The Balance Breakdown

As a female in a business heavily populated by men, a frequent topic of discussion among the women is work-life balance.  I contribute to the conversation when asked, but admit I don’t fully understand what it means. 

It’s as if there’s an imaginary scale, with work on one side and home on the other, and balance suggests the two sides are always level. Oh, and that unicorns prance around the yard under a rainbow-filled sky.  And that my daughter actually lets me brush her tangled hair before she leaves for school.  And that whoever left their socks by the door has picked them up.  But I digress…

In the early years of my children’s lives, everyone told me it would get easier once they were in school.  I powered through because I believed them.  That time has finally come;  I am the proud mother of a 4th grader and a 1st grader.  They can get themselves dressed.  They can pour themselves a bowl of whatever sugary cereal they have convinced me to buy.  The rainbows have come out.  The unicorns have appeared.  The socks have been picked up.

Except… that hasn’t happened.  If anything, it’s becoming more difficult.  There are activities and homework, practices and play dates, supplies to send in and classroom volunteer requests to shamefully set aside.  The scale, once blissfully abundant, is now so overloaded it’s in need of repair.

Take last week.  Sometime between the meeting to introduce 4th graders to the orchestral program, the renting of the cello and the excitement over said cello, I forgot one crucial step in the “my-kid-really-wants-to-play-the-cello” process.  I never clicked on the school link to officially register him.

When I finally realized my omission, the link denied me access.  In ALL CAPS the website informed me there would be NO EXCEPTIONS for late registration.  Panicked, I sent an email to the music teacher explaining my error and begging for an exception.  Despite already being the proud owner of a rented cello, my son would not be able to play in the school orchestra this year. And it was my fault.

In the grand scheme of life, I acknowledge this is a minor problem.  But when I told my son of my gaffe, the tears came – first his and then mine.  He processed the loss of his musical career and I processed my absolute and utter failure as his mom.  I reviewed all I had done in that 5-day span, yet I had omitted the one thing I needed to do most, the extremely simple action of clicking on the link to register for orchestra before the deadline expired.

How could I be so forgetful?  How can I claim my kids come first in my life and then neglect to tend to the details that matter in theirs?  When will the Parenting Police show up to remove the “World’s Greatest Mom” mug from my house?  Should I leave it by the front door for pick-up?  Where have all the unicorns gone?

On this night, there was no notion of balance.  I had tumbled off the tightrope and slammed into the crash pad below.  I was a Working Mother on the brink (or to my family, That Crazy Lady Crying in the Bedroom).

Now I know everyone reading this will say, “Girlfriend, get yourself some help!”  But the fact is, I have help.  And still it’s not enough.  Or perhaps you will say, “You need to let some things go.”  What if I don’t WANT to let anything go?  Is it too much to want a challenging career outside the home and a family to love and support?  What if I know I need more sleep but I still choose to get up at 5 a.m. to exercise – the only thing that is keeping me healthy and sane – and I also choose to do the laundry at 10 p.m. at night – the only way we will all have clean underwear the next day?  Which part goes?  Your sanity or your underwear?

I would like to smash the notion of work-life balance.  There are days you get it all done and there are days you forget to click on the link to sign your kid up for orchestra.  One night you cry uncontrollably about that and the next morning you get a note from the music teacher that it’s no big deal, she’ll enroll your son even though you’ve missed the deadline (and please note his first practice session is Thursday so be sure he brings his cello to school).  And you realize that while no rainbows or unicorns have appeared and the socks are still where someone left them by the door, your kid is going to be able to play cello after all so you’d better write the date of the school winter concert on your work calendar before you forget.

And that, I suppose, is balance.

Please, PLEASE tell me this has happened to you before? What was it and were you able to make it right?

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Valerie Gordon has been navigating the wilds of central Connecticut since relocating to suburbia from New York City four years ago. The 40-year-old mother of two is also a coordinating producer at ESPN where she oversees feature production. Her goal in the next year is to figure out how to properly fold a fitted sheet.