“Work-life balance” and other lies (that can bite me)

by Janelle Hanchett

Why is everybody talking about “balance” all the time?

“Work-life balance.”

“Work-family balance.”

Balanced marriages. Balanced diets. Balanced checkbooks. Balanced attention to your children.

You know what? Fuck balance.

There’s nothing “balanced” about my life and there never has been. The only thing all this “balance” talk does is reinforce the validity of my suspicion that I am vastly underprepared for existence, or I’m living some whacked-out version of life in my own failure bubble. Both of those things may be true, but whatever.

Yeah, yeah, I know. There are nutjobs out there working 75 hours a week, existing on Jack Daniels and Ambien, working working working, never seeing their families, getting hypertension as we speak (but doing it in a brand new BMW!), etc. But check it out: if somebody is doing that for more than a year or so, they’ve got more problems that a “lack of balance.”

I’m talking about a regular old person just living a regular old life. Kids, work, marriage, social life.

I’m talking about the expectation that at some point things are going to smooth out into a “balanced” routine of kids, work, marriage, and social life.

It’s the biggest crock of shit ever. Life is never balanced. Life is constantly changing. That’s the nature of life.

Or maybe I’m just incapable.

I can tell you, though, after nearly 12 years hitched to the same dude, my marriage has never once been 50/50. One of us is always failing miserably in some department, and the other one picks up that slack. It’s 80/20 and then 20/80 and sometimes 95/5 (depression, anyone?). You know, like sometimes my husband can’t do anything other than work because he’s got some emotional stuff going on, or an early mid-life crisis based on some fear he invented in his brain, or he’s disillusioned with all the things and wants to join the pro-rodeo circuit. Or maybe I’m doing that exact same thing (sans the rodeo thing. But move to a yurt in Costa Rica? Totally into it.)

Or I’m pregnant. I ain’t doing shit when I’m pregnant. I’m growing a baby in my belly and pee on myself when I laugh. YOU CAN DO THE FUCKING DISHES EVERY DAY.

See? Not balanced. Sometimes I need him. Sometimes he needs me. But we never, ever need equally.

The only thing an insistence on balance does is turn my marriage into a giant score-keeping hell. I’m tallying it in my head “I cleaned our room twelve times. He did it once.” 12 to 1.

Mother fucker. I’m the better partner here. Instantly, miserable. (But god help me if he starts doing that: “Janelle yelled nine times today. I haven’t yelled since April.” I WANT A DIVORCE.)

And the work – family thing: I suppose we have a little more control in how much we let our jobs run our lives, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes, your job will run your life.

There will be that project from hell or that new boss that manages to suck your soul out of your body by the time you reach your cubicle. Or you’ll decide you want an M.A. in English and it will be finals week or you’re heading to a conference or you’re studying for the comprehensive exam.

You will miss family events.

You will not have balance. Your kids will suffer and whine and cry and miss you. You will drag your ass to campus with tears just behind your eye balls because it’s the 5th-grade awards ceremony and you’re studying postcolonial theory with a bunch of semi-conscious grad students.

And you do this for weeks, months, maybe a year or two.

Then you’ll open your Facebook news feed and see a helpful handy article “Five ways to maintain work-family balance” and you’ll smash your computer screen with your hardcover copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

And please, save me from the idea that my kids are going to get equal attention from me all the time. First of all, if there’s a baby in the family that whole thing is shot. You aren’t spending “equal” time with each kid. You’re spending all your time with the baby while feeling guilty that you’re not spending “equal” time with each kid.

You realize four days have passed and you haven’t spoken 20 words to your tween with nobody around.

You realize it’s been a week since your 7-year-old and you cuddled and read books in the big bed, like you used to.

And when this hits you, you drop your head for a moment and wonder what the chances are that your kids will end up even remotely well-adjusted adults. You give the baby to the husband and dart into the tween’s room, to have a conversation. You read the story to the boy.  Then you feel balanced for a moment. Or two.

But it’s gone again in a week or so, when the baby gets the flu.

And even if there isn’t a baby there’s always one kid who seems to need me more than the others. One is angrier than usual and I can’t figure out why. Ava and I are butting heads constantly.

Rocket isn’t learning to read.

Georgia keeps launching herself off the ottoman at the dog and I’m pretty sure one of them is going to seriously maimed.

Somebody’s sick. Somebody’s struggling. Somebody needs me more than they ever have.

It’s never equal. It’s never balanced.

It’s a giant cluster fuck of shifting ground and changing priorities. Just when I think I have it figured out I get thrown a fast one: my own health deteriorates.

My husband gets laid off.

I fall into a depression.

Or he does.

I realize I’d rather off myself than continue working at same job.

I go back to school, or finish.

My boy gets diagnosed with dyslexia.


