When we travel as a family, my husband and I don’t use the word “vacation.” We call it a “family trip.”
We know that traveling with three children, ages 6, 4, and 3, is nothing like a vacation. It is not relaxing to attend to the needs of little people 24/7 without the respite of dropping them at school or daycare. It is not a vacation to drive long hours together, listening to the kvetching of “Are we there yet?” and “I need to pee.”
It is stressful to manage travel to areas with no kosher restaurants, bringing a cooler full of kosher cheese and meat that you hope the kids will eat all week. We have discovered that it is better to acknowledge the inherent stresses of travel, and not to expect to relax. It is a trip, a change of scenery, but not a vacation.
And yet, having just returned from a week-long family trip, I realize that I found this past week mysteriously calming. True, it was not vacation, and yet I feel clear-headed and refreshed. Toward the end of the week, it occurred to me why I felt so free of mind.
As a full-time working mother, I am used to keeping track of the kids’ needs, while working at a very busy clergy job. I often feel pulled in many directions at once. When I’m at home, I am answering emails or phone calls. I may be quickly getting dinner on the table and then giving baths, before running back to synagogue for a meeting or lecture.
By the same token, when I’m at work, there are times when I’m worrying about the fact that I forgot to pack the water bottle into the lunch box, or I am thinking about what’s for dinner that night. During a meeting, I may suddenly remember that the laundry needs to be done tonight so that my daughter will have her camp t-shirt ready for tomorrow’s trip. As I write a sermon, I might also text my husband about the items on our Shabbat shopping list.
But on our trip, I was only Ima (mom). And yes, being a mom is still many things—it is doctor with a band-aid for a scraped knee, it is referee for an argument over a toy that both kids want, it is trip planner, singer of bedtime lullabies, wiper of tears and noses—not to mention an attempt to be spouse and friend to my husband. But for the week, I was not doing all those things while also running to a meeting or minyan, managing synagogue programs, or officiating life cycle events. I was only Ima.
A couple of weeks ago, after dropping my 4-year-old at her day camp, and while pushing my 3-year-old to her day camp (and while my husband was driving my 6-year-old to her camp—yes, we were foolish enough to put three kids into three different day camps for that week…) I got a phone call. Normally, I would finish dropping off the kid, and then see what call I may have missed. But on that day I would be officiating a funeral later in the morning, and I knew that the family might need to reach me.
Sure enough, the granddaughter of the deceased was calling me to talk about her eulogy. If it hadn’t been about a funeral, it would have been comical to watch—I struggled to keep the phone to my ear without letting the stroller be diverted into oncoming traffic, praying that my daughter would not need my direct attention in that moment, so that I could be completely present for the young woman on the other end of the line, who was experiencing loss and grief.
The blogosphere churns with parents’ struggles for work-life balance (no, this is not only a mom thing; it’s a parent thing). That phrase irks me, because it implies that there is some balance that can be reached, some equilibrium between work and home life which, if we try hard enough, we can achieve. But I have not found this possible.
Instead, we should call it what it is: work-life imbalance. I feel I am constantly walking a tightrope, never quite balanced. I am jumping from one world to the other, keeping many balls in the air at once, worrying when I’m at work that I should be with the kids, and worrying that when I’m at home I am neglecting something at work.
And it is not only about managing logistics of work and home. It is the mental shift that needs to happen internally, in order to go from singing “The Wheels on the Bus” to my toddler, to showing empathy and support as a member of clergy about to do a funeral. There is nothing balanced about it.
And even in my imbalance, I am blessed with an incredible and supportive spouse, who keeps his own work schedule flexible so that he can jump in for child care, grocery shopping, and anything else that needs to be done when I drop everything and attend to the demands of my job. A shiva visit, a bris, a funeral, and halachic questions often cannot wait. And often, the kids cannot wait either, or a babysitter can’t be found, which means my husband needs to be there.
As I return to my busy job this week, I reflect on how lucky I am to have him, and that my ungraceful work-life imbalance would be simply impossible without his flexibility and support. It took a tragedy for Sheryl Sandberg to realize how difficult single parenting is. For me, it took a week of vacation to throw into relief how essential my flexible spouse is to my ability to do my job.
I don’t think that any of this is unique to me. I know that parents with all types of careers experience work-life imbalance on a regular basis. And I am not complaining about it. I simply want to name it. Just like my husband and I discovered that calling it a “family trip,” not a vacation, helps us to adjust our expectations to meet reality, calling it work-life imbalance may allow more working parents to accept the imbalanced reality that is our life. If we adjust our expectations, then we won’t feel like a failure for not finding the elusive, I would even say impossible, balance between work and family.
So while it’s true that family trips are not relaxing, this week my mind found calm. What a relief it was to be able to multi-task at just one job. It means that half my brain got a vacation. Not bad, I’ll take it.