Guest blogger Maggie Baumann, MA: I am a mom and I have a career. But at this point in my life, my kids are independently living their own college-age lives. We do our regular check-ins every few days, but now they are on their own and I am on my own. The balancing act of managing a career (or managing as a stay-at-home mom) while taking care of the needs of my children has phased out.
I'm an empty-nester, but I remember the days of trying to meet everyone's needs in my family and in my career -- which is hard to do in a healthy and balanced way. Oftentimes, mom gets her needs met last, which only perpetuates the cycle of exhaustion, frustration and chaos within the family system. I am fortunate to know a mom who really understands -- with great insight -- how to balance a working life with being an attuned mom. Her name is Monisha Vasa, and she is a psychiatrist who is busy caring for the needs of her patients, her children, her husband and herself. There's this sense of calmness that surrounds her presence; whenever I'm around her, I feel like I want to borrow some of that calmness so I can use it when I'm feeling unbalanced for whatever reason later on -- and I'm not even taking care of my kids anymore!
I asked Dr. Vasa how she stays so centered amidst all the chaos that must come with being a busy physician, mother and wife, and she said that it's not about maintaining a "perfect" balance, but about maintaining a "healthy enough" balance to keep her mind/body/soul at its best. "There are many days when the term 'balance' seems elusive and literally unattainable!" she says. "Although my life is certainly a busy, messy, chaotic work-in-progress, I do have some tips that I try to remember when I'm striving to find a centered place in my mind and heart." Here they are:
Be Mindful: "Mindfulness is moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness," says Dr. Vasa. "When I am at work, I try to be 100 percent focused on my patients, and when I am at home, I try my best to be 100 percent focused on my children. Both my patients and my children can sense when I am distracted or emotionally distant. Sometimes, all others need is a moment of meaningful eye contact, a gesture, a word to feel heard and fully attended to. This also allows me to feel fully present, and I can feel aware and rewarded wherever I am.
"Sometimes it's easy to get lost in my thoughts and 'what-ifs' and doubts," she continues. "During those times, I do my best to use all of my senses and breath to draw my awareness back to the present moment. After all, the past is behind us, and who knows what will happen in the future? This minute is the only episode of time we have any control over. And if we make the most of each and every given moment, those brief periods of time will build into a meaningful life."
Practice Self-Care: "Know thyself -- because if you don't, who will?" says Dr. Vasa. "As a mother and career woman, I find it increasingly important to develop an awareness of myself and my needs. It is easy to fall into the pattern of continuously being in the service of others. But I know that if I am feeling perpetually depleted, or like I am indefinitely sacrificing my needs for the needs of others, I am unable to help my kids or patients in a meaningful way.
"Self-care is different for each person," notes Dr. Vasa. "Some women may need to take a bath every night after their kids go to sleep, or make time for a coffee break with a close girlfriend. I myself am much happier if I can wake up and exercise before my kids wake up -- my entire day goes more smoothly because I have had my time to reflect and prepare for the day."
Determine Your Negotiables and Nonnegotiables: "This is just another way of saying, 'Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!'" says Dr. Vasa. "After having kids, I realized that I really need a calm and relaxed morning routine to avoid feeling frazzled throughout the day. I don't like to rush out the door without having had some quiet moments with my kids to start all of our days out right. So I get up early to have some of my own time to exercise and get ready, and I don't see patients before 11 AM so that I have time to spend with my kids before we go out into the world. Some of my colleagues like to start work early, because for them, it's important to pick their children up for school or drive them to after-school activities.
"For me, things like household chores and cooking are 'negotiables,'" she adds. "I'm OK with the dishes sitting in the sink overnight, or having to order takeout one or two nights a week. I have realized that I have to let go of control and not be a perfectionist in each and every aspect of my life -- it's just not a sustainable way to live when you are juggling so many moving parts in family and work life."
Communicate: "Ask for help!" says Dr. Vasa. "Many of us working mothers believe that if we do enough for others (i.e., my patients, my kids, my parents, my friends, my spouse ...), then one day, those people will somehow realize what we need or want and make it happen. This is magical thinking, asking others to somehow read our minds! As I became increasingly aware of my own needs, I realized that it was equally important to communicate those needs to my support system in as specific a way as possible. For example, I will tell my husband, 'I would really appreciate it if you could watch the kids while I go to my doctor's appointment. Then I can take over while you run your errands.' Or I might ask my in-laws, 'Would you be able to babysit the children, so that we can have a much-needed date night?' At work, I hired an assistant to whom I can delegate certain responsibilities, so that I can focus on taking care of my patients, rather than on administrative tasks.
"I don't live under the illusion that I can do this alone," admits Dr. Vasa. "I know I can't. I manage what I can, try to be aware of where I need help and then do my best to communicate those needs to those who can help me."
Be Kind to Yourself: "We are only human, and we need to accept our limitations and lower our standards sometimes!" says Dr. Vasa. "As working mothers, we got to where we are with steadfast determination and tireless effort. But we are not perfect, and it's important for both my kids and patients to see that I can be OK with my imperfections. There have been days when I let my kids watch a little more television than I would have liked, because I was too tired to read them books or take them to the park. There have been days when I didn't answer all of my calls by the end of the workday, or complete all of my documentation. But I have to let it go, as long as I am doing my best and the critical tasks have been attended to. Do my children still know they are loved and valued at the end of the day? Have my patients been treated well, and all of their concerns addressed? I do my best to practice self-acceptance, and stay kind to myself.
"Sometimes it is our own harsh, critical voice that keeps speaking in our heads," she points out. "We need to find a way to release that voice and treat ourselves with the same compassion and understanding that we provide to others. Motherhood and a career -- neither is a race or a competition. To me, finding balance is about being able to be present in this life that we work so hard to create for ourselves. It's about being able to fully enjoy our children and our work, and not lose who we are as individuals and women in the process. We can't do that if we are wrapped up in the unattainable standards of who and what we think we SHOULD be. I remember one particular yoga class where I was struggling to reach my toes, frustrated by my limitations and inflexibility. My teacher said to me, 'That's OK -- it's great, actually. That is exactly where you are supposed to be.' I try to remember that as a mantra of self-acceptance and love. When I am in the car and anxious to get home, or when I am rushing to get to the office on time, I remember the present moment: Wherever I am, it is exactly where I am supposed to be."