Balancing Act: The Dance of an Unbalanced Life

Here is typical scenario from when my children were younger: It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday’s tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering email, grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner, and cuddling one of my children through some of the horrors of growing up. I finally sat down at my computer around midnight—and looked up just now to see the sun rising. 

Since I’m up, I decide to set a historic precedent by preparing breakfast. All goes well as I awaken my children and head to the kitchen, at which point I remember how much I hate to cook. I even hate to toast. The kids arrive, yawning, and ask what I’m planning to serve them. I think for a minute, then say, “We have Oreos.” 

My children roll their eyes. 

“We have cocaine,” I venture. I’m pretty sure they know this is a joke. I’ve never seen cocaine, much less tried it—although frankly it’s beginning to sound like a good idea. Isn’t that how Sigmund Freud got so much done? 

Understand three things: (1) I don’t have a job. I am a writer, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; (2) my children are not young. They walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and (3) I’m kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family. I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote several big fat books about it. Plus, I’m a life coach. You’d think I could live a balanced life as a 21st century American woman. 

Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way. 

Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden recounts two years the author spent living in solitary harmony with the wilderness. The book’s premise is that all humans could live simply and naturally, as Thoreau did. As a teenager, I loved Walden. Years later, as an exhausted working mother, I learned something Thoreau failed to mention in his journal: The entire time he was roughing it, his mother and sisters helped care for his needs, hauling in food and hauling out laundry. The reason Thoreau didn’t write about this is that he took it for granted. Like most thinker’s of his generation, he saw “women’s work” as a product of natural female instinct: Birds fly south for the winter, and women show up to wash men’s underwear. Okay, so I’m a little bitter—but only because this attitude pervaded American culture well into my own lifetime. 

Early American feminists fought for the right to participate in the workforce by assuring everyone that it was easy to do women’s work—perhaps with one’s toes, while simultaneously performing jobs traditionally reserved for men. I once believed this, and I have the colorful medical history to prove it. Women of my generation thought we could have everything; experience taught us we could have everything but sleep (one sociologist who studied an early cohort of working mothers wrote, “These women talked about sleep the way a starving person talks about food”). Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan while never letting hubby forget he’s a man turned out to be a logistical challenge to rival the moon landing, but without support from Houston.

Three Ways to Lose Your Balance 

I spent the last decade of the 20th century interviewing American women and found that no matter how they sought balance, virtually none of them attained it in their culturally prescribed role. Some of these women were like Meg, a stay-at-home mother who sacrificed her career to care for her children, only to feel devalued by a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth. Others resembled Laura, a 43-year-old lawyer who never got the marriage or children she’d always expected. Laura’s heart ached every time she attended yet another baby shower. At work, married people dumped extra work on her, figuring she had no life. But most of the women I spoke to were like Stephanie, who had a good job, two children, and chronic fatigue. For years Stephanie’s boss complained that her work was inadequate because of the time she devoted to her family, while Stephanie (and her relatives) worried that her children were suffering because of the energy required by her work. 

Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together. But there is hope. 

The Joy of Being Unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out. 

That’s what happened to Meg, Laura, and Stephanie when each lost her balance in a dramatic way. Meg, the stay-at-home mom, hit the end of her rope when her husband left her for a “more accomplished” coworker. Laura’s turning point was an emergency hysterectomy that meant she would never have the baby shower of her dreams. Stephanie finally realized she was trying to do the impossible the day her mother-in-law scolded her for working too much and she was fired for being too concerned with her personal life. 

There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable. This epiphany was terrible, because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions. After her crisis, Laura discovered a passion for gardening that led her to quit her corporate job and start a floral nursery business. Meg spends her time contributing to the local schools and developing relationships that help her see her own value. Stephanie got a new job by developing a proposal that showed how she could add value to a company while working from home. 

On the surface, these aren’t revolutionary acts. But they filled each woman’s life with authenticity and satisfaction. If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us. Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life. 

How to Love the Bad Mother in You

By Amy Pearson, Guest Contributor

After eight rounds of Artificial Insemination and two rounds of In Vitro, there they were at last.

Home from the hospital, sleep deprived and surrounded by breast pump equipment, bottles, feeding schedules, diapers, formula, nursing pads, pacifiers and books titled things like What to Expect the First Year, I sat there staring at my two perfect babies. I didn’t feel joy, I didn’t feel happiness, I didn’t even feel gratitude.

I felt shame. A shame so big, it filled the room.

I hated this new life. I hated the sound of crying. I hated being awake at all hours of the night. I hated being responsible for another person’s survival. But most of all, I hated myself for hating it all so much.

Shame.

The dictionary defines it as a painful feeling that comes about from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, done by oneself or another. The root of the word can be traced back to an older word meaning “to cover.”

And this is what we do. We hide our shame. We cover it up so nobody finds out. We keep it out of sight, which makes us blind to how it fuels our decisions and our actions.

I expected to fall into motherhood gracefully, to be entertained and delighted by my babies; to be a radiant new mother. I couldn’t admit to the shame I felt for not living up to my own expectations, especially after all I’d been through to get them.

So I hid my shame, from myself and from the rest of the world.

I compared myself to the “good” mothers out there and threw myself into the role. But it didn’t make me happy and it didn’t make me a better mother. I became more and more exhausted trying to prove to myself and to the world I was a good mother. The harder I worked, the more exhausted I got and the less I enjoyed my children.

The turning point came on Mothers’ Day. I lost my mom six months into my pregnancy. There I was with no mother and two babies of my own when I stumbled upon an article entitled, “Mother Yourself.” It was like fireworks exploding in my head.

