We've all heard the phrases "work-life balance" and "having it all" ad nauseam, but what we don't hear are the unfiltered, unpretty truth from those in the trenches — what trying to create a balanced life actually looks and feels like.
So we asked professional women — CEOs, lawyers, divorced women, single moms, those who are childfree by choice — to share what they were surprised to learn about the notorious pursuit of “having it all.” Here's what they said.
The Definition of "Balance" Changes
Work-life balance is not a static state that, once achieved, means you can maintain constant equilibrium. It's always shifting. "What was 'in balance' for me 11 years ago before [my daughter's] birth would throw me out of balance in today's life," says Aleasa M. Word, 45, a single mom of two (one of whom has special health needs), corporate employee, and part-time emotional intelligence coach.
“A decade ago, having to juggle two kids only two years apart alone with varying schedules and personal needs would have sent me into stress overload because I lacked the emotional flexibility that often comes with age and life experience,” Word says. “I learned balance is not making all things equal, but instead making them fit into your space in a way where you accept the shifts differently and learn to shift with them.”
Quiana Murray, a business consultant at OhSoBold.com with extensive experience in helping female entrepreneurs, echoes Word's sentiment. "Everything does not have the same level of importance every day," she explains. "Maybe today you need to put more time into your career so that tomorrow you can have the resources your family needs to have a better life." The real key to balance, she says, is trying to determine what (or who) needs to be at the top of your list right now, today, and letting go of any judgment around that.
Work Can Be a "Break" — and Keep You Sane
For many working moms, work isn't something they have to do, it's an escape. Alison Podworski, 38, CEO of Alison May Public Relations and mom of three young girls, says that while her job is flexible, working in PR means working weeknights, weekends, and early mornings — but she loves it.
"Sometimes I would rather be at a press conference or in the office than with my kids," she says. "I am sure some moms would hate me [for saying that] and tell me that I am not a good mother. But I'm putting it out there. It's not that I don't love them. I love my children more than anything in this world. But, for me, working is a break. There is no whining, crying, fighting, or drama. If any mother is going to say motherhood is blissful and wonderful all the time, I would like some of your happy pills."
Empowerment mentor and author Jean Walker, 37, agrees. After her youngest daughter was born in 2005 — she and her husband have six children between them — she realized that she needed to go back to work in order to survive. "If I was home all the time, taking care of the kids, waiting on my husband to get home, I might seriously lose it," she says. "I like being more than a wife and mother. I like having an 'undercover superhero' side to my life. Work allowed me just enough time to be gone, to miss my kids, and then pick up with all the family things in the evening."
Put Yourself First
The idea of putting on your own oxygen mask first very much applies to finding balance, says Vicki Salemi, careers expert for Monster.com and one of the top career bloggers in the country, according to BlogHer.
"Women who seemed to achieve that golden work-life balance — or at least the vision of it — seemed to be ones who were less harried and had more of a sense of calmness because they focused on the foundation: themselves," she explains. "They implemented self-care rituals like morning yoga classes. They were women on a mission, women with a plan, and that plan involved cutting themselves slack. This inner sense of peace and focus was able to carry through."
Rebecca Rachmany, 47, is one of those women. As the CEO of girls’ entertainment startup Gangly Sister, an active mentor, and the mother of two teens, she's constantly on the go — but that doesn't stop her from exercising and devoting time to spirituality. "Sometimes women will ask me how I find time for meditation or the gym, and the answer is I don't," she says. "I am committed to my health first. I 'find time' for everything else. When I first had a baby, I put my emotional and physical needs to the side and I was miserable. As I got back to taking care of myself, my satisfaction increased."
But You're Always Aware of What You're Not Doing
It’s no secret that there often is an undercurrent of guilt for women who have children and careers. Emma Davidson, 32, founder of Gecko Clothing and mother of three, says that while she thrives on the busy nature of her life, she's always aware of what she's missing out on. "Even when you are spending quality time with your children you are always conscious of the things you are not doing," she explains. "When you are playing with the kids, you are not just 'not' working — you are not exercising, not doing the food shopping, you are not answering to problems [that] friends or family are having, not organizing some me time, not cleaning or cooking."
