The secret to work-life balance

July 21, 2014

My husband, Jesse, has been 263 miles away since Monday. (Again.) I threw together an improvised childcare plan — involving two paid babysitters, some kind-hearted neighbors, and an indispensible Granny — so I could pull extra hours at the office while my boss was out of town. When I got home, I put the kids to bed with a stern message to win the going-to-bed-game so I could teach a few online writing courses. Later, I packed (okay, made a packing list) for vacation — which officially begins as soon as I finish writing this.

Did I mention that I may have called my husband in tears on my way to work because a political situation in the office was spinning out of control?

Balance? Not exactly. More like falling. And that’s the good news.

The fine art of falling down a hill
I learned how to ski last winter. My husband is a passionately committed skier, but I’ve never been athletic. In my twenties, I broke my wrist trying to learn to snowboard. I’m terrified of being out of control. I have terrible balance. 

A dozen private lessons and two years later, I’m a sort-of-semi-decent intermediate amateur skier. I wear that badge with pride. But to get there, I had to fall. And fall again. And again.

(And again.) 

I’m telling you this because I learned an important secret on the bunny slopes: Balance isn’t something you “find” and “keep.” It’s something you lose, and regain, and lose again. Balance isn’t stasis; it’s a series of adjustments, large and small, that you make on the fly, as you’re speeding down a mountain. On skis.

Who needs balance when you have someone to catch you when you fall? 
In our life as a couple, Jesse and I embrace the “falling down a hill” model of balance. During our first six years together, I mostly stayed home with the kids, taking on sporadic freelance writing assignments and pushing a double stroller up and down the grocery aisles. Meanwhile, Jesse evolved from an underpaid social services worker into the best wheelchair-accessible taxi salesman in the world. (Hands down.)

Those years were a huge sacrifice, marked by failures large and small. I’m now coming up on my first anniversary of almost-full-time employment as a content strategist at a branding and marketing agency. My office is wallpapered with crayon masterpieces. Other than that, I mostly forget my kids exist between 8:30 AM and 4:00 PM.

Jesse works 11-hour days, five days a week. Some months he’s out of town two or three days — others, it’s closer to practically always. Here and there, we find the time to read bedtime stories, go to the park, stay in shape, write (me), and make music (him).

As we go, we negotiate (or sometimes shout) about who gets the right-of-way. Whose turn is it to go full speed? Who has to pick up the kids? Who gets the extra hour of sleep? 

Mantras, babysitters, and other necessities
Jesse and I are both ambitious and career-minded. When we get home, we face full dishwashers and overdue library books. Somehow, neither of us has ended up in the ER yet. Here are a few of our secrets:

1. Fail often and well. When I ski, I whisper a mantra before each run: No falls, no balls. In real life, Jesse and I face the possibility of a wipeout every day. But both of us are able to take on steeper hills, and bigger challenges, knowing we have someone to ride the lift with at the end of each run.

2. Invest in professional help. Every once in a while, a new mother asks me how I managed to balance a freelance career with being a stay-at-home mom. My answer? I didn’t. If you want a career that involves more than diapers, laundry, and the itsy bitsy spider, get a babysitter — whether you need to go to an office or not. While you’re at it, get three babysitters, in case the first two have car trouble or the flu.

3. Kill the Sunday blues. Every Sunday afternoon, Jesse and I pick up half a dozen oysters and drink martinis while the kids eat lollipops. Rituals like this are pre-set opportunities to regain our balance when things get out of control. Our world can fall completely to pieces, and you will find us slurping oysters and gin at 5:30 PM on Sunday.

4. Learn something new. Jesse pushed me to learn to ski. I got him into running. This summer, we’re both taking surfing lessons. Learning new things keeps us both nimble and humble, and inoculates us against the disease of perfectionism. Plus, it’s fun — and as far as I can tell, fun is the single most powerful weapon against the claustrophobia and anxiety of contemporary domestic life.

5. No excuses, no complaints. I fold the laundry; Jesse unloads the dishwasher. I don’t iron; he never vacuums. These are unpleasant chores, and no one wants to do them, so we have a rule in our house: If it’s your job, you decide how often and how well to do it. If it’s on the other person’s docket, you don’t criticize their execution. 

Give the judges a day off 
I skied my first black diamond this winter, and pulled my first 13-hour workday this spring. Every time I’m tempted to think, I’m getting pretty good at this, I hit some kind of crazy mogul and wind up with a face full of snow. If Jesse and I both manage to make it to retirement with no broken bones, we’ll be very lucky indeed.

We’re not alone. No one’s kids are ever signed up for the right kind of summer camp; no one’s gardens are ever weed-free. I’d like to say that no one’s judging you, but that would be a lie. Your daughter’s preschool teacher thinks you ought to comb her hair more often. Your neighbors notice that you haven’t trimmed your hedges in three years.

Fortunately, this isn’t the Olympics. We all have the luxury of not giving a damn. Better, we have the privilege of giving a very big damn about the things we truly care about. Maybe you didn’t have time to take out the recycling this week, but you worked some insane custom animations into that PowerPoint. Or perhaps you spit-balled your end-of-month reports, but you got to take your son to soccer practice and go out dancing with your husband last Friday.

I get to be a professional writer, and Jesse gets to be the best wheelchair-accessible taxi salesman in the world. Our kids get to be carefree and maniacal and breathtakingly brilliant. We’re amateurs, but the judges are amateurs, too. So are you. So are we all.

Balance is overrated.

DOWNLOAD THIS PRINTABLE TIP CARD: 4 ways to achieve work-life balance

Melissa Lore is a writer and content strategist at MicroArts Creative Agency. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter @melissalorecopy.

Next week: 6 ways to banish guilt from your life
Last week: 5 make-or-break relationship stuck moments

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