Happy Mom Secret #6: Be Flexible

I’ve always been a magazine lover, so I have a funny way of internalizing whatever the catchphrase of the day is. For example, when I was a teenager, I was quite well-versed in the concept of “quality time”–a popular parenting term at the time–from reading my stepmom’s issues of Ladies Home Journal and Redbook.

Lots of other faddish magazine terms have made their way in and out of my consciousness since then. For a while, “gams” were “glam”, and when it came to new shades of shadow, the “eyes” always “had it”. As I moved into parenting mags I became aware of “tummy time”, “mommy wars” and “cry-it-out”. But above all the rest, one word in particular has managed to endure over the last decade or so, infiltrating all kinds of publications from parenting mags to women’s mags and beyond.

Balance.

We’re supposed to aim for balance by penciling “me time” into our day-planners (sorry, was that a really antiquated reference there? I meant “plugging me-time into our personal digital assistants…”) scheduling date nights with our spouses, pursuing our passions, simplifying our lives by purging and hiring experts to help us…

I don’t know about you, but to me this “achieving balance” thing sounds kind of like a lot of work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think balance is a great thing. And overall, it’s important to me that my kids, my work, and myself each get enough attention. I’m just not sure if “a balanced life” is possible for a mom, especially a mom of young children, to achieve. And I wonder if it actually adds to all the stress and guilt and “shoulds” moms sometimes feel when they are faced with the (inevitable) truth that their life is out of balance.

I can’t control my kids (not really) or the weather. I can’t control how much my editor loves or hates the story I just turned in and when she may require a revision. I can’t control checks going missing in the mail or my transmission blowing up on the toll road. So the best-laid plans to get my butt to yoga class sometimes get thwarted by a virus or a flat tire, the day I planned to spend with my kids is postponed because of an unexpected last-minute work need, the morning I planned to spend reading is interrupted by a kid who woke up earlier than I expected, or the date I planned with my husband gets canceled because he has to work late or the babysitter cancels. All I can control in any of those situations is my reaction and outlook. And if I let any one of those very very likely scenarios wreck my sense of balance, then the balanced life I thought I had created was really pretty superficial.

Some days I work 2 hours, then blow off the afternoon to go to the children’s museum with the boys (ahem-yesterday-ahem). Some days I work 10 hours, use the TV as a sitter a little more than I should, and toss a little steamed broccoli alongside the ramen noodles so I don’t feel like a total loser mom. Some days everything goes haywire and nothing gets done at all, for me, or anyone else for that matter. And some days, things just fall into place and we float through the day with the perfect balance of my needs, the kids’ needs, and the needs of the rest of the world being met.

Thing is, it’s not always possible to predict ahead of time which days will be which. There’s just no way to plan out balance on a day-to-day basis.

As authors Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock of Parentopia say, “Balance is BS”. Since something will always come up to tip the scales–leaving Mom feeling inadequate if she’s too hung up on the idea of balance–it’s not really an attainable goal, they point out. Instead, Devra and Aviva recommend giving yourself permission to adjust priorities as necessary, whether you need to do that monthly, daily, or even moment-to-moment.

So instead of balance, I advocate aiming for flexibility. It won’t sort your life into neat, equal compartments, but when I am flexible, it helps ME feel in-balance even when my life is out of balance. (As it pretty much always is, for all the reasons I stated above.) Flexibility might mean deciding at noon that it’s time to knock off work for the rest of the day and enjoy some time with the kids. Or it may mean deciding that today, this deadline really needs my attention more, and not feeling guilty about a temporary lack of focused attention on the kids. It may mean deciding at the last minute that I really need an hour to myself at the bookstore or coffee shop, even if I already had an hour to myself earlier or let the boys play too many video games so I could work, just because I really want to. Or it may mean deciding to skip an outing I’d been planning because I’d just rather hang out with the kids or because they seem to really need it. Like Devra and Aviva said, it’s all about deciding which need has priority in the moment, and making a decision based on that.

If I allow myself the flexibility to make those decisions in the moment without feeling mom-guilt or its equally-evil cousin, “I-should-be-paying-more-attention-to-my-own-needs-guilt”, or any kind of should or regret at all, a funny thing happens. My life is still just as chaotic and unpredictable as ever, but in the midst of it all, I feel strangely…well…balanced.

What about you? Do you go for the “wing it in the moment” approach? Or do you believe it’s possible to truly balance your life?

This is a slightly edited version of a post I put up on meaganfrancis.com a few months ago; some of the comments date back to the original post.)

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