We Are All Trying to Be Superheroes: My Evolving View of Work/Life Balance

Maybe it doesn't have to be either/or

I sat curled at the end of the couch with my laptop balanced precariously across my legs, desperately trying to lay out a keynote presentation while Slacking with a colleague about a client's latest request. My daughter was sprawled alongside me, playing chess against an imaginary opponent, while my son raced around the living room in his underwear and cape, hunting bad guys. 

And you ask how work affects my home life, and vice versa…

It's a brave question nowadays. The conversation is never-ending, and we are all striving desperately for the impossible and improbable idea of "balance." Attempting to move moment to moment, giving what's needed, while still reserving what's important for the right times. Being able to give our best, be our best, everywhere we go, to all our commitments, to all our people. Being able to have the sentience to know when that time is coming like a prophet. Being ever-present in the moment, as if we were monks at a mountaintop. 

Much like my son, we are all trying to be superheroes. 

The thing is, we are humans. Humans with a finite amount of time and resources. We are fallible, we are exhaustible … and we are never our best when stretched too thin. I have collapsed at the end of many a workday, too tired to properly play Black Widow in my children's latest drama, or even to do proper voices during a bedtime story. I have run out of work, leaving behind a team in the middle of a brainstorm to rush to a child who has fallen on the playground.

I have spent uncounted hours feeling awful and unqualified. Feeling guilty and alone. Feeling like I haven't earned the cape I donned with the best of intentions. Feeling like the bad guy instead of the superhero I expected of myself on every team I was on. 

Recent years, however, have given me a slightly new perspective. The war in my heart has always been work and family. My independence and accomplishment and singular potential against the greatest loves of my life. My computer versus finger paints. The important meeting rivaling the elementary art show. 

From the outside, those choices seem simple, until I pick up my child from theater, unable to ask how his day was because I'm on a conference call. Or when I bow out of a museum day to finish important client work that the client later delays. I've left early for school events that were canceled last minute, missed performances for pitches I didn't even speak in. 

The tug of war is constant and overwhelming, and I'm losing against myself. 

I never dreamed I would want to be the mother who stayed home, and yet a part of me wants nothing more. I was never incredibly competitive at work, never do-or-die on my climbing of the corporate ladder. And yet, now I see where I can make a difference—I see that I am good at what I do, and I want to do more. Contribute more.

Or, you know, stay home and make hand turkeys while watching the episode where the Rescue Bots and Cody save Griffin Rock for the hundredth time. 

Just saying it all out loud tears my soul in half. 

But that, I think, is where the problem lies. It feels like an either/or. I have made it a situation (and am not immune to the media around me flaming this) where I must choose. Or that, somehow, there is a way to balance it. To juggle it. 

That there's some secret formula somewhere that allows me to live both fully and wholly—a switch in my heart that will focus my mind where it needs to be. 

If I manage my time better.

If I'm more present.

If I build the right team of support around me.

If I figure out who I want to be. 

If I can get my priorities straight.

And maybe that's true. Maybe if I were in the position to choose one over the other—if I were able to somehow pack up one part of my life in favor of the other when I needed to—it would somehow all fall in to place. 

But I don't think so. 

The thing is, I'm a wife and a mother. I'm an author and a designer. I'm a homemaker and a world traveler. I'm a creative director and a team member. 

I will not choose. 

All of those things—my multiple personalities, if you will—work together to define me. It's chaotic and it's messy and it changes moment to moment, but it's who I want to be. I want to be the mom who makes the best cupcakes and the designer who submits her work to the top award shows. I want to be the speaker at "When I Grow Up Day" and counsel my designers on how to reach their next career goal. I want to explore the wilds of the world and spend a perfectly nice afternoon cuddled on my couch binge watching Amazon Prime. 

I spent so many years brokenhearted about being torn in two when I didn't have to. These aspects of my life are not stand-alone. They are not mutually exclusive. Nor should they be. I can sometimes write my best lines while my kids dance to "Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray. I can handle tense situations at work with a patience honed by years of learning to listen to all that someone can't find the words for as a mother. I am able to find the greater purpose, the larger picture, because I have a life outside of work. I am able to set an example of what it means to do work you are proud of and how hard that can be at times because it's what I have been forced to do—what I choose to do every day.

There will always be a call at the absolute wrong time. But that's OK. I'll show up where I'm needed. I just might be carrying two backpacks and a roll of art projects when I do. I will explain the power of your brand and what we can do with it with the occasional sound of a child's karate class in the background, but I will be there and I will be doing what I love. All of it. 

I will miss some things, too. And it will hurt. But those times will be the exception in the great story I am living, and I will do my best to choose them carefully when I have that option. And when I don't, I will hug a little tighter, I will work a little harder. I will remind myself that not doing it all, all at once, is not failing. 

I am a better person, in all aspects of my life, because I choose to honor all of them. They feed each other indelibly. 

I cannot confine my ideas and thoughts about work from 9-5 any more than I can shut out thoughts of my children in that same time period. And I am thankful for that. 

I cannot split my days into quiet little controlled pieces any more than I can spit my life that way … and I don't want to. 

So yes, I have long given up on the idea of balance, and just when I think I might be juggling, one ball drops somewhere, so I don't. I am taking the surprising point of view of diving in and having it all. And giving myself a break when it falls apart a bit. 

I am doing my best to move my pieces against this invisible opponent. To see the big picture and what's coming and do what I can to prepare, and repair when I miss the mark. To protect the queen, to respect myself.

And perhaps wear a cape while I'm doing it. 

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Misty Bell Stiers
Misty Bell Stiers is creative director at Isobar U.S.