July 20, 2011

Finding the balance

Be advised: this is a long personal post without pretty decorating pictures.  :)

Have you been following the series of posts that Joanna has done on balancing work and family over at her blog Cup of Jo?  I think it's been a fascinating series of posts to read!  All of the women she featured have similar profiles: they work part- or full-time, are married with kids, don't have full-time child care, and have jobs with varied schedules and locations (most of them work from home at least some of the time, and none have 8:00-5:00 cubicle jobs).  I was already familiar with three of the women featured: Jenny of the food blog Dinner: A Love Story, interior decorator Jenny from Little Green Notebook, and Joanna herself.  I really enjoyed learning about the other women who contributed to the series as well.

I think the posts have resonated with me because these women's experiences so closely match my own.  I work as a freelance editor and as a college lecturer, which means I essentially have a full-time job (or, some weeks, two full-time jobs).  But the nature of these jobs means that every week is different: sometimes I have stacks of papers to grade and a huge editing job to finish, but other weeks all my lessons are planned and I find myself with a lot more free time.  On top of the work, I also stay at home (nearly) full-time with our son, although now that he's getting older he is going to preschool a lot more, which makes life easier.  I started teaching again a couple weeks after he was born, and I've never had a semester off since.  Normally I do take the summers off, which is a tremendous perk of being an educator!  And I'm fortunate to have an affordable, flexible source of child care and several family members living nearby, both of which are real luxuries.  But I still have lots of ongoing conversations with my husband about how to balance our life, which for us means family, friends, work, our marriage, church, free time, etc.

After reading those posts, I thought it would be interesting to just write out my own experiences and what works for us.  It is nice to feel like part of a community, to know that there are lots of other women (and men!) in similar positions.  Especially if you work from home sometimes or all the time, it's easy to get a little isolated from others who are doing the same thing.  So here's my little contribution to this whole conversation.  Here are five lessons I've learned in my five years of trying to balance motherhood and work:

There is no one right way to do things.  You have to choose what works for your family, your personality, and your job.  Over the years, my husband and I have gotten to know not only each other's personalities, but also the personality of our marriage and our little family unit.  To do this, we had to ask questions like: what's really important to us?  What can / can't we live without?  What makes us crazy?  Where are we willing to make compromises?  And, gradually, through trial and error, we figured out what we like.  We realized that we like flexibility.  We'd both rather make a little less money and be able to be home by 4:00 and preparing a leisurely dinner or going out to the park to play for an hour.  We also do not like schedules.  Sometimes we try to be scheduled, but that usually only lasts a few days.  We eat at different times every night, we often ask, "So what are we doing this evening?" or "What do you want to do for dinner?", and sometimes the answer to that leads us to pizza picnics on the bed watching Shaun the Sheep together or a dinner of milkshakes (hey, fruit + milk = nutritious!).  In addition to valuing flexibility, we also value togetherness.  If we are not away at work, we are together as a family probably 95% of the time.  We don't really have separate hobbies that we pursue individually.  Instead, we try to come up with things we can do together.  We all go together nearly everywhere: to buy a pair of shoes, to get a hair cut, to the grocery store.  I know that lifestyle wouldn't work for everybody, but I think that's the point: you have to know what works for your family and then make decisions accordingly.  I really enjoy working; I like to get out of the house, I love connecting with different students each semester, and I think it's great that our son gets to have some time away from home learning from his teachers at school and building some foundational academic and emotional skills as he gets ready for kindergarten.  I know that homeschooling just wouldn't work for us; it's not a good fit for his personality or mine!  But I also know that while I could work a typical 8:00-5:00 job, having more flexibility in terms of my hours and schedules makes our lives much easier.  I like not having to run all my errands in the evening, and I enjoy having the ability to spend an afternoon at the playground or the bookstore instead of at my desk.

James at his great preschool / child care center

Don't judge others.   I guess this is just a natural progression from my first point.  If it's okay for people to make decisions based on their personalities, their kids, the nature of their jobs, etc., then we have to be okay with the fact that those decisions will be varied.  Of course the "Mommy Wars" are nothing new.  There seems to always be some sort of division, although the categories change: stay-at-home versus working moms, public school vs. private school vs. homeschooling, scheduling vs. feeding on demand, etc.  For some reason, it seems very difficult for women in particular just to be okay with someone else making a different choice; there seems to be an instinctual need to defend or justify one's own decision, and that often leads to judgmentalism.  Perhaps it is "natural" to see someone's child acting up, and assume, "Wow, I bet she never disciplines him!" or to take note of someone's designer handbag and think, "Gosh, I wonder how much credit card debt they're carrying!"  But such thoughts are not charitable, and it's not our job to guess motivations or judge actions.

