I love Robyn Peterman’s books and just whipped through her latest, Magically Delicious. The protagonist, Zelda, is like most of Robyn Peterman’s leading ladies—paranormal with a side of Prada. In this case, Zelda is a powerful witch who has a gift for healing shifters. And she’s married to the king of the shifters, so she’s got that going for her. In addition to her other duties, Zelda is the heir apparent to the head witch, the Baba Yaga, a role she doesn’t relish. Zelda is also tasked with maintaining the magical balance in her small West Virginia town. This responsibility proves to be the most difficult of all to discharge. Balance is a bitch. Kind of like Anna Wintour in Chanel, or Prada, for that matter.
I know it’s true because Dr. Seuss tells me so. In Oh, The Places You’ll Go! He exhorts us, “So be sure where you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act.” And while Theodor Geisel may believe that our chances of success are pretty high (98 3/4% guaranteed), I’m not so sure. There are so many things to balance. There is work/life balance, family/friends balance, balance between and among our children, between effort and ease (which I’ve written about before), and even in how much time and space we offer to all the various things about which we think. So many balls to keep in the air.
Forests have been decimated in the name of figuring out how to achieve the right work/life balance. I have a personal theory about that (I know, you’re shocked, shocked that I have a theory about it). The problem appears much worse on the east coast than anywhere else in the US. In places like New York and Washington, DC, it’s a badge of honor to work 80 or more hours a week. People define themselves by how much they work—not necessarily how much they accomplish. My first job out of graduate school was for a government contractor where the contract I worked on required four hours of “uncompensated overtime” per week. And each week my boss would publish the memo of shame, listing each employee and how many hours of uncompensated overtime they had worked. Slackers were ostracized and workaholics were superstars. As Robyn Peterman would say, “it was all kinds of wrong.”
The pressure to be the first one into the office and the last to leave was intense. And fucked up. Luckily, I opted out of that plan early in my career. I rarely worked more than 40 hours in a week, and even that was a challenge. In fact, my bosses used to laugh that it was hard for me to rub 40 hours together in a week. But that was all right. I got my work done and then some. I just didn’t need to give up every other aspect of my life to do it.
It’s hard to find a work/life balance under such circumstances. My husband decided that such a balance was so important to him (and our family) that he designed his second career around working from home and being around to raise our kids in a more meaningful way than many fathers do. He was there when they got home from school, picked them up from the bus stop, helped them with their homework. More recently, he’s been able to attend all of their football, basketball and lacrosse games. It’s been wonderful for our boys and a joy for him. But achieving such balance is difficult and pretty rare from my perspective.
And what about those friends who get a boyfriend or a husband and we never see them again? Luckily, I don’t have friends like that, but I know others who do, and it always makes me sad. But that’s another difficult balance to achieve: sisters versus misters. Personally, I learned that lesson when I was 15, and some asshat named Thor tried to play me off against one of my best friends. We both found out about what he was trying to do and we both told him to fuck off. It’s never been an issue again, thankfully. I’ve been able to maintain my female friendships through marriage and kids and careers and life. In fact, without them, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through any of it.
But that leads to the question of how to balance all of those aspects at the same time. Not to mention maintaining our health. I ended up sacrificing my health on the altar of balance years ago when my kids were younger and I was working full time and spending almost three hours a day commuting between my two worlds. Crazy days. And they cost me. It’s taken years to regain my health after that experience and it was a hard lesson to learn about balance and how to achieve it. And, as I contemplate going back to work in Washington, DC, I’m quite nervous about how I will apply all of these hard-learned lessons to a new situation. Will I do a better job with balance this time around? I certainly hope so, as I don’t think I can put my body through another round of the kind of abuse I generated the first time.
The truth is that I have no magic wand that produces more hours in the day. And time, as we know, is the Great Egalitarian. We get the same amount to do with what we will. Which leads to my favorite topic of all—how to make good choices. Because, on balance, making good choices is how we achieve good balance in our lives. Go to the gym, or go to McDonalds? Watch TV, or work on my novel? Spend time with my kids or go out to dinner with my husband? While these may seem like no-brainers (except for the husband/kid question, which would easily resolved by eating out as a family), they aren’t. Sometimes, the desire to watch TV (or check out Facebook or vegetate on the couch, etc.) is quite compelling. Even when the better choice is obvious.
Often, the best choice is less apparent. And that’s where we get into trouble. The issue is with the discretionary hour—where to spend it? When we are beset by the demands of work, husband, children, friends, exercise, healthy eating, sleep, hobbies, etc., it is difficult to know where to spend that hour and there isn’t such a thing as a best choice. Something gets sacrificed. And sometimes those sacrifices lead us toward losing our souls, because we become so imbalanced that we’ve fallen over and we just can’t get up. Been there, done that, got the nervous breakdown, fuck the t-shirt.
So yes, my favorite philosopher got it right. Life is a great balancing act. And we have to keep balancing everything all the time until we lay down the burden and the privilege of making choices day in and day out, hoping to maintain balance in our lives. And we can be grateful that most of us only need to worry about our own balance, not the magical balance of all of Assjacket, WV, like Zelda and her cohort. It can always be worse, right?