Volume 10 Number 4
Life in the Balance
01 August 1997

At times the pressure of balancing work, relationships and leisure leaves us with a juggling act at best.

I was sitting on the train, deep into my book, when suddenly the man across the aisle interrupted, 'So how do you do it?' Startled, I glanced up. He nodded toward my book. The cover read Getting a Life. Wonderful, I thought. How do I explain this one? 'I know,' offered his companion, 'go fishing.' 'That may work for some people...' I attempted half-heartedly. 'Hey, I've got another idea,' he continued as he stepped off the train, 'don't work too hard!'

Good advice, I suppose. But then again, it's what everyone knows and few of us actually do. At times the pressure of balancing work, relationships and leisure leaves us with a juggling act at best.

As the newly appointed head of a secondary school with over 1,000 students, Hilary plays the role of juggler all too often. 'I get to school around 7.15 am, very often not leaving until 9.30 or 10 pm. But I make sure that Friday evening to Sunday morning is non-school time. I'm firm about that.'

As a single woman, Hilary feels she has a fairly good grip on balancing her work with other priorities. 'I make sure I do things that give me real pleasure-swimming, reading, shopping, seeing friends. I also have a time of prayer and meditation every morning to get in touch with God. That's key. For me, the critical balance is between the public, social person and the private inner person.

'When I was in my thirties, I came close to complete breakdown. I fundamentally reconsidered what I thought was important and what wasn't. From then on I could go to work and walk away from it. Before I couldn't.'

For Philip and Caroline, the crisis came in 1992 when both Philip's sister and brother-in-law died from diabetes, leaving two children, aged eight and 13. 'We have two children of our own and were living in a tiny flat in London but suddenly had to find a home big enough for everybody. We had all four children in one bedroom,' recalls Philip.

They took the plunge and moved to the country into an old farmhouse with eight bedrooms, two acres and 15 animals. 'At the present moment, the balance of our life is very much weighted toward looking after the day to day requirements of the children,' says Philip. 'I have my own graphic design business and, being based at home, I can work around family commitments. A nine-to-five job would be very restrictive.'

For Caroline, righting the balance would mean having a long painting holiday on her own in Provence. 'It may sound selfish, but one of my major principles is "me first",' she laughs. 'Unless I keep growing as a person, I can't help the children to grow. Looking after a young family is a 24-hour-a-day job and sometimes it's very difficult to quietly stand back and take stock.'

'Middle age is a very special time of life because you're looking after the needs of both generations-the young and the old. It's an enormous responsibility,' states Philip. Hilary, the headmistress, has had to readjust her life 'because my parents need me much more. You sort out what only you can do, and do it.'

'It's all about finding the middle way,' states Sarah, a vibrant young woman who organized celebrity fashion shows during the Eighties. 'I'm a workaholic. I'm an anything-aholic! I go full force into whatever I do.' But a recent illness and extended stay at hospital made her re-think her priorities. 'There are times I've felt my life is controlled by some outside force-work, study, looking after people, family. I've learned to take control, to consciously make choices.

'The spiritual side of my life is very important,' she continues. 'We're interconnected-mind, body and spirit. You can't deal with one and leave out the others.'

Larry, a dentist and father, agrees. 'Balance is doing the most important things first, not the most urgent. The urgent is always the enemy of the best. The crux of the matter becomes defining what is most important. For me, it's my relationship with God, then family, then work.'

Shifting priorities have meant real changes for Nick and Jackie, both of whom worked fulltime until the birth of their first child. 'I've never seen myself as being able to spend all day at home with the baby,' says Jackie. 'My employers were very open to my idea of a job-share. I work five mornings a week and am always there to pick the children up from school.'

'Having decided we don't want our children at the childminder fulltime every day,' says Nick, 'it followed that I needed to be here.' At first taking off two or three mornings a week, he now works from home as a computer trainer and inspector. 'If I know that the girls aren't going to be in school, I'll cross that day off in my diary.'

'It is much more acceptable for women to work part-time than for men,' comments Jackie. 'When Nick did it, he was definitely going against the flow. It's OK for women to write on their CV "career break to look after children" but men don't do that.' Nick believes that many men are trapped into 'thinking that the number of hours you work is somehow a measure of your worth'.

Yet perhaps the corporate work culture will change, however slowly. Rebecca Abrams of the Independent on Sunday hopes the increase in women Members of Parliament in Britain signals a shift. May's election raised their number from 62 to 119. 'Will they challenge a male culture of work and over-work? Will they help to correct an imbalance in our society?' she writes. Among other things 'this means introducing workplace practices that enable men to share more fully in the task of raising children'.

'If work used to be a main component of most professionals' social identity and status, a lot more roles and interests are now used by individuals to define themselves and their position in society,' state Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones in Getting a Life (Hodder & Stoughton). 'Single-minded pursuit of a job and of material success is troubling large numbers of people.'

Every Friday night, Francis and Rachel make the journey from their London flat to their country home in Herefordshire. Come Sunday evening, they're heading back to the city. 'After we got married in 1990, I decided to apply for a job with the civil service in London,' says Francis. 'My small business making car parts was too precarious to support a marriage.' Returning 'home' each weekend provides the balance they need, and allows Francis to continue work at his factory. 'We find the city stressful because of all the noise, pollution and crowdedness.'

'I don't need to go camping to wake up with sunshine on my face and birds singing. I just go home,' says Rachel, a press officer for the prison service.

'One aspect of balance is the need to touch physical things-do some gardening, stick one's hands in the earth, turn metal or drill some holes,' Francis comments. 'It's easy to live an artificial, mental life.'

Both feel that being married has actually helped them become more balanced. 'There was work and going out, but not much in between,' says Francis. 'You get that balance between thinking about yourself and thinking about another person,' adds Rachel. 'You're forced to.'

If there's one thing to learn about balance, it's this: there's certainly no definitive statement on how to achieve it. Balance means different things to different people. Yet for all the diversity, there was one aspect that everyone agreed on-the importance of people over 'things'. 'At the end of the day, it's how well you've loved,' said one woman. There's truth to that.

Perhaps there is one more lesson: balance also requires humour. As one mother put it, 'I don't mind taking a bath with half my five-year-old's toy cupboard... but I do object to having a foam alphabet on my chest!' At least she knows when to draw the line. Maybe there's hope for me as well.
Kristen Tiedje

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