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The truth about balance

I wrote the article below for a Maryland State Bar Association publication in January 2013. I came across it recently and was both amused and inspired as I read back over my perspective at that stage of my life. I decided to mark up this article today (July 8, 2015) to share what I have learned in the last 2.5 years and to reiterate that balance is an ever-evolving, yet important goal. Updated information is in brackets in the essay.

Recently, I was asked to speak at a women’s symposium on the topic of Balance. Although flattered by the invitation, I had to wonder what on earth I could competently contribute to the panel. For example, on the day of the request, I had been back at work from maternity leave for all of about 3 weeks (which felt like 3 seconds) and was desperately trying to (1) prepare for a deposition, (2) remind my husband that I had a board meeting that night (which meant he was on “baby duty”), (3) hop on a conference call with our YLS Exec Committee, and (4) figure out when I was going to be able to clean my house (since we had visitors arriving the following weekend).  And that’s just what I can recall upon brief review of my calendar… Admit it: you’ve been there. [Almost nothing about this paragraph has changed. The pulls in various directions haven’t stopped, but in some ways have increased. I feel more “important” in most of my roles: my 3 year old can now verbalize that he misses me, I am President of the referenced Board, the conference calls and committee work seem endless, and we’ve moved to a larger home: more to clean.]

Like most of us “Type A” attorneys, I have difficulty saying “no,” and I quickly found myself accepting the speaking opportunity. I also found myself wondering when I would find time to prepare for the symposium and oh, by the way, miss about ¾ of a day of work the week before a big motion was due. Sigh. [Breaking news: I now say “No!” Well, sometimes. But once you decline an invitation or “opportunity” once or twice, it does become easier.]

However, I went to the symposium and not only contributed, but learned a lot as well. While complete balance may or not be achievable, I do think we can achieve a semblance of balance if we look it in the eyes and recognize its truths. We’re now in a New Year, and everyone wants to start fresh and learn some good practices, so read on if you’re interested and you may find these tips helpful as well!

Truth #5: Balance is not the same for everyone. Do not try to keep up with the Joneses. (Besides, the Joneses may not be as perfect as you think that they are!) [Amen!] Determine what goals/ organizations/ events/ tasks are most important to you and your family, and work on balancing those. Just because Mrs. Jones is President of the PTA does not mean that you must be. Maybe there are other ways to be involved with your child’s school, or maybe you want to focus on just being home at dinner time and to help with homework. And remember, not everything has to happen this year or even next year… I have had to remind myself of this, particularly as a young lawyer and young mother. We want to do everything possible to build our practice, perfect our legal skills, and still not miss a minute of time with family and friends, but we know we can’t actually give everything 110%. So one evening, I sacrifice the bedtime routine with my son for a networking event. The key is making sure that it’s a networking event that is worthy of my time. And then another day I take a long lunch and go to my son’s daycare to watch him crawl through the tunnels and laugh like nothing could possibly be more fun. In both scenarios, I miss something else, but I don’t let myself worry because I feel that I am doing the right thing at the right time. You have to figure out what works for you. [I stand behind this Truth. Because I chose not to succumb to “Mommy Shaming” and still carved out time for my career, my personal business development has flourished. The practice of law is a business – essentially, Sales. And it is a slow sell. The contacts you make today may not need your services for a year or more, but if you choose networking opportunities wisely and stay top of mind, the phone will ring and you will have a new client. Or 10.]

Truth #4: Balance suggests stability, but it takes fluctuation to get there. While our overarching priorities might be “set,” balancing those priorities in the real world may not be the same from one day to the next. If I have a trial coming up, I know that I will need to spend more time in the office the week(s) before, such that the scale tips in favor of work during that time. As all litigators should know, I will also need to balance the rest of my workload during that time in order to meet the needs of other clients, while still fully and carefully preparing for trial (wouldn’t it be nice if we could have just one case at a time?). So even though I have determined that my family – and especially my 9 month old – is Priority #1, my work and clients will necessarily take priority on certain days and at certain times. And it’s OK. [Yes. Last August, we took our first family vacation with our son. I chose to “unplug” for 6.5 days. I deleted social media outlets from my phone and only responded to truly urgent work emails. I didn’t think I could do it, but I realized that there was nothing more important that week than my family. It was the best week of my life to date. Sure, I was incredibly busy upon my return to my office (and, frankly, the weeks prior to my vacation), but it was worth it. I look forward to doing the exact same thing next month as well.]

