By Erin Porteous, CEO
Three little words. Three little words that obsess and elude so many of us: Work. Life. Balance.
Sometimes trying to achieve the dream of work-life balance feels like a sprint. Other days it feels like trying to cross the finish line of a marathon. And then there are the times it feels like I’m Sandra Bullock in Bird Box. I’m fumbling my way around with a blindfold on, stressed out to the max as I try to make sense of a world filled with uncertainty and disconnection…all with an inbox full of unread emails in one hand and a crying 11-month-old in the other.
After years of struggling to reach the mythical land of work-life balance, I recently found some clarity. Stopping the chase long enough to take a deep breath, I realized that work-life balance is a mirage. It is not a real place or a goal you achieve and move on from. It is a verb, not a noun. You don’t arrive at the work-life balance summit, saying, “Aha, I’ve done it!” and kick back as you live the rest of your days in peace and harmony, gazing down with satisfaction at the turbulent lifestyle you left behind.
Like happiness, work-life balance is a concept that society typically frames as a destination, but it is actually a journey. An ever-constant process of trial and error and refinement. Like physical fitness – and mental fitness – it requires regular attention and nurturing, otherwise, we get soft. We get out of balance or even further out of balance, as the case may be.
What prompted this revelation began as a perfectly ordinary Tuesday. I was making my weekly visit to one of our Boys & Girls Clubs here in Denver. As I was talking to some of our high schoolers who are anxiously awaiting college acceptance letters, pursuing full-time employment or considering enlisting in the military, I heard the shrieks of joy and laughter coming from the little kids’ playroom and the persistent squeaks echoing from sneakers pounding the indoor basketball court. I thought about what life for our kids looks like beyond the walls of the Club and I was humbled.
The lives of the kids at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver are out of balance from the get-go. Many of our members begin their lives far behind the starting line where the rest of us are launched: born into poverty, oftentimes raised in unstable homes fraught with food insecurity and absentee parents (who are in jail, in treatment, struggling with addiction/mental illness, or MIA for a variety of other reasons). On a daily basis, they experience more drama, trauma and domestic violence in their families and neighborhoods than anyone should, especially as young children.
One of the most important things we do at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver is provide a safe, structured, supportive environment for kids to come to every day after school. Our Clubs are vibrant oases of inclusiveness and activities including homework help, arts, sports and STEM programs. We offer shoulders to cry on; high fives and cheers for triumphs large and small; and ears to bend when a child simply needs to talk to someone they trust – someone who will be there for them at that moment, and again tomorrow, and again the day after.
Providing this safe harbor for 2,000 kids throughout Metro Denver every day helps create some semblance of balance in their lives – a counterpoint to the chaos at home and their struggles at school. It’s an ongoing, intentional, never-ending effort powered by our tremendous Club staff. When I step back from the daily work and look at the big picture, I try to put myself in the shoes of the kids facing challenging circumstances who find welcome relief when they walk through our Club doors every afternoon. This has helped me realize that although my own struggles are real, too, they are the struggles born of opportunities many of our Club members do not have. I am grateful to come from modest means and a loving home that instilled my strong work ethic, but I am fully aware of and thankful for the fact that I have a good job; I have a loving partner, David; and I have a healthy child. I can afford a car and gas and clothes and food. I have health coverage for my family and me. My body is able, my friends are loyal, and my social life is robust. (Okay, let’s be honest, I’m the mother of a toddler, so the last point is merely aspirational.)
All this to say: The lack of balance in my life stems from abundance, whereas the out-of-balance realities our Club kids live with comes from a lack of opportunities. Recognizing this simple truth has grounded me in a whole new way. I realize that chasing the mirage of work-life balance is absurd and I have changed my mindset. Achieving a balance between the professional and personal parts of my life is a dance that will never be done, and now that I’ve accepted and made peace with it, the dance feels like less of a struggle and more of a privilege. How lucky am I to have so many options for (formerly known as demands) how to spend my time? This shift in perspective makes all the sweeter those fleeting moments when I can strike a balance between doing the work that needs doing and being present and engaged with my family, my personal passions and myself.
I have replaced those three little words that used to be the bane of my existence with three new ones: Let’s keep dancing. Maybe you can too.