I needed to mother myself.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “You get your confidence back… by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.”

A mother, after all, stands militantly on the side of her children.

My children taught me I could hate my life, the lack of sleep, the sound of crying, the endless second-guessing and the intimidating amount of responsibility that comes with being a mother, and also be deliriously in love.

So, in the same way I still love my son after he uses my arm to wipe his nose and I still love my daughter after she throws a fit in Costco and won’t get off the floor, I can love myself for being human.

I admit, sometimes after wiping applesauce off the wall for the third time in a day, I still yearn for life without kids. But then my daughter says to me in her precious three-year-old voice, “Thank you Mama for making me food” and I realize I’d wipe up an eternity of applesauce for my kids.

I’ve learned how to have a life of my own and be my own kind of mom in a way that feels good to me.

You can too. Here’s how.

Step 1. Acknowledge your feelings

Unexamined shame will motivate you to do things that will make you even more miserable. End the cycle. Be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling.

Before I realized the shame I felt for being such a miserable mother, I drove myself to prove how good I was. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t shower. I didn’t ask for help. It left me exhausted. As a result, I was less able to be the mom I wanted to be.

Step 2. Expose Your PERFECT MOTHER

You no doubt have an image of “the perfect mother” in your mind. Describe her in as much detail as possible.

Even though I consider myself a “modern woman,” my perfect mother is very 1950’s. I can see her now… perfect hair and makeup as she gracefully removes fresh baked cookies from the oven.

Step 3: IDENTIFY BLACK OR WHITE THINKING

Look at your description of the perfect mother and think about how you’re different. Are you buying into black or white thinking? You may not be like your version of the perfect mother in a lot of ways but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good mother YOUR way.

Back when I was hiding my shame, I would take my kids to Story Hour at the local library and compare myself to a certain mom who always showed up looking great, her little girl dressed to perfection with braids in her hair. My kids still sported remnants of breakfast on their clothes and face. Instead of being proud of myself for getting them out of the house, I’d compare myself to her and conclude I was a bad mom.

Step 4: DISCREDIT THE PERFECT MOTHER

When you believe there’s only one way to be a good mom, it’s hard to think of how to be a mother in your own way.

Consider these questions:

  1. Can you think of anyone who did NOT match your image of the perfect mother who was wildly successful at it?
  2. What’s funny about your image of the perfect mother?
  3. What surprises you about your image of the perfect mother?

There are so many amazing moms out there who do not match my 1950’s cliché: Martha Beck, Hillary Clinton, Marian Wright Edelman, Harriet Tubman, my own mother! The funny and surprising thing about my stereotype is that it’s very Leave it to Beaver. When I think about all the amazing moms on my list above I realize that they did so much more than just devote every waking moment to their children. The work they did in the world and the example they set enriched the lives of their children in ways that June Cleaver never could.

 

Step 5: IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS

Recognize how being different than your perfect mother actually serves as an asset.

My mother used to break out into spontaneous dance at the grocery store. It used to embarrass me. Now I laugh out loud when I think about it. That’s the kind of mom I want to be. I may not be well groomed but I love to laugh and that’s an asset in my book.

Step 6: BE NICE

Being militantly on your own side means loving yourself unconditionally. So…Be nice! Notice how you talk to yourself. Forgive yourself for being human and treat yourself with compassion, understanding and encouragement.

Some mornings, when the twins hit each other over the head with kitchen utensils, and the baby cries because she wants to be held, and I find myself wiping apple sauce off the wall again, I don’t make it mean I’m a bad mother for thinking I’d like to jump a train to the next state and start anew. I find the funny in the situation, I think of what I’m grateful for, or I think of how best I can mother myself in that moment.

Step 7: REPEAT AFTER ME “I DON’T HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN I AM.”

When you wish you were different, more mothering or more patient, for example, you’re essentially telling yourself you’re not good enough just as you are. Accept yourself exactly as you are in this moment and repeat, “I don’t have to be better than I am.” My guess is you’ll be a much better mother when you let yourself of the hook.

When I lose my cool I scream. I used to feel so terrible about it, wishing I could just keep it together. But now, I forgive myself. I’m passionate after all. And you know what? I find myself screaming a lot less.

Step 8: GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO JUDGE YOU

This is a tough one. We all want other people to think of us as good mothers. But letting the opinions of others dictate your self worth is a losing battle. There’s a great deal of freedom that comes when you can allow others to have negative opinions about you, your actions, or choices, without needing to explain yourself or feel defensive.

This morning I took my kids to the park. One mom didn’t seem very friendly. I found myself annoyed. “Is she judging me?,” I thought. “What the hell did I do? Why wouldn’t she like me?!” Then I stopped. I remembered that what she thinks about me is her business. It’s what I think about me that really matters. And that was that.

Bryon Katie writes “You can’t be free if you’re hiding. And in the end, the things we’re ashamed of turn out to be the greatest gifts we have to give.”

My shame has been a gift.

I can see myself now… under the spell of unexamined shame. My hands sore from endless futile attempts at a decent French Braid, charred cookies strewn about the kitchen, well groomed children wandering aimlessly through the house as I iron my dress and apply my lipstick. Instead I faced the shame – it taught me how to mother myself and to be my own unique brand of mother, and a happy one too.


Amy Pearson is a Martha Beck Master Certified Life Coach who helps women lead their lives from a place of self-love and confidence so they can play big in the world. Click here to learn more about Amy and sign up for her free e-course called “I Don’t Need Your Approval! How to Overcome Your Inner Approval Addict”.