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Happy Mom Secret #6: Be Flexible

by Meagan Francis on May 23, 2009

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.)

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Margulis January 23, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Amen sister, well put.

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Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah January 24, 2009 at 4:25 pm

I love the idea of balance. Does that count?

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Joan May 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm

I think everyone loves the “idea” of balance, but in reality it’s impossible to always keep life actually “in balance”. Life is full of unpredictable events – the key is be flexible enough to adjust to life’s unpredecitability in order to regain your “balance” as quick as possible.

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Cecily January 25, 2009 at 10:47 am

God, this was amazingly insightful. Well done. Thank you for reminding me that flexibility is the key issue! Wow. :)

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Isabel January 25, 2009 at 11:08 am

Brilliant.

you’re right. “flexibility” doesn’t get the kudos it deserves.

when i was on wall street (a phrase “I” use too often), i switched departments from the investment banking to institutional equity sales even though i loved i-banking and felt i would have a much more fulfilling career there than in sales.

i made the switch because i could see that the executive women had NO control over their schedule. (Heck one Monday i arrived back from vacation only to be told they were sending me to Brazil that afternoon). I knew early on there was no way by the time I made it to the top I could have the family life I craved. I still wound up leaving Wall Street though the sales job had much more flexibility in it.

I’m going to stumble this post. Others with accounts should consider it too!

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Carla Hinkle January 25, 2009 at 12:23 pm

What a great point. Flexibility is a much reasonable goal in my life too…though I find having a pretty well-defined schedule allows me to keep the balls of my life (heh) in the air better so that I *can* deviate at times…

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Meagan January 25, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Thanks for the stumble, Isabel, and the Kirtsy, Sarah! Carla, I think a schedule/routine/what have you is definitely a useful tool for those of us who thrive on them (for me, it’s the to-do list, but same concept, right?) as long as we’re willing to throw it out the window when we have to or just want to.

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Annie @ PhD in Parenting January 26, 2009 at 10:36 am

I do believe in balance, but I believe in balance over time, not balance every day. I fully agree that some days my kids need more attention and other days my job needs more attention. Sometimes I need a date night with my husband and other nights there is no way I could leave the kids. Being flexible and observant are key traits in managing that balance.

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melanie January 26, 2009 at 12:26 pm

i heard someone say balance is bad, instead we should try to have rhythm (which, musically, i do not have naturally!). thus we try to find the ebb and flow, like breathing in and out–sounds similar to what you were describing, meagan

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Ann January 27, 2009 at 3:39 pm

I think it is different from person to person. If a mother of 3 feels tired throughout the day, then that’s a sign from the subconscious saying to do something different. For some mothers, it may be quiet time or more rest. For a different mother, with a different subconscious mind, it may be time with her husband. Although there are similarities, you really cannot make a global generalization since each person has different needs, although all of us need balance :)

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mommyknows January 30, 2009 at 9:49 am

Definitely ==> Wingit!

I have 4 kids and wingit has always worked for us. Up until 6 months ago I worked from home and managed pretty well.

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Cristina January 30, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Meagan, I just read (and enjoyed) your piece about having a large family at the larger families website. I’m hoping you could write about the woman who just gave birth to octoplets, who is single and already has six kids. You seem like a rational person and a big family proponent, not a typical combination, I’d love to get your take on it as well as the the news coverage. Thanks for considering, Cristina

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Rachel May 24, 2009 at 8:45 pm

If I have one more person tell me that I need to schedule “dates” with my husband, I’ll scream. WEEKLY DATES? Any idea how much that would cost?

So, my version of balance is maybe once a month or two…or three…I’ll go out to dinner with my husband, have an extra drink too many and then loudly laugh as I lurch through home depot, while we run errands without the children.

At least you put broccoli with the Ramen. I’ve been known to throw in a can of “Veg-All” and call it a day.

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Motherhood Uncensored May 25, 2009 at 5:11 am

I agree with PhD – balance over time, not every day. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up disappointing yourself. I try to tell myself that it won’t always be like this – three kids under 4 with very little time to get away for myself (or as a couple), but that balance is coming. Until then, we do our best to find moments. It’s not ideal or really balanced, but it works for now.

I do believe that flexibility is key, and for me, it came after having another kid. My first child was pretty challenging, however, I was also a new mom with all these rules in my head. Combined, it was sort of a nightmare. Now, it’s all about flexibility. And with it, comes way less disappoint and stress. And plus, if you call it “flexibility” as opposed to “slacking off” or whatever people want to label it, you feel way less guilty :)

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Rebecca May 26, 2009 at 6:47 am

A friend and client of mine recently did a teleseminar for Mompreneurs, and one thing she mentioned was that “balance” was often way too hard to achieve, and that rhythm was much more attainable. I had never thought about it that way, I always figured balance was just out of the question for me! But her idea of rhythm was that it’s importance to find a work/life/family rhythm that works for you and your family, and that will help make your life so much less stressful because you know what to expect, and if things get out of hand, it’s easier to get back into a rhythm than try to find that mystical balance again. I’m still working on figuring out our rhythm, but it’s coming! :)

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Andrea May 27, 2009 at 6:59 am

I remember reading a long time ago, about a mom sitting outside in a field of wildflowers, thinking about how to achieve balance. Then she really looked at all those flowers and thought, none of them are balanced. They’re all reaching as hard as they can for what they want in this moment, and almost falling over.

That image stuck with me. I don’t worry about balance any more. As long as my life is an expression of who I am and what I value, I’m good.

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connie October 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Absolutely correct.. what i am missing is the flexibility and go with the flow mentality. My husband always says that he wants the “old me” back who was always that care free girl . Now it is just impossible for me to turn back to the person i once was. However, I know i am still me deep inside,but by being a mother, things just got a little carried away with all the rigid schedule and the mindset for trying to be a “perfect” mother if you know what i mean. Thanks for the article and I think what i should learn is just try to be more flexible and enjoy the moment instead of a rigid to do list and schedule.

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Debbie February 12, 2013 at 10:51 am

I’ve never posted to a blog before but I just love the dialogue going on here. The great Gloria Steinem once wrote “you can have it all you just can’t have it all right now”. That quote helps me when I feel my so called balance become jilted. I’m a an executive of a non-profit, full-time and more position always questioning to give it up for something more part-time to have more time with my son and husband. I have one miracle child but have been pregnant 5 times. Always wanted a big family but that wasn’t in the universe’s plan for me. Juggling my days is always just that and flexibility is definitely the key! The other is release the perfect mom guilt, something that is easier said than done. Loved your insight Meagan and I look forward to visiting your sight again. (I’m able to today because I have a sick day, hence this is the first time I’ve blogged…) Stay strong and happy moms and always remember to just breathe!

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Jamie June 28, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I think that the most important thing is to always try to do what makes you and your family feel the most satisfied and happy overall. I believe that too many women spend way too much time worrying about achieving what a book or magazine has told them will make them the best mother and best woman. And that isn’t fair to anyone, mother or child. Balance means doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and at the end of the day being happy with yourself and your family as they are, not as someone else told you they should be.

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