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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

The 4 Questions Anyone Struggling with Work-Life Balance Should Ask

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I completely missed the boat on the elementary school science fair.

I knew about it. And I knew that it would be a good thing to help Natasha (fifth grade) or Liam (kindergarten) do a project. Natasha and I talked about it briefly. But then it fell off my radar screen -- until the week before, when it became clear from the flurry of emails that the fair was a really big deal.

"Why didn't I get to do a project?" asked Liam sadly. His friends had been talking about their projects at school.

I felt awful. The past couple of months, juggling parenting, doctoring, writing and everything else has been particularly challenging. Life has felt like one compromise after another. "It's that work-life balance thing," someone said to me. "It's tough to get it right."

I don't think getting it right has anything to do with balance.

I hate the term "work-life balance." First of all, it makes you think of a see-saw with all your important work projects on one side and everyone you love on the other -- with either side constantly at risk of either sliding off or flying through the air. Talk about a stressful metaphor.

It also makes it seem like life should be exactly 50 percent work and 50 percent family. Maybe it works out that way in the long run, but it never works out that way on a daily basis. Again: stressful metaphor.

There's something, too, about the word "balance" that makes it sound like there is tranquility involved. Like any life involving work and kids (and housework and commuting and pets and laundry) could ever be tranquil. And if it were just about balancing work and life, the stay-at-home parents would have it easy. I know plenty of them who feel pretty darn overwhelmed by their lives.

It's not about balance. It's about life, and what we cram into it, either out of necessity or choice or both. I cram an awful lot into mine, mostly by choice. It's about the fact that life has seasons when things get crazy, and that there are always times when everything comes together in ways that feel downright impossible.

So how do we know if we are getting it right?

I've thought about this a lot. It seems to me that there are four questions we life-jugglers should ask ourselves on a regular basis:
Am I trying my best?
Am I doing things for the right reasons?
Do I make those I love feel loved?
Am I happy?

If the answer to any of them is no, it's time to evaluate and make some changes. But if the answers are all yes... well, then maybe things are okay, whether they are balanced or not.

So, yeah, I dropped the ball on the science fair. But I think it's because there have been a lot of balls in the air. On the top of trying to be a good doctor and meet writing and other deadlines (big heavy balls), I've been helping Elsa manage the work of her very hard new high school. I've been making sure the favorite clothes get washed on time, packing lunches and helping Liam learn to read. I've been working with Natasha on piano and homework; I've been volunteering as an official at her swim meets and reading the book for her parent-child book club. I've been picking up toys and working with my college kids around summer and fall plans (they both want to study abroad). I've been cooking meals and paying bills. I'm not trying to make excuses; I'm just saying that it's hard to stop balls from dropping sometimes.

I let Liam down. But I'll make it up to him. He knows that -- because in the midst of everything we've been sure to make him feel loved. I know I'm trying my best -- I've got the exhaustion to prove it. As for my reasons, well, I've been trying to be a good mother, wife, doctor and writer.

I have no idea if I'm getting it right. But thinking of life as balance misses the point. Life is about muddling through, about taking each day as it comes, about biting off more than you can chew -- and knowing when to spit some out. It's about being the best person you can be at any given moment.

And when I feel like I've pulled that off, I'm happy.