“Whenever you get home at nine o’clock at night, do you ever think—how do people with families do this???”
I had this conversation with people a lot. As someone from the Midwest, where people get married and have kids considerably earlier than they do on the East coast, it just baffled me how people could raise families in their twenties.
“Girl. Right?” I was at my friend Keena’s house, doing abs on her living room floor. Our three mile run + ab routine was pretty much the only time I saw her during the week. Or, put more accurately: The only reason we saw each other on weekdays was if we could combine gym and friend time.
On a typical day, I get off work around 6 or 6:30—not terrible, considering I have former classmates who work for KPMG and work until 9 or 11. Or the fact that I come from an agricultural community, where workers work twenty-hour days in busy season. By the time I run, make a random appearance at the squat rack, and walk home, it’s usually between 8 and 9.
As I said, I have no idea how people with families do it. You can’t pick a child up from daycare at 9 p.m.
When I moved back to D.C. in May, the first thing I did was look up my old boss. Although my first job was not a forever job, I adored my boss. We met up for coffee, and he asked me how I was and how I liked my new position. I told him the truth—that I enjoyed what I was doing, but I had not not worked a ten-hour day (or more) since the day I started.
His response fucking terrified me.
“You know Kara, people talk about this thing called a ‘work-life balance,’ and I have to say that at 46 years old I have never found it.”
This sentence came from a man who I thought the world of. He was the person who hired me straight out of college, who helped me job search when it was clear my current position was not a good fit, and who I still called for advice years later. He had a great family, was a founder of the company I once worked for, and had started running half marathons after I left.
If he didn’t have the magic formula for a balanced life, I wasn’t sure it existed.
I can remember one late night at the office, going over a proposal for a prospective client. His oldest daughter called his work phone, and this was the half of the conversation I heard:
“You’re right. Ok. I know you have a test tomorrow. I’m leaving in twenty minutes, promise. I’ll be home in thirty minutes, then we’ll study for your test…Wait what? Ok I’ll be home in twenty.”
He looked at me. “She says if I’m not home in twenty she’s watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
I thought of my boss as a man of iron. He was someone who would still take a phone call from his 14 year old daughter, even with a six digit proposal sitting in front of him.
When I quit my job, I left with a thousand dollars in unpaid commission. As part of my contract, I could not recover that money once I had given my notice. He took my “case” so-to-speak to the other founders and fought hard to make sure I received it anyway. His entire argument revolved around this statement: This is not a lot of money to us, but it’s a lot of money to her.
Damn straight it was. When you’re 23 years old living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, that money meant a lot to me. Just like a 9th grade math test meant a lot to a 14 year old.
My boss may not believe he found a balance, but he has retained perspective. He always had a solid understanding of what was important to those around him. Which is more than many can say in his position.
In my running group, a fellow teammate has a one-year-old daughter. In her thirties, this woman can still bust out a sub-17 minute 5k. I brought up work-life balance at one of our practices, and her response was, “It can be balanced. It might not just be as balanced as you want.”
I haven’t launched my own company, and I sure as hell don’t have a spouse and three kids waiting for me at home each night. I don’t pack lunches each morning, but I do make breakfast for my friends on the weekends. I don’t have a set-in-stone race schedule like I did in college, but I do leave work at 5:45 sharp on Wednesdays to make it to my running group. I don’t go to my mom’s house for Sunday dinner, but I do call my parents throughout the week.
Living in an apartment with a roommate and finding time for happy hour might not work for me forever, but it works for me right now.
As long as I’m hitting a couple quality workouts a week, and not going weeks without seeing my friends or ignoring phone calls from my parents; then that’s as balanced as I can make it. If my “must haves” for work are finished, and the apartment is reasonably clean, then it’s ok to sit and watch t.v. I still have absolutely no idea if a work-life balance exists, but I do think it’s possible to maintain perspective on what matters.
Here’s the thing about this elusive Work-Life “Balance” thing: it doesn’t objectively exist because it’s different for everyone. I would respectfully disagree that it doesn’t exist, period. I think you have to fight for it, and you have to re-align what it means every day, and in every period of your life. I think all you can do is set your priorities and make sure you’re investing your time in what makes you happy, at least to the extent that you can (I mean bills do have to be paid, obvi). But you know me – balance to me is a fucking joke to a normal person. All you can do is figure out what balance means for you, today, and then do it all again tomorrow. I think that’s what your boss is doing, whether he realizes it or not.
Omg Nora – you said this one thousand times better than I did while I was writing it. Yes this is exactly it – balance changes depending upon the stage of life you are in. Right now my priorities are my career, my immediate family, and my friends. I know that won’t be the case five years from now, but it’s where I’m at right now.
P.S. You win the award for having the first registered photo on my site. xoxo Kara
You know it’s so crazy I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My current internship offered me a job after graduation and my biggest concern was the lack of work life balance I saw with the people I would be working with. Considering one day we’ll probably have kids and partners to answer to it’s hard to imagine how you fit everything in and still make time for yourself! Love your style of writing, feels like I’m listening to a friend talk 🙂