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Fueling America

Enjoy being unbalanced, urges expert

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert: It's impossible for women to perfectly balance work, home life
  • Break free from society's impossible demands
  • Replace conformity with honesty, judgment with kindness
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By Martha Beck
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( -- It's five o'clock in the morning. I've been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday's tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering e-mail, going grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner and cuddling a 12-year-old through some of the horrors of puberty.

Expectations many women have been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable.

I finally sat down at my computer around midnight -- and looked up just now to see the sun rising.

Understand three things: 1) I don't have a job. I freelance, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; 2) my children are not young --they walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and 3) I'm kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family.

I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote a big fat book about it. Plus, I'm a life coach. You'd think I could live a balanced life as a 21st-century American woman. Calculate your work/life balance »

Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn't say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn't say it's rare. I said it's "impossible."

Our culture's definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That's the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way.

The joy of being unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn't dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You'd probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue.

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That's the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes and dreams. You'll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out.

Women describe the moments when they really "got" that the expectations they'd been trying to fulfill were unfulfillable. They say this epiphany was terrible because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions.

If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us.

Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance -- the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life.

By Martha Beck from "O, The Oprah Magazine," April 2003


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