I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about and researching work+life fit, and looking for examples of severe work+life dysfunction among business women with family obligations who feel like they’re barely treading water.
Unfortunately there are too many examples for me to choose from and I don’t know these stories as well as I know my own. After a ridiculous amount of time discounting my own experiences, I realized that it’s my ability to understand what other women are going through – that “I’ve walked-in-your-pumps” camaraderie – that makes me credible.
It doesn’t have to be about me, but if what I’ve gone through can help someone else recognize where they’re off track, then why would I downplay its importance? So, here’s a little story – a perfect example of work+life balance run amok (and if you could see me right now, you’d see that I’m putting little air quotes around the word “balance”).
Once Upon A Time, In a Galaxy Not So Far Away…
16 years ago I was working in a brand new, high-level position that basically required me to create my job description as I went along. I loved what I was doing, but it meant 60+ hour work weeks, lots of traveling and very little local or national support from my organization.
I was newly remarried after a 20-year marriage and several years as an, eh hem, “single” woman. We’re talking “adjustment” challenges. You know, things like:
“Must you leave the toilet seat up?”
“Is it necessary for you to use the exercise bike as a coat rack?”
“Why would you think your ginormous dogs can sleep in bed with us?”
“Why do you always put the empty carton of milk back in the fridge?”
My 21-year old son was in the military, and word was that his unit was being deployed to Afghanistan in a few weeks (thankfully, in military time “a few weeks” stretched into “never”).
Because my current husband had never had children and both mine were grown, we decided to become emergency foster parents, and the first child placed with us was a 10-year old girl with a host of psychological and behavioral problems, a gut-wrenching history, and a one-way, no return ticket from the social service agency.
Prior to my remarrying, my elderly mom had been living with me fairly independently for several years, but after a recent hip fracture at the age of 88, her health had really begun to decline, and she required 24-hour a day care at home. While my husband was supportive and a roll-up-your-sleeves and pitch in kind of guy, I had no immediate family nearby to help shoulder some of my mom’s care.
Any one of these things by itself required a great deal of time, effort and adjustment. Pile all these individual ingredients on top of each other, mix them all together, and it was a recipe for disaster.
I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!
Like many of you, I felt responsible to balance all these things, and of course, to handle them all perfectly. Well, the perfection part might not be your particular issue, but I’m guessing you can relate to what I’m saying.
Add the feminist manifesto I’d learned as a product of the early 70s playing in my ears (think Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” song where she’s bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan) and it’s no wonder my body began to rebel.
Now it isn’t that I didn’t take care of myself the least little bit – I did. But it was erratic and on-the-fly, and this quasi-taking-care-of-myself-posturing still didn’t stop me from pushing my needs lower on the “to do” list so that I could attend to more important fires blazing around me.
And after months and months (in actuality, it was a couple of years) of trying to balance the scale between career and home life, I crashed.
I developed a serious, progressive and incurable disease that forced me to do what I’d refused – or hadn’t been able to do before – come up with a workable work+life fit integration plan that was flexible, strategic, and relevant to the realities of my life.
Rising From the Ashes
I delegated or let go of what I could, and asked for more support at work and at home where I needed it most.
It meant moving my mom to a nursing home where she could get the intensive care she needed, and saying no to adoption – something we really hadn’t wanted to do in the first place when we became foster parents.
It meant dealing with the bone-crushing sense of guilt and shame I felt that I was letting people down because I couldn’t do it all.
It meant resigning from a job I loved, but could no longer give 100% to, and, on a truly positive note, it meant opening my own business so I could still be productive and of service – but in a way that allowed me more flexibility and control, and better able to manage my health.
Teeny, Tiny Steps Will Still Get You There
Now understand – it’s not necessary that you make sweeping changes all at once. In my case, I’d waited too long, and the sense of urgency when it all came crashing down forced me to stop vacillating.
But small, incremental changes can make a HUGE difference in how you manage and experience your life.
For example, when it comes to making changes to your work life:
- Most of the time you may not want to work less – just differently
- Start with what you DO want, not what you DON’T want. The only thing most people know is that they don’t want the fit they currently have. You must begin by asking: “How do I want work to fit into my life?”
- Ask! What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll say “No” – and most likely, they’ll say “Yes” to a well thought out plan for at least a trial period, which is why you must ask – especially if you’re really ready to leave anyway.
- Redefine success to match your fit. Make sure that your personal definition of success is working FOR you and not AGAINST you.
It hurts your career more not to adjust your fit. Burning out, becoming unproductive, ignoring personal problems or getting sick certainly won’t help your career (mind you – hindsight is always 20/20).
Pretty please, with lots of sugar on top (and little sprinklies if they’re your thing) – use my experience as an example of what NOT to do. I don’t mind being a poster child for recovering dysfunctional work-life balance syndrome (okay – I know I just made that up), as long as it helps get you off that roller coaster ride and on the path to being your fully integrated, awesome self! Sweet!