Thursday, April 19, 2012

Surviving a busy spell: my unbalanced approach

Phase 2 of surviving a busy time: don't go for balance.

I've seen a lot of presentations on "balance", as in "How to balance career and family", or (for professors), "How to balance teaching and research".  I really don't like that metaphor.  For me, it sounds like this:  two different, important things, that you need to keep as far away from each other as possible.
Balancing work  and family?
I try to think instead of "integrating" -- that is, bringing things together.  I like that I take my kids to math conferences with me.  I like that my students come to my home for dinner, or that my kids come to my classes.  I like that I go running with my friends; that's a lot better for me than "balancing my exercise and my social life".

A better metaphor than "balance" might be a jigsaw puzzle.  How can we put all the pieces of our life together, especially when there's not much room on the table (or in our calendar)?

Examples are in order.  They're tricky, because I'm sure the puzzle pieces of my life don't look like yours.  You don't probably don't have a pair of boys who were dying-dying-dying to play squash last weekend.

You probably didn't have a huMONGous pile of papers to grade, either.

That would be me with the squash wannabes and the grading.  Two puzzle pieces.  Pieces that fit together nicely, like this:
I grade, unmolested, overlooking my sons,
who smash the ball into as many walls as they can.
So yes, I plan my syllabus around my children's athletic and music practice schedule.  I often grade while they run drills on the basketball court or while they bang away on drums.  [ --> Earplugs! <-- ]  I want quiet while I grade; they want a mom sitting on the sidelines but not on the court with them.  Fits together nicely.

Cooking with my kids is another example; I'm such a task-oriented person that I'm not good with playing traditional games.  (I'd be happy building the V-8 engine together with J-son, but once it's built, I don't have much patience for just watching it run.)  So -- since I want to make sure I spend time with my kids, and since somebody has to make dinner anyway -- cooking gives us a purposeful task to accomplish together.

We "put the pieces together" when we do several errands at once, keeping shopping time to a minimum.  (Bonus points if one of those errands is a stroll through the farmers' market, hand-in-hand with the husband.  Yes.)  In a different way, we "put the pieces together" when we live according to our religious convictions all week long, not just when we're at church.  I kind of like having the different pieces of my life oozing around and touching one another.  Integrated.  Connected.  Better than trying to live life in the middle of a teeter-totter.


  1. You're not only a Miser Mom, but a truly Wiser Mom! Great ideas, I like "working" together to accomplish something as much as "playing" together as a way to spend time together.

  2. This post resonate so much with me. I'm a working mother with a toddler, and I've found that integrating toddler entertainment with cooking dinner is the best way to make sure that my little one gets some sensory play and practical life activities every day. I would not have time to set up a separate sensory/artistic activity after work every day, but I totally have time to give her a pot of water and some vegetables to wash while I'm cooking dinner.

    I wrote a post (with a link back to you) if you'd like to read it.

    Cooking Dinner with a Toddler: Integrating Sensory Play into Everyday Activities

    1. I love the picture of your daughter with her feet in the sink. My daughter used to try to eat the faucet -- something about running water is really compelling! -MM