There’s no such thing as work-life balance


I believe there’s no such thing as work-life balance. I think this every morning when I leave for work, watching my two-year-old son press his face against the front window and wave at me as I back down the driveway. It comes up again at work, as I guiltily feel relieved when a patient cancels and I have an unexpected half hour to work on a behavioral science presentation for residents. There is always somewhere else that I should be, and something else that I should be working on.

As a working mother who has been a chronic perfectionist and overachiever, the pressure is always there. If I’m not careful, this pressure turns into guilt. I miss my son’s doctor’s appointment, and I can’t translate his toddler-speak as easily as I think I should be able to. At work, I fall hopelessly behind in answering emails while wondering when I’ll have time to submit that paper for publication. It’s easy to start berating myself for not being more efficient, for not accomplishing more at work, and then not getting home in time to start dinner.

As the behavioral science educator in our family medicine residency program, I teach work-life balance. Residents vent in support group about the endless patient demands, of long nights, of stress in their marriages, of their own emotional struggles. So I encourage them to focus on their goals, to reflect on the things they’re grateful for, and put their energy toward what they value most. Take steps to change what stressors can be controlled, and learn to release the ones that cannot.

I hear these words as I say them to our residents, and I resolve yet again to start taking my own advice. And sometimes I can successfully do this. Yet other times, I compose emails in my head as I rock my son to sleep. Or a patient’s struggles sparks one of my own worries, and I find my mind drifting off into my own troubles. Then my work life and my personal life collide into each other, and I wonder what kind of hypocrite I am that I presume to tell our residents how to live their lives better.

Perhaps I should admit to myself that I can’t achieve balance. Maybe part of me will always want to be in the other part of my life, somehow both working more and spending more time with my family. It hurts to think that I may never be able to spend all the time I want with my son. But I know fighting this guilt won’t help. Instead, I focus on changing my relationship with it and remind myself that even if there isn’t enough time, wishing to be in the other part of my life only takes me away from where I am now. So I close my eyes, and I focus on the feel of my son’s soft hair against my cheek. I focus on the pain in my patient’s voice. I slowly take a deep breath. This is my only moment.

Katie Fortenberry is a psychologist and an assistant professor, division of family medicine, University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, UT.  This article originally appeared in Family Medicine Vital Signs.

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