How do you balance your teaching with everything else going on in your life (parenting, national work, etc)?
Balancing it All
This is going to sound less like a column and more like a confession.
I’m wired to collect and not choose. In fact, I avoid choosing like I avoid naming a favorite book or picking a favorite movie. I’ll turn the question around, require caveats, or outright change the subject in order to avert the decision. It’s not because I’m unable to choose, it’s because I want to hold it all: equally, steadily, honorably.
I remember when I was in first grade, with pigtails and a few missing teeth, being called to the kitchen table after dinner one evening by my dad. He sat me down said, “Sarah, you’re too busy. You’ve signed up for something after school almost every day of the week and it’s too much for a six-year old. You need to choose what you really want to do and let go of the rest.” That’s when I first felt it: the feeling I couldn’t name, but understood as a dense combination of guilt, loss, and fear. I felt guilty that there would be things I’d started, but wouldn’t see through. I felt loss in the dreams I’d already attached to what I’d have to give up. I felt fearful of the ensuing empty spaces.
This would be the first of countless confrontations with choice. There would be the decision to stop playing basketball after high school and go to a large university only to drop out of it for awhile. There would be friendships and relationships to dissolve and break. There would be projects to take on, children to have and a marriage to end. You wonder how I balance it all — kids, teaching, writing, consulting, maintaining a life — and the answer is I don’t.
Balance is a myth. It’s a myth we buy into because it keeps us from choosing. Believe me, I’ve balanced. I’ve put the pieces of my life into little compartments and stacked them carefully into a wobbling tower of counterfeit perceptions. The problem with balance is shoulders. The way they get heavy and dense from holding the tension of a delicate balance and force you move as little as possible for fear of the whole thing toppling over.
Balance doesn’t work because the pressure to sustain it is the very thing that immobilizes us. I used to think balance was about compartments, now I know it’s about presence. Now I understand it’s about what I’d rather avoid: choosing.
It might look like I’m balancing a life, but really, I’m choosing one. I’m writing this column and my kids are watching a movie. I’ll go play Clue with them shortly or run them to afternoon activities and those student papers will sit at my desk, ungraded. Again. I’ll pour myself into this cool community interview project my students are doing at school this week and I’ll barely stay caught up on emails. I’m not balancing anything, I’m choosing where to place my presence. I’m trying to live a teaching life that has margins instead of always writing off the page.
You can do it too. In spite of what I know what you’re doing, what we’re all doing. I know you’re looking at everyone around you and wondering how they do it. You’re trying to figure out how she stays so healthy and how he manages to keep up on the news every day. You’re wondering how she handles all of those committees and how he has time to go adventuring with his kids every weekend. I’m telling you right now: they aren’t doing it all either. The law of the universe won’t let them, because saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.
The enemy of choosing is comparison and we have to stop looking away from ourselves if we’re to find presence within. It’s the sentiment beneath the very question you’ve asked: what am I doing wrong? I fight it all the time, which is how I know that comparison creates confined dichotomies that amount to wondering if we’re enough or not. Whether it’s comparing to another person or to another version of ourselves, we’re, as T.S. Eliot says, too often “measuring our lives in coffee spoons.”
So it’s time for not just self-care, but soul-care. It’s time to give up the dream of balance and choose.
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