You know what I think my job is? Respond to life as it happens. Stop expecting balance.

Wake up. See what needs to be done right now. Let go of the idea that my life should carry on in some neat, systematic way and that someday I’ll be meeting all the needs of all the people all the time.

As if someday my marriage will be totally equal all the time and my health will be solid (cause I’m exercising and eating a balanced diet) and my kids are thriving neatly (just as they should!) and my house is put together (but not too put together because one must not obsess) and I’ll go to work and “Leave it there” when I leave (cause one shouldn’t bring that stress home) and I’ll take my “me time” with my friends and husband (because mental health, people!).

Or I’ll realize shit like that only happens in movies and self-help books.

As far as I can tell, the expectation that life will ever be neat and orderly is nothing more than a path to unbridled misery. Life’s not going my way! So I exert myself more and more and more and it’s STILL not working so I try harder and harder and nobody’s responding and I’m getting crazier and crazier, until I’m the dude working 75 hours a week.

Because I need some CONTROL. I need a sense of SANITY. I need to feel SAFE. But it never works.

Or I resign myself to the chaos, the insanity. Burn the Self! Magazine and fucking self-help books from hell. Drop the expectation that things will ever remain stable, “balanced,” controlled. Forget the next approach. The next gadget. The next “helpful hint.”

I’ve got no control. Life occurs as it will, as it should, and the only time I can be effective anyway is to remain unattached enough to respond as it happens, shift in lightning-speed to the new priority, the new need, the thing that needs me now.

It needs me more than it ever has. It didn’t need me yesterday, and yet it’s taking all my time today. Wow. That ain’t balanced!

But I give myself anyway, say “fuck it.” Learn to maybe enjoy the way life just will not hold still. And trust that when I’m really blowing it, things will start to suck bad enough that I’ll change.

I know. I should be a life coach.

But really, maybe that’s exactly what “balanced” looks like (total lack of control) and in the end, we all get exactly what we need in the time and place and way that we need it.

Or maybe I’m just “unbalanced,” totally, in more ways than one…

and just crazy enough to not give a shit.

  • Celeste"

    Yes, exactly. Don’t even need to add anything because you’ve said it all here.

  • Lissa Moon LaCroix

    Sending this to my hubs. I’m feeling like this is exactly what his stressed out, overworked, keep up with the Jones’ ass needs to hear.

  • Ashley

    Amen! I’ve been feeling like a nut job since my daughter was born eight weeks ago and I’ve had myself convinced my two year old is going to end up in therapy from lack of balance. Glad to know someone else has felt the same way!

  • Heather

    Word!! Honestly…I am so sick of saying to myself ” I will do better tomorrow,”.. because tomorrow comes and I fail miserably with the expectation that it will somehow be better than the day before, and I will miraculously not fight with my 12 yr. old, not eat shitty, and actually get the laundry done! It never happens. I need to just accept each day as they come and realize that some days are better than others. I have not felt Balanced in my life since I was pregnant with my 1st baby 22 yrs. ago. I am also a self help book Junkie! I read them constantly and yet….here I am….still searching for balance.

  • Nikki

    I agree with Celeste, you said it all so there isn’t anything to add. Just a thank you! So fucking glad somebody finally said it out loud. You rock.

  • Maggie May

    I hear carnival music in my head when I watch my family lately.

  • Amy

    Have I mentioned how much I love you? Like here you are, AGAIN in my head, and I’m high fiving you all the way across the country because you say it just like I mean it. Plus you have kids who aren’t perfect just like me. 🙂 You are awesome. AWESOME! The keeping score thing is hilarious and could drive a woman crazy. I have 2 boys who can’t stay away from each other who do enough crazy making. Balance: does not mean everything is even. It just means please don’t leap from the see saw while I’m in the air. Thanks. 🙂

  • Candice

    Fuck yeah.

  • Shelley

    This is where I am at, yes! You are awesome!!
    I’m jumping in the air shaking my imaginary poms poms! Lol

  • Laurel Hermanson

    THANK YOU. Regardless of what I’m doing (working, writing, playing with my kid, showering, cleaning) I always feel that I should be doing something else. There’s that little voice in my head compiling a list of ALL THE OTHER STUFF that I’m neglecting. And sometimes that little voice is my daughter saying, “You love work more than you love me!” So instead of prioritizing, whatever that is, I mentally examine that list and become so overwhelmed I do the only thing that feels right: I nap. Because I fucking love napping.

  • Danie'

    As usual, another great post! Balance and time have to be two of biggest, lacking, things in our lives. At least it is in mine, haha. I mean really, who even has the time to balance crap anyway? I don’t have no time for all that, hehehe.

  • Mia

    Yes. “Respond to life as it happens” absolutely, thank you for saying (again) what I’m feeling but couldn’t put into words!

