We’ve been homeschooling for two years, and I still feel like I haven’t figured out how to balance everything. When homeschooling is going great, I’m dragging at my part-time job and the house is a mess. When the house is running like a well-oiled machine, homeschooling seems to fall through the cracks. I know there’s a way to balance it all because other people seem to do it. So what’s their secret, and how can I do it, too?
Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I think you’re operating from faulty premises. We all want to believe that there’s some magical balance out there, but the truth is what you’ve probably always suspected on some level: There’s no such thing as perfect balance. There’s just finding an un-balance that works for you.
“I don’t know who came up with the myth of a balanced life, but it’s become a real problem for a lot of people,” says life coach Adrienne Harlick, who specializes in helping busy moms find ways to navigate the different parts of their lives. “You’re never going to find some magical equation that lets you manage everything perfectly all the time. What you can find is a way to set priorities and manage your time so that at the end of the day, you feel good about what you’ve accomplished.”
Harlick says that moms often react to this with disbelief and disappointment — they genuinely want to find a way to do everything and are dismayed when Harlick tells them they just plain can’t — but once they accept the initial premise that perfect balance doesn’t exist, most of them feel strangely liberated.
Georgia Parker, a homeschool mom with a full-time job, came to Harlick in the same situation you’re in now: She felt like she should be able to do everything in a way that made her feel less stressed and more competent. She felt like she was constantly dropping balls because every time she focused her full attention on one area of her life, another area suffered. “I kept thinking I was just doing it wrong, but Adrienne helped me understand that what I wanted was impossible,” Georgia says.
There is no perfect balance, so you’re wasting time and energy trying to find one. Instead, Harlick says, you need to focus on figuring out how to deal with the unbalanced life you have. You have to accept that you only have so much time, so much energy, so many resources — which means everything can’t be the most important. In order to find a way to balance your life amid perpetual imbalance, you’ve got to figure out what your priorities are.
This can be challenging because it often means letting go of some ideal of a “good mom” or a “good partner” you have stuck in your head. A good mom could keep the house spotless, shine at work, cook healthy, kid-pleasing meals three times a day, and homeschool kids in a way that’s both rigorously academic and relaxed and child-led. You are never going to be that imaginary mom. Setting priorities lets you imagine the kind of good mom you actually want to be and gives you the space to build a life that plays to your strengths. Yes, you will probably still have days where everything falls apart, but once you start prioritizing what matters to you, you will have a lot more days that end with you feeling good about what you’re doing.
Make sure you’re setting goals that line up with your priorities. You’ll never feel balanced unless you can feel like you are making progress, and you can’t feel like you’re making progress if you’re stuck in an endless to-do cycle. Once you know what your priorities are, you can start setting goals that will move you toward reaching them. Setting goals helps you pinpoint what’s really important to you and gives you permission to sidetrack the things that aren’t. “You will feel much less guilty about not doing that co-op class if it’s because you are working on your dissertation, or much better about ordering takeout if you didn’t start dinner because you spent the day helping your kid work on a big project,” says Harlick.
Recognize that you have a choice. When you’re feeling unbalanced, it’s often because you feel like you have to do everything, but you have more choices than you might initially think at any given moment. When you feel overwhelmed, Harlick advises pushing yourself to figure out what is the least important thing on your list — can you pause that? Outsource it? Let it go completely? What about the second-least important thing? The third? “People tend to fall into the trap of thinking that because everything they do is important, everything they do is essential, but that’s almost never the case,” Harlick says. “What if you didn’t make lunch for your 10-year-old? He’d probably feed himself when he got hungry.”
Give overlapping a try. So you want to start a garden, but you have no time to do it. Or you’d love to write that curriculum, but to do it, you’d need an actual moment of quiet. Try including your kids. There’s not reason your kids can’t help you get that garden going or test-drive a NaNoWriMo project while you’re writing, too. This doesn’t always work out, but it’s always worth a try because the times when it does work out are magical.
Take the big picture view. Your goal shouldn’t be to find balance in one-day increments but over the long term, says psychologist Nigel Marsh. “Your days are always going to feel lopsided and uneven — because they are probably going to be lopsided and uneven,” he says. “But if you look at a six-month chunk of time or the course of a year, you can see more clearly where your time and energy are going.” If that view makes you happy, you’ve got as much balance as it’s humanly possible to have. If it doesn’t — well, you’ve got a much better perspective of what you want to change.
Throw money at the problem. This isn’t always an option, but if your budget has some flexibility, consider outsourcing some of the things on your to-do list that don’t match up with your priority list. Georgia Parker hired a cleaner to come in twice a week to do the heavy cleaning so that she just has to keep a handle on everyday clutter and clean-up. If you need more time for your own work, an online class or hybrid homeschool might free up some of the hours you’re putting into homeschooling. A mom in our homeschool group raves about her dinner box subscription, which takes away all the time and energy she used to spend on figuring out and shopping for dinners every week. If you can afford to let someone else handle a problem area, you’re giving yourself more space to focus on what you care about.
Stop putting off self-care until you have time. “You will never have time, so do it now anyway,” Harlick says. Harlick says ones of the symptoms of the balance myth is that women tend to put themselves last on the assumption that they’ll eventually figure out a way to fit their own self-care into the routine. The truth is, taking care of yourself will only end up in your routine if you actively put it there, so schedule your meals, your bedtimes, your free and fun time, just as you schedule park days and standardized tests. “Once you accept that you’re never going to magically get everything balanced, you can also accept that your own needs shouldn’t wait indefinitely,” Harlick says.
Know what makes your good day highlights reel. What makes you feel really good about your day? A run in the morning? A book in the bath? Nature time with the kids? Identify the little get-to moments that make your have-to list a little easier to work through, and get them on your schedule at least a few times a week.
Plan when you’re going to leave, not just when you’re going to get there. This applies to everything from social activities like park days to dance lessons to the office. “If you know when you’re leaving, you can start preparing to go 20 minutes in advance — you won’t have that and-one-more-thing stretching out activities, which can make you feel like you’re always scrambling,” says Harlick. Setting your exit in advance of your arrival reduces a lot of stress and hassle.
Don’t be afraid to multitask when it helps. We’re always trying to be in the moment more, and that’s a worthy goal — but it’s not one we can meet every minute of the day. Sometimes a quick email check while the kids are working on their math means you can squeeze in a little work time, or it might make sense to practice your poetry verses while you tend the garden.