In December 2011, I was the mother of a five-year-old and a three-month-old. The word “balance” would have been a joke to me then, because I was literally balancing nothing. I was a milk machine, a baby-holder, and a kindergartener’s chauffeur. I was heating up frozen dinners that friends had brought several months ago; I never, ever cleaned. I was still on maternity leave and wasn’t even juggling my morning music classes. I was in full-on Mom Mode. Maybe it was easy. I’m sure I didn’t think so.
In December 2011, Randi Zuckerberg published a tweet that, five years later when I had emerged from my maternal cocoon, would send me into a fiery rage.
Of course, this was not on my radar. The only thing on my radar at that time was nursing pads and The Wiggles. But in 2016, I read an article summarizing Zuckerberg’s now famous dilemma, and it made my head explode with the unfair bullshit of it all. Three? Are you f*cking kidding me? I mean, I would always choose sleep. Only an asshole doesn’t choose their family. So, wait: I can’t have work, friendship, and stay fit? Neat. Super delighted to be a working mom.
Over the years, I devoured articles about “having it all,” “the myth of having it all,” “why we shouldn’t want to have it all,” “if you don’t have it all, you’re not trying hard enough,” and the current incarnation: “You CAN have it all, just not at the same time.” That’s where we seem to have landed, and because I’m too exhausted from 15 years of parenting, my own futile efforts at balancing my spinning plates, and oh, yeah, a pandemic, I’ll allow it: having it all but not at the same time seems perfectly legit to me.
But in the past six months, just making space for that general idea wasn’t cutting it. Sure, we have “phases” when our work life is kicking ass, eras where we hibernate and settle in with our families (cough, 2020), health and fitness kicks frequently labeled “reboots” followed by periods when we just intuitively follow our body bliss (usually onto the couch with bowls of ice cream) . . . you get the idea. The ebb and the flow.
So during the height of the pandemic, any sense of balance was a luxurious daydream, a complete waste of time. We were in survival mode. Plus, there was very little work for me to balance, aside from tossing the occasional Zoom music class or virtual “Socially Distant Mother” performance into my Groundhog’s Day of remote school facilitation. After we were vaccinated and the kids went back to school in person, full time, I think it finally dawned on me how out of sync I was. I can’t even say “out of balance,” because that would have involved some sort of conscious organization of my priorities. I was just existing.
My fitness was a joke. My work was, well, also a joke. I was barely beginning to resume my classes, my planning, my creative projects. On a good year, I describe my professional life as a “cobbled together career hopelessly littered with hobbies that don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.” Now? All these hobbies, ideas, and goals were floating in some sort of nebulous souffle that had failed to rise. Was my house tidier and my calendar more organized? Also, no. Was I taking care of my emotional self? Mmmm, kind of?
Pandemic life in four photos
I decided the first step was to resume my daily food journal. The practice was misleadingly titled, as not only did I log my food (underlining fruits and vegetables to make me feel good about myself!), I also tracked my energy, mood, digestive habits, and exercise. As I sat down on Day 1 to start tracking how I felt, what I did, and what I ate, I realized the practice was sort of haphazard and lopsided. On the days when my food and fitness felt like a fail, it’s not like the rest of my day was a total bust! Coffee with a friend, acupuncture, free-writing, and working on spreadsheets was a perfectly good use of my time!
Riding a rare burst of inspiration, I drew a large box with four quadrants in my journal, and roughly categorized them: Fitness/Body; Emotional/Spiritual Wellbeing; Professional Jobs/Accomplishments; Household Tasks. I proudly began to log my daily successes. For my body/fitness that day, I had walked my dog and taken my supplements. For emotional wellbeing, I’d talked to my mom on the phone, meditated, and read a book. I sent out an email newsletter to my music class students as an entry in the professional category, and I cleaned the kitchen and ran the Roomba (go, me!) under the household category. I felt satisfied.
