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The Balancing Act of Work and Life

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I have never been fond of the term “work-life balance.” When I think of balance, an image of a gymnast on a balance beam comes to mind. The beautifully sculpted body moves with incredible accuracy and precision along the length of the beam, periodically leaping like a fairy into the air. The body folds and twists into unimaginable shapes at record heights, defying gravity. It lands on the 4-inch wide beam. Everyone watching lets out a sigh of relief because they know, any misstep or miscalculation could result in a lower score, or more importantly, a broken bone. The body runs on the beam, performs another twist and dismounts, landing on both feet for the win.

The term “work-life balance” implies that kind of perfection. It suggests that our professional lives and our home lives are in Olympic quality equilibrium. That we give exactly the right amount to our husbands, our children and our work, making everyone and ourselves 100% happy all the time. It’s really an unattainable goal and our relentless pursuit of it contributes to the “mental load.”

As a wife and a working mother, I know all too well about how trying to achieve the perfect work-life balance can leave you disappointed. The first day of school for my firstborn Nayla was quickly approaching. Nayla and I were both excited for her to begin a new year, this time in the third grade. The night before the first day, we picked out the perfect outfit. I told Nayla, “I can’t wait until you get home so that we can talk all about it. I want every detail.” I’m not sure why I was so excited, but I was looking forward to having this conversation. That particular week, I was working on labor and delivery from 7:30AM to 5PM and should have been able to make it home in a reasonable enough time to debrief with Nayla about whom she’d met, if she liked her teacher and how she liked the lunch that I packed. Yes, there should have been enough time. Except this time there wasn’t.

At 4:00PM, the resident physicians called to tell me that there was a patient in the emergency room who likely had an ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies are those that implant outside of the womb and often times present as a life-threatening emergency. The patient needed surgery and as the attending Obstetrician-Gynecologist on service, I was the one who needed to do it. “It’s okay,” I thought. “I should still be home in time for dinner and if not, I’ll make it for bedtime.” It turns out that the surgery was extremely difficult and lasted several hours. The patient survived and did well, but I missed dinner and bedtime by a longshot.

As I drove home, I thought about Nayla’s first day of school and the special conversation that I missed. Work-life balance my foot. I woke up early the next morning and slipped into Nayla’s bed. I gently nudged her awake and whispered, “I’m so sorry Mommy didn’t see you last night and that we didn’t get to talk.” I went on to explain the emergency and that the patient did well. “Why are you crying Momma?” Nayla asked. I couldn’t control the waterfall of tears. “It sounds as if she needed you more than I did last night.”

In her 8-year old wisdom, Nayla shed light on the secret about work-life balance that I keep forgetting. There is no such thing. I realized, yet again, that I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to be present. Present for my patient who needed emergency surgery and present for my daughter early the next morning as my humanity was on full display. Balance is for gymnasts. Love is for working mommies.

Tera Howard is a wife, mother of two, author and physician who practices in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find more of her writing at

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