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. 

42 replies
  1. Aparajitha
    Aparajitha says:

    This is wonderful!! I haven’t ventured completely into this kind of life but it is trying to find me ._. With my relatives etc. saying you must “get that masters degree, get a great job, take care of every person in your life and do everything to perfection”. heh. I dont think I am listening anymore. 😀 Thanks for the inspiration Martha!

  2. Andrea Ballard
    Andrea Ballard says:

    I read this article and saw breakfast…so when looking at the picture, I thought it was doughnuts, not stones!

    Consider me part of the gentle rebellion! No more Super Mommies/employees/wives…just real people.

  3. Abbe Jacobson
    Abbe Jacobson says:

    Martha – this blog post came at a time when I needed it most. I am the daughter of a feminist scholar who taught gender studies as a professor while I was growing up. I have always felt the tension of failing as a mom who wanted to stay home with her kids with a master degree from an ivy league under my belt. I struggled with feeling like I should be doing more…a more conventional professional life. But every time I tried to join the working world I felt like I was failing miserably all the way around and my kids eventually won out as my priority and I was lucky to be able to make the choice to be with them. My feminist scholar mother still rants that times have not changed at all since Gloria Steinem marched for all of us: she believes my daughter will face the same difficult choices – to her detriment. But I have let go of the struggle and chosen to join what you define as the “gentle rebellion”. I do hope that with these types of small steps that our daughters will feel free to find their own authentic voices and embrace the possibility of what you describe as a new cultural paradigm – one that frees them to make authentic choices to find fulfillment and life satisfaction! Thank you for this important blog, Martha!

  4. Monica
    Monica says:

    Brilliant article Martha. I love that you are intelligent, down-to-earth and bloody hilarious (eg: cocaine for breakfast)! I love what you wrote about “learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions.” My biggest issue with straddling the career-motherhood fence is watching working moms who seem to have it all together. I sometimes feel like being a full-time mom is a cop-out for not being able to figure out what to do with my career while almost everyone else does the working motherhood thing. And then I rationalize it by saying I’m enjoying my kids until they start school so I don’t have any regrets later. Anyhoo, looking forward to your next article!

  5. Elle Rice
    Elle Rice says:

    I had to balance single parenthood with a full time job. OK I suffered through it. Remarried 8 years ago and was blessed with a husband who enabled us to retire at 60 years old. How wonderful. Right? Now we are raising our two grandchildren. Two and four years old. I was unbalanced, suffered through it and don’t know if I have the energy to do it again. How do I begin to have the insight to understand where and when I was wrong/right the first time around?

  6. stephanie kuzmkowski
    stephanie kuzmkowski says:

    Seems like a smart woman like you would know when to ask for help. Do what you do well, and hire someone to help you out with the more domestic stuff that they might do better. Leaving you time to help the rest of us while still having time to enjoy your family. Simple.

      • Kelly
        Kelly says:

        I'm always amazed at those who think it's that simple. Sure, hire out if you can afford it, though it's NEVER that simple even for that.
        I did have someone come in to clean for me weekly, best choice I ever made (and less expensive than you might think… honestly, I was shocked and wish I had done that much sooner) but when the choice comes down to "Attend the meeting that will advance your career or miss solo night at school" it's a little different.

  7. judie
    judie says:

    loved this article…it is so true…i thought i was supper human…a human doer not a human being…i took care of a 3 story house, 2 acreas koi fish, kids in dance, cheerleading, art, piano,pottery etc…running running and running…slept 2 hrs a night or morn.430-600
    after 24 yrs of alcoholism i decided to divorce..i filed and the woman judge told me i should have worked, her mother did, and my daughter should have riden the cheese..what the hell is the cheese i replied..she said yellow school bus..she rode the bus..she gave me 300.00 a month alimony…my husband let our house go in forclosure so i would not get anything like he said..i got nothing cause he didn’t even pay the 300…i got in front of another judge and he saw what my husband was doing..he gave me 2500.00 a month …glory to god well then he moved from al. to la and filed bankruptcy..lied about his earnings, i proved it in fed. court…the judge hit his gavel and discharged my alimony…i got NOTHING…..TO TOP ALL THAT….MY TWO DAUGHTERS HAVE NOT SPOKEN TO ME SINCE 2005 because of his lies…my therapist calls him a pathological master pro liar…so i lost everything…family, finaces, dog (because he took y yorkie and gave it away..she said she could not get back something he didnt have…so yes i know what being a 24/7—365 a year mother was and a wife…i know how much i got paid for that dedication…i wish now i would have gone to work because at least at my age i would have something to fall back on…i lost all the way around….

