dangerous balance


I've been thinking a lot about the concept of balance. Whenever we juggle a lot of things, various roles, and projects, the advice we get from one another, and from society is: balance. "You have to find a balance," people say whether they're talking about motherhood, professional life, dating, family, hobbies, teaching, research etc. I've been struggling this year with the transition from graduate student life to the dailyness of what it means to be in this profession, in this department, at this university. I watched Cheryl Ball's and Kristin Arola's From "They Call me Doctor" to Tenure a collaborative conversation and narrative on the move from finishing grad school to tenure track positions and beyond. Almost every person who offers advice mentions the word balance. As I listened to the conversations and the advice I found myself growing annoyed by these words of wisdom and wasn't completely sure why.

So, I started brainstorming on a notepad. I wrote balance in the middle and free associated all the different emotions, ideas, concepts that the word brought to mind. It ended up looking something like this:


Implicit in my notes are fear and guilt, or perhaps more accurately, shame. Of course, shame has been on my mind as I'm reading Brené Brown's I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame but I think it fits appropriately here as a consequence of the concept and pressure to be balanced. Brown asserts that our culture teaches about shame as it shows us what is acceptable and what is not. As I think about my reaction to the word balance, I begin to see that what I am resisting is the idea that I should find a balance and that not being balanced is not acceptable, and when things are not level then something is wrong... something is wrong with me because I cannot balance. And those feelings are exactly what Brown is talking about in her conceptual definition of shame:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance of belonging.

She goes on to explain how shame makes us feel alone because we feel so different, so much more flawed than everyone else. And this is why I think the narrative of balance is dangerous, because it 1) assumes that balance can be achieved, 2) implies that balance is in some way inherently positive and 3) implies non-balance must be bad. I think this is particularly dangerous for women who have been told that you can have it all: career AND family. While it is true that women have opportunities today that previous generations have not had, the pressure to be successful in more than one arena is overwhelming. Yes, maybe we CAN have it all and maybe even some of us can do multiple things very well but what about those who find it difficult, who feel like they're constantly walking a tightrope? "Don't fall." and Don't admit it's hard.

This year has been incredibly rewarding but incredibly hard. I don't mean challenging or overwhelming. I mean hard, struggling and suffocating. Colleagues stop by my office and ask how I am. When I reply that I'm overwhelmed or hanging in there or some other euphemism for "barely holding my shit together" they nod and say, "The first year is brutal." They tell me to set boundaries, to find balance, to stand my ground. Their hearts are in the right place; they want to tell me it's okay to feel what I'm feeling. They're trying to help me feel less alone by explaining that they've been through it, too; that the schedule is grueling, that a lot is asked of us. But they're ignoring the fear that has set in our department ever since 2 of our colleagues were denied tenure.

Lately, I've felt incredibly stressed, suffocated like there is a weight on me. I keep saying, "I'm so overwhelmed by the end of the semester. It's been so busy lately," which is true. There are a lot of events near the end of term, not to mention encouraging students through their final projects, reading drafts and then grading. But when I look at the lists of things that need doing and add to it the list of what's happening in my personal life, it is not unmanageable. What is overwhelming is the fear, the suspicion, the shock of our colleagues not getting tenure. The concern over the university budget, over making ends meet, what if we don't get enough students is causing people to act and react in ways they never would have before. There is an underlying tension in everything we say and everything we do these days. What is overwhelming is the feeling that I should be doing everything well, that my house should be clean, that my desk should not be messy, that I should look balanced, feel balanced and be balanced.

But it's impossible. At least for me. When I think of my life, I think of a see-saw. I think of up and down. Sure, if both people on the see-saw arrange their weight a certain way, the see-saw comes close to being level. But seriously, when, in your life or profession is weight evenly distributed? Balance assumes that it should be, that you should be able to equally privilege projects and dinner, grading and laundry. In my world, in most worlds I know, that's unrealistic.

And that should be okay. I don't think balance is something that is possible for me but I also don't know whether it's dangerous to even try because level typically means static. Our lives are not static and to expect them to be is damaging.

This, I think, is particularly true for life in academia where you're asked to teach, participate in service and research. Our self-evaluations acknowledge that the university expects something different in each category as we are allowed to weight each portion differently. I feel that this way of thinking, at least acknowledges, that you can't excel at teaching AND scholarship AND service simultaneously while teaching a 4/4 load and it leaves some room for distinctions among the categories. It also gives me permission to think about what I value each year. And yet... the self-evaluation isn't the tenure packet.

Now, I'm not saying that we should always overload one part of our lives and ignore others. But I am saying that we do that, as humans, as women, we do that. To act as though we don't or that it is wrong when we do, creates a kind of thinking with which I'm uncomfortable because it begins to trigger shame for me. I think there are better ways of thinking about our lives and all that we do on a daily basis. I think there are interesting metaphors in the see-saw, the constant movement of back and forth, up and down. I think it's more accurate than the evenly distributed, static balance. Because I do think it's important to be aware of what you're taking on, on which parts of your life are being ignored and whether those parts need some attention, NOT because you SHOULD be able to be well-rounded but because you WANT to attend to those sides of your life, of you who are. I do think we should be conscious of where all of the expectations, stress and attention is distributed but to act as though balance is possible creates, I think, feelings of guilt (feelings about what we do) and oftentimes shame (feelings of who we are) when we cannot reach said balance.

When I was intensive therapy, I realized that so much of my feelings of guilt and conflictedness surrounded the desire to be calm, and not chaotic. I was never a person who could meditate, who could clear my mind completely, who could sit in silence. But I felt that I SHOULD be. I thought all of the issues I was having stemmed from the fact that I could not be still. At some point, I decided to embrace the chaos. I had to say, "you know what, this is my life. This how and who I am," not as an excuse not to grow or change but as a way of accepting that perhaps, zen came in many forms and my own form was not typical. So, instead of feeling alone and disconnected because I can't achieve balance, I'm trying to discover new ways to healthily embrace the chaos once again.

I'm still working through some of these ideas, obviously. As I continue to read Brené Brown's book and listen to the podcasts, etc. I am sure more ideas will begin swirling around. I appreciate you giving me a chance to work through some of this here and I'd be interested in any thoughts you might have on the subjects.