Recent long hours at both work and school have had me thinking a lot about work-life balance. Of course, even though I am now in the most time consuming professional job I have ever had, it is really nothing compared to my biggest job ever: motherhood! It is often the most satisfying tasks we take on, professionally and personally, that have the potential to both fulfill us and drain us completely if we are not careful. For many women and men as well, the conversation is really about achieving an overall life-balance. Whether we work primarily in the home, or have careers that take us other places, we often lead a lop-sided life where everyone’s needs are met but our own.
For many of us in middle age, we had our family career first, staying home and raising children, although I somehow fit several part-time jobs and college in around those years. Later, we had to negotiate ways to fit a professional life in as well. For many younger women and men, life often starts out the opposite; they start in a professional career and then must make decisions about fitting a family career into that schedule also. The guilt and self-doubt seem to be the same, regardless of which career you started with. Women especially seem to be the bearers of this guilt. They feel guilty for focusing more on their jobs and having less time for children or partners. They feel guilty for focusing more on their personal lives and having less time for their jobs. For today’s younger people, whom we raised to want and have it all, this guilt sometimes comes as a big surprise!
A very successful, professional, single friend recently confessed to me that she has never before had the feelings of “nesting” that she is suddenly having in her new relationship. For the first time in her life, her first thought in the morning is not about rushing off to her job. Instead she is longing to stay home and simply cook breakfast for the man in her life. Either choice is accompanied by a sense of somehow letting someone down; boss or partner.
This is not a problem that is unique to people with families. Those without children must also negotiate that delicate balance between being an extremely dedicated employee and giving up one’s personal life entirely. I know many childless professionals who resent the implication that they are somehow more available than people with children to work overtime and on holidays. Just because they don’t have children at home does not mean they don’t have loved ones they’d like to enjoy the holidays with.
The good thing about becoming middle-aged (there really are so many good things), is that you should at this point have enough of a sense of yourself and enough self-confidence to know when to say “no!” You should, by this point in life, value yourself enough to be making choices that are right for you; for your own mental, physical and spiritual well-being.
I will admit this was a process that took me a few years to fully negotiate. As a born nurturer, taking care of other people is always, always what I have done. Whether it was my spouse, friends, children or parents, if it needed doing I was there to do it. At a certain point I realized I had neither energy nor desire to keep taking care of everyone else. For parents especially, this is simply part of the process of launching your children out into the world and redefining your adult relationship with them. While it may seem natural for your children to still come to you for everything, and it may seem natural for you to want to help, after a certain age, it is no longer healthy for either of you. Let go, let them succeed or fail on their own and instead spend that time you would have used to help them doing something for yourself!
As middle age hit and I found myself single again, it dawned on me that I only had so many years left to accomplish my own goals, meet my own needs and achieve my own dreams! I also realized that physically, things were bound to go downhill quickly if I didn’t start paying more attention. This is one of the biggest mistakes I think busy people make, especially women. We get so busy taking care of other people we stop taking care of ourselves. We are too busy to cook a meal so we eat whatever is handy. We are too busy to exercise, so we ignore the extra pounds that creep up. We are too busy so we ignore the things our bodies are telling us until it becomes something we can’t ignore anymore. The next thing you know we are paying for prescriptions and bigger pants, both of which would not have been necessary if we stopped feeling guilty and just took care of ourselves.
It is high time we start loving ourselves at least as much as we love the other people in our lives. It is time to do the things that bring us joy! It is high time we make relaxation, whether alone or with friends, exercise, and eating healthy a high priority! If we don’t eventually we will be of no use to ourselves or anyone else for that matter!
One way for me to ensure that I budget relaxation and exercise into my life is to pay for it ahead of time! If I plan on going home at night after work and working out by myself I am very likely to skip it. On the other hand, when I started paying for a monthly membership to the local yoga studio I became much more motivated to get to classes in order to get my money’s worth out of that membership. The same goes for leisure activities. If I have actually purchased concert or theater tickets ahead of time, I make sure I don’t miss that event. However, if I had planned to purchase them at the door, I am more likely to cancel at the last minute because I feel guilty for not getting something else done. So the answer for me is to pay up front because I know if I don’t, I’m going to end up paying for it in the end one way or another aren’t I!
A healthy balance between work and play is very possible. However, all those people and all those things that are vying for attention aren’t going to let up. You have to value yourself enough to know when to say “no.” You have to value yourself to know when enough is enough. You have to stop letting guilt be the motivation for what you do and instead be motivated by love. Yes, love for your family and friends and love for you job can still be wonderful motivators but never, ever let them override your love for the most important person in your life – you!
“Don’t compromise yourself, you are all you’ve got.” Janis Joplin