I had a perfectly warm and fun weekend with friends and family. We picnicked with our toes in the grass, gathered odd pieces of nature into “collections” as my daughter Olive likes to call them, and spent some time cheering on teenage Ultimate Frisbee players. The extra hours of fun outdoors while the dishes sat in the kitchen sink, the laundry piled up and this article went unwritten, confirms that I’ve been hit with a case of spring fever. Now all I want to do is daydream about beach locations for a lovely spring vacation while my inner critic is judging me for not being able to balance it all.
Oh balance, my difficult to obtain and even harder to keep friend, why must you be so delicate? I know I am not alone in this struggle. My friends and I spend a lot of our all-too-infrequent time together debating and trying to find creative solutions to managing our chaos. The parents I talk with in my practice feel overworked and overwhelmed by their responsibilities and rarely feel like they are able to find the balance they crave. They too judge themselves.
Where do the negative judgments about our challenges to balance life come from? First, there are the plethora of expectations we lay out for ourselves on a daily basis. As women, society tells us we have the opportunity, if we choose, to be available, centered, mothers – while maintaining fulfilling careers, relationships and personal lives. But it sure isn’t an easy task, what with only 24 hours in a day and every part of ourselves requiring a bigger piece of the pie than we have to offer. And men, well, they don’t necessarily have it any easier. This generation of fathers have the added expectation to be both strong and nurturing, all while providing for their families and being extremely fun and involved dads. But the lack of role models available for the “new dad” are few and far between. In this fast-paced culture laden with impossible to obtain ideals, it isn’t easy for any of us to do all and be all we want and remain even remotely as Zen as we’d like.
One solution I’ve found is in practicing mindfulness — taking time to simply and intentionally become aware of the present moment without judgment. It’s a pretty simple concept in theory, but one that is not without its challenges in practice. The impulse to judge ourselves, and frankly those around us, is a difficult one to reign in. When we struggle with balance in our own lives we either turn it inward and judge ourselves or turn it outward and judge others. Why? Simply because we cannot tolerate the feelings the imbalance creates. And while we seem to spend a lot of time as a culture discussing the need and search for balance in our busy lives, we don’t spend nearly enough time discussing and respecting how ultimately challenging, unstable, and inconstant the journey really is. Maybe if we did, we might be able to accept that there really is no fix-all, ultimate balance to be achieved. That each day, each season comes with its recipe of what is necessary, what can be let go of and what needs to wait for another time. And that we are all doing the very best that we can.
Maybe true balance is a bit like the perfectly ordinary casserole. There are a few key ingredients that stay the same (what casserole would be complete without cream of mushroom soup?) But for the most part, the combination of ingredients varies from recipe to recipe, coming together to ultimately satisfy hunger, warm the soul, and nourish the body. One day you might crave a solid tried-and-true tuna casserole, the next you feel spontaneous and it’s tater tot with green bean or spicy chicken enchilada! It is in the variety, in the inconstant balance of ingredients that we find our true sense of stability and fulfillment. About those dishes waiting for me in the sink when I get home tonight? Well, they weren’t a necessary ingredient to the casserole of connection and joy I shared with my kids this weekend. So they can wait, and I won’t feel guilty about it.
Robin Starkey Harpster, MA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC 41937) and Coordinator of the New and Young Families Program at the Institute for Girls’ Development in Pasadena, CA.
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