    • mary
      mary says:

      Hi Judie, I just ran across your comments and I am wondering how things are going with your daughters. Your story touched my heart as I am in a similar situaation – married a drunk, kids are alienated from me etc. I realize your comments are from a while ago; I hope that things have improved for you. Sending you positive prayers….

  8. imelda pearce
    imelda pearce says:

    This article is what I love best about Martha. The humorous, self-effacing and realistic commentary that makes me feel like I belong. I may still have a thread of beleiving it is possible to be a neurosurgeon, a reader of world literature, having a fulfilling relationship with my husband, son and half dozen close friends, a perfectly balanced house which runs like a well-oiled wheel, in addition to being proficiently creative in 3 or more areas, healthy and rich! Gee, I wonder why I had a stroke when I was only 36! Guess I didn’t learn much.

  9. Heather
    Heather says:

    I love the offer of cocaine to your children for breakfast – so preposterous it drives the point straight home. Just lucky they didn’t take you up on that one!

    Your “real” voice is so refreshing in this genre. Thank you.

  10. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Thanks Martha. As always, your words are amazing. I wandered to your site tonight needing a break while working in front of two computers trying to get my Christmas cards out, preparing for work tomorrow, feeding my oldest ibuprophen praying he isn’t getting sick, and ignoring how long my youngest has been at the neighbor’s house while I rush to get all this done. Balance, schmalance. I’ve tried every version of motherhood…FT working, FT at home, PT w/ nanny housekeeper (when money was better), PT and FT (when money was tight!!)…I’m just beginning to accept that I must accept the imperfection of any of these situations and be present for the moments that matter. That’s all that will ever matter.

  11. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Well said: balance is impossible.
    Can you believe it took me years to understand it?
    I’m in the corporate world, and behind every man’s success, there is a woman cooking, raising the kids, cleaning, and oarganizing the holidays. Behind every woman’s success, there is the same exhausted and frustrated woman.
    The corporate world was designed long ago for people who have an unknown, unpaid, and accomodating shadow who takes care of everything besides work.
    A good example is when your work sends you overseas: you finish a friday in, say, Johannesburg, and begin the next monday in, say, Frankfurt (don’t smile, it really happened to my husband). How on earth are you supposed to accomplish this, especially if you have kids, if you don’t have someone to take care of “everything else” – this someone being in that case me, a very angry and resentful me. I almost went on strike on that one.
    Excuse me, I got carried away by the topic… but I feel better already!
    Thanks Martha for your no-nonsense posts !

  12. Bonnie S.
    Bonnie S. says:

    I love this piece. I have been struggling to find balance for most of my professional career while raising 3 daughters. Always saw “balance” as a destination….seeking to find it all the time. When in fact, it is a journey. This piece helps me realize that I should judge myself by my own value systems, not the one society puts on us. Thank you Martha.

  13. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Yes, balance is an illusion–if it means having it all at the same time and still living our lives in perfect peace. Many of us have known this truth for a long time, but never had the guts to speak it out loud for fear of letting others perceive us as inadequate. Still amazes me that men are not expected to “do it all, be it all and have it all” without a supportive partner/wife.

    Thanks for this Martha!

  14. Sabrina
    Sabrina says:

    Wow! So meaningful for my life right now as I give up everything I’ve ever held dear. I have four family members not speaking to me since I moved to Arizona to become the me I really am…from the inside out. NOT what everyone else wants or expects! I’m the Stephanie in this story…founded & ran a successful design firm, raised two great kids who are now in their 20s and have been living with a still “mysterious” auto immune disease that is complicated with the more stress I’m under. Go figure! I know what’s its from…trying to be superwoman, all things to all people at all times, coupled with a complete lack of self care and a vague feeling of still yet NOT ACCOMPLISHING ENOUGH!
    Thank you Martha for really nailing this on the head for me!

