Finding Balance and Doing Less

Back in March, I had a really terrible week. My paper got rejected and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish this semester, and the following day, my boyfriend and I broke up.

It’s not uncommon for a paper to be rejected, however, frustratingly, the comments I got were mostly aspects of it that I had been unhappy with, that I had asked for help with, but, perhaps given the short time frame had not got the feedback I needed to fix. Finishing this semester was always tight, and this was really the final straw – my internship this summer is probably better for my employment prospects than a masters degree, and I was risking going in there burnt out and distracted, which I can’t afford to do.

My boyfriend and I had been together for over a year and a half, in fact, he was one of the first people I’d met when I got to Ottawa. I always found this rather romantic, but I had been aware for a while that this meant my identity here was somewhat tied up in being his girlfriend, and most of the friends I have here are mutual. We had been living together, so this was a further complication. Fortunately, he had somewhere to go so I didn’t have to deal with a post-breakup cohabitation nightmare as well.

I don’t fail often, but here were two – huge – failures in one week. I crashed. I’ve been pushing myself so hard and all of a sudden I didn’t have as many pressing deadlines. I also didn’t have anyone to notice if I stayed in my pajamas all day watching My Family. I was physically ill from – I don’t know – exhaustion? Stress? Misery? I pushed myself so hard, for so long, that when it all came crashing down, I did too.

I (heart) balancing rocks
Credit: flickr / James Jordan

This is normal. But yes, this is when my posting schedule went to hell. It’s been on my mind – failure – so it was hard to write about other things. I didn’t have the perspective that I needed to write clearly, and without blame. Initially, my explanation was that we were married to grad school – and cheating on it, with each other. Because honestly? That’s what I had been feeling like, for months. Then I got angry – at the two 30-somethings who had spent most of last winter in our apartment to the point where one day we looked at each other and asked, “how did we end up parenting two 30-somethings?” – that should have been our honeymoon period. They ruined it.

And, of course, he blamed me too – for working too much, and for taking that job in Shanghai last summer.

I am 24 years old, and I am having trouble balancing my ambition with my personal life. I don’t have children. I don’t want children. Partly because I think all this talk of “having it all” and “balance” is a load of crap. We make choices. We prioritize our careers. If we date someone as focused, we might never get to see them. If we date someone less focused, they don’t understand our choices. If we prioritize our personal life, we risk giving things up, making compromises for something that ultimately may not work out. This cuts both ways, of course, but somehow – call me a cynic, sure – a career seems a more certain and reliable thing than our relationship. I know we’re not supposed to say it and there are women that manage but… I can’t see how having children can not  affect your career. And what if they grow up to be traffic wardens? Or politicians? Then what? I hear you love them no matter what but I have a hard time believing that is true of traffic wardens. (Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (Amazon), by the way, is a fascinating exploration of women and marriage – and the compromises women make for family.)

I know very few grad students in relationships. Graduate school is not conducive to a balanced life, and as a result is often not conducive to relationships, other than those with anti-depressants, alcohol, and electronic devices.

Balanced Rocks
Credit: flickr / squarewithin

So, in all, I’ve been knocked for six. And so, I’ve been doing less, whilst I try and regain my balance. It’s amazing; I’m properly living alone, for the first time in my life, and I have all this space – in my apartment, in my head, in my schedule, to just be. And of course I’ve used some of that in mindless TV watching – My Family, Lipstick Jungle, Brothers and Sisters and Big Bang Theory – but what’s been amazing is that when I’ve had to focus, I’ve created some of my best stuff. The other day, I woke up with the math clear in my head for a fractal. My workshop the other day was really successful, and I’m really proud of the content. I’ve read several books – including Women Don’t Ask (which merits it’s own blog post, and will get one). And I’ve been exercising more, and having the time to actual consider what I’m eating and when – rather than just refueling so I can continue to run about.

My life is changing, and that is really scary because it’s like starting over. But I think this pause is helpful – to take stock, to reevaluate. And I’m not going to change completely, but maybe I am going to do a little less, because when you’re constantly moving, you can’t see the view, and because doing less could mean doing fewer things better.

Balancing Act
Credit: flickr / theDQT

10 thoughts on “Finding Balance and Doing Less

  1. Wow, I'm so sorry to hear you've had so much to deal with lately. I agree with you that grad school isn't good for relationships, and have had similar challenges with balancing my ambitions with my boyfriend's (he seems to have significantly less motivation). But it sounds like you're coming out on the right side of things. I hope the slower pace and more alone time help — living alone for a couple years was one of the smartest things I ever did. Hang in there, and good luck on your internship this summer.

