Does Work-Life Balance Exist?

Years ago, I had to attend an offsite that was over a weekend. Not a problem, but as a then single mother, I had to ask my mother (who lived a couple of states away from us) if she could take the kids for the weekend. Wonderful grandmother as she is, she happily obliged and I sent the kids on the plane (they were 10 and 12 at the time) as unaccompanied minors to her, and then I boarded my flight, comfortably able to focus on the business of the offsite, and knowing they were in the best hands possible.

All was well until I was ready to come home, and my flight was cancelled due to bad weather. The arrangements had been that the kids would fly into JFK an hour after I was meant to get there, which seemed like a reasonable buffer (also there was not really an alternative given logistics and my desire to not have them miss school the following Monday). With my flight change it became very clear that if I could not reach the airline (this was before the days when we all had cell phones) my kids were going to be stranded at the airport- an unhappy prospect indeed.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself (at that point in my life I felt like I had a flashing red light over my head that said, “the ONLY SINGLE MOTHER ON WALL STREET”) I attempted to have a quiet conversation with the people at the airline to get them to stop my kids from getting on the plane and to transmit a message to my mother saying “Don’t put the kids on the flight!! Keep them and I will figure this out when I get home!”. The communications were difficult and it was very tense for a while as I awaited word as to whether the message had been sent and received. In the meantime, I bought a book and held it in my hands, pretending to read, to try to look like I wasn’t melting down with worry- as I was surrounded by my coworkers, including my bosses boss and his wife.

Although all of my coworkers were comfortably oblivious of my issues, my boss’s wife immediately sensed that there was a problem and came to sit next to me- and asked if everything was ok. With a not very convincing, forced smile, I assured her that all was well and that I was certain that my mother would be able to help to make sure my kids weren’t going to spend the night at JFK — a horrifying prospect for anyone who has spent the night in an airport.

Fortunately, within the hour I had received communication back that my mother had gotten my message, had not put the kids on the flight, and was in fact going to drive them back to New York and get them to school the next morning. I am sure my relief was palpable, and I was happy to report to my concerned boss’s wife that all was well.

As an epilogue to this story, my mother received a thank you note a few weeks later, with a gift certificate to a local store as a token of appreciation. The note was from my boss, who told her that he appreciated her going the extra mile for me, so that I could go the extra mile at work. To this day I don’t know how he found my mother’s address (we don’t share a last name) — but it was testimony to how much he really cared (and I am sure his wife as well) that they went to the trouble if seeking her out in this way.

So, what does this have to do with work-life balance? A few things:

1) I don’t really think that work-life balance exists. There is only life- and sometimes you spend a lot of it at work. Where and how you spend your time can’t really be evaluated on a day to day or even week to week basis. The real question is whether you are clear on what your priorities are, and are you able to live up to what matters to you in aggregate. If the answer is no, it is time to make a change. If something like this happened regularly I would have had to change jobs. Fortunately, this was a rarity, but the need to constantly evaluate my priorities and where I was spending my time was ongoing- and still is.

2) Support is everything. Whether you are a parent or not, single or married, a caregiver for a parent- or whatever the circumstance, we will all have times in our lives when we need help. All of us. It is really important to know where your support comes from and if you don’t have a base of people who can be there for you, start building it now!

3) If your employer really doesn’t care about you, find a new employer. The employer/employee relationship is a two-way street, as relationships are. Unfortunately, today it is too often mercenary on both sides. You can do your part by actually committing and giving your all to the work you do. When you do that, you should have the expectation that your employer has some level of humanity. I have had the experience of having a child in the hospital in a very dangerous situation- and having a boss tell me to spend all the time I need at his bedside without worrying about what was going on at work. That doesn’t sound like a big deal- but I know people who have had the exact same family situation whose employer was on the phone asking them when they were getting back to work. That is not ok. My boss sending my mother a thank you note was a clear signal that he was invested in our relationship, and it really mattered to me.

4) Creating your own boundaries is really important. There will always be things- like work offsites- that you have to attend and take time away from your family or whatever it is that you want to devote your non-work hours to. But often it is easy to fall into the trap of making yourself available 24/7 when it is not required. I learned some time ago that it was not my boss’s job to care about how much time I spent with my kids- that is my job. How do I do this? I put down the cell phone when it is time to be present with the people in my personal life. I commit to being on vacation when I am on vacation, and if there is a reason I have to take time out for work, I manage expectations upfront. I make it home for dinner when I am not traveling or have a client event in the evenings. That won’t work for everyone- it didn’t always work for my situation — but finding your boundaries and defending them is key.

Balance comes over a lifetime, not at any particular point in time. Finding the rhythm of your own life, and knowing that whatever the demands are today will be different tomorrow or five years from now. It is not really about balance but more about being conscious of the priorities, finding ways to keep growing, and enjoying the journey.