I Believe There’s no Such Thing as a Work-Life Balance

Katherine Fortenberry_Web

Katherine Fortenberry, PhD

I_BelieveLogoThis is the first in a series of collaborative blog posts between the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine.

There’s no such thing as work-life balance. I think this every morning when I leave for work, watching my 2-year-old son press his face against the front window and wave at me as I back down the driveway. It comes up again at work, as I guiltily feel relieved when a patient cancels and I have an unexpected half hour to work on a behavioral science presentation for residents. There is always somewhere else that I should be and something else that I should be working on.

As a working mother who has been a chronic perfectionist and overachiever, the pressure is always there. If I’m not careful, this pressure turns into guilt. I miss my son’s doctor’s appointment, and I can’t translate his toddler-speak as easily as I think I should be able to. At work I fall hopelessly behind in answering emails, while wondering when I’ll have time to submit that paper for publication. It’s easy to start berating myself for not being more efficient, for not accomplishing more at work, and then not getting home in time to start dinner.

As the behavioral science educator in our family medicine residency program, I teach work-life balance. Residents vent in support group about the endless patient demands, of long nights, of stress in their marriages, of their own emotional struggles. So I encourage them to focus on their goals, to reflect on the things they’re grateful for, and to put their energy toward what they value most. Take steps to change what stressors can be controlled, and learn to release the ones that cannot.

I hear these words as I say them to our residents, and I resolve yet again to start taking my own advice. And sometimes I can successfully do this. Yet other times, I compose emails in my head as I rock my son to sleep. Or a patient’s struggles sparks one of my own worries, and I find my mind drifting off into my own troubles. Then my work life and my personal life collide into each other, and I wonder what kind of hypocrite I am that I presume to tell our residents how to live their lives better.

Perhaps I should admit to myself that I can’t achieve balance. Maybe part of me will always want to be in the other part of my life, somehow both working more and spending more time with my family. It hurts to think that I may never be able to spend all the time I want with my son. But I know fighting this guilt won’t help.

Instead I focus on changing my relationship with it and remind myself that even if there isn’t enough time, wishing to be in the other part of my life only takes me away from where I am now. So I close my eyes and I focus on the feel of my son’s soft hair against my cheek. I focus on the pain in my patient’s voice. I slowly take a deep breath. This is my only moment.

5 responses to “I Believe There’s no Such Thing as a Work-Life Balance

  1. Powerful essay! While addressed to female residents – much wisdom is included that transcends gender and profession, and applies to us all. We feel your struggle. This reminds me of a favorite saying, “You can only do what you can do”. Reality reveals that this won’t be all that is on your plate – which means there is need for recognizing what can’t be done and periodically saying “No”. No one ever leaves this planet saying, “I should have worked more”. No easy answers. You can’t do it all. Be true to yourself, do the best that you can – and acknowledge that you lack perfection. That perfect “balance” may never be achieved … It’s ok.

  2. adultmedicalcare

    This is true that “I Believe There’s no Such Thing as a Work-Life Balance”, i like post that really cares about health work.

  3. It’s so hard because our work systems are not designed with children at the center, making parenthood something we juggle in the background. What kind of society does that? It sucks, really. So, we need to change this game, because understanding what your toddler is saying does matter to him, very much. The paper can wait. Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe there are part-time options that would keep you in the game but not leave you depleted? No matter what, though, listen to that kid.

    Easier said than done when our professional lives are so much a part of our identity. I get it. Putting kids at the center and redesigning how I work led me to more, better, different opportunities because my hard skills remained but my heart grew. http://currencyofempathy.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/the-lifeblood-of-innovation-a-currency-of-empathy-ashoka/
    Of course, work/family balance in my house remains a logistical struggle for me and my husband…but not a source of guilt. That’s the kicker.

    We live until 80 and work until 65/70 these days. It’s a marathon with many twists and turns, not a treadmill. I wonder what you could do? I wonder what you’d inspire your workplace to do over time?

  4. …and 0-5 years is the hardest time in many ways. If that foundation of relationships, understanding, empathy is set though…..it gets easier. And you will be a better professional for it, I promise.

  5. Very eloquent and well thought. You made me tear up a bit. Plus, you look gorgeous in your picture. So proud of my little sis!

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