Professional development coach Dr. Lesly Devereaux, 56, author of Breaking Codependency, taught her sons how to cook starting at age 10 because she realized there were days when she might not make it home in time to prepare dinner. The upside? “As the older boys matured and left home, they were self-sufficient," she says.
Not being able to do it all can also be ego deflating, says Karen Satchell, 35, an officer at online payroll and HR services company Payce, Inc. and mother of a one-year-old. "Balance means fighting the shame and hiring a cleaning service once in a while because I don't have the time or energy to clean my own house," she says.
There’s Always a Cost
Yes, it takes a village to "have it all,” and the effect it has on those around you can’t be underestimated or underappreciated.
"Work-life balance requires a team of support at home and at work, but I think we have to be real about the fact that there is a price — and those who help out at home get very little of the same credit or respect that I got during my career," says Lisa Stansbury, 57, who recently decided to work from home after 20 years of working in corporate health care administration, media, and marketing.
"My husband worked from home while my daughter was small and put his career on the back burner. After he passed away, when my daughter was 11, she paid the price by going home from school every day to an empty house until I got a nanny from the local university," Stansbury says. "I'm more grateful now for the people in my life who allowed me to continue to work, and more aware of what it cost those around me.”
You Don’t Need Kids to Struggle With Balance
Working moms are usually the focus when we talk about work-life balance, but not surprisingly, single women and those without children also struggle to find balance. Sociologist Amy Blackstone, Ph.D., says that, as a childfree person, one thing she never realized is that most people assume that the "life" part of work-life balance means "children."
"The idea that the childfree deserve balance just as much as their parent counterparts is overlooked by workplaces, policy makers, and, more generally, by most segments of our society," she says. "One strategy I've used in my own life to combat this challenge is to be very deliberate about referring to my chosen home conglomeration as my family. For me, family consists of myself and my husband. Our need for time together and to nurture our relationship is just as important as the needs of parents to nurture their relationships with their own spouses and children."
Those without children may also have additional "life" circumstances needing their attention. "I always thought because I did not have kids I would never have to deal with work-life balance at all,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, 49, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls. “But the truth is, you still have the aging parents issue and chances are, like for my husband and me, you'll take on the majority of that if your siblings did have kids. Also, in my case at least, I took on more responsibility at work and in the community, which leaves me less free time."
There's Still a Nagging Desire for Perfection
"I secretly wish that I will be the one mom who can effortlessly balance it all even though I know [that] doesn't exist," says Amy Shah, MD, 37, who runs her own practice, has two kids, and operates a wellness business on the side. "We have pressure on us to do it all, and do it well,and look good while you do it. We may reject that publicly but we still operate under that framework," she says.
Trying to shed these expectations is something Natasha Coleman, 36, full-time working mother of three kids (an 18-year-old son with autism and 11-year-old twins) and caretaker for her mother-in-law, believes is critical to overall well-being. "My biggest lesson learned is releasing yourself from wanting to be perfect," she says. "In juggling all my roles I have learned that every day you have to fail somewhere. Just try not to make it the same place every time."
It’s crucial to understand your own goals and resist playing the comparison game. "It's critical to define success and balance for yourself," says Sally Anne Giedrys of Whole Life Strategies Coaching. "The answers are different for each of us, in each season of life. We feel balanced when we know what we truly want in our lives, our days, our work, and choose to commit to those things."
The Importance of Setting Boundaries
Divorce lawyer Regina A. DeMeo, 42, has juggled being a single mom to her son while running her own law firm for the last 10 years by learning to embrace the power of the word "no.” "No, I cannot stay late for a client. No, I cannot go to every school function. No, I cannot take on another volunteer position. I had to stop being a people pleaser — it was the only way to survive," she says.
As Vannessa Wade, 34, president of Connect the Dots PR and caretaker to her nieces and nephews, explains, "I bought into the myth that as a business owner I have to be on-call 24/7, when in reality I can set the standard on what works best for me and my situation."
For her, boundaries include having cutoff times for when clients can contact her, plus time dedicated to exercise, friends, mentees, and family, and being selective about which events she attends. "I know I can't do it all, but I can do what I can do and do it well without guilt and unnecessary stress," she says. "I've become more vocal about what works for me rather than always appeasing the masses, and you know what? It works."
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