Very few, if any, women ever say they have a work-life balance. Not a good one, anyway.
If you think of the idea of balance as if you’re on a see-saw, it’s not unusual to feel the ride you’re on swings from high to low and back again like a theme park rollercoaster, with your Supermum cape flapping wildly around your ears as you either plummet to Earth or launch skyward.
The unbalanced woman catapults from the extreme high of having things under control, before crashing to earth with a thud when the wheels inevitably fall off and it’s all too much, before dusting herself off to get ready for liftoff once again.
The idea of balance is as fleeting as the rest period at the bottom of the see-saw.
There’s no escaping the truth that is life for most working women who also have kids:
there never seems to be enough time and there’s a constant sense of urgency to meet all the commitments and deadlines we have.
More often than not it’s an all or nothing situation and the idea of a balanced life seems like a cruel joke, and the very mention of it causes further frustration to an overwhelmed woman who is reminded, once again, that she is somehow getting it all wrong.
Balance isn’t impossible though. The problem is we haven’t understood it well enough to make it work.
Despite the sense of difficulty that surrounds the concept, it is nevertheless something worth pursuing because we cannot live happily or be healthy without some semblance of it.
Balance as a concept is a misunderstood creature and it’s the misunderstanding that makes us feel like it’s impossible to achieve.
Balance is not (just) about work and life
Talk of a work-life balance instantly conjures an idea of a two-sided equation – a work side and a home side – and for balance to be achieved, these two sides need to be evenly distributed like a set of scales.
There’s the first mistake.
For many of us, work life takes up a major chunk of our time, and for the most part, it’s a barely negotiable element. Any adjustment of hours at work is typically a major negotiation or lengthy process, so it’s not an immediately available solution to simply redistribute time away from work and into life.
The rest of our week is allocated ‘life’ but when you’re raising kids, that translates to more work, just a different kind.
That ‘life’ section of our time is quickly eaten up with commute time, shopping and cooking, pickups and drop offs, laundry and cleaning, and, if we’re lucky, some sleep.
There may well not be much negotiation room in those areas either, and for the slither of time left, we typically first allocate family time – those moments we spend trying to connect with our kids, create memories and enjoy ourselves.
Family time though isn’t the same as ‘down’ time – it’s often work in and of itself. Fun, yes. Important, yes. But as any woman who’s come home from a family picnic or camping trip knows, there’s plenty of work involved in family time and sometimes it does nothing to help us feel more balanced.
There’s more to life – and to us as individuals – than work and family, and it is those details that become lost in the balance equation.
The 10 elements of balance
Balance is a mutli-faceted beast. Like a cut diamond, it has multiple sides and we need all of them for the precious gem that is a balanced, complete life.
These are the 10 elements (in no particular order) I reckon make up a complete life:
- Partnership (love)
- Soul (or spirit)
- Creativity (hobbies)
- Connection (friendship)
- Personal growth
- White space (down time)
This is what it looks like to have a sense that my life is rounded and fulfilled. There’s not one of those elements that I could cut out of the circle and still feel whole – each one leaves a gap if it receives no attention.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his paper on human motivation, suggested that humans are motivated by meeting a hierarchy of needs.
He proposed there were five levels of needs that we move through:
- biological and physiological needs – like air, food, shelter, sex and sleep.
- safety needs – protection, security.
- love and belonging – friendships and partnerships, acceptance, being a part of a group (friends, family, work).
- esteem needs – a sense of achievement and dignity, and a desire for reputation and respect.
- and self-actualisation needs – which is self-fulfillment and personal growth.
Maslow’s theory says that the first four levels of need are to meet a deficiency – that is, we need them to survive – and we meet each of those levels before moving on to the fifth and last, which is a growth need. It’s like the bonus round.
While Maslow was looking at the concept of motivation, his theory shows that as humans seeking a happy life, we have multiple kinds of needs to be met, beyond the simple idea of going to work and then having a ‘life’. Because what is that ‘life’ anyway? I say it’s those 10 elements.
It’s one thing to understand the different elements and the need for them to be fulfilled. It’s another to find the time to meet them all.
Balance is a minute by minute practice
There’s no way I could allocate major chunks of time to each of those 10 areas every single day. Given the number of commitments I juggle, my weeks have to retain an element of fluidity – different pick-up times, changing events, moving commitments.
So allocating a set schedule that includes 10 separate colour-coded sections in my diary is ludicrous.
But minor chunks? Yes, I can do smaller slithers of pie here and there, and this is the other key to achieving a sense of balance (and I say sense, as that’s what’s most important: that we feel balanced, not that we are).
Family time can be as simple as having a meaningful conversation with my kids in which I am fully present and listening. Like on the school commute when they are my captive audience in the car for at least 30 minutes a day. Let’s face it: for teens and pre-teens, half-an-hour talking with mum is enough, right?
Making a green smoothie – a matter of minutes and I’ve done a health thing, even if it’s the only health thing I manage all day.
Sitting for two minutes in meditation can cover white space and soul time and health. Tick, tick, tick.
Reading a few pages from a ‘self help’ book – covers personal growth, soul time and down time.
A 15 minute yoga stretch on the floor of my home office – movement, soul, down time.
So the pursuit of balance doesn’t need monumental chunks of time allocated to it.
What it does need though is recognition that is a constant work in progress, and that is the second way balance is misunderstood – you need to be seeking it constantly and adjusting daily, not looking to establish a set schedule.
It’s an imperfect practice. It’s a daily devotion in which you ask yourself what you need, sometimes on a minute-to-minute basis, and then do your best to fill it.
The practice of balance is to repeatedly check-in with yourself, become self-aware and determine what you need.
At the end of the day, yes dinner needs attending, but you may recognise you feel a need for some peace and quiet. So before you jump into the evening fray, you could practice balance instead, and simply shut the bedroom door for 15 minutes and sit in solitude.
Just as we practice any skill or art we’d like to become good at, the same goes with balance. It’s something we have to attend to daily if we want to master it, and it means not leaving any one of those 10 elements behind.