“What do you do?”
Let me ask you to think for a few moments: “What do you do?”
On International Women’s Day this year, I was generously asked to give a talk to mums and daughters at a local school. IWD’s theme was “Balance for Better” so I mulled for a while over what this meant. I appreciated that the term “Balance” referred to gender equity in all contexts, but I shamelessly manipulated my own interpretation to talk about something I spend a lot of energy on: “Work-Life Balance”.
I fail at balance every day. If balance is about juggling work life versus home life, then I’m a total nitwit at this. So, actually, I’ve stopped striving for balance, and let me tell you why.
I work in a busy Emergency Department and my days on shift are busy from start to finish. This is a no-brainer. Ironically, my days off are often even more hectic and demanding. The task list on those days includes making sure that there are clean clothes in wardrobes and food in the fridge and pantry, paying bills, running errands and then actually spending time connecting with my family, whether that’s over homework, or over dinner and bedtime.
I am confident that this is true for all women, and certainly true for all women doctors.
The biggest challenge on our To Do list – whether at home or at work - is what’s been described as Emotional Labor – this is the stuff that occupies our day and drains our energy that we could never put down on the list – the stuff which feels like we have nothing to show for it at the end of the day, because there is nothing to actually SEE.
It’s the planning – who’s picking up the kids from school tomorrow? It’s the trouble-shooting – an urgent meeting has come up, and we need to shift around some commitments to get to it. It’s the counseling – a colleague has a situation and needs some advice and help. It’s the soothing – a family member is distraught over an issue.
And on top of all that, emotional labour (I feel) is also about keeping an even keel and not losing the plot while you’re doing all of these things. Some days I can’t even finish the task that interrupted the task that I was meant to be doing, because I got interrupted by another task. And then another one!
It is recognized that even with the most amazingly supportive and hands-on partner at home, women in households (with or without children) take on the vast majority of this emotional labour.
As such, it can often feel as if work-life and home-life are in a constant battle against each other for BALANCE.
As I said I fail at balance every single day.
My work life creeps into my home life: after the kids are in bed, most nights I’ll do a couple of hours of administrative work. My professional identity creeps into my personal life: if I’m in a social setting, and someone asks me “So what do you do?”, I’d love to tell you that my response is, “Well, I’m an attentive mum and a devoted wife and a generous daughter” but the truth is that I tell them what I do as my paid job – that I am a doctor.
Then, just as my work life creeps into my home life, my home life creeps into my work life.
I have my phone on me (on loud ringtone) all the time in case school or my aging parents phone. I have left work before the end of a busy shift in Resus to pick up my child when an after-school event finished earlier than advertised.
I fail at balance, but what I have learned to master … is harmony. I have learned to consider that my work-life and my home life are not two opposing forces, but rather parts of my life that can be integrated with each other.
No matter where I go, I will be a doctor, a mum, a wife, a daughter - someone who has amazing days where I’m kicking every goal, and someone for whom each moment feels like a trudge and nothing seems to go my way, someone who can be patient and tolerant to a fault, and someone who can turn into a snarky psychopath in the blink of an eye. I am a different combination of all of those people on different days, actually often on different hours of the same day…
What I have learned along this journey towards harmony is to be kinder to myself. I am built, likely we mostly all are, with a Type A personality that tends towards perfectionism. I like to be organized, for things to be just so, and to be in total control of situations.
The downside of being built this way is that on your shoulder sits a critic that will give you a running commentary on everything you’re doing wrong:
Lucy asked you if you had time for a coffee and chat, and you put her off until next week. You need to be a better more available friend.
Your kids eat a fair amount of junk food and have way too much screen time – you need to up your parenting skills.
You’re not quite as slick with some procedures at work as you used to be – you need more practice.
Guilt and obligation were my currency and I would work hard to keep both at bay. It’s taken me more than 40 years, but I’ve realized that I can only do so much. And I can only do so much if I have fuel in my own tank.
So I have learned that:
It’s okay to say No when someone asks me to do something, at work or socially
I don’t have to be the best at everything
I’m going to make mistakes despite the best of intentions, but I’m going to forgive myself and keep trying
I’ve learned that “Good enough is the new perfect”.
So I want to ask you again: “What do you do?” Even if your reflection now is the same as your original response, I want you to recognize that this is actually a tiny facet of what defines you. Because each of us is so many things to so many people, often at the same time.
If you are like me, and struggle for balance, I want to encourage you to strive instead for harmony across all of your identities, as messy at it may be at times. And somewhere in that tapestry, to make sure that you are fueling and energizing yourself, because a lot relies on you.