The Truth about Work Life Balance

The truth about work life balance is: there is no perfect balance!

Flexible work options, gradual return to work program…I am a staunch supporter of these and gender equality, but I am also painfully aware that as wonderful as they are, they aren’t going to make my days 48 hours instead of 24; they offer most parents a possibility to hold a full time job, they cannot provide balance.

The word balance is misleading – it gives the impression of achieving both. In reality, it is more like a game of which is going to be sacrificed more today so I can do a slightly better than the half ass job I usually do! I know I sound a bit negative now, but hey, what do you expect from someone who hasn’t slept for two years which caused a light degree of memory loss which made her drop the ball at work a bit and sent her boss’s boss into a panic attack?

I went back to work three months ago after my second and final maternity leave (two kids is all my money and energy can afford). I am no rookie this time and I prepared well. I even told my boss that they will get less face time from me in anticipation of the kids getting sick frequently (the first year of daycare is always brutal). I promise to log on to make it up after the kids are in bed.

I found new stamina supported by an obscene amount of caffeine and between work, kids and chores I never gave myself a break, determined to make this work/parenting thing work. I did. Well, sort of…I have not messed up astronomically at work yet, I only forgot to remind my 5 year old his first show and tell in a new school and my husband and I have only threatened divorce out loud twice!

The hard truth is, the mere, daily two hours I spend with my kids interspersed by inescapable chores are nowhere near enough, a lot of times even unpleasant. They are tired and cranky from being in daycare for so long and night time routine is a rush to get them to bed before meltdowns. Weekends are non-stop with their activities and chores. When friends offer the good intentioned advice on hiring a cleaning lady, part time nanny to lighten the work load, I can only smile – the cost that comes from being a working parent is high: $2500/month just for daycare, we order food more and buy less on sale because we have no time, we have a big mortgage for an old house in the city because no daycare schedule would allow us to live in the suburbs and take the train. Hubby and I are self made people, not only we do not have and never had support from family, we will and already do support our parents financially and more.

It’s not like I never toiled with the idea of quitting my job and stay home with the kids. The decision to work is complicated; that’s why I’d never judge anyone for making either choice. For one, I enjoy working; I need to be challenged intellectually and socially to feel fulfilled. Money is a big reason but not the determining factor. It has more to do with our life experiences.

Raised by an engineer and doctor, my childhood was more than comfortable until we immigrated to Canada. Not having their foreign credentials recognized, my parents had tremendous difficulties finding work. At the age of 17, I practically begged to get my first job as a housekeeper to clean hotel rooms so we did not have to go on welfare. I learned that the opportunity to work is a privilege; life can be unpredictable and that opportunity is not always available regardless how smart you are.

Both hubby and I also come from divorced parents. My mother, always a career woman, struggled through her single-hood and made a life for herself in a new country. My mother in law who gave up working when kids were little, never gained her financial independence and livelihood. For sure many others in similar situations had different outcome, but our parents’ experiences had profound influence on how we make our choices.

I am not gonna lie that I often wonder how other parents at work do it, sometimes I am sure they are faking it just like I do. When I bumped into another colleague at the coffee machine and seeing her red rimed eyes and hearing her confide in me that her little one is still breast feeding multiple times at night, I couldn’t help but feel a sense sisterhood; needless to say, we became friends afterwards.

By the time that second afternoon coffee finally kicks in and I start to feel like I am on a roll, the daycare alarm would go off to remind me that my work day is over, at least in perception. I sometimes wonder about those who stay behind: they must have grandpa picking up the kids; their kids must sleep at 9 or later; they must feel ok not to spend every single night with the kids (no judgement here! Everyone feels differently about how much time they need to spend with the kids). I envy them too – maybe I could’ve worked the way I wanted to and win that annual award if I had all the above conditions…

Then I chug along, proceed to change my role back to mom, pencil skirt becomes snot wipe. I try not to take their crankiness caused by fatigue personal, and revel in their adorable innocence. After most of the take out food ends up on the floor, and bath water full of pesto sauce drained, I get to give them unlimited hugs and kisses before they drift to dreamland and I drift back to the emails I didn’t have time to finish.

When hubby and I finally finish all that needs to be done, slouching in bed exhausted, we lament how much we don’t want the kids to grow. But then we could also use some sleep or time with each other, alone. We sometimes mention that one person we know who only worked 4 days a week to spend time with kids and still got tapped on the shoulder to become an executive; we argue whether it was just luck…

In all this hustle and bustle, I am no longer searching for that ‘balance’. Our family life is not perfect, neither are our careers. It is how it is because we have to and the choices we have made. There are sacrifices in both because we want it all, so we end up getting half of the pie on both sides. Some people would want to eat a whole pie instead of two halves; some people have so much help they can eat a bigger slice in both; everyone’s situation is unique. Balance though, is really more like acceptance and knowing you are doing your best as a parent while staying true to yourself.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so I want to end this post on a note of gratitude: I am thankful to have my amazing children, loving husband and a career I value; to be blessed with much that I have to try to balance them all! For all who stopped by and took the time to read – Happy Thanksgiving and hope you have a feast with your loved ones. Me? Screw turkey! I am ordering take out! 🙂

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