Monday, December 3, 2007

Tug-of-War: Me vs. myself

There's more to work/life balance than just work and life. For me, it's also about guilt and expectations.

When I became pregnant with my youngest daughter, there was this mysterious thing I had to contend with, something that I hadn’t encountered when I became a step mom: Maternity leave. I was going to be away from the office for about five months. It had been 23 years since I’d had that much time off all at once. What was I going to do with myself?

I had grand plans: I’d finish painting all the bedrooms. I’d write at least one freelance story a week. I’d edit all of the recipes from my mom’s old restaurant into a great cookbook. Heck, cookbooks seemed easy — maybe I’d write two!

The reality? Thirty-six hours of labor followed by an emergency C-section and a fragile-looking 5-pound infant with enormous eyes who loved to nurse all the time. No cookbook. No painting. And, let’s face it, with a new baby in the house… no time. The house was a mess, and I felt guilty about not being a good enough stay-at-home-mom. I longed to be at work and feel productive again.

I went back to work when she was 5-1/2 months old. And then I felt guilty for not being at home with my baby. I also felt relieved to be able to talk to another adult about something other than children. And then guilty, again, for feeling relieved. I was happy to back at work, and horribly upset that I had to take a lower-on-the-totem-pole position within my company in order to be able to work better hours.

I felt like I was playing tug-of-war.

That work-life balance so many people are searching for? For me, it’s not just about work and life. It’s also about guilt and expectations. It’s about deciding which to-do list — the one for the office or the one for home — gets to be the bigger priority on any given day. About what level of “I need to do more,” is acceptable when weighed against “I need a break.”

For working mothers, the stress level is high and, for most of us, much of the pressure is also self-imposed. I know it is with me. Sure, there are plenty of people adding to my to-do list, but the guilt about not getting enough done is coming mostly from within. As are the outrageous expectations about what I should be able to do.

I was playing tug-of-war – with myself.

I haven’t solved this inner crisis — not by a long shot. But I have gotten better at cutting myself some slack. After all, if I’m the one applying the pressure, then I’m also the one who can tell myself to back off.

What pressures are you putting on yourself?

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