Balance is Not a Four Letter Word

In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth. – Patti Smith

Balance. That mythical, unattainable nirvana. A word that gets thrown around with much abandon in Mommyland. There are many many things that you learn when you become a parent. You learn how to change diapers, how to survive on no sleep, how to successfully hold a baby and load the dishwasher/put on your shoes/feed the dog. You also learn a whole new language. Swaddling, colic, reflux, Bumbo, Boppy, Jumperoo vs. Exersaucer, attachment parenting, four month wakeful. Words that were foreign to me before O.

Then there are the mommy conversations. No matter what kind of parent you are, you will find yourself having these conversations, conversations you swore you wouldn’t have. Eavesdrop on any mom conversation, though, and what you are hearing is really a secret language. The shorthand is something like this:

“What’s his nap schedule?” Which means, can we be friends? Are our children on the same schedule so we can actually leave the house at the same time? And further, it’s a test. If you have NO nap schedule for your child, then that says something about you as a mother. And a nap nazi is probably not going to want to be friends with a mom that can be so unscheduled. Who knows what else goes on at that house?

“Is he walking/talking/feeding himself/banging his head against his crib yet”? This is the great equalizer conversation. It serves to let each mom know where in the spectrum of great genius their child is (aka walking early is a definite sign of potential Einstein status- never mind that all kids eventually walk and very few geniuses when accepting the Nobel Prize for Physics or Economics acknowledge their early walking). But it also is the way to know you aren’t alone, that your kid isn’t the only one doing weird things like trying to eat butt paste.

And then there is the balance conversation. Balance is the thing that we are all searching for, the word that means everything to every mom- it means peace, happiness, a world where schedules work and no one is tired and screaming and you don’t wake up everyday feeling like life is pulling you into a million directions. Most of all it means feeling no guilt. “Work-life balance” is the one you hear most often. But even stay at home moms struggle to find balance. Balance between being everything to your kids and still maintaining a small piece of yourself. Not letting your kids swallow you up whole. Balance is the thing that we as mothers are always searching for, and is never attained. A working mother can spit out the word “balance” like it’s the dirtiest word on George Carlin’s list.

“Women need real moments of solitude and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away.” -Barbara De Angelis

A friend recently said to me “I don’t know how to do this. How to balance a child, a relationship, friends, and myself in the little two days I have to pack it all in.”

I of course have been feeling the same way. As a working mom, I horde little scraps of time and ration them out to the demanding and starving pieces of me. The loudest one gets immediate attention. So I am a mother, a wife, a lawyer, a co-worker, a boss, an employee, a writer, a friend, a daughter, a sister, and whichever little piece is starving the most gets fed. Oh and then there’s simply “me”, the me that needs quiet time that isn’t devoted to being any of those things above. Before marriage and kids, “me” got my full attention. It wasn’t hard to balance.

Now there is never enough time to feed those pieces. I was thinking about what my friend said this weekend and realized my life would be so much simpler if I stopped writing. Now that I am at home on Mondays and Fridays, I would have ample time to be a mother, to get my errands done, to be a good wife and sister and friend. I might even have time to get organized. And frankly, no one would care or even notice. The world at large would go on just as it is if I stopped writing.

I mentioned this to the Husband last night at dinner. We didn’t really talk about it, as we had O with us and he is in a “phase” right now where he is really happy until he’s not, and then he turns into a shrieking, melting puddle.  It was one of those perfect nights, the weather was warm but not hot, we put O in the stroller and walked over to a local restaurant. We have found that when O is in a difficult mood (i.e. refuses to nap in the afternoon and therefore has a meltdown when you do something like dare to close the dishwasher before he’s done playing), it is best to take him out of the house. No, not to torture other people, but he’s actually much better behaved and entertained around others. He’s quite the show-off and flirt, so put him in a restaurant and he’s in his natural habitat.

Anyways, so we’re at dinner, the Husband and I are taking turns. He feeds O some chicken or plaintains and I take a long drink of my cold cold beer. Then he grabs his margarita, while I distract O with some beans and guacamole. It’s a good system, but one that makes actual conversation difficult. I mention that my life would be a lot easier if I just quit writing for now.

The husband doesn’t really look at me, it’s his turn to feed O, but he casually says “And give up on your dream?”

And that’s that. I didn’t really intend to give up the writing. It’s the one thing that makes the least sense in my life right now- why would I pick the first year of my son’s life to focus on something so completely selfish, internal, and time-consuming, and one that has no guaranteed path to success? It is not a balanced, logical thing to do.

And yet. It is the one thing that makes me able to handle everything else. Well, my husband and nanny make it logistically possible for me to handle everything. But writing is the thing that feeds the “me” part, that despite it’s time suckage, actually replenishes me. I feel more grounded, less untethered after I write. I don’t feel pulled in a million directions, I don’t feel anxious or depressed or like there is something missing. I feel balanced.

I go home and I sit with my son and I watch him dance around with a bead necklace his dad and I got at a long ago Mardi Gras. The small square of plastic lights up and sings a Mardi Gras song, and he delights in pressing it over and over, and dancing around in circles. I don’t get impatient and long for him to do something else. We read the same book over and over and over, and I feel lucky to get these moments with him.

Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen: Walking The Crooked Path of Motherhood (among others) and the fantastic blog Cheerio Road, discusses balance. A lot. A friend gave me her book when I was on maternity leave, and it was as if I was drowning and someone showed me a way to breathe underwater. I was stumbling and sleep-deprived and felt completely lost and helpless in my new role. I especially felt as if I was the only one who wasn’t feeling like this was the most magical time of my life. I opened Miller’s book and the very first chapter she admits the same. And Miller is a practicing Buddhist!

Miller talks about being in the moment and focusing on what is in front of you as a way to find balance. If you are doing the laundry, do the laundry. Nothing else. If you are working, work. If you are watching your child play, watch your child play. It’s called being in the moment and it’s damn difficult.

But for me, after spending an hour or two writing, this isn’t that difficult. Writing pushes away all of those selfish thoughts the former “me” has, or better yet, it lets them breathe. It gives my inner pieces a voice. And then I can just let them go and be. Be a mother, be a wife.

For me, writing, even though it tips the crazy scale of logic, is the thing that makes me feel the most balanced. Balance, like everything, is relative.

“Evermore in the world is this marvelous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

And leave it to a poet to sum it up so beautifully and weirdly. Balance is not just juggling your life. It’s the thing that allows us to appreciate and recognize the extraordinary. Without rainy days, sunshine is monotonous. Without sadness, happiness is taken for granted. Without rats, how can we recognize the majesty of giraffes?



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4 responses to “Balance is Not a Four Letter Word

  1. Taryn M. Peine

    I LOVE the last quote. It’s so true. I am trying to be OK ahead of time knowing that once I’m a mother, any sense of “balance” will be a thing of the past. But I love the advice of truly living in the moment. If we could somehow figure out a way to do that, we wouldn’t even know we weren’t finding balance. We wouldn’t be able to think of all the things we weren’t doing. It would be MAGIC!


  2. You got me with “Most of all it means feeling no guilt.” This is wonderful — from start to finish — and so on the money. My daughter is a grown woman now, and still these lucid thoughts have resonance. I’m glad I discovered your blog via Karen Maezen Miller’s tweet.


  3. Pingback: And Again, The Pull | Keep Calm and Have A Cupcake

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