Forget About Work-Life Balance

I was having coffee with my rabbi recently and, apropos of something or other, I commented that I dislike the phrase "work-life balance" because it implies that work is not an important and fulfilling part of life. I observed that what we really mean is "work-family balance." My rabbi smiled and said, "what we should mean is just: balance."

As she said that, an image came to me.

5:00 a.m. The sunrise glowing scarlet in the east. At the kitchen table, my three-year-old son sitting across from me in his footie pajamas with the flying saucers on them. A coffee cup in my hand, a sippy cup in his. A sense of wholeness, of utter peace.

When he was three, my son's habit was to wake up between 4:45 and 5:00 a.m. Back then, I was working for the City of Chicago, supervising 75 lawyers. So here's the habit I developed. I would get up with David and we would creep, whispering conspiratorially so we wouldn't wake Daddy, into the kitchen of our high-rise apartment. It was dark, but we would turn on only the under-counter lights so that the reflection didn't keep us from looking out the window. I would make and pour my cup of coffee. David would get a sippy cup of juice, although he preferred to think of it as his cup of coffee. "Mommy and David have coffee." "Sweetie, Mommy has coffee, you have juice." "No, Mommy and David have coffee."

We would sit at the kitchen table, each with our "coffee." We would watch for the sky to start turning pink, then red, then bright with the rising sun. When that happened, we would say the morning Shema, the prayer Jews traditionally say upon rising. In the meantime, we would go to work. I had a red pen, David had crayons. In those days, a lot of my job was to edit briefs (something we still did with pens and paper in 1993). In the quiet of the early morning, I would mark up a page, then turn it over and hand it to David. He would color on the back.

Later that day, my colleagues would receive their edited briefs, with David's artwork on the back of the pages. It became the signature of my work product. My colleagues were confused at first, then amused. They started to look for David's best work, which started getting taped up on office walls. Some found meaning in his abstract expressionism, giving the posted pieces titles. If any of them thought it was unprofessional, or if it diminished their respect for me, I never heard about it.

My early professional training involved absorbing the fact that, if you were a woman in law or business, it was best to downplay anything that smacked of traditional feminine roles. My first year in practice, when I brought a coffee cake I had baked to my law firm, one of the men -- senior to me and in good faith mentoring mode -- told me it was unwise because I wouldn't want the partners of the firm to view me as a housewife. I took the lesson to heart and never again brought baked goods to the office until many years later.

It wasn't that I consciously rejected this thinking in 1993. It was simply that I wanted to be with my son and I wanted to do my work. Allowing David to "work" with me was just a way to get both done. Just as he wanted to have coffee like Mommy, he wanted to work like Mommy. Coloring on his own paper wasn't going to do it, "working" on the same paper as Mommy was. The truth is, I didn't overthink it. It was just going to have to be ok in my office. And it was. In fact, it was more than ok - it turned into a team-building item for our division, an inside joke that helped us bond.

I knew I loved that quiet time with my boy. But it's not until now, looking back on it, that I realize that these were moments of perfect balance for me. I had a special, love-filled time with David. I was peaceful and secure in the love of my husband, snoring in the next room. I was doing work I enjoyed and found fulfilling. Although I didn't think of it that way at the time, I was observing a spiritual practice as my son and I watched the sunrise. Not only was the sunrise sufficient in itself to fill my soul with wonder, but David and I were also connecting with our Jewish tradition. All five of my senses were engaged, as was my heart, as was my mind. I was deeply content.

No matter how hectic our lives, we can find these moments of balance. The first step in that quest is to stop thinking about work as necessarily conflicting with our family time, our spiritual time, our health time, our marital time, our "me" time. The balance we seek doesn't come in each of our 24 hours, on every one of our days. But we can find those moments of balance here and there, we can cherish and savor those moments, and they can fuel the times when, for whatever reason, "balance" feels like a goal that's gone missing.

Integrate your life. Do not hesitate to talk about your kids at work, or your work at home. If baking is your thing, share that with your colleagues. If you learned something at work, share that with your partner and your kids. Bring your whole self to the office and share your whole self with your friends and family. Find the places where your toddler -- whoever or whatever that may be - can color on the pages of your work.