On the Fulcrum

You have to find a balance. You have to make sure you have time for your family, your friends, your writing. You have to find a way to make this job sustainable in your life.

These words, spoken by the director of our program, have swirled in the air around me since I arrived in Pittsburgh. I have tried to keep them close. I have tried to follow them.

I have not always succeeded.

This semester, for instance, the word “balance” is not a word I would recognize if it was pink tutu-ed and pirouetting on a teeter-totter in front of me.

The details of my imbalance aren’t really the point here, but rather the fact that most of us who work deal with this at one point or another.

Maybe especially women.

Maybe especially women who are mothers to small children.

My personality and the nature of a teaching job, make me especially vulnerable to serious work-life blurring. Work could very easily fill up every moment of every week. And sometimes it gets into my sleep, too. This is no good. I end up frayed and scattered and then I’m not fully present anywhere.

So I’m thinking a lot right now about what practical and emotional steps I can take to draw some boundaries and center myself.


Idea: Don’t check work email on the weekend.

Reality: I learned this from our program assistant, actually. She has some excellent boundaries. She gave me her cell # and said, “If there is an emergency, call. I won’t log in again until Monday.” But I still struggle with this.  If I shut it down on Friday evening (as if I were an office worker), and say to myself, defiantly, “I deserve a day or two to myself!” then on Sunday afternoon, as the work week starts to loom, the dread in my stomach begins to root itself. Do I check it now so I know what to expect tomorrow? Will that let me relax on the couch with my husband after dinner? Or do I stick my fingers more deeply into my ears and continue to block out the outside world until tomorrow and wake to an in-box full of fires?

The truth is, there are almost never fires on Monday morning and my dread is largely unfounded. I know this from experience now. Sometimes I shut it down, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I long for the days when email meant recipes from my mother-in-law, updates from my grad school friends and coupons from Zappos. I’m still working on this one.

Idea: Remove work email from iPhone.

Reality: Yes! This has worked beautifully. I remember the day I thought of it. I was in Trader Joe’s picking up some delicious and well-priced cheese, and I found myself checking my “exchange” account on the phone. For the love of feta, there is no reason on earth for me to be checking email while grocery shopping. Nothing at work requires my attention that immediately. (and there’s some ego in there, too, eh?) That was the end of that and I have not looked back.

Idea: Reserve one day a week for my stuff.

Reality: I know that I am privileged to even be able to consider doing this. My schedule is such that I normally teach twice a week for 3 hours at a time and can fill in the rest of my work hours with admin tasks, grading and other campus obligations. Most semesters it’s been pretty easy to designate Fridays as My Writing Day. Writing, after all, is part of being a university professor. It’s considered my research–something I have to do if I want to keep my job. And I do. So I do this…except when someone asks me for a meeting on a Friday and I agree to it. Which leads to…

Idea: Treat things like writing time, doctor and therapy appointments, parent-teacher conferences, kid birthday celebrations (or other special family occasions), exercise (what’s that again?) as absolutely sacrosanct. Consider these things obligations to yourself. Simply learn to say, I’m sorry, that time is just not possible for me. 

Reality: It’s not that simple, is it? At least not for someone like me who is kind of used to putting others’ needs first (hello, motherhood), and who is still a junior faculty member “paying her dues.”

Self-care. There’s a reason there are books and books written about it, and workshops to help us be better at it. I need to be better at it.

Idea: Let some of the balls drop and come what may.


Reality: This is a pretty personal one, I think. I’ve lately come to realize that affirmation really is kind of a drug for me. I juggle a lot of balls, as the cliche goes, and I like it when people marvel at my ability to keep them all in the air. I don’t like to disappoint anyone. Ever. I tell myself that if I drop even one of them, then the whole act is ruined–never mind the three cleavers, four monkeys* and the flaming antique marshmallow skewer that are still in rotation above my head.

It has been pointed out to me that I tend towards catastrophizing and absolute thinking.

Either it’s all in the air or it’s ruined.

Either I’m writing the best book of poetry of my life or I’m writing crap.

Either my children are angels or they are devils.

It surprises me to stand back and recognize this about myself because I am also the person who has said many times that I don’t subscribe to an either/or approach to writing. I’ve called myself a “both/and.” And this is truly what I would prefer to be. So how to get there? I need, as I tell my students often, to get comfortable with ambiguity, to…

Idea: Allow my life to be a little messy & imperfect, with sometimes blurry boundaries.

Reality: When you stand on the teeter-totter,  you must shift your weight from foot to foot on either side of the fulcrum in order to stay upright. There is pleasure in finding that near-perfect balance, it’s true.

But it’s also true–I remember this suddenly, bodily–that there is pleasure in bending your knee and dropping your hip so that the plank lowers with jerk, then straightening it, launching back to the horizontal and then overshooting it just slightly before you return, arms out for balance, to the almost-center again.

The near-perfect balance.

The almost-center.

Maybe the best I can do.

*No monkeys were harmed in the making of this pretty dumb metaphor.

2 thoughts on “On the Fulcrum

  1. emceedee says:

    Sheila, when I think of all the young women, and maybe even men in non-traditional roles- I salute you for taking the time to share your heartfelt knowledge. So like the dear Sheila I’ve known for I do not know how many years now. Lucky me! As are your family, your friends, your students and colleagues.
    Peace and blessings to you!

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