Life Balance

For most of my life, people I considered wiser than me kept coaching me to find “Life Balance”.  This advice was regularly being offered by well-meaning family, friends and mentors who knew me well enough to know that I’m the type of person who throws myself completely into things, whether it be work, hobbies, or whatever.  Through our discussions, I took “Life Balance” to mean a fair and clear separation between my personal life and my work life.  They obviously felt (feel?) that work and non-work time should not intrude on each other, and that such an intrusion somehow diminishes the quality of each…or both.

But wait!  These same people would also espouse the belief that “You should try to find a job that brings you joy.”

In my lifetime, I’ve definitely done my fair share of jobs that I disliked simply as a means of paying the bills and being “The Provider” for the family — my Duty.  Whether it was my military work, telemarketing, shoe salesman, cleaning warehouses, street repair, dishwasher-busboy-cook, dispatcher, and many others, none of these jobs were Dream Job.  They did, however, allow me to feed my family, keep a roof over our heads, and so on.   But did any of these jobs cause or contribute to a Life Imbalance?  Did they somehow detract from my personal life?

The short answer is – Yes AND No.

In my youth, for many years, I waited for a father who rarely came home. He was constantly on-the-road, a short- and long-haul truck driver, earning a living to put a roof over our heads and regularly feed a family of eleven (12, if you include the dog).  However, later conversations with my father revealed that although he hated that “cost” of his job, he also loved the work.  He was a creature of The Road.  He thoroughly enjoyed driving, seeing the countryside, his CB conversations with his often faceless friends, and all of the challenges that came with this job (including the dangers of driving as a scab during Teamster strikes).  To this day, he feels he had life balance and that he was a terrific dad. He enjoyed his job AND his duty as a father, husband and provider.  He wasn’t the one-on-one “Let’s go outside and throw the ball around, son” kind of father; definitely not his natural tendency. He was a “Provider Dad”, and in the the context of keep his significant brood clothed and fed, I have to admit he was successful.

My parents got divorced in my teens, and I spent my teens, 20’s and 30’s pissed-off at my father for being a crappy Dad, vowing that I would do better. I would be more than just a Provider Dad.

So, in short >> My father felt he had Life Balance, and most of his children felt he did not.

But is it that simple?

As parents, there is this overwhelming internal drive to sacrifice anything and everything we have, including much of who we are (if necessary), in order to provide for our children.  The children eat before we do.  Parents sometimes go hungry.  Parents wear the same cloths for many years so that their kids have new (newer) clothes.  We want to give our children a life that is better than the one we had, and in today’s America, that regularly involves prioritizing our children’s needs and wants far above and ahead of our own, including above our own health and well-being.  Parent’s backs begin to bow slightly, they feel older than they really are, they reminisce about the dreams they used to have – daily choosing to kick those dreams further down the road in order to provide for their children.

I’ve heard it called a Mid-Life Crisis when fathers buy that sports car at 50, or when parents wear clothes that are perceived as “Too young” for them.  How about the skills they had in their youth — artist, musician, mechanic, athlete, etc. — that aren’t realized until AFTER the children are out of the house?

Of course, these sacrifices and black & white choices are not the scenario for all American parents, but I feel safe to say that it’s definitely the road for most.  But do these families lack Life Balance?

Yes, I still bring my work home, whether it’s in the form of doing work on my laptop over the weekend, or simply daydreaming in the evening about the current work challenge as I chew my dinner (supper?).  Yes, these days there seems to be a clearer separation between my Work Life and my Home Life, but does that mean that I have a better Life Balance than I did when I was younger and the kids were still home?

I want to offer advice to my 2 children – each now married with lives of their own – but I struggle with telling them emphatically that work detracts from Life Balance.  Yes, I do believe that work CAN detract from home life quality — I would’ve much “preferred” that my dad was home every night, throwing the ball around with me, teaching me and laughing with me and being the TV dad I thought he was supposed to be.  But for him, Life Balance required him to make a large number of personal sacrifices, including those father/son interactions, in favor of ensuring I had clothes on my back and food in my stomach (the same goes for my mother and 8 siblings… and don’t forget our dog).

In his mind (still), he had Life Balance back then.   In my mind (then), he did not.  In my mind (now), I’m starting to see things differently.

This story doesn’t have a clear-cut, black & white solution.  There’s no solid and definitive answer or definition for Life Balance.  There are costs – sometimes overwhelming costs – to being a parent.  It cost my mother her life.  She died in her late-50’s from the stress of providing Life Balance for her children, while my dad will soon be celebrating his 85th birthday.

Life Balance is – by definition – an extremely selfish thing, but from my experience, there’s nothing selfish about it at all.  It’s a Perception Thing.  It’s a Fluid Thing – constantly changing.   I’m sure my kids had opinions about it when they were younger, and I’m equally certain that their opinions have changed (even slightly) over time.

Hmm.  Something to meditate on, I think.