Finally back to work in late summer, I called one of my best friends for our regular “just dropped the kids off and driving to work how much can we squeeze into twelve minutes” chat. As we lamented how out of balance and subsequently emotionally fried we were, I told her about my new journaling idea. One morning, all four of our collective children blessedly at school, we had a BFF coffee date in my living room. As we talked, we realized that we were out of balance in different areas– she was really neglecting her “heart” and sense of joy; I was a lazy ass who needed to hit the gym (I kid. Sort of.) and needed some sort of decluttering bootcamp. You get the idea.We actually pulled out notebooks and started jotting ideas down.
I began to refine my four quadrants and label them with letters, because I love a catchy gimmick like nobody’s business.
This is where I put any exercise– whether a neighborhood walk, a trip to the gym, or a virtual Pilates class on my living room floor. I also include things like taking supplements, getting a massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic adjustment. Some days, all I have to contribute is: REST. Or stretching.
This is the joy/peace square. Phone calls with loved ones; coffee dates with friends; alone time watching my favorite solo Netflix series; reading a book; meditation; snuggling with my kids or my dog; a therapy session; journaling; sunbathing, gardening, listening to a podcast, whatever relaxes you. Oh, also sex. Or date night. Or girls’ night.
Right now, I love working on my (soon to be launched!) podcast. Writing a blog post, editing an essay, or even just free-writing goes into this box. Sending work emails; teaching a voice lesson or a music class; crafting newsletters; learning a new software program, creating something, whatever lights you up.
Here I meticulously note any minor home-related task to major organizational project: unloading the dishwasher, going grocery shopping, tapping on the Roomba, cleaning the bathroom, reorganizing my closet, cleaning out the car, the dreaded laundry piles. . .
Over the past few months, I’ve been consistently using my four squares to track that elusive balance. It’s easy to see when there is a day that is heavier on one side, something else is going to “lack.” If I have a weekend where I’m deep into home organization tasks layered with movie-watching and lazing about, it’s understandable that fitness and work are going to be light. Days where I bust out all my work goals and projects may not involve a trip to the gym or a lot of housekeeping. That’s ok. What I’ve come to love about these quadrants is that things usually come out in the wash, and if they don’t, I can take note. The squares give me a clue as to whether I’m on the verge of imbalance, and if I’m feeling off, they give me a clue as to why.
If I’m feeling extra stressed, I might notice that my Spirit and Body columns are too light and I’ve been physically and mentally draining myself. If I feel unfocused or unfulfilled, it’s easy to identify whether the Purpose and Spirit columns have been neglected. If I’m overwhelmed, it’s possible that H, my admitted least favorite column, has been banished and is long overdue.
Using my four squares helped me to realize that the Body and Home categories are more physically grounded, while the Spirit and Purpose quadrants appeal more to my cerebral and creative sides. Cerebral and creative happens to be my jam, but sometimes I notice that if I’m stiff, foggy, or spacey, I could throw something a little more grounding and physical– like a quick walk around the block– into the mix.
Checking out my squares is a good way for me to notice patterns in my days and weeks, to be accountable for how I’m spending my time, and also not to diminish the importance of things that may be easy to brush off, like feeding your spirit with friend time, meditation, or RELAXING, or recognizing that you accidentally skipped an entire week of working out. Or maybe, if I’m working on my four squares at the end of the day, I’ll realize I have nothing to write in Household, so I’ll quickly clean up a bathroom or put away a basket of laundry– nothing too intense, but easy and satisfying. I mean, if there’s ever been a woman who adds something to her to-do list simply to cross it off, it’s me.
Ultimately, it looks like even Randi Zuckerberg came around on her Pick 3– rather than making it such a dismal, black and white dilemma, her book, published in 2018, offers a new addendum “Pick 3: You can have it all . . . just not every day.” As in, pick 3 today, pick 3 different ones tomorrow. I’m cool with that. But I really love the idea of incorporating all 4 of these areas into every day, whether or not they are perfectly balanced. Layering my time with 4 balanced categories essential to my overall health and happiness feels flexible, do-able, and maybe the best chance I’ve had in 15 years of finding some non-bullshitty balance.
I would LOVE it if you guys gave this a try and then let me know how it went, what you learned, whether you hated it…! Leave a comment, use the “contact me” form, or find me on Facebook! Good luck!