  2. One of the biggest takeaways from the first Grace Hopper I attended in 2008 was this… Before the awards ceremony a mic was passed around for the audience to share their insights on what they'd learned so far. One girl said “I learned you can't have it all, and that it's ok.” Though many of us felt good about that, someone else countered with “I would like to correct that. You can have it all. Just not all at the same time.” Such wisdom! This has been my mantra for the last while and has helped me keep sane and satisfied with what I can accomplish (even if I know I can do more).

  3. I love your blog Cate, you always seem to write about what's on my mind..!

    I'm definitely guilty of taking on too much and flying by the seat of my pants. And it can get so ridiculous. For example, this week my new car had the nerve to start demanding an oil change!

    But not really a big deal right? But oh my goodness if it hasn't been stressing me out like it's the end of the world (can I zip out during work? Do I have time tomorrow? Should I just go to one of those express places?! UGH Can't someone else just take care of this for me?!!).

    However, when everything gets done and I don't crash and burn it's a great high, I think that's why I keep torturing myself!

    Though you're totally right – focus on less is better, I just haven't learned the how of it yet. 🙂

    What annoys me is that when you're killing yourself with tasks that lead up to a goal, (i.e. like school) it's rewarding and worth it, however, when you let yourself get bogged down with other things that aren't contributing to any sort of goal (not even career-oriented, just life goal in general).

    Thanks for the insight and hang in there! You're awesome, so you'll get through. Also your ability to recognize what's going on and how to improve is a huge skill-It'll make you even better.

    Definitely don't feel guilty about taking a few TV days here and there–I don't care what anyone says, they're important!!

  4. Your blog is always insightful. I realize the most serious impact of rejections can be the lack of actions since we will tend to think too much, at least from my personal experience. Hang in there. You are very brave. Everything you have experienced so far will only make you a stronger person. Being alone is not the easiest thing, because the feeling can be so lonely… but overtime, I think it is what we need to re-evaluate ourselves and goals. Best wishes for the internship!

    -Jennifer

  5. This is such a bittersweet post. I see so many relationships deteriorate over graduate school. It is sad to think that we really can't do it ALL or have it ALL. The handful of couples I know who have made it work in grad school (at least in my program) have said they had to really step back and allow themselves to not give 100% to school and work because the relationship is life. Some of them don't take on extra research or make sure they organize their schedules around their spouse. They make it work because they let something else become less of a priority.
    I did the same thing with my grandmother when she got sick and was dying. I basically told my advisor and my boss that my family was more important than school and work. My boss is my mentor and she totally agreed. My advisor was pissed at me and he and I haven't gotten along since, but I don't regret letting my grades slip some to be with her in her last few months.
    I hope that things start moving in the right direction and you can focus this energy on doing what you think is right for you. We just have to figure out what is most important and what we are willing to do to make those things happen. Grades to not make you who you are. You do SO much. You have to take care of yourself because YOU are the most important thing in your own life. <3
    Many hugs.

  6. This is such a bittersweet post. I see so many relationships deteriorate over graduate school. It is sad to think that we really can't do it ALL or have it ALL. The handful of couples I know who have made it work in grad school (at least in my program) have said they had to really step back and allow themselves to not give 100% to school and work because the relationship is life. Some of them don't take on extra research or make sure they organize their schedules around their spouse. They make it work because they let something else become less of a priority.
    I did the same thing with my grandmother when she got sick and was dying. I basically told my advisor and my boss that my family was more important than school and work. My boss is my mentor and she totally agreed. My advisor was pissed at me and he and I haven't gotten along since, but I don't regret letting my grades slip some to be with her in her last few months.
    I hope that things start moving in the right direction and you can focus this energy on doing what you think is right for you. We just have to figure out what is most important and what we are willing to do to make those things happen. Grades to not make you who you are. You do SO much. You have to take care of yourself because YOU are the most important thing in your own life. <3
    Many hugs.

  7. I'm horrible at email, but I'm kinda glad I didn't get to these comments until today. Yesterday I finally got my cellphone in my name and my ex picked up the last of his crap – and I'm free. So then going through my email and I find this from all of you – it's wonderful.

    Thanks for your support – I'm doing okay. Prioritizing non-relationship things. Achieving more because of it. And – I'm pretty happy.

    I still don't think we can have it all – but I'm okay with that, because I feel like I'm choosing which bits I have right now. And for me at this moment, I think the bits I have are building the future I want.

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