The Great Balancing Act: Why We Should Stop Striving for Perfect Work-Life Balance

By Osato Evbuomwan

When we talk about balancing work and life, we are often guided by the unrealistic expectations of perfection that pervade society. Society expects us to strive to be several things: the ‘perfect employee or manager’ who has no competing obligations that could get in the way of work; the ‘perfect parent’ who always puts family first and ensures that all needs on the home-front are met; and the ‘perfectly healthy person’ who eats well, exercises regularly, has no mental health challenges and does not deteriorate with age. It is no surprise, therefore, that many people experience burnout while trying to meet these obligations.

In today’s context, the risk of burnout is even higher, as the lines between work and home life are increasingly blurred. We carry our work and our colleagues in our pockets thanks to our smartphones, and our homes have become our offices, with our children, and sometimes pets, in the background. Many parents struggle to get more than a few hours of concentration to be productive as a result of constant interruptions from young children. It is even harder to fit in time for exercise and socializing due to the energy depletion that comes from constantly switching back and forth from work to personal responsibilities and back again.

Balance is really about making trade-offs iteratively and in the moment, based on our specific circumstances and what we regard as our individual priorities at the time.

Against this backdrop, I would argue that perfect balance is impossible; we cannot always have everything working at a hundred percent at every point in time. Therefore, balance is really about making trade-offs iteratively and in the moment, based on our specific circumstances and what we regard as our individual priorities at the time.

I had two full-time working parents and four siblings, with the occasional cousin or two living with us. Like many other parents, then and now, mine were juggling several personal and work commitments while still ensuring somehow that our needs were met, that we were raised with the right values, and that we were hale and hearty. As a child, I could neither appreciate the complexity nor the difficulty of the balancing act they were performing. But as an adult, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that they got through it largely by putting some general principles into practice, which remain relevant to date — although they may prove harder to implement.

First of all, there was a lot of planning and organization. Things worked like clockwork in our house. We had a food timetable for the week. House chores and bulk cooking were done on Saturdays without fail. We woke up at the same time every morning during the week so that we could all leave for school and work at a set time. Sunday evenings were used to prepare for the new week and so on and so forth. By establishing these routines, my parents found a way to take control of the situation and manage time effectively.

Secondly, they enlisted support through paid help and from family. We typically had an uncle or aunt come around when my mother had to travel for work, and there was always paid domestic help either living in or coming in daily as we grew older.

They also established boundaries. During the school term, TV was restricted to between the hours of 4pm and 7pm, after which we could choose to stay on and watch the 7 o’clock news, or go to our rooms to get ready for bed. My father neither brought his work home nor worked on weekends. My mother never let anything get in the way of her religious commitments. There was no room for negotiating the set routines unless there were extenuating circumstances, and there were sanctions for crossing the lines.

Compromises and trade-offs were a part of our lives, depending on what was most important at the time. We did not go on summer holiday trips, but my mother would take us out to lunch on a Sunday now and again. My parents did not send us to boarding school because they wanted to keep a closer eye on us, but they made sure we had private tutors to keep us productively engaged and on top of our academic game. My mother would make the decision to either pass up on a work trip or not, depending on how critical it was to her career progression. In fact, on one occasion, she worked away from home for two years, coming home every two weekends to restock the house and make sure we were okay. Not accepting that posting would have stalled her career at the time, so she made the tough decision.

Most importantly, my parents made time for self-care. My father’s method was to go out and connect with other people, or nurse a drink by himself on weekends and as soon as he came back from work. My mother started her day very early with silent prayer and meditation before anyone else woke up. She also napped for 2 to 3 hours every Sunday between lunch and dinner time.

When we consider our current context, however, balance feels unbelievably elusive. The pandemic makes it risky to bring in external help. Technology makes boundary-setting a lot more difficult, with social media proving to be a persistent distraction and video-conferencing tools impairing our ability to separate work from home. The cost of trade-offs is much steeper, especially with the increasing deterioration of mental health, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time or space to create room for optimal self-care without repercussions. When people actually take the time off, they are often riddled with a strong sense of guilt for prioritizing themselves.

Ultimately, what all of this points to is that striving for perfect balance in today’s world is not realistic, and we should stop beating ourselves up for not having it all together. Instead, we should aim to do the best that we can in the moment, while being clear on our priorities. The rest will fall into place. And even if it doesn’t, we should at least give ourselves the chance to try again another day.

The Flip Side: In making trade-offs, we must ask ourselves how they impact our children. What lessons are we teaching them about life? What messages are we sending them with regards to our priorities? Are we unknowingly causing childhood traumas that they will have to deal with in their adult lives? I, for one, struggle with an unhealthy fear of failure because it simply was not tolerated at home, and this has affected my ability to deal with failure and disappointment as an adult. Parents are human, so not everything will be perfect all the time, and yet, as much as possible, we need to help our children grow up to lead healthy, wholesome and authentic lives.

Osato Evbuomwan is a member of The Room and a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. Creator of “The Talking Circle”, she is on a quest to cultivate a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.

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