Does work/life balance really exist? It’s often more like work/life imbalance
Before I had my children, my idea of motherhood was misguided to say the least. I was working full time as a solicitor for a large personal injury law firm. I was working long hours and my weekdays were occupied by not much other than work, writes Rebecca Maplesden.
I loved my work, but my weekends would whiz by all too quickly and I found myself fantasising about being on maternity leave. I thought it would be a nice “break”. I’d have coffee dates, walks in the park and my daily meals would be Masterchef worthy. I even thought I might slip in some further study.
Somewhere in the fantasy, I glossed over the sleep deprivation, tears (more mine than the baby’s) and that my kitchen would look less like Masterchef and more like a dairy farm.
What I really glossed over was the isolation I’d feel. That I’d miss the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction that work provided me. That I’d feel so torn by my desire to spend every second soaking up every moment of my young childrens’ lives and the knowledge I’d go insane if I didn’t take a break from it.
And so my plight started; my pursuit to find the phenomenon that is “work/life balance”.
Have I found a work/life balance?
Seven years and two kids later, I still don’t think I’ve found it. Not because of my circumstances; I have an understanding employer, part-time hours and enough flexibility to make it work.
The reason I don’t think I’ve found it, is because I don’t think it exists. Not in its literal sense anyway.
If you look up “balance” in the dictionary (Google dictionary – the new Macquarie), there are several definitions, but the more relevant are:
1. “An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”; and
2. “A situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.”
My favourite part is the contextual example; “she lost her balance and fell”. I find this most fitting. I constantly feel as though I’m falling. Failing. Not because I am. But because I’m aiming for perfect balance all of the time and this is unachievable.
It’s the idea that work and life can be even and equal at all times that makes work/life balance unachievable. That all areas of my life can have my equal attention. That I can achieve everything and remain upright.
Some days I do achieve this. Get the kids up, prepare lunch boxes that tick all the food groups, get them to school on time, have a productive day at work with no unrelated distractions, pick the kids up from school, get a hearty dinner on the table, do homework readers with the patience of a saint and get them to bed by a reasonable time. I think I can count on one hand the amount of days I’ve had like this.
I’ve had many more days on the other end of the scale; days where I feel I’ve not achieved everything I needed to get through at work only to go home and not get through enough there either. Days where I’m searching in a basket of clothes I washed over a week ago for socks that match. Days where I turn up to a meeting underprepared with stains on my clothes that I didn’t have time to notice before I left. Days where I’m late to work because my daughter required two teachers to pry her off my leg and my mascara has run because I cried for the whole car ride. Days where I’m snapping at my kids because I’m trying to catch up on work and they’re craving my attention.
I think the trick is to aim for the middle ground.
Accept that some days I’ll win at work and some days I’ll win at home but most days I won’t win at both.
Pick the area that needs my focus more at any given time and prioritise this. Delegate where appropriate. Be OK with not responding to emails immediately or having toasted sandwiches for dinner. Say no to kids’ birthday parties and networking functions and have family weekends away instead. Ask for help.
Most importantly, acknowledge that I’m not the only one.
It’s easy to get caught up in the gloss of social media that makes everyone else look like they are living perfectly balanced lives. But are they really? Or if you turn the camera around will you see the same pile of dirty dishes they haven’t gotten to yet?
I’ve always been a perfectionist. I think most lawyers are. But unless I wake up tomorrow with superpowers allowing me to freeze time, I can’t do everything perfectly every day. To keep thinking I can will be my kryptonite.
So for me, the trick to achieving balance between home and work is to reframe what my understanding of balance is.
Work/life balance is not giving equal attention to everything all of the time, perfectly. It’s allowing yourself to drop a ball every now and again, knowing you can pick it up again tomorrow.
Rebecca Maplesden is a special counsel in the personal injury law team at Polaris Lawyers.