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The Truth About Balance
Recently, I was asked to speak at a women’s symposium on the topic of balance. Although flattered by the invitation, I had to wonder what on Earth I could competently contribute to the panel. For example, on the day of the request, I had been back at work from maternity leave for all of about 3 weeks (which felt like 3 seconds) and was desperately trying to (1) prepare for a deposition, (2) remind my husband that I had a board meeting that night (which meant he was on “baby duty”), (3) hop on a conference call with the Young Lawyers’ Section Executive Committee, and (4) figure out when I was going to be able to clean my house as we had visitors arriving the following weekend. And that’s just what I can recall upon brief review of my calendar.
Admit it: you’ve been there.
Like most “Type A” attorneys, I have difficulty saying “no” and I quickly found myself accepting the speaking opportunity. I also found myself wondering when I would find time to prepare for the symposium and oh, by the way, miss about three-fourths of a day of work the week before a big motion was due. Sigh…
I nonetheless went to the symposium and not only contributed but learned a lot as well. While complete balance may not be achievable, I do think we can achieve a semblance of balance if we look it in the eyes and recognize its truths. We’re now in a New Year and everyone wants to start fresh and learn some good practices, so read on if you’re interested and you may find the following “truths” (at least as I see it) helpful!
Truth #1: Balance is not the same for everyone. Do not try to keep up with the Joneses, particularly as the Joneses likely are not as perfect as you think! Determine what goals/ organizations/ events/ tasks are most important to you and your family and focus on them. Just because Mrs. Jones is President of the PTA does not mean that you must be. Maybe there are other ways to be involved with your child’s school or maybe you want to focus on just being home at dinner time and to help with homework. And remember, not everything has to happen this year or even next year…
I have had to remind myself of this, particularly as a young lawyer and young mother. We want to do everything possible to build our practice, perfect our legal skills, and still not miss a minute of time with family and friends, but we know we can’t actually give everything 110%. So one evening, I sacrifice the bedtime routine with my son for a networking event. The key is making sure that it’s a networking event that is worthy of my time. And then another day I take a long lunch and go to my son’s daycare to watch him crawl through the tunnels and laugh like nothing could possibly be more fun. In both scenarios, I miss something else, but I don’t let myself worry because I feel that I am doing the right thing at the right time. You have to figure out what works for you.
Truth #2: Balance suggests stability, but you’ll fluctuate in getting there. While our overarching priorities might be “set,” balancing those priorities in the real world may not be the same from one day to the next. If I have a trial coming up, I know that I will need to spend more time in the office the week(s) before, such that the scale tips in favor of work during that time. As all litigators should know, I will also need to balance the rest of my workload during that time to meet the needs of other clients, while still fully and carefully preparing for trial (wouldn’t it be nice if we could have just one case at a time?). So even though I have determined that my family – and especially my 9 month old – is Priority #1, my work and clients will necessarily take priority on certain days and at certain times. And it’s OK.
Truth #3: Balance requires support, so don’t be afraid to lean on others. The key is finding the right “others.” Be it your spouse, your best friend, your secretary, or your colleague, surround yourself with those who will help support you as you navigate through your day (and for that matter, through your life). For me to prepare for the trial referenced above, I need my husband to take on a little more at home. I will also appreciate when my best friend texts me a friendly “hang in there,” my secretary helps keep me organized, and my colleague ensures that a filing is made. The reality is that the other tasks are still there, and while they are not Priority #1, they are certainly priorities. Since we can’t be 15 places at once, we need to know that others can bear some of the weight.
Truth #4: Balance has a silent “I” in it; if you don’t take time for yourself, you can never achieve balance. This is definitely a truth that cannot be ignored. When I was on maternity leave, as soon as my doctor cleared me to exercise, I promptly hired a babysitter to come every Wednesday morning from 8-12 so that I could go to the gym, stop by Starbucks for breakfast, buy groceries, and get home in time to (quickly) straighten the house and shower. I was actually questioned by a well-meaning friend who simply could not believe that I would sacrifice 4 hours once a week from my child while I was on maternity leave in order to – gasp – do something for myself!
My polite response was that I viewed maternity leave as a time to not only care for my child, but also do what I needed to do to “balance” (there’s that word again) my own sanity. How could I go back to work without being physically and mentally ready? That would not do anyone any good, including and especially my precious baby boy. So, again, for ME personally, this was very necessary, and I continue to carve out time for myself now. It’s not selfish. It saves my sanity, and probably the sanity of those around me too!
Truth #5: Balance doesn’t mean that you opt to walk on the thinnest rope, grasp the tiniest thread, or wear the highest stiletto (no matter how cute they may be). Balance can be two feet firmly planted on the ground. You don’t have to balance 15 things at once. At least not all the time (Truth #2) and not all by yourself (Truth #3). And you’re not balancing anything if you do nothing well. In my relatively short time on this Earth as an attorney, and as a daughter, sister, niece, friend, wife, and mother, I have learned that there is no satisfaction in taking on a lot of tasks and doing none of them well. We hear that we should not bite off more than we can chew, but we don’t often practice it. But if we want to achieve a balance that actually makes us feel in balance, we have to understand what we want in life, what it takes to get there, and the best path to follow. We won’t feel balanced every day, but there is a calm in knowing that our decisions are made in an effort to find balance.
The Bottom Line: Good luck. Balance is difficult, ongoing, and ever-changing, but if you recognize these truths and persevere, I do think it is attainable.
Kimberly H. Neal is an associate in the Litigation Department of Niles Barton & Wilmer in Baltimore, Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.