It just so happens that while I was reading the posts on balancing motherhood and work, I was also reading a chapter on judgmentalism in Jerry Bridges' excellent book Respectable Sins (the premise of which is that Christians often are outspoken about the sins of the culture or those outside the church, while simultaneously letting a whole slew of "respectable sins" have free reign within the church).  Bridges writes, "...it doesn't matter which side of an issue we are on. It is easy to become judgmental toward anyone whose opinions are different from ours. And then we hide our judgmentalism under the cloak of Christian convictions."  I see this so much in the church: the elevating of personal opinions to the status of Biblical truth.  I think that for Christians in particular, we have to be careful not to take our own personal convictions about our family life and place them on other people, making them think that to choose otherwise would be to sin.  The Bible is actually ambiguous on a lot of issues.  I've read it through a few times, and I've never come across the 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not use daycare, formula, or high fructose corn syrup."

You can't have it all.  It may seem like some people can do it all, and I do think some people are just extremely high functioning, but there are not enough hours in the day to hold down a full-time job, care for your children, make a from-scratch dinner, run all your errands, tend a perfect (organic, of course!) garden, sew a new dress, and have a date night with your husband.  Something has to give.  Here, again, I think the trick is to talk about this with your spouse, find out what he or she really values, and try to make those accommodations.  I really like to cook, but if I am feeling overwhelmed with work or other obligations, cooking becomes a chore; on the other hand, our whole family likes to eat out, so we have no problem ordering take out or going out to a restaurant a couple nights a week if necessary.  I don't need to feel like a "failure" as a mother just because we are regulars at our local Indian restaurant; besides, there's no way I could replicate that tandoori chicken at home!
    Ask for help. Admittedly, this one is hard for me, but I have learned my lesson slowly. My husband always says that he loved it when I was pregnant because he finally got a chance to pitch in and help.  I am by no means one of those women who feels like the household is her sole responsibility, but I am a perfectionist, so I think I resisted asking for help because I prefer to do things my (the "right") way.  Now we split the household duties more evenly.  I usually take care of laundry, cooking, the cars, and bill paying.  My husband usually does the vacuuming, ironing, and the yard.  Sometimes we just designate some time on Saturday afternoon to do a quick blitz house cleaning together.  Asking for help prevents resentment from building up due to a (real or perceived) sense of inequitable duties.

    Remember that nothing lasts forever.  I think another important point to keep in mind is that there are many seasons in life, and every season brings challenges and opportunities.  For five years of our marriage, one of us was in grad school, so we did lots of late night studying and had weird schedules and school obligations.  Right now we're both training for a half-marathon in the fall (me, not quite so rigorously as I should be!), but that means making time for long workouts on the weekends.  I think the trick is to know how to accommodate these obligations.  So we try to fit one person's run in early on Saturday morning and still make time for Saturday brunch as a family afterward, or we take the jogging stroller and go together so we can have a little family bonding time (while we huff and puff and our way-too-heavy-for-a-jogging-stroller-almost-5-year-old-son yells, "Faster! Faster!!").  I remember at one point when James was in that stubborn, destructive toddler phase, my mom gently reminded me that it was only a stage.  I honestly couldn't see past the stage I was in; I had completely forgotten that one day James would be able to do things like make his own bed, read a book, go to school, or dress himself.  Remembering that most stages are temporary also allows me to relax and enjoy each season of life while not pining over what has passed or wishing for what is to come.

    For example, right now I am teaching 8:00 classes for the summer semester, which makes for a somewhat frantic dash out the front door some mornings and a less leisurely summer than what I am used to.  However, the positive part of this situation is that I get an early start on my workday, which makes me feel productive.  James is having a great time learning about "summery" topics in preschool, like dirt, insects, water, and vegetable gardens.  And each morning I like the feeling of walking across campus when the air isn't yet completely thick with heat and humidity, when the only creatures pacing the sidewalks are the robins out looking for breakfast.  These are positive things I can enjoy about this stage.

    Early morning on campus

    Reading those posts on balancing motherhood and work encouraged me because I saw that there were other women in circumstances very similar to mine.  I think our society in general and particularly our individual groups of friends or family members can put enormous pressure on mothers to fit into a particular mold.  Sometimes I think that fitting the mold becomes the goal, rather than having a happy, stable family and a healthy work/life balance.  It can take a lot of courage sometimes to stick up for the choices that you feel are best for your family.

    If you want to check out the Cup of Jo posts on balancing motherhood and work, click here.  I hope you find the whole conversation as intriguing as I did!

    If you've made it this far, congratulations!  :)  I know this is different from my normal posts, and I'll be back to the fun design posts soon, but thanks for bearing with me.  This is a topic I have been thinking about for a while, and it's been good for me to write down all those thoughts.  Hope you have a great day!

    All photos are mine, via Instagram


    Liz Zayat said...

    Nicole - I really enjoyed the view into the window of your soul. Thanks!

    Brooke De Paula said...

    I love your blog! :) You're inspiring.

    Kara K said...

    Love you friend. Look for some similar thoughts from me later this week - prompted by going back to work of course.

    Nicole @ one half world said...

    Thanks for the kind comments, friends!

    Karen, Mom said...

    Nicole, Very nicely put. Love, Your mother-in-law... Karen

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