Nine years later… Balance is still bunk.
by Robin Anderson
Life sends us messages. At least I’ve always believed this. In October of 2004 I came across an article in Fast Company magazine titled Balance is Bunk. It stopped me in my tracks. I was four years into my career in telecommunications as marketing manager for a company on the verge of amazing growth. We were in year one of a huge undertaking, to be one of the first telecom companies in the nation to roll out Fiber to the Home along with IPTV in a CLEC. My role was to help lead the project, determine marketing strategy, put all materials together, manage the video content for the television offering, and act as company spokesperson. At home, I was mom to a six year-old boy, four year-old girl and a baby girl who was about to turn one. Life was crazy to say the least.
Days were filled with this amazing project that was all consuming and seldom ended at 5:00. When office work was over, work at home was just beginning. First stop was daycare to pick up the punks, then home to make dinner, catch up on laundry, chase kids around, read stories and rock babies. Once the kids were tucked in, many nights were spent back on the day job formulating a plan of attack for the next morning.
People close to me would often ask, “How do you balance it all?” A question that always left me scratching my head — any possible answer escaped me. I didn’t feel like I was balancing anything at all, yet I felt the idea of “balance” was definitely my goal and something I was working toward. As a professional I often felt I was falling short. As a mom, of course, I felt there were times I wasn’t doing all that I could, possibly more times than not, especially when people were so generous to point it out for me! It was a constant internal battle. Until October of 2004 when I read that headline on the cover from Fast Company. It was practically screaming, “Hey you! Yeah… you… the one with the never ending guilt. Listen up. Balance is Bunk.”
I tore into the magazine and didn’t put it down until I read the last word. Then I read it again. And again. The words resonated with me like nothing had in a very long time:
The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream, a vain artifice that offers mostly rhetorical solutions to problems of logistics and economics. The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.
Wow. No balance? How could that be? I’d spent so much time reading articles and books on how to find balance. Every meeting I was attending had a consultant from some fancy pants firm glorifying balance… “You can have it all and you can give it all! Just keep working hard.” I just kept nodding my head and taking notes believing that this was attainable. I could conquer balance!
The article went on to say:
The balance movement is fatally flawed. For those of us trying desperately to keep up with everything that needs doing, it poses two mythical ideals. If we work hard enough at it, one goes, we can have everything. Or if we cut back, we can have just enough to be truly content. The first obliges us to accomplish too much, often at too high a price; the second doesn’t let us accomplish enough. Either way, balance is a relic, a fleeting phenomenon of a closed, industrial economy that doesn’t apply in a global knowledge-based world.
There’s a better way to think about all this, one that requires us to embrace imbalance. Instead of trying to balance all of our commitments and passions at any time, let’s acknowledge that anything important, and anything done well, demands our full investment. At times, it may be a demanding child or an unhappy spouse, and the office will suffer. At others, it may be winning the big account, and a child and spouse will have to fend for themselves. Only over time can we really balance a portfolio of diverse experiences.
Reading this article changed who I was. It changed how I thought of myself not only as an employee, but as a mom and wife. It was time to stop beating myself up. Women have become so accustomed to feeling that they are failing their children if they aren’t home baking cookies when they step off the bus or cooking a meal every evening that includes the right combination of the four food groups. Even more so today with Facebook posts reminding us who the overachievers are.
But who is really creating all of this guilt for us? Is someone really saying to moms that we are failing in every aspect of our life? Of course not… unless you have really bad friends. Typically, it’s that resounding little voice in our head saying, “you’re failing again, you will never be able to manage it all, your kids are suffering, your boss isn’t going to be happy with you.” Stop it. Stop listening to that voice. In fact, take her voice away completely. We control that power in our lives. We need to shove a cookie in her mouth when we hear her start speaking up.
As I continued to think about this whole balance deal, it also caused me to think about our roles as parents. Have you EVER in your life heard a man say “I just can’t seem to balance it all?” Doubtful. I know I’ve never heard my husband say that. Why is that? Do I think there are men who struggle with these same issues? Absolutely. But I don’t believe they give it half the merit women do. We tend to be so much better at beating ourselves up. We practice this over and over.
The article ends with this:
And here’s what’s crucial: With each decision, these people invest themselves, their passion, and their time in what is most important to them. They also agree to give up something important; a portfolio life doesn’t excuse them from the need to make trade-offs. The decision to reject the mirage of balance requires the discipline to continually prioritize and compromise.
Is that balance? Only in the sense that, over time, things more or less balance out. But that doesn’t make it perfect, or easy. In some ways, it’s counterinstinctual. It forces us to think differently about our careers and about the contributions we make in all realms of our lives. And it give us a plan that’s valid only until the next baby, project deadline, layoff, or illness.
But all things considered, it could prove a lot saner.
In the fall of 2004, I took this advice. I bought in. It became my mantra. I began to realize that on certain days I was going to do all I could to be the best marketing manager in the industry and as a result, we may be eating pizza for dinner again if I even made it to dinner. But the next day, I may have to sneak out of work early for a school function with my punk or to support my husband in something he had going on. In those times I would be the best mom and wife I could possibly be. At the end of the day, I hoped my boss would be able to say “she is an asset that gives all she has when she can” and I hoped my kids would grow up remembering all of the times I was there and that the memories of those times would somehow outweigh the few times I couldn’t be there to the point that they wouldn’t even remember them.
It’s been nine years since I read that article and decided to let go of the whole idea of “balance” in my life. My job has changed. The idea of living an imbalanced life has not. It’s more prevalent today than ever. The 6 year-old boy is now 15. The girls are 13 and 10. Career and family still collide on a weekly basis. I feel fortunate that I was able to accept an imbalanced life in my 30s as it prepared me for the real craziness that started in my 40s.
Do I still fail? Absolutely. More times than I care to count. But at the end of the day, I truly try to be there for those closest to me. My kids know I would drop anything for them in a second. My husband is my rock and does whatever needs to be done to keep things as perfectly imbalanced as possible. I try to be a good friend and make time for fun and to be a shoulder to lean on. And yet, work continues to be a priority and I take pride in being committed to those who are investing and believing in me.
All of us deal with commitments in different ways. What works for one person may not work for another. The best advice I can give is to let go of this idea of “balance.” Not only will it be better for those you surround yourself with, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Note: Excerpts taken from Balance is Bunk, written by Fast Company Staff, Fast Company, October 2004.