  • Elaine

    If it weren’t for the unbalance in my life I’d never get anything done. Just when I think there are no more pieces of me to go around…someone or something takes another bite.

    Keep on keeping on Girl! And you’ll know when it isn’t working for you. I quit graduate school this year and I’m concentrating on business and family. If I need a Ph.D. I’ll fucking hire one!

    BTW, I don’t have a BMW…but I sure as hell love my Chrysler convertible. Putting that top down and driving around makes it all worth it…usually.

  • Tanya

    Amazing. “Respond to life as it happens”. I also agree with Heather above: you’re just setting yourself up for a failure when you say (and I say it so often) “I’ll do better tomorrow” because nobody has any clue what tomorrow is going to bring, and we all will be better off just responding to life as it comes. Thank you, as always, for the reminder that life is hard and messy, and things are never going to be completely under control.

  • Anna

    Love it. For years I’ve dissed and been pissed off by the idea of balance-seeking. Thanks for doing it so eloquently and entertainingly in a public forum! 🙂

  • lisaeggs

    I am so glad I read this tonight. What else can I say? Thank you, Janelle! xoxo

  • Shawn Van Deusen

    I am constantly looking for balance and peace…constantly. It was 1 1/2 years ago and I was so happy, busy, enjoying my work, going to school, and trying to balance my family. Then whack, smack right in my face… Now here comes the most pathetic time in my life. My partner of almost 10 years cheated on me. We split up after months of me seeking counseling and finding ways to make him happy. Now my kids are a mess and then bam…My mom was diagnoses with cancer..my support system and then bam…I am being foreclosed and now have moved my kids from the home they have grown up in. But here is the good part that will make you puke….I’m still trying to find peace and balance. The girls and I are slowly making our adjustments. We may not have the biggest or cleanest home and the laundry piles up, but we are taking some time together and eating together and laying on the big bed having fun conversations. I guess I need to be a seeker…a medicated seeker, but a seeker non the less.

  • Leigh Ann

    People eat that stuff up, too. Probably the same people who constantly google “how to make money blogging.”

  • Cat

    Wow! Thank you for this. You are absolutely right and what I needed to hear this week. I am making my partner read this because you said it better than I could. I live each day going with the flow. There is no balance.

  • One Funny Motha

    Yup. Balance is an illusion.

  • Ry

    Omg I so needed to read this today. Thank you.

  • andrea

    awesome marriage insight.

    i’d add that work/life balance is impossible because, duh!, capitalism. no matter what the self-help rags say it’s still capitalism. we should get together and end that shit.

  • Jennelle

    OMG. You are me. I can’t explain it any other way.

  • Kathy G

    The only thing I hate more than hearing about “work-Life balance” is “multi-tasking.” I really have to focus on one thing at a time. Every time I try to juggle or multitask I fuck up. That’s what being an undiagnosed ADD person gets. I spend my time in the futile quest of a system or routine that allows me to focus on one thing without the voices in my head nagging me to do something else at the same time without forgetting everything else and ditzing out on tv, book or internet when I’m done. So why do I end up folding laundry and cooking dinner simultaneously every night? Thank FSM my kid is 20 and not in formative emotional developmental stages anymore however he is in college and in that very annoying know-it-all philosophical/political debating stage. (OMG will he just shut-up? I think but then realize I can be a week away from him moving out and not hearing from him but once a month…when he needs money… so I do my best to be intellectually responsive) yah, I know… TMI TMI

  • Meredith

    Hellllll yessss!
    Word. This is brilliant.
    I am going to pinch myself the next time I even *think* of the stupidity of the word & concept of “balance”.
    Fuck balance.
    Accept chaos.

  • Carla

    I like hearing you work too much, yeah fucker are you offering to pay rent, do dinner, or any other task that needs to be done? No? then GTFO!

  • Nicole

    A (childless) coworker who really gets it pointed me to this post. I so needed this at a time when: 1) I’m not sure when my bathroom will ever get cleaned again; 2) I’ll eat a balanced diet (what a joke!); 3) If I will ever not have actual laundry mountains in my bedroom; 4) Bake something, never mind cook a meal that takes more than 30 minutes.

    At a time when I feel utterly abandoned by all my friends save one with a 5-year old, when sometimes I think I completely loathe my partner, and when people with children keep telling me I’ll never again have the luxury of flipping on the TV and flopping down on the couch after work, that I’ll be bone-tired for years to come, I desperately needed to read this.