Truth #3: Balance requires support, so don’t be afraid to lean on others. The key is finding the right “others.” Be it your spouse, your best friend, your secretary, or your colleague, surround yourself with those who will help support you as you navigate through your day, your week, your life. In order for me to prepare for the trial referenced in Truth #4, I need my husband to take on a little more at home. I will also appreciate when my best friend texts me a friendly “hang in there,” my secretary helps keep me organized, and my colleague ensures that a filing is made. The reality is that the other tasks are still there, and while they are not Priority #1, they are certainly priorities. Since we can’t be 15 places at once, we need to know that others can bear some of the weight.    [I am so thankful to have a loving and supportive husband who shares and understands my career and family goals. But over the past 2.5 years I did make a decision to change firms and change the nature of some friendships, because I decided to follow this truth and build my best support Team. The challenges of a young working mother are real and constant, and there is probably no way to prepare other than through experience. However, as long as you focus on what is best for your own life, day-by-day, you will realize what support you need and who cares enough to provide it. Quality relationships win the day. And one more thing – always reciprocate and let the Tried and True know how much they are appreciated!]

Truth #2: Balance has a silent “I” in it; if you don’t take time for yourself, you can never achieve balance. This is definitely a truth that cannot be ignored. When I was on maternity leave, as soon as my doctor cleared me to exercise, I promptly hired a babysitter to come every Wednesday morning from 8-12 so that I could go to the gym, stop by Starbucks for breakfast, buy groceries, and get home in time to (quickly) straighten the house and shower. I was actually questioned by a well-meaning friend who simply could not believe that I would sacrifice 4 hours once a week from my child while I was on maternity leave in order to – gasp – do something for myself! My polite response was that I viewed maternity leave as a time to not only care for my child, but also do what I needed to do to “balance” (there’s that word again) my own sanity. How could I go back to work without being physically and mentally ready? That would not do anyone any good, including and especially my precious baby boy. So, again, for ME personally, this was very necessary, and I continue to carve out time for myself now. It’s not selfish. It saves my sanity, and probably the sanity of those around me too! [I have found a need less time alone, although I still believe this truth is very important. I think this is because the definition of my Self has changed tremendously in the last 2.5 years. I now truly view myself as a Mommy; when I first wrote this article, I was just barely getting started in that role. Today, my child encompasses a great deal of my Self and thus my priorities have changed. “Me Time” is just as easily dinner with my son at Chick-Fil-A as it is during my morning (solo) run. While my percent of alone time has diminished, I don’t neglect myself. My well-being remains a top priority.]

Truth #1: Balance doesn’t mean that you opt to walk on the thinnest rope, grasp the tiniest thread, or wear the highest stiletto (no matter how cute they may be). Balance can be two feet firmly planted on the ground. You don’t have to balance 15 things at once. At least not all the time (Truth #4) and not all by yourself (Truth #3). And you’re not balancing anything if you do nothing well. In my relatively short time on this earth as an attorney, and as a daughter, sister, niece, friend, wife, and mother, I have learned that there is no satisfaction in taking on a lot of tasks and doing none of them well. We hear that we should not bite off more than we can chew, but we don’t often practice it. But if we want to achieve a balance that actually makes us feel in balance, we have to understand what we want in life, what it takes to get there, and the best path to follow. We won’t feel balanced every day, but there is a calm in knowing that our decisions are made in an effort to find balance. [I have had many moments of unbalance in the last 2.5 years. I have also changed what I want in life, and thus the plan on how to get there. That said, I believe that my focus has improved because I routinely forgive myself. I am less concerned with perfection and more concerned with happiness.]

The Bottom Line:  Good luck. Balance is difficult, ongoing, and ever-changing, but if you recognize these truths and persevere, I do think it is attainable.  [Balance is attainable to a degree, on a given day/ week/ month. Set your goals and expectations, but recognize that you will sometimes miss the mark. Every day is a new chance to start fresh, so seize the opportunity. Take time to prioritize, perhaps in writing, and plan accordingly. You don’t really need luck; you need perseverance.]

Kimberly Neal is an associate at PK Law and a Top 100 Woman and a Leading Woman.

This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.
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