Work-life balance is a myth. An oxymoron if I've ever heard one.
Ten weeks after the birth of my first baby, I was back at work. (I'm from the U.S. where there's no such thing as paid maternity leave aside from a few select states that provide at least some degree of compensated time off). At the time, I was in a healthcare start-up company where I was expected to 'pull my weight' and clock in ten to twelve hours a day, no matter what. At 7:30 am every weekday morning, I would lumber to the subway station - looking like a straight-up zombie from The Walking Dead - to start my excruciatingly long day.
Struggling mightily with the demands of being a new parent, and working for a boss who made Bill Lumbergh from Office Space seem reasonable, was about as far from the so-called work-life balance as I could get. In fact, it was more like someone tied a ball and chain around my ankle, tossed me in the ocean, and wished me the best of luck as I tried to keep my head above water. Hope the whole 'work-life balance' thing works out for ya! Good luck! You're gonna need it!
(In case you need a memory jog: Bill Lumbergh from Office Space - "Yeah, I'm gonna need you to go ahead and come in on a Saturday. Oh yeah, and Sunday too.")
After working all day, and pumping breast milk in the broom closet, I would rush home to relieve the nanny and start my night mom'ing and unsleeping (that's a real word, I looked it up.)
How in the hell, I wondered, do moms achieve this elusive work-life balance?! Where do they find the time and energy to work and parent and take care of themselves? My life was the antithesis of balance. I certainly wasn't able to give equal time and energy (mentally, physically, or emotionally) to my job and be the parent I wanted to be. Or thought I should be. Or what society told me I should be.
I felt like a complete failure and, on top of that, I felt guilty that I wasn't able to 'do it all' and 'have it all.' The only things I was convinced I was excelling at were work-life imbalance and accelerated muscle atrophy from not exercising anymore.
Why Work-Life Balance is a Myth
First, let's examine the phrase 'work-life.' The expression 'work-life' makes it sound as if we live this binary, double life. On one side, we "work" and on the other, we "live." The reality is, work is just one component of our lives. We also have a lot of other really important stuff going on, even if those things aren't being prioritized.
The phrase itself seems to imply that work is bad and life is good so they must be separated. It also suggests that 50% of our time and energy should be allotted to work and 50% to life. That is, after all, what balance means. The scales are tipped one way if we work too much (then life must get neglected) and tipped the other way if we 'life' too much (then work must get neglected). We can't win.
Obviously, the word 'work' in work-life means one's career or job. While 'life' is meant to mean anything you do or focus on outside of work including family, friends, life admin, leisure, community, education, personal development, exercise, wellness, self-care, going thrift shop hopping on Friday afternoons, etc., etc.
But hang on. If 'life' entails all of these components, how can we really be expected to balance it all? Why does work get half the damn pie while life has to divide its slices up among every single thing that happens outside of work? That makes about as much sense as hosting an ice cream party in hell and hoping the ice cream doesn't melt. It's just not possible. And neither is work-life balance.
Anyone, especially women, trying to achieve this elusive work-life balance pipe dream will undoubtedly feel like a failure for not being able to keep up. You'll give more at work and feel like you're neglecting your family or your health. You'll spend more time with your family and get more exercise only to feel you're falling behind in your career. You'll feel like you're fighting a losing battle because you are.
And the cold hard truth is that women bear most of the weight of life admin. Numerous studies and reports show that women in heterosexual relationships still do the bulk of housework and childcare. Not to mention the emotional load that women carry around. Organizing the playdates, scheduling the medical appointments, remembering the birthday parties, signing the permission slips, making sure the kids are doing well in school, remembering to write a thank-you note. And the list goes on.
The good news is, you can let go of the work-life balance myth and opt for life harmony instead.
As you can probably tell, I'm big on semantics. I know some people reading this will think I'm being ridiculous getting hung up on what work-life balance means and breaking down the definition of each word. But it's a misnomer and by golly, I think it needs to be changed.
The very phrase itself conjures up a picture of one of those double-pan balancing scales with the word 'work' on one side and 'life' on the other. And if those pans aren't in perfect alignment, then we're doing something wrong.
Instead, I believe we women should aim for life harmony.
Merriam-Webster defines harmony as "a pleasing arrangement of parts." And I think that's exactly what we should set our sights on. An arrangement across every area of our life - work, family, leisure, self-care - that is pleasing and satisfactory to us.
