I have been wanting to write a post on work-life balance for a while, especially after spending a week at ACRL Assessment Immersion with a bunch of people who are deeply committed to their work and all define balance in their lives differently. Some of the people there are so active in the profession, so plugged-in, publish a ton, travel a ton, and get to meet lots of awesome librarians. Others are dedicated to work during their 40 hrs/wk there and are deeply focused on family and community. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between. And yet we are ALL amazing professionals.

I’ve noticed a tendency in our profession (and probably others) to see being immersed in the profession and spending lots of time outside of our 40 hrs/wk on professional stuff as unhealthy. And at the same time, there’s a tendency to see people who view their work as a librarian as a 9 to 5 job as not committed. To me, the only mistake you can make here is buying into what other people think and not defining balance as what works for you. It’s not about quantity, people, it’s about quality.

Colleen has written a great post about not wanting to feel like her job is her identity and become so immersed in her work that it makes her unhealthy. While I have to say that her “I am a librarian” vs. “I serve as a librarian” distinction doesn’t mean much to me (especially because I do feel like being a librarian is an important part of my identity), I applaud her efforts to find a healthy balance in her life:

Being a librarian for all my waking hours is no longer a model that works for me. … So now I am working on a certain separation of powers, if you will. When I am librarianating, I focus entirely on that, to make sure I am being the best librarian I can be. But I am also now a woman who needs 8 hours of sleep, to make sure that I am also a Rested and Healthy Colleen. I am a student, and when I do that I am Studious Colleen. I’m working on improving my Downtime Colleen self by taking at least one day a week and dedicating it to anything not school- or work-related.

There are a lot of guidelines out there for finding work/life balance, but in my opinion, besides a few (get up from your desk periodically, get enough sleep, don’t ignore the needs of your loved ones, etc.), work/life balance is very subjective. For some people, work/life balance means clocking out at 4 or 5pm and not ever checking work email from home. For others, doing work on some evenings and weekends is the norm. For others, working evenings and weekends is a frequent occurrence. Is any of this a problem? Only if it’s a problem for you.

We all have a pretty set finite amount of time each day to do what we need and want to do (those lucky people who physiologically need less sleep get a bit more than those lazy bums like me who only function well on 8-9 hrs.). Let’s think of that time as a bucket and all the things you need or want to do are glasses of water. Most people probably have a lot more water in their glasses than can fit into their bucket so we have to pick and choose how much from each glass we want to empty into the bucket. Even people who have the exact same types of glasses of water (kids, exercise, tenure, etc.) will pour different amounts in the bucket based on what is most important to them.

Before I had my son, I filled my bucket very differently. Librarianship was a huge portion of my bucket. I wrote long blog posts quite frequently, networked online a ton, traveled often to speak at conferences, and did all sorts of professional projects (Five Weeks to a Social Library, a book, the Library Success Wiki, etc.). People often commented that they were amazed by how much I did professionally and my stock response was “that’s because I have no life.” That wasn’t true. I still did fun things with my husband and friends, went on great vacations, and did a lot of reading. I never felt like anything in particular was missing or that it was unhealthy for me to spend so much time on my work. I found what I did immensely fulfilling.

I had a child full-well knowing that things would change. I knew I would have less time to spend on being professionally active and I was ok with that. The first year and a half after having my son, I did feel out of balance. Between meeting his many needs and barely sleeping for that entire first year, it was hard to find the time or energy for anything else. I also felt guilty every moment I spent outside of my 8-4:30 workday on librarianship. I should be devoting that time to my son. A lot of moms fall into that trap and feel like bad parents when they prioritize activities that don’t revolve around their child. And, at the same time, I missed being professionally active. I missed writing terribly. Over time I realized that as long as the time I did spend with my son was of quality (doing fun things and giving him my undivided attention rather than just sitting around watching TV), it was actually more important that he have a mom who feels fulfilled and happy than one who is with him every waking moment. For some parents, being fulfilled means being with their child all the time, and for some, being fulfilled means being with their child much less than I am. Again, there’s no one definition of balance. What matters is that you and your family feel good about what you’re doing. I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband who would be ok with me taking more time for work, but at 2 1/2, my son is a hell of a lot of fun, and I don’t want to miss much. I am in awe of parents of young children who travel a lot — I’ve realized I’m not built for it, emotionally. That’s why, when I speak in New Zealand at LIANZA next Fall, I’m going to have a 3 1/2 year old (and my husband) in tow. It won’t be the New Zealand trip I’d always dreamed of, but it’s the best option for my heart and we’re going to make it an awesome trip.

For me, I don’t mind doing work at home, whether it’s answering email, working on a document for a committee I’m on, or developing a presentation or an article. What I don’t like is when work issues bleed into the time I’ve dedicated to other activities. Like when I wake up in the middle of the night and obsess about a project, or I come home in a bad mood because of a meeting that went badly. I want to be fully present in whatever I’m doing, so when work prevents me from being “in the moment” with my family (or sleeping through the night), I feel the lack of balance. To me, if anything is objectively bad for people, it’s that. I don’t find that happens very often to me these days, but when I was a child and family psychotherapist, I obsessed about the poor kids I worked with constantly. The problem wasn’t so much about working crazy hours (though I did do most of my paperwork on weekends); it was that I could never be mentally away from work when I was away from work. My mind was going 24/7 and it made me physically and emotionally exhausted.

I don’t think that people seeking a perfect balance are ever going to find it. For one, that balance is constantly shifting based on what’s happening with those different cups of water you’ve poured into your bucket. If my son or husband gets sick, if I’m working under a writing deadline, or even if I’m reading a book that I just… can’t… put… down, I am going to need to shift things around. But also, few people ever have few enough cups that they can pour everything into their bucket. For me, balance is about accepting that I’ll never be able to do as much of everything I want to do as I’d like and being fully present in whatever I am doing. It’s about focusing on what I feel (not other people’s yardsticks and “should’s”) and my family’s needs. As long as I’m doing all that, I feel a balance in my messy and imperfect life.

How do you define balance in your life? Have your notions about balance changed over time or through professional and personal life changes? Do you feel like you have a work-self and a non-work-self and is it preferable to make that distinction?