By Amy Smith
Finding balance is the working mother's ultimate cliche, and a phrase so overused that we roll our eyes in collective unbelief that anyone still thinks we even have time to think about it much. I'm trying to finish a report, do laundry, find the checkbook, and remember to schedule the baby's well visit that is now 2 months past due. Balance? If 60% of my typical daily to-do list actually happens, there's balance.
"Finding balance" seemed to crop up after "having it all" was pretty much debunked as a reasonable goal. Despite overuse that often results in oversimplification and loss of meaning, as a concept, finding balance has been helpful for women in several ways. First, it let us off the hook. We not only don't have to have it all, we don't even have to want it all. The ability to say that, in the name of finding balance in life, I've chosen to work part-time, or stay home for 5 years, or take a less stressful position at work, is very freeing. It shows that we are intentional about the lifestyle we've chosen, not settling for what we can manage. (We do ourselves a great disservice in Home vs. Work "Mom my Wars" for this reason; we are finally free to craft our own definitions of balance, so why undermine that by being either defensive or critical?)
Looking for balance also implies that the scales are lopsided, shifting, a moving target. Balance takes practice, and you lose it sometimes and have to regain your footing. It is not easy. Have you ever taken a gymnastics class and worked with the balance beam? The struggle to stay balanced is constant, and the more moving parts you have at once, the harder it becomes. For a working mom, the mental balance beam is ever present. Even when things are generally going well at work and at home, I've found myself making lists for the grocery store or for birthday present ideas in the margins of my legal pad during a meeting. And at home, just checking my Blackberry and answering an e-mail is an effort to retain balance.
The idea that we are seeking balance has also helped us to clarify our own quality of life issues. Having it all meant having a good marriage, 1.5 children, and a successful career. "I want it all" is qualitatively very different from saying you are "finding balance." The latter implies a value judgment of the various elements that constitute "all" and a conscious decision to take only what you need or want. It is the customization of mommyhood. We're each tailoring it to fit us and our families, letting out a seam here and hemming something else up for a few years.
Finding balance will never be accomplished by reading one more magazine article or following all 10 bullet points in the newest book. While great food for thought, balance is always very personal, uniquely individual, and one mother's "balance" cannot be extrapolated onto the population of other similar mommys out there. There is no formula.