The Lie of Balance & Having It All


In Bossypants, Tina Fey says the worst thing you can ask a woman is “how do you juggle it all?” – it is because this question, which on the surface is a compliment, comes with an added accusation of “you’re f*cking it all up, aren’t you?”

This is something I have heard a lot. I am 30, my husband and I have merged our young families to create a new home for 6, I have just started (another) business, most of my laundry is folded, I bake treats for my kids, and today my armpits are shaved.

“You are so balanced! How do you do it all?”

What’s worse than the assumption that I am somehow screwing it up is the now newly-added presumption that I should follow up with a TEDtalk on how the hell I make it magically happen. This is where I tell you my secret. Which books I read. What home stores I shop at to buy my organising Tupperware solutions.

To start, I am completely unbalanced. I am exhausted. I don’t take good enough care of myself because I have a tendency to over-give to those around me. My kids, ages 5-16, have a vast and ever growing set of needs that I am committed to fulfilling even when it becomes increasingly difficult, physically and emotionally, to do so. I have needed to cut my toe nails for, like, a week now, and unless I put it in my phone’s calendar, I’m never going to remember it.

This is reality for pretty much everyone I know. And nothing we can buy – things or ideas – is going to fix it.

Somehow, “having it all” and “work/life balance” have become sellable commodities that all, especially women, should buy. Increasingly, these are commodities that we’re being sold by an elite echelon of women who are telling us to pull up our bra straps, lean in, and seriously commit to an economic system that is failing the vast majority of its participants.

I could bark at and criticise this neo-liberal, elitist faux-feminism that Sheryl Sandberg and company have been able to market and sell us, but quite frankly everyone else writing and thinking about the subject has already covered my key points.

1) Sandberg isn’t a feminist hero, she’s a wealthy opportunist whose attempt at feminism is anachronistic. She’s a winner in a system where very few will ever have what she has.

2) The system we currently live in runs on “winners” and “losers” – in capitalism, only a few can have it all, and the rest of us are sold and chase the elusive idea that we could even come close to having it.

3) The system is breaking down. We’re being told to go into debt to get an education so we can get a job and climb a ladder to a place where all of it is waiting for us. But there are no jobs, our debt is skyrocketing, and an entire middle class is disappearing, still with guilt and disappointment that all we were sold is so sorely out of grasp.

So how do we begin to reconcile any of this? How do women and men alike truly tread a path they can be content with, while ensuring we’re not buying into a system that only works for 1% of us?

I honestly don’t know. But I do know where I seek to find my own answers.

1) Forget balance. Seek to make honourable choices.

Why are we so obsessed with this idea of balance?

Job vs home, career vs children, nourishment vs skinniness, saving vs spending, things vs people, individual vs community. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and the symmetry of balance is a pretty albeit useless goal.

Balance requires stasis, and when are we ever so still in all facets of our lives?

We are told that a harmonious balance is not only possible, but a sign of strength and success. “If you are successful, you are balanced. Success is having it all, completely balanced, happily ever after.”

Sheryl Sandberg leaned in and got it. She says you can, too. Admittedly, she says it’s tricky. But she’s outlined a formula for you.

Meanwhile, people everywhere are suffering in the chaos that is their perceived unbalanced and imperfect lives.

So forget balance: seek to make honourable choices.

The trick is that only you can define what honourable means, but every jerk will try to tell you what it should mean. If you aren’t willing to ask yourself hard questions on a regular basis about what it is you want and need, and where your boundaries are, your choices are going to bother you.

2) Surround yourself with good people who honour your choices, too.

For some reason, we leave ourselves open to unsolicited and stupid solicited advice. If someone is making you feel guilty for choosing career over family, family over career, or whatever, ask yourself why you feel that way. If it’s because you don’t feel like you’re making good decisions, figure that out. If it’s because that person is simply an asshole, surround yourself with better people.

2.5) Don’t be an asshole.

“A person counts as an asshole when he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”- Aaron James

Our world is unsafe because of assholes. Our world is one where it is difficult to care because assholes make it unsafe.

I’m not about to get into the issues of privilege, only don’t be an asshole, and seek ways to combat assholism when you experience it.

3) Fiercely seek community and let it change, but not harden you.

Seek community that empowers your vision. This is the community that will support you and challenge you. Ask questions of them, and of yourself. Embrace a culture of lifelong learning, not just in an academic sense, but in a spiritual, emotional, holistic sense.

Too often as we seek outwardly and define our boundaries, we build walls where we need bridges. We become rigid when we should seek to be gentle, with others and with ourselves. Gentle is not timid – for those who can be fiercely gentle are the greatest of leaders.

That is how I try to do it.

So how do I do it all?

I don’t. I suck at balance. My life is chaos. And I love it. And I don’t want it all. I’m not buying it. I have more than enough. I seek to consume only the things and ideas I need.

And if I lean in anywhere, it’s going to be into my fridge to grab a beer and a pickle.