To do this, we'll need to accept the fact that we can't do it all and we can't have it all. No one can give 100% to their career and 100% to their family and 100% to self-care. The math doesn't add up. If we try to somehow live up to these absurd, impossible percentages and can't (because it's NOT POSSIBLE!), then we feel guilty and burn out like a candle in front of a pedestal fan.
We also need to appreciate that at different times in our life it's OK to devote more or less time to some of the pieces of our life pie.
Before I had kids, I worked a lot. I was focused on advancing my career and education. And I was happy with this. My life was a "pleasing arrangement of parts."
After I had kids, and when they were really young (I have 3 close in age), I struggled to find life harmony because I had trouble setting boundaries, especially at work. I let so many employers take advantage of me and my precious time. I worked more hours than I should because I felt like I needed to be a 'good employee.' And then I felt guilty because I didn't have 'work-life balance' and couldn't understand how other people were able to achieve it.
Now that my kids are older and all in school, I've reclaimed my life harmony. I've learned to say no more and I'm comfortable setting boundaries to protect my personal time and the time I spend with my family and friends. I know which pieces of my life pie need my attention right now, right where I am. I know which slices I can cut into slivers for the time being and which slices need to be more generous in size.
Don't get me wrong. My life is not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. I still have times when I feel like I could be doing more or I think I'm doing too much. But I don't feel the crushing guilt that comes from believing that my life must be perfectly balanced to be right. That's society's expectation. Thankfully, it's not mine anymore.
Breaking free of the work-life balance illusion and realizing that I can't do it all has been truly liberating.
What You Can Do to Achieve Life Harmony
If you're ready to dispel the myth of work-life balance in your life, here are a few things you can do.
1. Define What's Most Important
Many of us don’t know exactly what it is we want out of life. We think we know. But often, we end up coasting along blindly, doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing or what someone else thinks we should be doing. We live haphazardly instead of intentionally.
Take some time to really think about what's most important in your life. What are your values? What is your vision? What are your non-negotiables? What areas in your life need more TLC? And in which areas are you feeling fulfilled and satisfied?
Once you answer these questions, you'll be able to quickly recognize when what you're doing or who you're being isn't in line with your vision and values. This, in turn, makes it easier to achieve life harmony because you have a clear understanding of where you are, where you want to be, and how you'll get there.
2. Choose How to Slice Your Life Pie
You - not society - get to choose which areas of your life you want to allocate more or less time and energy to. Whether it's spending more time with family, exploring a new business idea, getting fit, or advancing your career (or even changing careers completely), you have a choice.
And yes, I appreciate, that for most people, work (both paid and unpaid), takes up a huge chunk of our time. But setting boundaries and learning to say no can be a game-changer when it comes to achieving life harmony (more on that in the next section).
The other thing to remember is that depending on what season of life you're in, your priorities can and should change. I'm in my 40s now and my kids are all school-aged. I have shifted from years of 'intense mothering' where my kids were dependent on me for almost everything to being able to reallocate some of my time and energy to building my business and engaging in more "me time." I even started taking violin lessons and can screech my way through half of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star already. #midlifeprodigy
The point is, you can choose how to slice your own life pie. And not feel guilty that every piece is not perfectly equal.
3. Set Boundaries
If you can't set boundaries, you won't achieve life harmony. No doubt about this.
Setting boundaries means being able to say no when you have too much on your plate at work or at home. It means not letting an employer take advantage of you and keep piling on the work and the hours. It means telling your family you are taking an hour to go for a run. It means declining to be on yet another committee at school if you simply don't have the time or energy.
Creating boundaries will give you a sense of agency over your life. You'll feel more in control when you don't let other people dictate what you do. Taking charge of your schedule frees up precious time and creates much-needed emotional space to boot.
Setting boundaries is hard. You'll probably feel guilty and that's OK. Guilt is a normal emotion that doesn't have to guide your decisions. And yes, some people will be disappointed, especially if they're used to you saying yes to everything. But as long as you continue to let other people have domain over your life, you'll struggle to find harmony.
Remember - you always have a right to say no when it's appropriate. Exercise this right so you can live life on your terms.
And for goodness sake, can we drop the term work-life balance forever?
Happy harmonizing :-)