  15. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    Thank you! I’ve known that trying to chase life balance is making me implode, but it’s seemed like there’s no other option, no life boat to grab on to – even though my aching heart says there’s got to be something better. Another path! WoW! Imagine that!

  16. Jessica Spear
    Jessica Spear says:

    Thank you from a stay-at-home mom with two young children, who quit her career in law enforcement as a police officer because she happened to fall in love with her son the instant she held him in her arms! Later to learn he has special needs (don’t we all) and then thanked God for resigning her position just before obtaining a diagnosis for her son (perinatal stroke and cerebral palsy). Now I am trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up and very happy! 🙂

  17. karen
    karen says:

    Thank you Martha! I love your writing and sense of humor. I especially love the comment about Thoreau! Not surprising at all. I have many married male work colleagues that wonder what they would do if they had an extra Friday off. Many are married to someone who works one day a week. I am a single professional (work + laundry + cooking, elder care, etc), who, like Laura in your writing, have been put by outside circumstances into menopause, so…no children. Still have the day job, but am scheming, scheming to find a way to follow my passions!

  18. susan
    susan says:

    I started to scream at “I don’t have a job.” Whaaat???
    You have one of the hardest jobs in the world. You don’t get paid? Why does that make what you do “not a job?” The essay landed on an authentic note . . . after all. Whew! It’s balancing two full-time jobs that’s the really good trick, eh? If we think about it that way, it’s another step in the right direction, maybe?

  19. Jeffrey S. Cramer
    Jeffrey S. Cramer says:

    Thoreau was never “roughing it.” He went to Walden to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He wasn’t trying in any way to have a self-sufficient wilderness adventure of solitude. He often visited with friends and family in Concord and they visited him. His mother and sisters didn’t help care for his needs, although his mother occasionally made him a pie. He brought his laundry home not to his mother or sisters but to the one of the staff who helped in their boarding house and Thoreau paid for that service. In fact he always paid his way. So, please don’t assume that he was considering it “women’s work.” He was not so minded. If you’d like to read more on Thoreau, check out the introduction to my Walden: A Fully-Annotated Edition (Yale U. Press) or The Portable Thoreau (Penguin). You may find a different Henry David Thoreau than the one you think you know.

  20. Deepti
    Deepti says:

    We women have been drinking the ‘cool aid’.
    So many of my women friends are burnt out and stressed. Not only expected to do it all, but on top of that we have to look like starving models to keep everyone happy ;0
    It’s time to jump off the merry go round and row our boat gently down the stream! Ladies jump…

  21. Anne
    Anne says:

    Reading this took a massive weight of my heart, I actually, physically breathed deeply because I felt such a relief! Martha, I only just discovered you, but you are making SO MUCH SENSE!! Thank you!!

  22. Claire
    Claire says:

    This is an amazing group of women who have responded. Each of them have grief and joy. What we learn from them all,is a gift. May you all have peace and know you are worthy.

  23. Karla
    Karla says:

    Thanks (again) Martha and all the commenters for making me feel like I’m not so alone. Most days I feel like a hamster on his wheel. I run, run, run all day and never get anything accomplished. Can you still run away from home when you’re 46? 😛

    • Tracey
      Tracey says:

      Karla, Do you ever wish everything would just freeze for one day so you could catch up (at least a little) and catch your breath? I sure do. At 45, there are days I just want to play hooky!

  24. L.
    L. says:

    I love this post on so many levels and I'm glad the women who were mentioned as examples found a happy landing place for renewal. I think my renewal is in effect now. Thanks for this inspiring post of hope.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] other was the daily inspiration from Martha Beck – “There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been […]

  2. […] This article by Martha Beck says it’s impossible to give 100% to your career and 100% to your family both at the same time. That’s good news. If you’re feeling exhausted, ashamed, embarrassed, like a failure, or hard on yourself — you don’t have to be any more. It’s not your fault. No human being, regardless of gender, can fully meet the constant high pressure demands of both home life and work life in just one life. […]

  3. […] that it was impossible, dismiss my critic, and not stress about it. (Many thanks to Martha Beck’s Dance of an Unbalanced Life for helping me see […]

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