It’s easy to be self-righteous when you’re pregnant. At least it was for me. It was very easy for me to clearly define in my own mind what sort of a parent I would be and what sort I would definitely not be. I still wince when I remember throwing away formula samples thinking that there was no way in hell I would ever feed my son that junk. It was easy for me to read about other parents on blogs and judge the choices they made, because I would never do anything like that or feel like that. When pregnant, you have nine months to create an elaborate vision in your head of what your life as a parent will be like. It can take just moments to shatter that idyll.

I wasn’t one of those moms who had difficulty falling in love with my son, but I did have a lot of difficulty squaring my professional identity pre-baby with who I was as a parent. I think a lot of my difficulties early on were the result of my own guilt in having to let go of some of the things that I was convinced were the very definition of being a good mom. At the same time, I was letting go of things that had been a major part of my professional identity, which had become pretty all-encompassing in my life pre-2009. In the first six months, it didn’t seem to matter what I was doing, because I’d feel guilty whether a choice was being made for my child or for my work. I wince when I think of that time and wish I could give my younger self a hug and let her know it gets better.

It took a long time, but I finally got to a place where I stopped feeling guilty about everything and started leaning into my roles as wife, parent and professional. When one of my best friends from high school who came to stay with me last summer commented that my husband, Adam, and I “are such laid back parents” I realized for the first time that I did feel pretty laid back about parenting. I’d found my groove as a parent. A big part of that was letting go of a lot of expectations/fear of judgment and trusting my gut. There is a lot of judgement out there from other mothers and there are plenty of parents who love to compare themselves and their amazing children to others, but it’s not worth falling into those traps. I’m immensely proud of my bright, inquisitive, funny, smart-ass of a four-year-old and I’m very happy with the life I have with my family. That’s what matters.

But I’m also finally finding my groove as a passionate professional who happens to want more from life than professional accomplishment. I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned about parenting to my attitudes towards work. I’ve always been a bit of a busy bee. I’m one of those people who has a difficult time being still (to my husband’s chagrin). When I’m working on a project, I always look forward to the moment when I will be done with it and can relax. But when that time comes, I’m always on to the next thing. There’s always some idea or some new opportunity I can’t pass up. I’m a tinkerer, trying to improve things at work and home, which is probably why I do so well with changes at work, but it can be exhausting. I’ve also been very career driven; focused on excellence and on moving up the management ladder. Since 2005, I’ve been blogging, writing, and developing presentations nearly entirely on my own time, which has meant lots of time sitting with my family with my head buried in a laptop.

I’m not sure where this drive comes from. Part of it might be insecurity. I never quite feel like I’m doing enough or doing well enough. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I achieve; I never lose that feeling. How can I miss out on this opportunity? What might be the consequences of saying no? If I don’t do or see ___ now, I may never get the chance again. This constant craziness of always needing to do the most and get the most out of everything is exhausting. And what’s most frustrating is that all of this doing never seems to lead me to any real sense of accomplishment. Already, I’ve achieved more than I ever thought possible in my professional and personal life, but the bar just gets higher and higher.

Being a parent is a lesson in giving up control and learning to roll with things. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to apply that to my work life. I’m trying to let go of expectations or agendas and simply try each day to do the best I can for the people I’m supposed to be serving — whether that’s my direct reports, my colleagues, the faculty in my liaison area, or students. Instead of continuing to run this hamster wheel, I’ve begun to question why I need to do something, what is truly important to me, and what really makes me happy. I think we do a lot of things because of “should’s” and “oughts” and we can get so busy that we don’t question the why of it all.

I used to say yes to way too many things, because I was always focused on what I’d lose by not doing it. Now, I’m focusing on what I give up by saying yes. By saying yes, there are other things I can’t do, like spending time with family and friends or engaging in hobbies, exercise, and sleep. I’ve spent way too much time at home sitting on my computer working when I could be having fun with my family or going for a walk in our recently beautiful weather. I don’t even remember where last summer went. So I’ve started to say “no” a lot more. And I’ve been surprised by how not-at-all guilty I feel about it. Sure, I’ve given up some cool opportunities, but I love what saying no means I’m saying yes to. I can’t remember many weekends over the past 8 years where work didn’t intrude in some way and I don’t want it to be that way anymore.

I’m working on becoming more mindful and grateful for what I have now. I want to appreciate each moment without focusing on what’s next. This recent mindfulness has actually made me feel happier and less stressed than I have been in a long time. Perhaps it’s helped me to actually see what I have. I’ve achieved more professionally and personally than I ever thought I would back before I met my husband and discovered librarianship. I’m so happy with where I am. I want to put just as much effort and passion into my work without having my work become the yardstick for determining my self-worth. I want to relax. And I think this means setting up better boundaries between my work life and my home life; something I never before thought I needed. When I’m at work, I want to be fully focused on work. When I’m at home, I want to be fully focused on my home life.

My family has brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined, and I’m especially reminded of that on this long weekend in which I’ve spent nearly every waking moment playing games, kicking soccer balls, reading books, taking walks, cooking and doing other fun things with my son and husband. My work could never provide the sort of satisfaction I get from my family. That doesn’t mean I want to give up my work — I think I’d be miserable staying home — but I’m realizing that letting something that is largely an economic relationship define me as much as it has simply sets you up for disappointment.

I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as an ideal work-life balance. Or if there is, it’s something that is constantly in-flux and defined by the individual. Is there truly a balance where one does not feel the push-pull of one or the other? Does anyone ever feel that way? If you are passionate about your work and your family, friends, hobbies, etc., there will always be decisions to make that will pull you toward one and away from the others. But I think being true to what you define as a healthy balance at that time is what’s key. I often see people with children doing things professionally that I never would, but I’m sure there are parents who would never do things I’ve done. It’s all about knowing what works for us and our families. Every person and every family is different. I also don’t think this is a solely female problem. My husband has also struggled with and made decisions for the good of our family and I love and respect him so much for it. I also think that people with kids aren’t the only ones struggling to define a healthy work-life balance. I should have done it long before having my son, but he provided the critical wake-up call I needed.

I have not read the work-life balance book du jour Lean In primarily because I do not aspire to be anything like Sheryl Sandberg. However, I’ve heard the gist of it is that instead of pulling back from work when you’re getting married, having kids, and the like, you should lean into work and solidify your commitment to your career. My advice instead would be to “lean into” being a whole person; committing deeply to carving out a life you enjoy, whatever that means for you. My lessons for being a parent and/or a professional have not come from books. Largely, they’ve come from seeing role models (both positive and negative) and trusting my gut. I don’t see Sheryl Sandberg’s advice as being feminist, but instead, as being about about women making it in a “man’s world” by denying themselves the opportunity to be a whole person (again, I haven’t read the book). Some people seem to feel like they let feminism down when they prioritize their family (or hobbies, health, etc.) over their work, but I honestly believe that women have always been fighting for the rights and freedoms to make choices. And I think it’s great that we all get to make the choices for ourselves (and perhaps also our families) that make sense and feel right.

Postscript: I’ve heard from a few readers that Sheryl Sandberg shares a similar message to mine in her book, which I’m glad to hear, because the reviews I read seemed to indicate the opposite. Mea culpa for the mischaracterization.

Image credit: Scales of Justice – Frankfurt Version by mikecogh, on Flickr