    Thank you <3

  • Lyndsey

    Yeah. Exactly this. Work is a lot of this too, maybe because I’m a nurse and people don’t get sick in an organized fashion. Some days it’s chill and other days it’s everything all at once, and when that happens I enter into this weird zen state where I know exactly what I need to do and I do that and I prioritize and get shit done at an amazing rate. I am so much less stressed when I have eleventy billion things happening than when I have three. Or none. None is the worst. I’m glad that shit doesn’t calm down ever, that’s really good to know because I would be such a mess if that happened. I’d break into peoples’ houses and clean their kitchens and organize their paperwork.

  • Heidi

    Embrace the chaos. Yes. I said that once as a wise 19 year old and really got it. Then I forgot, and I’ve been fighting anxiety and misery because of all the expectations for smooth sailing. <3

  • Nicole

    Yep, the principle of non-attachment! I’m feeling all zen and crap – but seriously, I think you’re very wise in loving the chaos, for only by letting go can we embrace and be one.

    Or, in the Wayne’s World sense: If you blow chunks, and she comes back, she’s yours.

    Or something. Really. Nonattachment!

  • Jolene

    As much as I’d love to strike the perfect balance (hah!)… I must agree. This blog is my favourite self-help book.

  • IvetteS

    Agree… Life isn’t about balance, it’s about living!

    PS so happy to meet you at BlogHer and find your blog.

    PS2 I totally need a professional LinkedIn photo. 🙂

  • Nicole

    Im pregnant right now and this may be the best quote ever: I’m pregnant. I ain’t doing shit when I’m pregnant. I’m growing a baby in my belly and pee on myself when I laugh. YOU CAN DO THE FUCKING DISHES EVERY DAY.

    I’m pregnant. I ain’t doing shit when I’m pregnant. I’m growing a baby in my belly and pee on myself when I laugh. YOU CAN DO THE FUCKING DISHES EVERY DAY.

  • Sara

    I don’t agree with your definition of balance… For me, balance is more of a non-attainable goal that helps me see the big picture. I’m not trying to attain balance. For example, if I realize that I’ve spent all my energy on my others for a series of days, and that it doesn’t do me well, I decide to go the other way and try to take some time for me, and only me. Also, in your post, it’s as if you’re trying to count everything, in order to keep a so-called balance… (Like in the 80/20 and 95/5 example.) But life isn’t working like that, and counting everything is just pointless. As long as you’re happy, no need to seek balance: it’s already achieved! We would all fare better if we stopped counting actions like they’re some kind of numbers to put in a report…

    But I completely agree with you when you say that we need less self-help books! Most of the time, the only person they help is the person that wrote it, because it brings them money, and that’s it!

    • Sara

      Oooops… *spent all my energy on others…

  • Soulsputnik

    I don’t know how to respond to this post without sounding completely contradictory or delusional or whatever..but here goes, |I think having kids IS fulfilling.. I just don’t think ONLY having kids is fulfilling, at least for me it wasn’t. Neither was being a full-time career girl 100% fulfilling.. I think that work combined with other facets or interests help to make it fulfilling. Just like most of us would not opt to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no boyfriend, no friends, no social life. Similarly I would not opt to be solely a mother. I have done it tho, been on all sides of the coin. I have been the childless full-time career girl, I’ve been the full-time SAHM and now I am the Mon-Fri working mother. Out of those 3 roles, where I am now is where I am happiest. Childcare costs and house chores aside, I think my current lifestyle suits me best. Ideally I would like to go part-time, so my kids could see me a more often than they do, but sadly I don’t have that luxury. In fact, I wouldn’t mind not working at all, but just spending my days volunteering, going on anti-government marches, ice-skating, painting my toenails, making soap, travelling… but like I said, I don’t have that luxury – life is so bloodyunfair 🙁

  • DW

    Don’t worry, love, what you are achieving is long term balance. Sometimes it’s 20/80 and sometimes it’s 80/20, so on average it’s 50/50. Sometimes you spend time with one kid, sometimes the other, so over the course of 30 years, you spend roughly equal time with each. Perfect balance, congratulate yourself. To help yourself appreciate this truth, say an affirmation each night: “I am balanced” and put up an inspirational poster with the word BALANCE written on the bottom and a photo of a whale jumping out of the water. Then you will be not only balanced, but also inspired.

  • Michele Henry

    Thank you for writing this. There are tears in my eyes and laughter on my lips. Not sure which reaction goes with which emotion. But I know this was evocative enough to illicit something in me – something totally unbalanced and out of control. And helpful in every way.
    Thank you.

  • Trackbacks

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    Friday, 5 July, 2013

    […] “Work-Life balance” and other lies (that can bite me) – Renegade Mothering “You know what I think my job is? Respond to life as it happens. Stop expecting balance. Wake up. See what needs to be done right now. Let go of the idea that my life should carry on in some neat, systematic way and that someday I’ll be meeting all the needs of all the people all the time.”  A quite a reassuring rant, I reckon! (via Shutterbean) […]

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