full-time working wife without kids. I have been a full-time working mom. I have been a full time stay-at-home-mom. I have been a part-time-working mom. I have been a working-all-day-and-all-night mom.
No matter what role in which I cast myself, the inevitable doubts and longings creep in and try to set up camp. When I was childless, I skyrocketed to success at work, and yet the only thing in the whole wide world that I wanted was a baby, a desire that seemed as painfully elusive as walking on Mars.
After we finally adopted Katie, I went back to work. When I was at the bank and Katie was in day care from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm, all I longed for was to be with her. When I switched careers and became an oil painter who worked part time, I yearned for the adult company and stimulating conversation of my former colleagues.
Was I happy working at the bank? Well, yes, I was. There was something invigorating about being part of a team, all working toward a common goal. Was I happy spending more time with my daughters when I switched to painting? Well, yes, I was. I adored my time with them, but I also enjoyed my time away. There was something profound about listening to my favorite music as I danced through my studio, laying paint to canvas, watching with breathless excitement as the images took shape.
My ability to be happy in different roles is partly because I am a generally happy person, and I do not believe there is just one career or place for me. This is evidenced by the fact that I am on my third career (now as a writer), and I am about to be working more than full time when my book is released next week. But I also am happy because I know that there is no such thing as the perfect balance, and I don’t put that pressure on myself.
It’s like eating chocolate. There is never the perfect amount. If I eat one brownie, I want more. I REALLY want more. But if I eat brownies until I do not want another, I inevitably feel sick. There is no chocolate balance, just as there is no work-life balance for parents.
This third career -- that of writing-- has brought me the most satisfaction. I have LOVED researching and writing Bullied. It gives me a thrill. But the hours and hours it has taken away from my kids are not to be considered lightly.
As many working moms do, I console myself by saying that I am setting a good role model for my girls. I am showing them that they can use their talents and abilities to pursue opportunities in life. Yes, I do believe that. When they are older, they will understand.
But what about now? Now they tell me things like, “I hope you never write another book!” But I will, and it won’t be to spite them or hurt them. It will be because writing a book is good for me, and it helps me be the best mommy I can be to them. It makes me feel less restless to be working, and whether or not the girls can see that, they benefit from it.
So how do I quiet the part of my soul that yearns to tell Annie Rose, “I will throw my computer away and let my garden wilt and spend all my time reading with you and snuggling with you?” I do it in bits and pieces. I find a moment when the most recent article is done being written, and dinner is in the oven, and I read with her. Is it enough? No. No amount of attention will ever be enough for the kids. They will always always always want more. I give as much as I can. Some days they get a ton from me. Some days they don’t. But that is okay.
Despite what the media may lead us to believe, this is not just an issue that faces moms. My husband agonizes over how much to work at night or on the weekends. The girls clamor for his attention, as do the tests he needs to grade and the lessons that need planning. “The way I manage it,” Andrew told me, “is that I break things into two categories: 1) what NEEDS to get done today; and 2) what I would LIKE to get done today. If the girls want to play with me, I hold them off while I do what I absolutely need to do and after that, I make my peace with it if I don’t finish everything I would like to do.”
From an employer’s point of view, an employee should always go the extra mile. From a child’s point of view, a parent should always say yes to building with Legos or reading a book. A tension exists between the two, and trying to achieve perfection with both will drive you crazy. I just focus on the here and now and what is manageable, as does Andrew.
Yesterday, the balance tipped in favor of the kids. We lounged around, reading books to the three girls. We packed a picnic lunch and biked to Noah’s Playground. We ate dinner outside and then hopped back on the bikes to go get Andy’s Frozen Custard. It was a great day. And I knew that a mound of work would be waiting today. It’s a matter of picking and choosing.
When my inbox is empty, my kids are usually growling at me, because it means I have been tending to work. When the inbox is full, the kids are usually in a good humor, as it means that I have been theirs. Everyone wants a piece of mom and dad. And, like with a good dessert, a piece leaves you wanting a second piece. It’s just the way it is. When the brownies are gone, I always remind the girls we can make more.
There is another day tomorrow. There will be more attention from mom. Or dad. It is okay to yearn a little. The yearning goes both ways, you know. Just do what is manageable, and it will work out.