Finally, I can breathe again. To any regular readers out there, I apologize for not updating this blog in more than a week. A project at work kidnapped me and I’ve only now managed to sneak away from my captor. My waking hours were consumed in their entirety by this stressful and mentally-exhausting assignment.
Even when I wasn’t actually typing words or completing research, it was on my mind, like an annoying twitch that you simply can’t ignore. At night, I would rush through dinner and excuse myself to hide away with the laptop. My children played with their dad or I parked them in front of a movie, so that I could have a few more minutes to work. Bedtime routines were rushed. I heard calls for mommy, answered with an apologetic “mommy has work to do.” Goofball just wanted to cuddle with me as he fell asleep, but doing so would inevitably lead to me passing out too. And I just didn’t have the time for that.
The work anxiety even pervaded my sleep. One night, I dreamt that my boss and I were pallbearers at a funeral. As we carried the casket down the church steps, he noticed someone that he must have known off in the crowd. Without saying a thing, he walked away, leaving me to carry the casket by myself. There is no question that this dead body symbolized the work assignment for which I felt solely responsible.
I persevered through the guilt and exhaustion by focusing on the fact that my maternity leave is not very far away. While I will be sleep deprived from caring for a newborn, as opposed to working late into the night, there will be an opportunity to shift time and energy towards my family. Some might consider this to be “balanced.” The work demands don’t last forever, but ebb and flow, allowing you to shift your focus between career and the other aspects of your life. These fluctuating responsibilities are central to the frequently discussed goal of achieving perfect balance between work and everything else that is part of your daily existence.
I am guilty of perpetuating the myth that work-life balance is attainable. As a professional with small children, I’m frequently asked the question, “How do you do it all?” The question is slightly amusing because no one in real life knows the extent of my “extracurricular” activities (tutoring, side hustling, and blogging). The true answer is that I try to spend all of my time being productive or giving attention to my family. There is very little “me time.” Instead of depressing these inquirers with the truth, however, I tend to rely on a more-reassuring mantra. I explain that you can’t expect to achieve a perfect 50/50 balance between work and life every single day. My advice is to expect a constant shifting of focus; sometimes you will have more time for family and sometimes work will require additional attention. I’ve told them that balance is achieved on a long-term basis, by factoring in the use of personal or vacation days from work.
There is no true balance; work is always stealing time away from your ability to enjoy life.
I recognize that there may be an exception for those who have “found their calling” and are performing rewarding work. But the vast majority of us do not fall into this category and would quit our jobs if we won the lottery tomorrow. There is no true balance. There is always a deficit. At times it will be confined to normal working hours and at other times, it will creep into your “free time.” Maybe you’ll have to stay late, or bring work home with you, or perhaps, you will be preoccupied at dinner by the lingering effects of a stressful day. The point is that the majority of the average adult’s life is dominated by work. Time for work and living is not equitably apportioned; there are responsibilities first and then, whatever time is left over can be used for pursuing your dreams and enjoying your blessings.
How can you experience a truly full life in only non-working hours?
I realize that work is required to survive in this world. You will have to trade some of your time on this earth for money. But the chart speaks for itself. How are you supposed to fit everything that you define as “living” into your non-working time (a couple of hours each weekday, weekends, and a yearly vacation)? It is impossible.
Yet everyone seems stuck on this hamster wheel of working for years and years, never getting anywhere. You make money and you spend it. Your job is hard and stressful, so you take a break and go on an expensive vacation. It’s finally the weekend and you want to relax and treat yourself. Why would you hustle to get ahead and wipe out some of that time you have to spend working? No, instead go to the mall and get some new clothes – that will make you forget about work. And then, go and get a pedicure, because surely everyone will notice your professionally-painted toes. You complain about a horrible commute, but what is the best way to deal with it? Should you move closer to work to save time and money? No, just buy yourself (on a payment plan) a nicer vehicle so the time spent commuting is more comfortable. Besides, your car is getting old and doesn’t have any fancy features.
The myth of work-life balance is a belief in the ability to thrive during the bits of time left over after fulfilling all of your responsibilities.
I’ve really pushed myself during the past couple of weeks. On Saturday, I finally stopped and took a break (before returning to my work assignment for the past two days). I played with my children and we baked some cookies. I snuggled with them at naptime, allowing myself to slow down and savor the moment. My husband and I watched a funny movie together that night. I was able to re-center myself and stop the spinning-out-of-control sensation. But one day of living doesn’t make up for the weeks, months, and years that I’ve lost, trading so much precious time for cold, hard cash. Even if I took the next week off with my family, it wouldn’t give me back the things that I missed when distracted by work. Even the months of being home on maternity leave will not make up for the nights that my son couldn’t cuddle with his mommy because she was too busy working.
If you’re commuting to a full-time job just to earn money, you cannot experience a truly balanced life. Balance can only be achieved through a more flexible lifestyle, where you set priorities and choose how to divide your time. Only then, will you have the ability to wholeheartedly pursue your personal interests and devote undivided attention to your loved ones. There may always be the need to trade some of your time for the funds necessary to survive, but it should be on your own terms.
I believe that a genuinely balanced life is attainable. All you need to do is stop wasting resources: time and money. Be productive with your time and apply your money towards realizing your dreams. Finally, set a flexible goal with the understanding that life is always changing. Build your own kaleidoscope, with many different shapes and colors that combine and shift to create beauty.
UPDATE: Check out this post over at Frugalwoods for an inspiring and well-written commentary on how the standard workweek causes us to wish away our time.