I’ve been experiencing an interesting phenomenon in the past few years: the separate aspects of my life have become much less separate and much more integrated. I no longer have a work life, a personal life, an educational life – they are much more connected, in time, organization, and approach.
We hear a lot about balance these days, and when students return to college, especially as adults who must juggle the multiple responsibilities of being a parent/student/worker/grandparent/caretaker/volunteer/etc., the “balance” word gets tossed about a lot. We talk with students about making sure they balance their educational studies with their work responsibilities, their family engagements, and their community commitments, that they balance their time, as if balance will make it all happen. As if balance is what will help them learn. As if!
The idea of balance is often used in reference to being a parent too, and I’d venture to say that it’s used as much with new moms as it is with new college students. When I had my kid, there was a lot of conversation around me about balance – making sure I balanced my priorities, my diet, my time, my energy, my activities. Again, the idea was that if I could only achieve this enigmatic condition called balance, I would be a good mom. (But seriously, who can balance well at all when sleep deprived? For me, there was nothing in balance, no matter how hard I tried, until I started getting sleep again!)
When I hear the term “balance,” however, I always feel a sense of teetering, even though in some cases balance also can be equated with strength (yoga comes to mind). Images that more often come to my mind, though, are of people falling off bicycles, balance beams, buildings. Look at the woman’s knee in this picture, for goodness sake. She has a big bandage on it!
(Thank you Google Images.)
When I feel like I am balancing, I also feel like it would only take a gentle breeze to knock me over, off course, off track.
What I have been experiencing lately is distinctly not balance – and the only two words I can use to say what it is are integration and coordination. The silos that used to be in my life have fallen down, and I am grateful.
One possible reason for this is that technology is enabling me to exist in multiple spaces and places at once. I can check my work email and teach my online courses from home, and I frequently do. My home phone is now my cell phone and always on my person, even at work. And let’s not even talk about Facebook! (Yes, I am friends with students and many of my colleagues at my university and other universities on Facebook, and I do a lot of “work” there.)
Also, I try not to let amount of time equate to quality of experience. I think I am a good mom, but I try to achieve that by making the most of the time I have with my kid. I think I do a good job professionally, but that’s not because I am in my office for a particular number of hours per day or per week.
Finally, I try to make connections between the work I do, the things I study, and the life I live. After all, I am a whole person, not a person who lives in parts. So I ask: Where are there similarities? Where are there differences? Where are there conflicts? How do I resolve them? These are the kinds of questions rattling around in my head. I honestly do not know how to consider or achieve “balance” without also feeling the opposite sense of teetering, so perhaps these things help me achieve what I think is probably meant by balance instead – a feeling of integration, connectedness, and agency. (Well, on most days.)
So what do I hope to convey with this prattle? For my students, I encourage you to seek integration and connections. Find ways to apply what you are learning to your work, to connect it to your family, your friends, your life. Ask your colleagues for support for your educational activities; share with your supervisors and coworkers your ideas for implementing your learning at your workplace; tell your family what you are learning and ask for their input about how it might apply to your relationships; discuss with your instructors questions you have about how the theory relates to practice; ask your classmates how they’re relating to and applying what they’re learning.
It will really make a difference. It will really help you learn, much more so than any notion about balance ever will.